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‘Consumerism’: I shop, therefore I am?

This article is over 19 years, 0 months old
Colin Barker asks if buying goods makes us slaves to the system
Issue 1831

HELL, IT’S Christmas again. Sold to us as the best of times, it’s often the worst. Time to trudge round the shopping centre. Time to get stuck in a traffic jam. Time to buy my auntie something she doesn’t really want, so she won’t think I don’t care. Christmas – bonanza time for advertisers. Time perhaps to think about consumerism.

Consuming is a necessary part of life. If we don’t eat, we starve to death. If we don’t clothe ourselves, we shiver. We can’t oppose ‘consumption’ any more than we can oppose breathing. But what do we say about ‘consumerism’? More than ever in history, the shops are bulging with ‘consumer goods’. A lot are tat, things that attract us for a moment and that we rapidly lose interest in.

But some enter into our daily lives.They begin as ‘luxuries’ and end up as social necessities. Think of fridges, TVs, washing machines, computers, prepared foods. ‘Hairshirt socialism’ is not an attractive option. Who wants to live in a hut built of mud and wattle, cold and dark in the winter? Our lives are better for having hot water, electricity, gas, the telephone, access to the internet, holidays, CDs, tinned and frozen foods – you name it.

But isn’t there a socialist objection to this? Surely consumerism corrupts our souls, and turns us away from looking for radical solutions to society’s ills? It’s not a new theme. In 19th century Lancashire, when workers started wearing shoes, there were voices announcing the death of working class politics.’Real’ workers wore clogs!

In the 1950s pop sociologists told us that consumer goods were ‘bourgeoisifying’ the working class. Labour lost the 1959 election, they said, because of washing machines and TV sets bought on hire purchase. It was always a weak argument. As one commentator wrote at the time, ‘A washing machine is a washing machine is a washing machine.’ It’s not a Tory voter. It washes clothes.

By 1964 there were even more consumer goods in working class households – and Labour won the election that year. Not only that, but the level of strikes carried on rising to the point that a Royal Commission declared there was ‘anarchy’ on the shopfloor in many industries. Somehow workers managed to ignore the sociologists.

Are the most militant workers those with nothing? Far from it. Those who find it hardest to organise themselves are often the poorest in society. If absolute poverty was the detonator of social protest, Africa would be in total revolt.

Being reasonably fed, housed and clothed doesn’t stop workers fighting – it makes it easier.

The French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville made a sensible point when he said that revolutions come when people’s expectations are rising. So we shouldn’t rail against ‘consumerism’ in simple-minded ways. Socialists should fight for higher not lower living standards.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a problem with consumerism. But the problem is not material goods – it’s the capitalist organisation of consumption. Capitalism depends on selling us enormous quantities of goods – not just on the basis of straightforward ‘material need’ but because many of those goods are also made to carry important symbolic meanings.

Material goods help us shape and know ‘who we are’. As consumers, we seem to be creatures of free choice, able to express ourselves as we want – if only through what we buy. We gain at least the illusion of control over our lives. The fact that these goods are – for most of us – mass produced, and on sale in shopping malls across the world, is not the point. We can select from such a glittering and varied array.

By choosing, we can make a partial statement about our individual ‘identity’. We’re encouraged to do this by the billions of pounds spent on advertising. Yet there’s a paradox in the advertising. Advert after advert offers a promise. Buy me and your life will be more fulfilled, happier.

Yet how is that fulfilment and happiness measured, even in the adverts? In social terms. This product will make you more popular, more lovable, more able to belong. Colour your hair this way, and you’ll get kissed… So even the images of the individual are cast in terms of social relationships. Capitalist culture individualises us. But other realities keep breaking through. We may shop till we drop, but then we still have to earn the means to pay off the bills.

‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.’ We work. We raise families. We seek friendships and loving relationships. We are more than consumers, and those other realities always undermine the simplicities of ‘consumerism’.

Marx called religion the heart of a heartless world, the soul of a soulless condition, the opium of the people. The same analysis fits consumerism, capitalism’s modern religion. The difference is that Marx could stand quite outside religion and offer his analysis. Today none of us can resist entirely the lure of the modern churches, the malls and palaces of shopping.

The modern Christmas is a festival devoted to the commodity god. In reality, worshipping that god is exhausting, and always disappointing. That’s why we resent Christmas, at the same time that we relentlessly join the rush.

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