Why is the left silent on the scourge of consumerism?

Labour must look beyond the politics of more and recognise that the good life cannot be bought off a shelf.

Did you do it – by accident or design? Did you manage to buy nothing on Buy Nothing Day last Saturday? What do you mean you didn’t know you it was Buy Nothing Day? Too busy Xmas shopping?

The idea that an issue can only be raised by dedicating one day out of 365 to it is just one indication of how we have become a consumer society.  Being a consumer society doesn’t mean that all we do is shop,  rather it suggests that knowing ourselves and others by what we consume is the prime way in which society now reproduces itself.  It is the dominant way of being, just as work once was, when we knew ourselves, and others, primarily as producers. We were what we did. Now we are what we buy.

I don’t know the ‘Buy Nothing Day’ people but I’m guessing the problem isn’t consumption per se. We have to consume to live. The problem is one of balance. What is the damage being done to us, our society and the planet by consuming too much? And the issue is not the inability of capitalism to balance its need for expanding profit and our individual, collective and environmental needs, capitalism can’t do balance. The problem is that our politicians have given up trying to secure that balance through regulation.

At one level who can blame them for not trying. Why would you even want to get people to vote against the seductive powers of shopping and the thrill of the till? The answer, when it’s the only form of compensation currently on offer, is not to tell them it's bad but to come up with a more seductive offer. If we tried that it might touch a chord. People know the rewards of turbo-consumption are only fleeting and ultimately unfulfilling. If they don’t, then Selfridges kindly remind them every year with their sale slogan "you want it, you buy it, you forget it". How kind of them to let us in on the joke, which is on us.

Even when you come up with what you hope to be a telling insight, to help people liberate them themselves from the high street of hell, the market cleverly co-opts it and comes with its own response – as it must if it is to successfully reproduce itself. So, when you offer the idea of the time to read a child a bed time story as a moment of non-commercialised freedom you have to contend with the company called Nursery Rhymes who offers an iPad app to read "with a child" so that you can be in the office or anywhere around the world. So you work, to earn, to buy the products to assuage the guilt because you are always working and never with your children. This is why capitalism is winning.

And then you try this clincher as an argument to stop shopping; no one dies wishing they had more things but that they had more time with the people they loved. Trump that capitalism! And of course they do. We go back to the iPad or rather the iTomb which gets placed in your headstone so that messages and memories can be eternally communicated.  Another pleasure you, of course, have to work for.  We don’t stand a chance.

Interestingly, the right seems more willing to act on the spread of at least the worst aspects of our consumer society than the left. Just this week, the government proposed a minimum alcohol price to restrict drink consumption, although the floor of 45p per unit is seen by many campaigners as too low. And it was Cameron, while in in opposition, who at least piped up about chocolate being sold at the counter of supermarkets to maximise child pester power and high street stores selling sexualized clothing to young girls, an issue I brought up last week. Small beer, I know, but it at least raises the issue.

The left is pretty silent on consumption. Social democracy is the politics of more – and the more in question is money and therefore spending power. Today ‘Labour’ is not about dignity or craft but raw consumption. Jobs, any jobs, are what matter. For many on the left, it seems enough is never enough, no matter how much consumerism tears society apart and threatens the basis of social democratic dreams.

Of course, in a time of austerity the fixation is growth, as we saw with the figures this week on the two million jump in those who are in work but feel underemployed and therefore are under-spending. But that desire to return to pre-crash ‘business as usual’ is misguided. Many of us have more clothes than we can wear and more food than we can eat – but work too hard and have too little time to do what we really want. Instead, the emphasis should be on two things; first sharing work more equally and therefore the material benefits and time that go with it. And second, help each other recognise that the good life cannot be bought off a shelf but created in our imagination and our mutual endeavours. There are many visions of the good society, said J.K.Galbraith, the treadmill is no one of them.   

So if you can, work less, so others can work more, on some days buy nothing – expect the New Statesman, of course. Otherwise buy less, buy better, but buy time, love, care, compassion, freedom and some control over your life and your society the only way you can – by doing it not as a consumer but as a citizen.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers

Shoppers carying shopping bags on Oxford Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt