Official: we're a nation of soap dodgers

The 2010 "inflation basket" shows soap has become a dirty word but let's hear it for the solid stuff

 

The humble bar of soap: a heady concoction of vegetable or animal fats, perfumes and alkaline salts dating back at least as far as 2,800BC and ancient Babylon. Seldom dropped into casual conversation, often dropped on shower floors (the butt of many a faintly homophobic changing-room gag), unsexy, no frills. But now it seems simple savon is being left for ever on the shelf by us the beauty-product-fickle British public.

This year's "UK inflation basket" -- the list of everyday products used as a kind of consumer barometer -- has ditched the "individual bar of toilet soap" for the first time to reflect our changing spending habits. (Also gone are lipstick, replaced by lip gloss, and pitta bread, replaced by garlic bread. Here is the full list of changed items.) This is not because, in the words of the Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates at the 2008 Olympics, we Poms are a country "lacking in swimming pools and soap". No, we've replaced it with liquid hand soap and shower gel instead.

How did it happen, this inexorable slippery slide towards liquidity, this throwing the soap out with the frothy bathwater? There are two reasons, I guess. The first is simply the unstoppable power of the shower: over the past few decades, all over the land, from the ex-council flat to the luxury apartment, the boring bath -- white enamel, peach plastic, even the his'n'hers corner whirlpools beloved of the 1980s -- have been jettisoned to make way for the gleaming upright cubicle or even the wet room. And what do we crave to accompany these designer douches? Bottle upon seductively packaged bottle of temptingly fragranced, status-symbol gelees.

Sure, you've got a soap rack attached to your shower, but this is more often used to balance your pink exfoliating mesh body sponge, while a rainbow of jewel-hued Original Source dangles above it. (That's one of the things we love about shower gel -- the hooks. No embarrassing bending-over retrievals in the gym showers, see? No laddish gross-out.) Likewise at kitchen sink or bathroom basin, what do you reach for to decontaminate your mitts? A pump-action dispenser of gloopy antibacterial handwash, or something pricier by Molton Brown. With matching hand lotion.

But I think the second reason is more insidious. In a slightly less cynical way than how, over the Noughties, the "probiotic" drinks Yakult and Actimel mysteriously splattered their way into the shopping trolleys, lives and guts of 60 per cent of British households with their "friendly bacteria" and sledgehammer marketing, so shower gel represents another manifestation of advanced capitalism, living in a society that will persuade consumers to buy whatever it wants to sell -- despite never knowing they needed it before. People will be willing to buy anything if brands and advertisers tune in to some deep neediness in our collective psyche, repackage or reinvent something perfectly serviceable and sell it back to us at higher cost.

This, coupled with a general keeping up with the Joneses mentality, product envy at the gym and cunningly positioned displays at Boots, paves the way for a sea of seaweed and oatmeal body wash, a land of Palmolive milk and honey. One of the essays in Roland Barthes's Mythologies, on soap powders and detergents, discusses the semiotics of foam -- how the lather created by washing powder was a signifier (to use the Barthian semantics) that was more important than the cleaning itself. Similarly, our love affair with liquid soap has more to do with buying into a lifestyle than its efficacy.

I say it's time to reclaim the bar of soap and free yourself from the tyranny of the gunge! In today's recession-ravaged ablution landscape, it's a no-brainer: soap is cheap, or -- if it's more of the Floris or Roger & Gallet variety than your bog-standard Lifebuoy -- will still last for about ten years. (Note: exaggeration, but one bar does just keep on giving.)

Then there's the environmental angle. With little or no packaging, soap has to be one of the greenest products there is, even more eco if you're using a chemical-free, vegetable variety. Cheap, long-lasting and green. What more solid symbol could there be for our new age of austerity?

What do you think: are you a soap or a shower gel person? Are there any other unnecessary advanced capitalist products we have sleepwalked into using?

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change