The next Jagger will need to liberate us from a hang-up even more oppressive than sex once was: money
Mick Jagger is an English singer and songwriter whose extraordinary worldwide success is estimated to have earned him some £190 million. When he was younger, Jagger sang a lot about the need for freedom, especially around sex. What Jagger wanted was greater honesty and less needless embarrassment and shame around our desires. In songs like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’, Jagger attacked what he took to be absurd prevailing bourgeois hang-ups about sex. His androgynous appearance and provocative tone may have frightened older and more conservative types, but Jagger was on to an important and at heart deeply sensible social mission: he wanted us to relax around sex.
Many of us now inhabit the world that he has helped create, one where men and women can freely talk to one another about their physical needs and hopes. That we no longer have to blush and are no longer scared when asking our partner to fulfil what we want is in part down to one mesmerising man from Kent who sang with rare eloquence and genius about his desire for a ‘girl reaction’.
But there is one area where Mick Jagger failed to liberate us from embarrassment. However free our society may be about sex, we remain deeply and at times fatally ashamed about money.
We may never know for sure what happened in the lead-up to the suicide of Jagger’s girlfriend L’Wren Scott, but it is perhaps possible that the debts she was facing, up to as much as £6 million, played a role in her choice to end her life. This raises a ghastly spectre: that Scott died because, in spite of all the liberation that our societies have achieved, she did not feel it was right or possible to ask her partner for help with money.
In terms of the fear and shame involved, this would be comparable to a Victorian throwing themselves under a train because of adultery. Nowadays, we recognise adultery to be problematic, but – partly because of Jagger – not something ever to kill oneself over. The shame has been lessened. We understand that it’s entirely possible to be a decent person and in possession of a complex romantic life. We are no longer judged so harshly here.
However, money has in many ways replaced sex as a focus of shame. The ability to make money and be financially independent has been raised into a primary marker of whether someone deserves to count as an acceptable human being. The shame of failing financially is so great that a number of people every year will prefer to kill themselves than call out for help (the current financial crisis has seen a characteristic and expected rise in the suicide rate across the developed world).
When in the 18th century, the mistress of King Louis XV of France, Madame de Pompadour, ran up gambling debts, she did not feel especially bad about going to ask the King for help. She didn’t feel that her financial failure condemned her to infamy. She didn’t mind asking because she was operating with a Christian and pre-Capitalist mindset which meant that her worth as a human wouldn’t be decided chiefly by her finances.
Liberation has been achieved around sex, but we haven’t done away with shame altogether; it survives with a vengeance around money. We are in some ways as inhibited, as pleasure-denying and as masochistic around this area as middle-class Victorians were around their bodies. In extreme cases, we prefer to die than to admit to our needs and our failures.
In the next wave of liberation, which is still waiting for its Mick Jagger, we can hope to be released from the tyranny of money fetishism. We’ll learn that the function of money is human fulfilment, that it is not an end in itself and should never be a primary marker of human decency.