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, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.