Green toffs vs the ‘shopping herd’

The panic about greedy mobs invading Oxford Street during the New Year sales is driven by elite disdain for consumerism and economic growth.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

Did we buy too much at Christmas, or not enough? Are the January sales a sign of economic health, or decadence? Proof that Britain is booming, or something that we will pay heavily for later?

Breast-beating over the sales has become an annual event. In 2006, anxiety focused on the ‘world’s biggest ship’, the Emma Maersk III, which was carrying 11,000 containers full of toys half way around the world from China – a sure sign of the victory of pester power over common sense. In 2005, newspapers worried over the ‘the lowest Christmas sales for 20 years’ (1). In 2003, Sainsbury’s did badly, but Next prospered, while thinking people worried, as usual, about Christmas excess.

This year, the expected collapse in Christmas sales failed to materialise. The credit crunch was expected to make shoppers too scared to commit to big purchases. The online gaming system, Wii, and The Simpsons Movie DVD boosted Amazon’s sales, while Oxford Street, rather quiet on Christmas Eve, saw its Boxing Day footfall (yes, people really do count this) rise by 7.8 per cent on 2006. Some of the buoyancy was managed by retailers’ furious discounting – around 80 per cent of goods were reduced in price, apparently.

You might think that retailers were to be congratulated on beating the winter gloom. But the editorials in the highbrow papers only saw problems ahead. Had the shoppers failed to understand that capitalist prosperity is all built on sand, they worried? Don’t those greedy plebs understand that they will all be in Queer Street soon?

The mid-winter Saturnalia shows us the deep muddle at the heart of modern capitalism. On the one hand, there is the existential fear that pulsates in every barrow boy: that tomorrow the shoppers might just stay at home. It is written into the free market system that you can never know what will happen tomorrow, whether that stock on the shelves is gold or rubbish.

Since the 1990s the retail sector has been the healthiest part of British business – not a great sign of the importance of innovation in industry. That was how the Christmas sales turned into such a high-wire act for UK plc. Instead of watching the results at the end of the financial year, economic commentators were reduced to watching the winter solstice for signs of the coming spring, like some Druid shaman.

But just as some retailers were nervously hoping that the shoppers would empty their purses, an altogether different noise was coming from another corner of the British establishment. The green loathing of greedy consumerism that used to be the preserve of a handful of middle-class cranks has spread throughout much of the British ruling class.

Toffs whose fathers were hard-nosed capitalists have turned into eco-warriors these days. Leading green Lord Peter Melchett’s fortune was made by his father, Alfred Mond, at Imperial Chemicals Industries; ecologist Tory Zac Goldsmith inherited his £300million from dad James Goldsmith’s Bovril sales. To the sons and daughters of the capitalist elite, nothing is more distasteful than the mass market that made them wealthy.

Instead of celebrating the trickle down of consumer goods, the elite are repulsed by it. They cannot bear to see hoi polloi driving cars like them, or shopping in their shops. They erect elaborate consumer rituals to mark themselves apart from the herd – but to their dismay, the herd keeps cracking the code. In days gone past, the sheer awkward coldness of an art gallery or music recital would have been enough to keep it exclusive, but no longer. Even their costly organic food has been sucked up by Tesco and Morrisons.

The green sentiment favours an economic policy of restraint – and it is in danger of succeeding in choking what growth the British economy has experienced. When ordinary households took advantage of wider credit availability to buy homes and cars in the 1990s, the green reaction was intensely hostile – and governments listened, cutting road-building programmes, choking off house-building with green belt planning controls, hiking fuel duties. And when those regulatory constraints on the expansion of big-ticket consumer goods pushed up prices, the caution merchants demanded limits on higher interest rates.

Of course it is a real problem that Britain’s retail boom was premised on a trillion pounds of consumer credit, increasingly paying for goods from abroad. But the inroad made by East Asian manufacturers into Britain’s domestic markets is itself a consequence of a business climate that is, in the words of the UK Department of Trade and Industry, ‘risk averse’. Despite all the talk about a New Economy, the growth in employment has all been in relatively low-productivity service sector jobs, so much so that average productivity actually fell in the UK (2).

Disdaining product innovation in manufacturing as a ‘race to the bottom’, Britain’s entrepreneurs are increasingly preoccupied with ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour – spying out opportunities to use their cash to lay claim to someone else’s hard industry. British law firms are the ones suing Third World nations over debt bought up cheaply, and they are the ones pursuing Chinese manufacturers claiming ‘intellectual property rights’ over handbags and children’s toys. At the climate talks in Bali at the end of last year, it was British negotiators who imagined a world where restraints on industry would be rewarded, just as it is British financiers who are already making money trading in carbon futures, and British boffins who are wasting their time making carbon-inefficient windmills.

If, as seems more than likely, the economy does slow down as predicted this spring, why should we be surprised? The environmentally minded intelligentsia has been deeply hostile to economic growth. Worse still, their voices have shaped economic policy, demanding restraint in road-building, house-building, consumer-spending and the spread of technology. The gloom-mongers’ despair over Christmas spending is turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

James Heartfield is author of Green Capitalism: Engineering Scarcity in an Age of Plenty, published next month. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield accredited Anita Roddick as the prophet of Green Capitalism. Nathalie Rothschild saw little value in ‘ethical Christmas gifts’. Daniel Ben-Ami contested Oliver James’ claim that we’re suffering from Affluenza and explained why growth is good. Neil Davenport recommended bashing the rich bashers. Or read more at spiked issue Economy.

(1) Guardian, 22 January 2005

(2) The country’s ‘strong labour market performance may’, in the words of the DTI, ‘actually have the effect of lowering average measured productivity’. See UK Productivity and competitiveness indicators, DTI Paper no 9, p25, 2003

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Topics Politics


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