Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain Now review – David Marquand’s cry of despair

A funny thing happened on the way to this review: I saw Garrison Keillor perform. The Lake Wobegon author shared the stage with a jazz band, a blues singer, violinists and radio comedians. It was a dizzying, patchy and occasionally obtuse performance, punctuated with moments of brilliance.

In Mammon’s Kingdom, David Marquand assembles his own supporting cast, all-star intellectuals from the past three centuries: Edmund Burke, RD Laing, John Stuart Mill, GE Moore, Amartya Sen, Avishai Margalit, Martha Nussbaum. Each gets a turn in the spotlight, giving the book the feel of an ensemble performance, rather than a solo. Like Keillor’s kaleidoscopic show, Marquand’s book is best read as a selection of insights and provocations on the state of the nation today. The theme loosely holding them together is pretty straightforward: things are going to hell in a handcart. Since the 1980s, hedonistic individualism has torn the social fabric, hollowed out the public realm and coarsened democracy. We are, Marquand warns, “a society sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism”.