Magazine article Soundings

Look for the Cracks: Don't Throw Yourself against the Wall

Magazine article Soundings

Look for the Cracks: Don't Throw Yourself against the Wall

Article excerpt

Neal: I was out with my thirteen-year-old stepdaughter in a mad last rush Xmas shop. We had to find a particular present for her Mum (GHDs if you must know, hair straighteners - it stands for 'Good Hair Day' apparently), and it was proving to be a tough task. After several failures she started texting her friends, and the right answers came flooding in as acts of social kindness all wrapped up around consumption. We found the present.

I thought immediately of my friend Jon Wilson's elegant article in the summer issue of Soundings about why the left should be more forgiving of our consumer culture ('The community of things', Soundings 48). Like our experience, which we enjoyed together and virtually with helpful others, shopping is often a communal act of love and builds local relations of family and neighbour that are close to the heart of Blue Labour, with which Jon is associated. I can understand why he takes me to task for overdoing the consumerism is all bleak and dark narrative. Let me explain why I do as I warmly anticipate the debate with Jon below.

Jon rightly searches for the human element in our often brutal and unforgiving world. If we can twist and distort the shopping experience to b e kind, thoughtful and cooperative - then what's the problem? Consumer society is just a platform through which we can be human and relational. Right?

The central problem for me with Jon's proposition is this: why do we have to graft our humanity onto a system that is profoundly and purposefully non humane? Yes we adapt ourselves to it as humanely as possible but there is no light at the end of the tunnel because it is a system whose purpose is to rule out the cultural, economic and emotional space for any political alter native to take root. It is life as an endless slog to keep up and grasp what meagre social and relational activity we can in its thin individualistic soil. Meanwhile of course the poor get poorer and the planet burns.

Let's unpack this a bit. The market - and the consumer culture it spawns - is of course not immoral but amoral. All its sees is [pounds sterling] signs. To understand it, all you have to do is follow the money. The nature of competition means that if you don't make a profit from something, someone else will. Without regulation and boundaries the market will simply and relentlessly go wherever it can make money. It reminds me of a shark - all it knows is how to feed, and it is relentless and brilliant at its task. The NHS will be privatised, girls as young as six will be sold sexualised underwear and pornography will become endemic. Democracy itself becomes little more than the appointment of national shop managers, who each promise us higher and better living standards as we vote on a daily basis with our feet. By living they of course mean shopping. Ultimately it is our minds that are privatised as our hopes and fears are whittled down to what we can and cannot buy.

It is a world where enough is never enough, as we consume an endless supply of things we didn't know we needed until one of the several thousand marketing messages we see each day persuaded us that our lives were not actually complete. We do so of course with money we don't have. We don't shop in a way that changes shopping - we choose what is presented to us. We pick what we are permitted to pick. We certainly can't choose not to choose. This is the freedom of the zoo-kept animal.

Jon cites the work of Daniel Miller, an anthropologist who studies why and how people shop. Bell sees shopping as repetitive acts of giving and love. I think both Jon and Bell overdo the love side and underdo the individualistic side of shopping. Much of it is to establish our place in the pecking order. Of course this is one side of our sociability, the need to belong, but it's not a very positive side. Jon says that only the rich consume competitively, for example having a 70 foot boat instead of 30 foot. …

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