Urging British people to persuade their Scottish friends and relatives to vote against Scottish independence, David Cameron described the United Kingdom as a brand: "We come as a brand - a powerful brand... Separating Scotland out of that brand would be like separating the waters of the River Tweed and the North Sea."
This is just the most recent example of a long trend in which everything we do, everything we touch, see, feel and everything we are is presented as though it were a product to be sold in the marketplace. Much of the Scots independence argument has focused on economic issues, implying the decision is purely monetary: if independence costs more, dump it; if it pays better, embrace it. This represents a profound hollowing out of our social and political language, our society and ourselves.
The trend started in the late 1990s with the rise of so-called free agents (previously called freelancers) who, in order to secure work, had to develop their "personal brand". They were the product and the more brand luster they could develop, the higher the prices they could command. Then, as the labour force became increasingly casualized, everyone was urged to develop "Brand You" turning personal and private life into one lifelong marketing campaign. Social life became networking and communication turned into one long sales pitch. Even our bodies became shop windows; launching his smart phone plug-in Square, inventor Jack Dorsey explained that if a friend admired your necklace, you could whip it off and sell it on the spot, using your phone to complete the credit card transaction. Every body now a supermarket shelf.
Everything from friendships to schools to art and love has been productized and marketized until we no longer have a ready language with which to describe or ascribe value that doesn't have a price. The philosopher Michael Sandel has written brilliantly and extensively on the subject, asking if there is anything left which we aren't willing to buy and sell. Safety? Justice? Freedom? Your children?
In allowing the language of the market to infiltrate everything we do, see and feel, we may feel (as I dare say Mr Cameron does) wonderfully hip and on trend. But even those of us who live and work in the business world know there's a limit to how well or effectively this language really speaks to humans. Nobody's inspired by the image of themselves as a commodity and in great companies, it isn't business-speak that inspires creativity and innovation -- but a sense of community and a profound sense, between people, that they matter to one another. By contrast, it's a shocking and shameful moment when a country's leader can think of no more soaring image of the United Kingdom than that of a commodity. Do we really imagine that the battles of two world wars were fought to defend a brand?
To develop and sustain a relevant political debate about the world we want to build, protect and pass onto our children, we badly need to hone and protect a language that is unafraid to talk about values, about what is meaningful to human life, the qualities and characteristics that can't be measured, priced and sold. We need to be unafraid to argue - if this is how we feel - that we want to keep the kingdom united because we value difference, embrace history and think that solidarity with people who are different from ourselves matters more than markets or price tags. If we have so degraded our language and our thinking that we can no longer have or express those ideas, then why on earth would the Scots - or anyone else - want to be associated with us?