Posts Tagged ‘consumerism’


Disrupting the establishment from within

February 22, 2015

Thanks to my Clore fellowship, I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about what I should do next. To be honest I’m in a right muddle. My good friend J may have nailed it when he sat back at the end of an evening together and told me that I’m clearly having some kind of mid-life crisis. My immediate response was that I’m not that old. But then I came down to earth with a bump and realized I’m not that young either…

Anyway the one thing I feel very clear about is that I want to find roles where I can disrupt the establishment one way or another. That might be about direct action; it is also about exposing some of the damaging assumptions and power relationships that underpin the status quo, in order to give people their voices back, whether that’s in politics, in public services, or indeed the communities in which they live.

Now it’s not often you see people disrupting from within. Yet this week, we’ve had Peter Oborne (former Chief Political Commentator of the Telegraph) taking on the free press, and the Church taking on politics. How unlikely do these skirmishes sound! Yet taken together they are a wake-up call about the corrosive effect consumerism is having on our civic life, and a plea for politics to start recognizing this damage (for two brilliant thinkers on this, check out Michael Sandel’s accessible Reith lectures, and Zymund Bauman’s less accessible Consuming Life).

First of all, Peter Oborne exposed the Telegraph’s willingness to put advertising revenue ahead of good journalism in a quite incredible resignation letter that I really recommend reading in full. Here he shows how the commercialization of the free press has rendered it much less free than it should be. He shows how the suits at the top are complicit in maintaining dysfunctional power relationships. He underlines the sway big business has over public life behind closed doors.

Second, an amazing letter from the Church Bishops to ‘the people and the parishes of the Church of England’. Again, it really is worth reading all 52 pages of it. I love that this has come out of an institution which, by definition, is inextricably bound up with the establishment, and depends on that establishment for its special status, and I wish I’d been a fly on the wall at the meeting when the Bishops signed this letter off.

If you haven’t got time to read the full letter, check out David Mitchell’s excellent piece on why it matters instead. For me, the main argument is that we have let consumerism seep too far into all parts of civic life, including politics, and that it is time to challenge this state of affairs. The letter is also a plea to see ourselves as more than individuals alone – we are not a ‘society of strangers’, as the Bishops put it. ‘‘We are most human when we know ourselves to be dependent on others”. Amen to that, as someone more religious than me might say.

What is most refreshing about these letters is that they were written at all. There are precious few voices within the establishment calling for a move away from the neo-liberal consensus that currently defines both main parties. So Peter Oborne, and the Bishops of the Church of England, for the first time in my life, I salute you.**

** although really Bishops, is it really so hard to give women equal rights???


more on local pounds and transition towns

March 2, 2009

thanks to T for mentioning an article in the FT this weekend on the Lewes pound that I mentioned in the blog below. And I am very, very interested in the transition towns network. Their wiki is exciting and inspiring. I especially love their 12 step plan, which includes stages like ‘the great unleashing’ and ‘honour the elders’. Wise advice indeed.


when you’re tired of london…

September 3, 2008

… it’s funny, because I’m really not tired of life, but god London is winding me up at the moment. It feels like a giant shopping mall stuffed full of chain stores and shoppers, where it never stops raining. Although Berlin has failed, comprehensively in my view, on their monumental architecture (Rogers’ dome on the Reichstag just didn’t do it for me), it has truly surpassed itself on neighbourhood life. JW and I spent much time discussing this and what made it possible. Clearly low rents and heavy subsidies to support new businesses fuels neighbourhood cafe culture. The whole vibe of the city, and people’s willingness to put quality of life ahead of pay packets, encourages it too. London lacks both the economic and the cultural drivers to create streets like Oderberger Strasse in Prezlauer Berg.

At a talk I went to by Marshall Berman, he was asked about consumer culture and how we could stop it. Berman’s answer was surprising and refreshing: he distinguished between commerce and consumerism, arguing that commerce – the buying and selling of goods, the agora – has always been an important source of art and politics. Far from being a social evil, commerce was a primary activity in the agora, where politics and culture were also negotiated in ancient cities.

Berman argued that one thing that distinguishes consumerism and commerce is the distance travelled between the thing being sold and the buyer. In ancient cities (and indeed, at least in Berlin cafes), culture and commodities were made nearby, an integral part of people’s lifestyle and income. For Berman, ‘an important part of being modern is being non-embedded’: culture and commodities are now made in far away lands and sold to us by global businesses.

It was Jane Jacobs who immortalised the importance of street life, where dirt and action and buying and selling and arguing were all tantamount to aliveness. London needs to recover some of this feel. Creating ‘faux’ versions of markets, like Spitalfields or the Brunswick Centre, is not the answer. We need fewer of the big statement buildings, and much greater investment in supporting local commerce. Local shops for local people. That would make me very happy. So long as they learnt to make good coffee and provide free wifi…


consuming life

August 16, 2008

I passed a very pleasant journey to Cornwall and back reading Zygmunt Bauman’s Consuming Life. Defintely best at the beginning, and I can’t help a sneaking suspicion that the book might have been stronger as an essay, but nevertheless I got a lot from it…

His basic argument is that we have moved from a producer society to a consumer society (where we are defined by our shopping basket rather than by our work) – what he calls ‘liquid modernity’. As part of this transition, we not only become consumers, but also necessarily commodities ourselves: constantly marketing who we are in the quest to be seen, as ‘invisibility is tantamount to death’ (here he quotes Germaine Greer). He believes we are in the grip of a subjectivity fetishism.

I was really struck by a number of the consequences he outlines of this view of the world. First, a consumer society is not defined by what it buys, but instead by what it wastes (quoting Italo Calvino talking of one of his invisible cities: ‘it is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, bought, sold that you can measure Leonia’s opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new’). The spectre of the satisfied consumer is terrifying: when satisfied we don’t want to buy any more, we are no longer seeking to market ourselves in a world where trends are ever-changing to keep us shopping.

Second, he writes at length about the commodification of intimate life – a theme I’ll be returning to once I’ve got a moment to blog about Arlie Russell Hochschild’s work on this. Our relationships become as dispensable as the things we buy – and this pattern is reinforced by the way we find our friends now (online dating etc etc).

Third, he kicks back against the internet, and all those who herald it as the dawn of a new era of connectedness, instead seeing it as a force that drives us towards this commodification of the ‘Other’.

The move to liquid modernity sees the denigration of the qualities of solidity, durability and security: ‘a liquid modern setting is inhospitable to long-term planning, investment and storage; indeed it strips the delay of gratification of its past sense of prudence, circumspection and, above all, reasonability’.

It also heralds a new understanding of time and meaning. Whereas before meaning was derived by progression through life, Bauman believes we are now operating in ‘pointillist’ time, where each of us have to create meaning out of the many choices we make everyday. Melancholy, in these terms, is being overwhelmed by the possibilities of all this choice, to the point of withdrawing from the act of choosing. This argument in particular resonated very deeply with me and my own sense sometimes of not being able to move for the possibility of missing something. It feels like there’s never a straight road, only a never-ending series of forks. Maybe the art of living in these terms is learning to live with perpetual uncertainty. As he says, ‘making oneself, not just becoming, is the challenge and the task’.

I wonder what all of this might mean for our politicians. Where does it leave Gordon ‘Prudence’ Brown? What does it mean for Miliband’s claim that we all seek ‘security’? And will we ever have a crop of politicians daring enough to question the supermacy of a consumerist society, and ask whether there might not be an alternative? But maybe it doesn’t matter what politicians say or do anyway:

The true carrier of sovereign power in the society of consumers is the commodity market.

Postmodernism isn’t the rejection of coercion, but instead represents a more subtle set of tools by which we are coerced. The power to act has moved from politics to the markets, and with that politicians lose their place as the arbiters and the rule-makers of the game.