Shopping and the consumerist impulse are lambasted as empty and selfish. But the New Left Project has an entirely different, novel view of consumerism:
Shopping is usually a collective act. Most of the time it is done in groups, in families or with friends. Much of our consumption is for other people; or we have other people in mind when we’re doing it. In the supermarket, we buy for our families. In the high street, teenagers buy the same clothes and music as their peer group. Consumption by children and adults is driven by a sense of what we need to keep our collective lives together; and by the way in which owning the same things as others gives us status amongst our peers.
In their effort to reformulate progressive politics, many on the left have called for the creation of a `post-consumer society’ in which more noble values than shopping lie at the centre of British life. Neil Lawson, Director of Compass, blames consumerism for most of the ills of modern capitalism, from the decline of democracy to climate change. A similar point is made in very different language on the right. Conservatives like Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts suggest that our present `orgy of consumerism’ undermines common `Christian values’ and `sensible husbandry’. In public discourse the abstract concept of `consumerism’ almost always describes a bad thing. Consumerism is criticised as a debilitating condition that destroys the sources of solidarity and common life. The critique in each case is that consumption is driven by a selfish desire to infinitely accumulate.
Perhaps politicians and policy-makers don’t spend enough time shopping. But for whatever reason, the people who read journals like this seem to have forgotten that consumption is a social act. The individual act of handing over cash or card at the checkout or clicking `buy’ on our PC takes up a tiny fraction of our lives as consumers. Most of our time `consuming’ is spent on thinking about how the objects we want relate to the people we live around. Either we are directly buying things for other people (`will my husband like this for his tea?’) or thinking about how other people will relate to them (`what will my girlfriend think of these jeans?’).
After spending a year watching ordinary shoppers in north London, the anthropologist Daniel Miller concluded that everyday shopping for provisions is a ritual, performed largely by women, centring on `love and sacrifice’. Rather than being a pointless act of individual consumption, Miller found that most shopping was dominated by devotion to those who we care for, often to the point of self-denial. Thrift is essential. Shopping is a learnt skill, in which we try to save rather than spend profligately, as we compare prices, look for bargains and often simply refuse to buy when we think things are too dear. As Miller argues, shopping is an act that `objectifies certain values’. In other words, it expresses the things we hold dear. For some, of course, it does objectify an attachment to hedonism and excess. But for most of us, though, it expresses love, devotion and concern for people in the small communities, families, groups of friends and neighbourhoods that make up our lives. Rather than expressing rampant selfishness, shopping embodies the importance of small-scale solidarity and ethical responsibility. Much of the time, those who criticise consumerism are opposing an entirely artificial and unrealistic conception of how people relate to things.
Read the rest at New Left Project