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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser