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Shopping is part of the problem

Neal Lawson owns up to being moralistic but not elitist in defence of his 'All Consuming'

I am indebted to Mica Nava (Chartist 241) for taking the time to read and provide such a detailed review of my book. I don't know Mica but I guess that because she is writing for Chartist and because of the list of publications to her name she considers herself to be on the left. If that is an accurate guess she wants broadly what I want; a more equal, democratic and sustainable world. But it looks like we differ on how to get there. In particular we differ on what barriers stand in our way. I see the roadblock for the left as the grip of consumerism on our culture and therefore our society and economy. I don't think Mica has the same worry. Let's see if we can explore that difference?

But before we do let me say that I found some of Mica's review helpful. In particular she is right to say that my binary divide between our lives as consumers and citizens and therefore the market and society is more complex than I allow. In my defence I'd argue that it is a polemical book, but we can be political when we shop. And to be fair I do talk a lot about ethical consumption; I just worry that it's still all about shopping, still about more and still about buying a better identity than others. She is right though that I have to be more nuanced.

Mica also says I don't engage with the Labour Party enough and that too is true. But it was a conscious decision. I critique New Labour all day everyday and get bored the sound of my own voice. I wanted a book that went beyond the usual tight circle and I'm glad she found it accessible. It's why I didn't use terms like neo-liberalism because it puts people off. But if you want a critique of New Labour and consumerism here it is; it inverted the most important principle of social democracy, which is to make the market the servant of society. New Labourites turned this principle on its head as they caved in morally, economically and politically to the neo-liberal hegemony.

Instead of showing there is something more than the market place they injected the corrosive values of competition and consumerism into what was left of the public realm and elevated the like of Tesco's Terry Leahy to gurus of the public sector. Indeed, they left so much space in the aisles of politics that David Cameron could walk in and talk about the morality of selling sexualised underwear to young girls. Presumably to New Labour this was just economic efficiency? But in the book I wanted to take a different, less directly political, approach.

Like other critical reviews of the book, those mostly from the right, Mica accuses me of being moralistic and elitist. I readily accept the former but not the latter. Politics has to be about morality; about competing visions of the good society or it is nothing. Rather it is about the domination of the morality that has the upper hand at that moment with all that means the distribution of wealth and power. I believe that left values, left morals of society, solidarity and equity are better than right morals of independence, acquisition and charity.

But I refute any charges of elitism. The research for the book and the conversations and talks since have been revealing. People get very defensive when it comes to shopping. They are not duped though others might be; they do not follow any fashion while others do; they shop but don't like it. Yer right! I don't say some (middle class and educated) purchases are good and others bad. I think most are now about symbolism not survival and are therefore open to investigation. Mica says that paintings and books are less trivial than handbags. I don't agree. At least one unquestionably provides a practical function the others could just be about showing off. It's not about the justification of one piece of consumption over another; it is about understanding identity formation no matter what it is we are buying.

I laugh at myself throughout the book about what I buy and there is much to laugh at. I build an identity through what I buy. The book is an attempt to try and understand why; not to blame false consciousness but to really understand why and how our hopes and fears, needs and desires are bent in a way that creates a turbo-consuming society where we all buy minutely differentiated but essentially the same products, increasingly globalised brands on clone high streets when the world could surely be culturally so much richer and interesting? Why are we willing participants in the impoverishment of our lives and our planet and how do we fight back against a system of social reproduction based on seduction indeed why would you even bother?

Mica sees a world that is broadly okay as long as we get rid of some of the shopping excesses. I see a world of donkeys following carrots on an endless treadmill of wants turned into needs; not because we are stupid but because it provides enough compensation 'for the real thing' to keep us going and because we have stopped imagining a better alternative. For me everything for the future of the left rests on the rediscovery of 'the real thing' and how that can be more creative, empowering and yes fun than turbo-consumption?

Running through Mica's review is the idea that my book, because it is an attack on turbo consumption, is an attack on women as they are deemed to shop the most. She conflates the two. But I make no gender distinction because I don't believe there are now any real differences between men and women; we are all targets to be sold to. Indeed the figures show that men spend more than women.

Mica, I fear, offers a politics of retreat and refuge that will end in utter defeat for the left. Of course in a consumer society there are sites of resistance. People use shopping playfully and to subvert and I don't decry any of that. But the monster still grows. Of course we want recognition and acknowledgement but why is consumption the dominant prism for this and what are the consequences? Aren't there better ways of being fully human? We don't just have to shop better and less we have to shift the dominant consumer culture of our society. Because all the time the juggernaut moves on colonising more public spaces and commodifying more dreams. And all the time the poor get poorer and the planet burns. I want better balanced lives and a properly functioning society but the problem is that the market doesn't do balance, it's a machine that just does remorseless profit maximisation, which means selling us more and more. This is why I suggest that we are creeping towards an analysis of consumer society as a proto form of totalitarianism because it is systematically about the abolition of other ways of being. It can be nothing else unless we control it.

But isn't this just middle class post-material angst? Why should the poor be denied the pleasures we have? Indeed Mica says that consumer societies 'are not bad places to live, even for the poor'. I disagree. Of course in absolute terms the poor are better off today but this misses the point. Relatively and emotionally the poor today face awful lives. The poor of the past at least had the bonds of solidarity, the knowledge that the economy or the army would need them at some stage and the hope that a better world was possible.

Today's poor are the failed consumers. They face the hurt, the shame and the humiliation of their isolated exclusion from 'normality'. They have the trappings of normality dangled before them on billboards, on TV and in shop windows but don't have the means to buy them. They have no one to blame for their plight but themselves and no one to hate or over throw just celebrities to admire. They have nothing to hope for. It leads to lives of chronic stress, endless pressure and early graves.

But it's even worse. The poor do have one critical role to play in society today. They are used as a tool of social conditioning. Their plight is the image that is used to keep us on the exhausting treadmill of consumer society. If we stop shopping, stop being normal then we will end up like them; the Others, sub-normal and sub-human. They become figures to despise.

Mica says that everything I don't like in today's culture is attributed to turbo-consumerism and she is just about right. I think it is the glue that holds modern capitalist society together, the deal for a life of hopeless individualism, the pay off for rising insecurity and personalised risk, the compensation for lives that are beyond our control. We are paradoxically its victims and its perpetrators. All Consuming is probably a stupidly over ambitious book in its attempt to understand this society and to point us in the direction of a very different kind of world, a world in which we collectively self-manage our existence but I couldn't see the point of writing any other book when all the mainstream parties look to continue the consumer consensus. No one dies wishing they had bought more stuff, so why live lives as if that were the case.