The premise of Neal Lawson’s book is simple: our collective addiction to consumption has led us to the point of self-destruction. The deep global recession in which we are immersed is a result of greed, our inability simply to curb our desire for more.
It’s an argument rooted in politics and political economy. Lawson identifies the liberalisation of financial services during the Thatcher years as the source of our downfall. The dream we were sold was the dream of ownership: the right to buy became symbolic. Thatcherism, says Lawson, “created the moral and economic space for the retail industry to expand exponentially and take a grip on our lives”. Since then, we have shopped ourselves to the point of no return.
Indeed, for the first third of the book one feels as if one is constantly being told off. Every cheap flight, every item of clothing from Primark, every visit to a non-organic food shop becomes proof of the damage our consumerist lust has wreaked. In his analysis of the financial crisis, Lawson lists the usual suspects – bankers, regulators, politicians – who created the “consumer bubble”. But then he turns on the rest of us, until now the innocent victims of a system beyond our control:
But we bought the stuff. We wanted it. We defined ourselves by it. We allowed ourselves to drift into the comatose life of the turbo-consumer. We needed something to worship and something to believe in and had long since swapped God for Gucci. We had been living beyond our means, in debt beyond our ability to pay, in the naive and hopeless belief that this would be the first bubble that would never burst. We tried to defy economic gravity so we could just keep buying. Because that was all there was to do.
The drama of these lines and their admonitory tone exemplify Lawson’s approach to his subject. This is not just a book; it is also a campaign. After presenting his thesis on the perils of turbo-consumerism, Lawson examines the costs – to the environment, to family life and to our own happiness. But it is the final third that turns the book from a rant into a manifesto. Lawson attempts to set out a vision of a different society – one characterised by less consumption and more time, in which consumers become citizens again, wresting control of their lives back from marketing departments and advertising agencies. He also has some specific prescriptions, including downshifting, ethical shopping and boycotting certain consumer goods. However, he is also a believer in the power of the state to force us to modify our behaviour – by restricting advertising or imposing higher taxes on anti-environmental products such as 4x4s.
In other words, Lawson tells us what to do, as well as telling us off. This could easily have become rather wearing, but he is too clever for that. At every stage, he implicates himself: at the very beginning of the book, for example, where Lawson catalogues his morning rituals by enumerating his purchases (“I ready myself for the day with bottles of Gillette this and Dove that”), and elsewhere, with his use of the personal pronoun.
At no point does he hold himself up as the virtuous narrator, the model citizen. Yet he is trying to strike a delicate balance – how do you tell a society to change the way it lives without seeming to be a killjoy? Lawson is clearly struggling slightly with this himself. On the blog for his book, he recounts a turn on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour when the presenter wrapped up the discussion by saying it was all a bit gloomy. “I was crestfallen,” Lawson says. “I need to get better at making my case.”
In fact, he makes his case well enough. He has reams of statistics at his fingertips and uses an array of anecdotes that bring his subject to life. He often startles with his examples of modern consumption – the service that allows guilty children to pay for someone to visit their elderly parents for tea, or the book that teaches you to market yourself like a product so that you can date more successfully.
But perhaps his case is too wide. His prescription for change demands a complete overhaul of individual and state behaviour; and at times it can seem unrealistic to suppose that, beyond a committed minority, people will be willing to change their lives quite as drastically as he hopes. But Lawson, like Michael Sandel in his Reith Lectures this past month, wants to use this moment of economic and social crisis to change the way we live. He wants his book to start a movement, and intends it as a tool for activists to use against market fundamentalists. It’s a worthy ambition.
Penguin, 256pp, £10.99