New Year, new low
Seven days into 2008, the great and the good are ‘welcoming the credit crunch with open arms’ in the hope that it will correct our greed.
Over the Christmas holiday period, it is traditional for news-starved journalists to report on the January sales.
Photos of bustling shoppers in London’s Oxford Street are normally used to accompany stories about this being ‘the most profitable Christmas ever’. With the current economic crisis biting hard, this year’s reports on the sales took on an even greater significance: economic commentators calculated the cash till receipts to see if the government’s measures are stimulating growth and protecting jobs. It seems they are not.
And yet, the scenes of the mass consumption that did take place over the holiday period seem to have stimulated a rather different response this time: a wish that the economy would slow down even further. For some, a drastic reduction in living standards is just what Britain needs right now.
This point was rammed home by the UK Conservative Party’s shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley. Writing on the official Tory website, Lansley said: ‘On many counts, recessions can be good for us. People tend to smoke less, drink less alcohol, eat less rich food and spend more time at home with their families.’ (1) It is astonishing that a politician’s vision for the future consists of encouraging people to emulate Third World living standards.
Lansley is far from alone in expressing such backward views. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 29 December, the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot was used to pontificate about how the recession will force us to buy only what we ‘need’ rather than what we ‘want’. If getting by on the bare basics is good enough for people in Kenya, said writer and broadcaster Rhidian Brook, it should be good enough for us in the West, too. According to Brook, a reduction in people’s living standards in the West would help alleviate the gap between us and the Third World. So in order to satisfy the moral piety of Brook and Radio 4, maybe people in Kenya or the UK shouldn’t dare aspire to anything more than grain, water and mud huts.
Indeed, Brook believes that those who aspire for more than ‘non-essentials’ end up ‘undervaluing… what is truly essential’ about life. Quite how struggling to get by and worrying about how to pay the bills – or dying from malnutrition and disease, as they do in the truly ‘non-consumerist’ parts of Africa – captures any true meaning of human existence was not properly explained.
Oliver James, the psychologist and author who believes we are all suffering from ‘Affluenza’ (the disease of having too much, apparently), even declared: ‘I welcome the credit crunch with open arms.’ (2)
Elsewhere during the holiday season, Church of England bishops sermonised on the moral virtues of austerity. In response to a questionnaire by the Sunday Telegraph, they denounced the ‘greed’ that has brought about economic crisis. A delighted Andrew Brown in the Guardian couldn’t have agreed more. Championing the bishops’ ‘wisdom’, he argued that, ‘In the end, their message may amount to nothing more than the age-old proclamation that greed is not good. But in the coming year, and perhaps for a lot longer than that, the badness of greed will be a popular and necessary message, even though no politician would dare suggest that their own voters were guilty of it.’ (3) If only the masses didn’t buy such ‘unnecessary luxuries’ as expensive clothes, houses and cars, reckons Brown, ours would be a more morally sanguine society.
In The Times, one columnist advocated a form of Social Darwinism to bring the masses’ poor tastes into line. Unable to contain her excitement over the economic collapse of some chainstore retailers, she wrote: ‘The high street is experiencing a Darwinistic culling of the half-cocked and second-rate: who cares if Zavvi is killed by a zillion Amazon one-clicks and the hilariously misnamed Officers Club ceases to trade in Scouse nightclub tat?’ (4)
Who cares? Well, maybe the thousands of people who will lose their jobs as a result. Still, at least while they’re on the dole they’ll be able to lose some weight and have plenty of time to grow organic food on allotments. According to one report, another alleged ‘benefit’ of the recession is that people are buying more raw ingredients such as onions, and more people are growing their own veg (5). Nothing seems to excite the commentariat more than when people start behaving like peasants rather than living like modern-day workers.
The Observer also expressed seasonal dismay at shoppers’ vulgar habits. An editorial described the post-Christmas sales rush as ‘shoppers bingeing on bargains’, as if drunk on wanton ‘greed’. Expressing the high-minded ethos of the new Puritanism, the Observer lamented that ‘the weekend shopping expedition for many of us is not a practical necessity but a kind of leisure activity’ (6). Heaven forbid that people should enjoy themselves over the holiday!
Elsewhere, the anti-consumerist author John Naish suggested that we should ‘rein in that urge to splurge’ and bemoaned how most of us are psychologically feeble and easily brainwashed by advertising (7). In a similar vein, the Observer reckons that ‘for some, [shopping] is an addiction’. So another apparent ‘benefit’ of the recession is that lower wages or even mass unemployment might ‘cure’ people of their wicked addictions and feeble minds. Church of England bishops are not the only ones, it seems, who like to holler ‘Repent ye greedy sinners!’
Of course, it is complete folly to suggest that consumers can help Britain spend its way out of recession. In this sense, the Observer’s point that shopping is a poor substitute for having a strong manufacturing base is correct. Yet still, politicians and commentators seem to relish the thought of a reduction in people’s living standards. They are hooking their already-existing moralistic disdain for the greed of the uppity public on to the outbreak of economic recession.
During the recession of the 1980s, it was different. Then, the great and the good paid lip service to the problem of ‘human misery’ caused by unemployment and, fearful of public support for an alternative to the market system, they championed growth and consumerism in order to boost the authority of their social system. Not today. Now sections of the elite are openly irritated by us, not for demanding more, but for simply eating, drinking, breeding, shopping and… well, living.
Such public displays of callousness towards the living standards of everyday citizens are pretty unprecedented, and very disturbing. In the past, the elite tended to keep its opinions about the masses behind closed doors, amongst itself. Now, public discussion is rife with naked accusations that we are too greedy, morally inferior, feckless and idiotic, and in need of a short sharp shock of recession. Resist the ‘urge to splurge’ indeed.
For all the rhetoric about New Britain being anti-elitist and socially inclusive, there has been a revival of almost aristocratic and ‘old elite’ ideas dressed up as cutting-edge radicalism. That is why someone like Prince Charles has transformed from a national laughing stock into a respected public figure whose opinions on everything from the environment to architecture are taken seriously. No longer having to guard his aristocratic prejudices from public view, recently Charles horrified even the Observer’s economic editor, Will Hutton, when he championed a return to ‘the natural order of society’. In short, his mother should be making all the decisions and the rest of us should return to a serf-style existence. Charles horrified liberal commentators – because for many of them, a drawn-out economic recession is a far preferable way of lowering the horizons of the lower orders.
Fantasies of economic collapse seem to preoccupy many of our rulers and observers today. Yet an economic crisis is not a good thing. As Emma Duncan of The Economist argues: ‘Recessions do not make people finer, more spiritual human beings. They destroy lives. They are not to be welcomed.’ (8) If there are any signs of growth in the past month, it has been the growth of ugly notions that poverty and unemployment are in some way beneficial. From championing strict diets to cheering on the collapse of high street stores, rarely have such elitist views boomed so loudly in public life. The really disturbing thing is that, given the way the economy is plummeting, what they’re wishing for might eventually come true.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
Previously on spiked
Neil Davenport found a new ‘protesters handbook’ to be full of revolting middle class prejudice. Brendan O’Neill argued that advocates of austerity are trying to ration our passions. Josie Appelton looked at the cultural contradictions of consumerism. Daniel Ben-Ami said that there’s more to economics than shopping. Or read more at spiked issue Economy.
(1) ‘Recession’s good for us – we smoke, eat and drink less’: Row over Tory frontbencher’s ‘joke’, Daily Mail, 26 November 2008
(2) Let’s not put on hair shirts: losing your job is no joke, Evening Standard, 6 January 2009
(3) Greed Is Not Good, Says God, Guardian, 29 December 2008
(4) Pity the retail butterflies soon to be crushed, The Times, 27 December 2008
(5) Economic downturn drives us back into the kitchen, The Times, 27 December 2008
(6) Shopping is no panacea for a broken economy, Observer, 28 December 2008
(7) Top tips for surviving the sales and finding the best bargains, The Times, 27 December 2008
(8)Let’s not put on hair shirts: losing your job is no joke, Evening Standard, 6 January 2009
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.