Manchester United manager David Moyes is discovering how hard it is to follow a predecessor of star quality Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA
You don't have to be a football fan to understand the trouble with David Moyes. Anyone familiar with the highest reaches of politics will recognise his predicament immediately. For those who turn rarely to the back pages, Moyes is in his first season as the manager of Manchester United. He inherited a team that had just won yet another title as Premier League champions, but under him they are struggling. Now ninth in the league, they are a full 13 points off the top spot. What's more, Moyes has broken a few awkward records. Under him, the team have lost at home to Everton (his old club) for the first time in 21 years and on Saturday lost to Newcastle at Old Trafford for the first time since 1972. Tonight another unwanted feat threatens. If they lose to the Ukrainian team Shakhtar Donetsk, it will be the first time United have suffered three successive home defeats in 50 years.
Watch Moyes attempt to explain these results, or defend his performance, in a post-match interview or press conference and, if you're a political anorak, you instantly think of one man: John Major. Or, if you're an American, perhaps the first George Bush. For what you are witnessing is a classic case of a syndrome that recurs in politics: the pale successor fated to follow a charismatic leader and forever doomed by the comparison.
Major may be earning some late kudos and revision of his reputation now, but while prime minister he was in the permanent shadow of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. Bush the elder was always going to be dull after the man who went before him, Ronald Reagan. So it is with Moyes, who was given the hardest possible act to follow – inheriting from one of the footballing greats, Sir Alex Ferguson.
It's a pattern that recurs with near-universal regularity. Tony Blair was prime minister for 10 years; Gordon Brown never hit the same heights and only managed three. Same with Jean Chrétien of Canada and his luckless successor Paul Martin. Or, fitting for this day, consider the case of Thabo Mbeki whose destiny was to be the man who took over from Nelson Mandela and so was all but preordained to be a disappointment.
It's as if an almost Newtonian law applies: the charisma of a leader exists in inverse proportion to the charisma of his or her predecessor. Moyes is only the latest proof.
What could explain the syndrome? Does nature abhor one star following another in immediate succession?
One theory suggests itself, though it draws more from psychology than physics. Note the role, direct or indirect, many of these great leaders had in choosing their successors. Could it be that some part of them actually wanted a lacklustre heir, all the better to enhance their own reputation? United could have had any one of the biggest, most glamorous names in football at the helm, yet Ferguson handpicked Moyes. Did Sir Alex do that to ensure he would look even better?
For this is how it works. Once the great man or woman has gone, and everything falls apart, their apparent indispensability becomes all the harder to deny. Manchester United fans look at the same players who were champions a few months ago, now faring so badly, and conclude: Ferguson was the reason we won.
If that was his unconscious purpose in picking the former Everton boss, then Sir Alex chose very wisely. And Moyes can comfort himself that, in this regard at least – like Major, Bush, Brown and so many others before him – he's doing his job perfectly.
A foodbank in the Black Country. Photograph: David Jones/PA
Elite economic debate boils down to this: a man in a tie stands at a dispatch box and reads out some numbers for the years ahead, along with a few micro-measures he'll take to improve those projections. His opposite number scoffs at the forecasts and promises his tweaks would be far superior. For a few hours, perhaps even a couple of days, afterwards, commentators discuss What It All Means. Last Thursday's autumn statement from George Osborne was merely the latest enactment of this twice-yearly ritual, and I bet you've already forgotten it.
Compare his forecasts and fossicking with our fundamental problems. Start with last week's Pisa educational yardsticks, which show British teenagers trailing their Vietnamese counterparts at science, and behind the Macanese at maths. Or look at this year's World Economic Forum (WEF) competitiveness survey of 148 countries, which ranks British roads below Chile's, and our ground-transport system worse than that of Barbados.
Whether Blair or Brown or Cameron, successive prime ministers and their chancellors pretend that progress is largely a matter of trims and tweaks – of capping business rates and funding the A14 to Felixstowe. Yet those Treasury supplementary tables and fan charts are no match for the mass of inconvenient facts provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the WEF or simply by going for a wander. Sift through the evidence and a different picture emerges: Britain's economy is no longer zooming along unchallenged in the fast lane, but an increasingly clapped-out motor regularly overtaken by Asian Tigers such as South Korea and Taiwan.
Gender equality? The WEF ranks us behind Nicaragua and Lesotho. Investment by business? The Economist thinks we are struggling to keep up with Mali.
Let me put it more broadly, Britain is a rich country accruing many of the stereotypical bad habits of a developing country.
I began thinking about this last week, while reporting on graphene, the wonder material discovered by Manchester scientists and held up by cabinet ministers as part of our new high-tech future. Graphene is also the point at which Treasury dreaminess is harshly interrupted by the reality of our national de-development.
Briefly, the story goes like this: Osborne funnelled a few tens of millions into research on the substance. It's the kind of public-sector kickstart that might work in a manufacturing economy such as Germany – but which in Britain, with its hollowed-out industry and busted supply chains, has proved the equivalent of pouring money down a hole. One university physicist described how this was part of a familiar pattern of generating innovations for the rest of the world to capitalise on, then sighed: "One day, we'll stop thinking of ourselves as a major economic power, and realise we're more like South Korea in the early 60s." South Korea, by way of comparison, has already put in over 20 times as many graphene patents as the country that discovered it.
How can any nation that came up with the BBC and the NHS be considered in the same breath as India or China? Let me refer you to one of the first lines of The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor, in which a wise old man warns International Monetary Fund officials and foreign dignatories: "India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay."
Stop thinking of development as a process that only goes in one direction, or which affects a nation's people equally, and it becomes much easier to see how Britain is going backwards.
Even banana republics have cash: it just ends up in the hands of a very few people – ask the bank managers of Switzerland or the hotel concierges of Paris. In Britain, we have become used to having our resources skimmed off by a small cadre of the international elite, who often don't feel obliged to leave much behind for our tax officials. An Africa specialist could look at the City and recognise in it a 21st-century version of a resource curse: something generating oodles of money for a tiny group of people, often foreign, yet whose demands distort the rest of the economy. Sure, Britain has iPads and broadband – but it also has oversubscribed foodbanks. And the concept of the working poor that has dominated political debate since the crash is also something straight out of development textbooks.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen defined development as "the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency". Yet when it comes to social mobility, Britain now has the worst record of all advanced countries – and will soon be overtaken by the newly rich countries of east Asia.
And it's when wealth is concentrated in too few hands that the forces of law and order get used as a militia for the elite – and peaceful dissent gets stamped upon. That's why police are now a presence on our business-friendly university campuses; it also explains why Theresa May had the front to try to deport Trenton Oldfield for disrupting a student rowing competition (sorry, the Boat Race).
This isn't a sub-Rhodesian moan about Britain going to the dogs. But as my colleague Larry Elliott said in his most recent book, Going South, the sooner we puncture our own complacency at having created a rich economy for the few, and think of ourselves as in dire need of a proper economic development plan, the better.
Otherwise, we're well set to corner the world market in pig semen. The United Kingdom of spoink.
Owning more doesn't bring happiness: 'the material pursuit of self-esteem reduces self-esteem.' Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
That they are crass, brash and trashy goes without saying. But there is something in the pictures posted on Rich Kids of Instagram (and highlighted by the Guardian last week) that inspires more than the usual revulsion towards crude displays of opulence. There is a shadow in these photos – photos of a young man wearing all four of his Rolex watches, a youth posing in front of his helicopter, endless pictures of cars, yachts, shoes, mansions, swimming pools and spoilt white boys throwing gangster poses in private jets – of something worse: something that, after you have seen a few dozen, becomes disorienting, even distressing.
The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl's head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled on her vast bed. It's captioned "shoppy shoppy" and "#goldrush", but a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She's alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.
Perhaps I'm projecting my prejudices. But an impressive body of psychological research seems to support these feelings. It suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as "a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project", is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It's associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.
There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.
In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they became happier.
In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country's economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group higher levels.
These studies, while suggestive, demonstrate only correlation. But the researchers then put a group of adolescents through a church programme designed to steer children away from spending and towards sharing and saving. The self-esteem of materialistic children on the programme rose significantly, while that of materialistic children in the control group fell. Those who had little interest in materialism before the programme experienced no change in self-esteem.
Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.
A third paper, published (paradoxically) in the Journal of Consumer Research, studied 2,500 people for six years. It found a two-way relationship between materialism and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism. People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions. This attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.
The two varieties of materialism that have this effect – using possessions as a yardstick of success and seeking happiness through acquisition – are the varieties that seem to be on display on Rich Kids of Instagram. It was only after reading this paper that I understood why those photos distressed me: they look like a kind of social self-mutilation.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons an economic model based on perpetual growth continues on its own terms to succeed, though it may leave a trail of unpayable debts, mental illness and smashed relationships. Social atomisation may be the best sales strategy ever devised, and continuous marketing looks like an unbeatable programme for atomisation.
Materialism forces us into comparison with the possessions of others, a race both cruelly illustrated and crudely propelled by that toxic website. There is no end to it. If you have four Rolexes while another has five, you are a Rolex short of contentment. The material pursuit of self-esteem reduces your self-esteem.
I should emphasise that this is not about differences between rich and poor: the poor can be as susceptible to materialism as the rich. It is a general social affliction, visited upon us by government policy, corporate strategy, the collapse of communities and civic life, and our acquiescence in a system that is eating us from the inside out.
This is the dreadful mistake we are making: allowing ourselves to believe that having more money and more stuff enhances our wellbeing, a belief possessed not only by those poor deluded people in the pictures, but by almost every member of almost every government. Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a formula for mass unhappiness.
‘It is all too simple to criticise Mandela for abandoning the socialist perspective after the end of apartheid: did he really have a choice? Was the move towards socialism a real option?’ Photograph: Media24/Gallo Images/Getty Images
In the last two decades of his life, Nelson Mandela was celebrated as a model of how to liberate a country from the colonial yoke without succumbing to the temptation of dictatorial power and anti-capitalist posturing. In short, Mandela was not Robert Mugabe, and South Africa remained a multiparty democracy with a free press and a vibrant economy well-integrated into the global market and immune to hasty socialist experiments. Now, with his death, his stature as a saintly wise man seems confirmed for eternity: there are Hollywood movies about him – he was impersonated by Morgan Freeman, who also, by the way, played the role of God in another film; rock stars and religious leaders, sportsmen and politicians from Bill Clinton to Fidel Castro are all united in his beatification.
Is this, however, the whole story? Two key facts remain obliterated by this celebratory vision. In South Africa, the miserable life of the poor majority broadly remains the same as under apartheid, and the rise of political and civil rights is counterbalanced by the growing insecurity, violence and crime. The main change is that the old white ruling class is joined by the new black elite. Second, people remember the old African National Congress that promised not only the end of apartheid, but also more social justice, even a kind of socialism. This much more radical ANC past is gradually obliterated from our memory. No wonder that anger is growing among poor, black South Africans.
South Africa in this respect is just one version of the recurrent story of the contemporary left. A leader or party is elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a "new world" – but, then, sooner or later, they stumble upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to "play the game"? If one disturbs these mechanisms, one is very swiftly "punished" by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest. This is why it is all too simple to criticise Mandela for abandoning the socialist perspective after the end of apartheid: did he really have a choice? Was the move towards socialism a real option?
It is easy to ridicule Ayn Rand, but there is a grain of truth in the famous "hymn to money" from her novel Atlas Shrugged: "Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice – there is no other." Did Marx not say something similar in his well-known formula of how, in the universe of commodities, "relations between people assume the guise of relations among things"?
In the market economy, relations between people can appear as relations of mutually recognised freedom and equality: domination is no longer directly enacted and visible as such. What is problematic is Rand's underlying premise: that the only choice is between direct and indirect relations of domination and exploitation, with any alternative dismissed as utopian. However, one should nonetheless bear in mind the moment of truth in Rand's otherwise ridiculously ideological claim: the great lesson of state socialism was effectively that a direct abolition of private property and market-regulated exchange, lacking concrete forms of social regulation of the process of production, necessarily resuscitates direct relations of servitude and domination. If we merely abolish the market (inclusive of market exploitation) without replacing it with a proper form of the communist organisation of production and exchange, domination returns with a vengeance, and with it direct exploitation.
The general rule is that when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans that one cannot but characterise as crowd pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, for instance. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices, when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realise that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) goes on in a new guise. The ruling ideology mobilises here its entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. They start to tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibility, that it comes at a price, that we are not yet mature if we expect too much from democracy. In this way, they blame us for our failure: in a free society, so we are told, we are all capitalist investing in our lives, deciding to put more into our education than into having fun if we want to succeed.
At a more directly political level, United States foreign policy elaborated a detailed strategy of how to exert damage control by way of rechanneling a popular uprising into acceptable parliamentary-capitalist constraints – as was done successfully in South Africa after the fall of apartheid regime, in Philippines after the fall of Marcos, in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto and elsewhere. At this precise conjuncture, radical emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to make the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of the "totalitarian" temptation – in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.
If we want to remain faithful to Mandela's legacy, we should thus forget about celebratory crocodile tears and focus on the unfulfilled promises his leadership gave rise to. We can safely surmise that, on account of his doubtless moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life also a bitter old man, well aware how his very political triumph and his elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is also a sign that he really didn't disturb the global order of power.