Laurie Penny: Hate capitalism, love shopping

She was 15, maybe 16, and she wore a black top hat and eyeliner for her big trip from Sticksville, Wiltshire, to London and the pseudo-alternative shopping mecca of Camden Market.

The January sales are never a salutary time for those of us who cling to any sort of belief in the dignity of humanity and kids like her were one of the things that made the scrum of working on the shop floor remotely bearable. For every phalanx of tourists scrambling and squalling over badly sewn bags and T-shirts, for every City boy sliding his hand up your skirt as his girlfriend tried on an ironic rubber dress in the fitting rooms, there was a starry-eyed teenager who had saved their Christmas money to buy a My Chemical Romance-inspired stud belt. (This was 2008, when emo, like the economy, was not quite dead.)

The girl in the top hat said, "Excuse me," which was remarkable in itself, because the standard way to get the attention of a shop assistant at sales time is to wave like minor royalty having a seizure. She wanted to know where she could buy a pair of purple arm-warmers. I showed her and said that I loved her outfit, which was one of those painstakingly flamboyant creations put together by penniless teens who hope, one day, to be invited to the sort of club where people take drugs and shag each other while listening to the Cure.

Her face split into a smile that sparkled with glee and green lip gloss. "I dress like this all the time," she assured me. "I'm just different, I suppose." Behind her, ten similarly different teens were jostling for their own arm-warmers.

Whenever I think about consumerism, before all the standard objections about herd-like overconsumption, I think about that girl and people like her. People to whom shiny tat means so much, it hurts.

As we walked along Oxford Street this week, where a boy was stabbed through the heart during the Boxing Day sales outside Foot Locker, a friend observed that mass consumerism gives the lie to the notion of order in Britain and the US. The anxious nihilism of social energy with nowhere to go plays out in stores, whether it's young people in hoods smashing up Boxfresh for trainers or shoppers pepper-spraying one another over Xboxes at a recent sales event in the US. It is easy to whine about how "the public" is brainwashed into setting up camp outside Selfridges rather than the Stock Exchange, but somehow that mindless mob never seems to include you and me and our particular relationship with consumerism.

Shiny, happy

There are times when shiny new things do make us feel safe, if only for a little while. Whether it's a pair of purple arm-warmers, a Foot Locker hoodie or a new Fendi bag, that acquisitive rush is about self-affirmation. It's about grabbing a piece of short-term luxury in a society where those of us to whom "up to 50 per cent off" makes a difference are offered ever less by way of wealth and long-term security.

The violence and frenzy of consumerism is terrifying - but that doesn't mean that shopping is inherently evil. I, for one, do not want to be part of any revolution without purple arm-warmers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama