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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The post-Brexit power vacuum is hindering the battle against climate change

Brexit turmoil should not distract from the enormity of the task ahead.

“The UK will not step back from that international leadership [on clean energy]”, the Secretary for climate change, Amber Rudd, told a sea of suits at Wednesday's summit on Business and the environment.

The setting inside London’s ancient Guidlhall helped load her claims with a sense of continuity. But can such rhetoric be believed? Not only have recent events thrown the UK's future ability to lead on climate change into doubt, but a closer look at policy suggests that this government has rarely been leading to start with.

Rudd’s speech came just 24 hours before she laid the order of approval for the UK’s fifth Carbon Budget. This budget will set our 2028-2032 emissions target at a 57 per cent reduction on 1990 levels – in line with the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change. And comes amidst a party-wide attempt to reassure green business that Britain is open as normal: "I think investors now should feel they have a very clear path ahead," Andrea Leadsom has insisted.

In some respects, those wanting to make the case for an independent UK, could not have wished for a better example than the home-grown carbon budget. The budget is the legal consequence of the UK’s ground-breaking domestic 2008 Climate Change Act, which aims to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. And the new 57 per cent interim target also appears to put the UK ahead of European efforts on the matter - exceeding the EU goal of a 40 per cent emissions reduction.

The announcement will thus allow David Cameron to argue that he has fulfilled his husky-loving promise to provide leadership on the environment. He may even make it the basis for an early ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement, ahead of the European bloc as a whole.

Yet looked at more closely, the carbon budget throws the UK’s claims to climate leadership into serious doubt.

In the short term, its delayed, last moment, release is a dispiriting example of Westminster’s new power-vacuum. Business leaders, such as those at yesterday’s conference, are crying out for “consistent, coherent and predictable national policies” on climate change and emissions reductions. Yet today’s carbon budget can only go so far to maintaining the pretence of stability.

Earlier this week, Amber Rudd responded to a parliamentary question into how Brexit will effect the UK’s climate ambitions with a link to none other than the Prime Minister’s resignation speech. And while concrete progress on policy will have to wait for party-political power struggles politics to run their course, historic Tory hostility to green policy makes progressive change far from certain.

Supporters of Brexiteer Boris Johnson may have played down his opposition to action on climate change in recent days, quipping that he would sooner be “kebabbed with a steak knife over the dining room table” by his environmentalist father. But the recent appointment of UKIP’s Mark Reckless, from a party notorious for its climate scepticism, as the new chairman of the Welsh committee on climate change has sent shock waves through the environmental community and will do little to help allay investor fears.

More concerning still is the 47 per cent shortfall between emission targets and present reality. A progress report released today is damning evidence of the Conservative's long-term neglect of the underlying issues.

Such censure builds upon the findings of a recent study from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. Far from leading Europe’s major nations on issues of energy and climate change, their research finds the UK to be distinctly middle of the pack. “Of the ‘Big Five’ economies with comparable levels of population size, GDP, ect., Britain ranks third, behind France and Spain but ahead of Italy and Germany”, write authors Matt Finch and Dr Jonathan Marshall.

A significant number of incentives for government action – such as fines for not meeting interim targets on energy efficiency – would also be nullified in the instance of Brexit. And it cannot even be claimed that our long-term ambition is greater than Europe’s: the UK’s target is an 80 per cent cut between 1990-2050, and the EU’s is 80-95 per cent.

News that the manufacturing giant Siemens is suspending new investment into its UK-based offshore wind operations could thus be set to prove symptomatic of a wider trend. And ministers must act fast to turn promises into policy.

Even  Michael Gove - the man who once wanted to take climate change off the curriculum – now describes as one of the world’s greatest challenges. While according  to the new shadow secretary for energy and climate change, Barry Gardiner: “The government can no longer wait until December to publish its Carbon Plan. It must do so now.”  

Included in such a plan should be clarification of the UK’s relationship to European emissions trading, the development of a Carbon Capture & Storage strategy, and urgent action on heating and transport efficiency. The 5th Carbon Budget is an important step towards this process but Brexit turmoil should not distract from the enormity of the task ahead. Nor from the damning fragility of Cameron’s environmental legacy to date.

 

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.