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Shopping's not all bad

Mica Nava sees a new critique of 'turbo consumerism' as a bleak, moralistic and outdated story

Neal Lawson, political commentator, journalist and chair of the democratic left pressure group Compass, one of the remaining hopes of a demoralised Labour left, has written a polemical and accessible book about the neglected but pressing issue of contemporary consumption. This should be good news. But All Consuming, although packed with information and ideas, is uneven with much of it rooted in a now discredited critical framework. The main political agenda -- against waste and for more controls -- is urgent and worthwhile but is too often couched in sensationalist and unsupported claims. The most innovative policy-oriented sections come in the final chapter but I doubt whether many readers will stay the course.

The manuscript was finished in March 2009 so inevitably the cataclysmic events of the 2008-2009 economic crisis, with its predictions of austerity levels not seen since WW2, framed the development of the argument. According to Lawson 'we live not just in a consumer society but in a turbo-consuming society', in a culture of excess which has developed in the UK over the last three decades as a result of Thatcherite-Hayekian free-market economic policies. These, combined with our 'natural' inclination to uncontrolled consumption, are to blame for the current crisis (which in fact now seems less grave than predicted). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his political affiliations, the contribution of the Labour Party to the current state of affairs is downplayed.

Social and economic inequalities in neoliberal (not a term Lawson uses) Britain have certainly fuelled ordinary people's desire to own homes and buy things and have developed in tandem with unsustainable and unprecedented lending by the banks. Their coincidence with the escalating dangers of climate change has resulted in a desperately serious situation. But these issues tend to get overshadowed by a moralistic demonisation of what he sees as the instinctual greed, status anxiety, hedonism and vacuity of consumers and their facile manipulation by advertisers 'who exploit our deepest emotional needs and fears'. 'Shopping has been emotionally, culturally and socially grafted onto us' he argues. We are its victims. It has become an 'addiction' without which we can no longer function but which will never satisfy us. 'Turbo-consumerism is the heroin of human happiness'.

Although this 'habit' is the main target, Lawson includes in his attack not only the predictable 'shopping frenzy' and designer handbags but also, inter alia, ostentatious funerals, childhood obesity, the reduction of NHS dentists and the growth of internet dating sites. Just about everything he doesn't like in today's culture is attributed to turbo-consuming. According to him people are depoliticised by their engagement with the market. Their primary identity is as consumers. They find their souls in their possessions. 

Does all this sound familiar? The answer is yes. There is paradoxical disjuncture in the book between on the one hand Lawson's claim that turbo-consuming is a new formation specific to Hayekian-Thatcherite free-market economics of the last thirty years and on the other his extensive appropriation of the pessimistic rhetoric of the Frankfurt School and other theorists who wrote about Europe in the 1930s (eg Adorno, Horkheimer, Bernays) and the US in the 1950s and 60s (eg Marcuse, Packard, Friedan) and whose broad argument was that consumption contributes to political acquiescence. The innovative critical work of the last decades by anthropologists, sociologists, feminists, historians and cultural theorists seems largely to have passed him by.

There are exceptions: the book is dedicated to Zygmunt Bauman. But Bauman's analysis is more nuanced than Lawson's; like others in the field Bauman understands that the impulse to shop is part of a broader need in modern mobile societies to be recognised, to be visible, to belong. So this expands the population who consume to include most of us, not only the mindless and mainly female young as Lawson implies, but also teachers, doctors, political activists, writers. We all need to be acknowledged. Some of us are fortunate enough to find ways that provide more social esteem than shopping. Or we buy things like books or paintings that are less trivial than handbags. But everyday shopping and the circulation of goods also needs to be analysed more sensitively. Furnishing homes and the adornment of the self provide enduring pleasures and are not just about being as good as or better than our neighbours. Daniel Miller has written about the cultural meanings of material culture and the way in which shopping and the exchange of gifts can be a major form of kindness and social connectivity within communities and across generations.

Lawson also does not acknowledge recent work on advertising. His bleak views have their roots in 1950s US cold-war theories about manipulation and indoctrination. But not even the advertisers believe that stuff. They know that 80 or 90 percent of products fail despite advertising and that most people are deeply resistant to the thousands of advertising messages they encounter each day. Lawson does not advance his argument by drawing on this outdated work.

His grip on history leaves a lot to be desired as well. The insights in the section (pp 53-60) about the longer history of consumption are unfortunately not sustained in the rest of the book. The dominant tendency is to overlook historical continuities and precedent. Yet the consumption Lawson describes is not as new as he claims. It's true that more people are consuming now but literature and history have long been full of narratives about conspicuous consumption and the importance of status derived from birth, possessions and appearance. Women had a lot to do with the strategies which determined social boundaries by these means. Looking good was a source of social power which enabled some people to improve their lives. Why should this be sneered at? What makes consumption by the young and poor more reprehensible than consumption by the middle and upper classes? Like the writers of the Frankfurt School, Lawson's argument is often elitist, and similarly, his disdain for this aspect of modern economic and social life implicitly disparages those most involved, usually women.

The book is suffused with nostalgia for a moment before turbo-consuming when people like Lawson's grandparents made-do and mended. But Lawson seems unaware that most of the unregistered labour of those times was carried out by women. Washing machines and disposable nappies were luxuries in the 1960s and most mothers washed nappies by hand, which, like patching clothes, took a good chunk of the day. The increase in women's participation in the labour market from the 1970s may indeed be a contributing factor to the growth of shopping but we should not assume that this makes them more easily duped, addictive, competitive or slothful. Shopping is often just a different way of providing and is generally more fun than being stuck at home. And although make-do-and-mend skills may be unknown to the young, they can do things those of us who know how to darn can't do, like make websites for instance.

It's not only that Lawson overlooks relevant academic work on consumption. He also fails to credit (until the last chapter) the longer history of political and ethical opposition to unregulated consumption. In his introduction he posits a binary either-consumption-or-citizenship model: 'The more we consume the less space there is to be … citizens in command of our social, political, economic and natural environment.' Yet selective buying and boycotts based on political, ethical and green criteria, recycling networks, charity shops and consumer associations have all been means of curtailing the power of big business and exercising a political voice in the market place. And they have existed for longer than Lawson seems to realise -- consumer co-ops go back to the early nineteenth century. Moreover the enfranchisement of consumers to make political choices when they shop -- or don't shop -- has often been exercised by those who are relatively powerless in other ways. Greens have made their biggest inroads in this fashion. As long as twenty years ago an estimated 50 percent of shoppers operated product boycotts or selective buying to protect the environment. People have been and continue to be citizen consumers, albeit not yet in sufficient numbers.

It is true that exclusion from the market has in the case of the recent banking crisis led to unsustainable borrowing but exclusion can also be, and has been in the past, an incitement to mobilise politically. This was the case with African- Americans excluded from the front of buses and Woolworths lunch counters in 1950s. It was also a major factor in the overthrow of communism in the former Soviet Block 
Waste is a tremendously important issue and Lawson quite rightly makes it a significant part of his critical gaze. But again the case is overstated. In recent years there have been loads of attempts by individuals, local authorities and shops themselves to cut down on packaging and to boost recycling. The congestion charge, diesel fuels and huge increases in the numbers of cyclists are all intended to reduce carbon emissions. These efforts may not be enough but consciousness has shifted. This is not acknowledged sufficiently in the book.

I am all for most of the alternatives that Lawson sets out in his final chapter about the taxing of luxury goods, rationing, improving work conditions and imposing restrictions on airport building and advertising. These policy proposals reflect his position in Compass and are mainly directed at political parties. But, although worth debating they also highlight a central ambiguity in the book about its political agenda and intended readership. Is Lawson addressing ordinary punters (shucks! one more thing to buy) or people who are already politically engaged? Unfortunately I doubt whether the relentlessly bleak and patronising tone of the first chapters is going to do very much to persuade people to improve their consuming behaviour or recruit them to Compass activities.

Why blame consumers or even advertisers for the excesses of capitalism? The Labour Government could have done a lot more to regulate the banks, tax the rich and reduce inequalities in its time in office. Other European states have done this. But the UK, like the US, has not had the courage. Global warming may in part be a consequence of over consumption but there are many other causes which have little to do with young people's brand preferences. Waste is certainly a problem but is increasingly being dealt with not only by local authorities but by consumer initiatives like Freecycle. Even department stores now stock 'vintage' second-hand clothing.

For Lawson, consumerism is at the heart of our social and environmental problems and, what's more, is not reconcilable with 'kindness, playfulness, generosity and friendship'. But that is patently not so. The truth that the left must acknowledge, however grudgingly, is that consumer societies, even turbo-consumer societies, are not bad places to live, even for the poor. There have been worse regimes in the twentieth century: the middle decades saw the death and displacement of 150 million in Europe alone. Violence and starvation are still endemic in much of the world. Women are not badly off here. People risk their lives to become part of consumer democracies like Britain -- despite the problems. Much could be improved and much is indeed shocking and ridiculous, but consumer culture is not wholly bad. This book has done for me exactly what it was not intended to do: it has reminded me of that.  

All Consuming: How shopping got us into this mess and how we can find our way out by Neal Lawson, Penguin Books £10.99