Posted on September 1, 2011


‘Tis the season for this sort of thing apparently. I too feel it, and so let fall a couple of ripened fruit to join the salad of opinion.

Most sane commentators on the London riots have pointed out the ills of consumerism and its role in fuelling such naughty behaviour. I, like many, felt in me a heavy stone of depression as young people took to the streets not to demand social justice or to have their voices heard, but to nick trainers and phones.

It is really not surprising to see this behaviour though, as the consumer lifestyle has been rammed down our throats more violently than someone force-feeding a foi-gras duck. Even politics has been reduced to “responsible consumerism” – one pound, one vote – just don’t try to disturb the order of things on mount olympus, that just wouldn’t do!

Britain is a particularly bad offender in this respect – I say this with confidence as an outside observer. There (as in the States) consumerism has hit a terrifying fever pitch. Advertising has this aggressive, even scary shrill tone, all your senses violated at once.

British high streets are crammed with chain shops and packed with people who view shopping as an end in itself, the act of consumption become as much part of the entertainment as the items acquired. While this has undoubtably bled across the channel into the rest of Europe, the difference in shear intensity is striking. Don’t believe me? Try Shopping in Paris on a Sunday.

In the end these are just symptoms of a deep illness. Signs of turbulence as we circle round the drain. Because we have backed ourselves into a corner at a very fundamental level. The economic model on which our modern lives are built is fundamentally flawed and will necessarily lead us into worse and worse trouble.

Take a minute to listen to recent economic reports. Consumer spending, they tell us, is down. And this is bad.

Wait what?

This is saying, in fact, that I don’t have a choice over what I buy. I NEED to buy stuff. I just have to. If i don’t, the economy collapses. It doesn’t matter whether I WANT anything, even less whether I NEED it. It is apparently my civic duty to consume endless crap and throw it away, in the process chomping through natural resources at a grossly unsustainable rate.

Why? Because we are trying to build on a contradiction. On the one hand, we adopt a competitive economy. This is good, we say, because competition improves efficiency. We can achieve more with the same resources. Ok so far.
However, we also want to provide jobs. People need jobs because we demand that they work to survive – they must produce in order to live. But people are a resource. Competition means efficiency – achieving the same result requires less people.
So one the one hand or highly desired efficiency requires that we employ less people to achieve the same thing, while our equally highly desired employment rate requires that we employ more people. So what’s the only possible solution?
Make more stuff.

We must simply churn the handle faster, consume more to employ the people who were made unnecessary by competitive efficiency. It is no stretch to say that is system, is, in a word, ridiculous. Our success as a society, as nations, depends on an infinite increase in consumption (based on finite resources) in order to achieve fundamentally conflicting goals. In this society you do not have to be part of the radical opposition to working against the system – you merely have to be content to consume only what you need.

Coming to the simple realisation that there is a big difference between acquisition and satisfaction puts you in conflict with the insane rules which have shaped policy for decades.

Finally let me be clear than I am not pulling this out of my arse: after every major financial crisis production and profits have picked up. Employment hasn’t, because companies find ways to make their employees more productive – often by leveraging job insecurity to force people to work more for less reward.

Posted in: Politics