Anti-consumerist tracts: so many to choose from!

A new book embodies the intellectual flimsiness and elitist disdain for the masses that courses through the veins of today’s anti-shopping lobby.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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This article is republished from the July 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Apart from its branding, Neal Lawson’s All Consuming is virtually indistinguishable from the plethora of books attacking consumerism. It also embodies a similar elitist disdain for the masses.

Anyone wanting to buy a book attacking consumerism is faced with an embarrassing range of choices. There are so many different tracts, using so many different terms, saying more or less the same thing. The differences between competing brands of soap powder are more significant.

Terms used by anti-consumerists to attack consumerism include consumer addiction, compulsive acquisition disorder, enoughism, luxury fever, oniomania, shopaholism and stuffitis. Neal Lawson, the author of All Consuming and chair of a ‘democratic left’ pressure group, prefers ‘turbo-consumerism’.

Lawson’s arguments are as well-worn as a stone-washed pair of old Levi’s jeans. He goes into excruciating detail about how the plethora of consumer goods is ruining our lives. In Lawson’s view, Britain has long passed the era of scarcity.

He says we live in an era of superabundance in which greater choice only makes us miserable. We are more concerned with symbols and brands as a mark of our status than with meeting our basic needs.

Similar arguments have been made, with considerably more finesse, by earlier authors. The notion of conspicuous consumption can be dated back to Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, first published in 1899. Over half a century ago John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The Affluent Society, in which he argued America was suffering from the problems of post-scarcity (1). No Logo, a radical critique of brands by Naomi Klein, was published in 2000.

To the extent there is any originality in Lawson’s work it is to blame the rise of turbo-consumerism on what he calls ‘free market fundamentalism’. From this perspective a group of rabid free marketeers, led by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, led an intellectual revolution which ultimately led to an obsession with consumption. In Britain it was Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990, who put the ideas into practice.

But free market fundamentalism is a zombie category. It exists in the minds of its users rather than in reality.

Lawson may not have noticed – he does not mention it in his book – but a New Labour government came into office in Britain in 1997. It is something he should be aware of, particularly as he was once an adviser to Gordon Brown and is still a member of the Labour Party. No doubt, despite any reservations he has, he will still campaign for Labour at the next election.

It is also hard to square the idea of free market fundamentalism with the massive role of the state in the British economy. The most striking indicator of this is that state spending in Britain is equivalent to about 45 per cent of gross domestic product. This is a huge distance away from the minimal role of the state favoured by the likes of von Mises and Hayek.

The solutions Lawson proposes for the supposed problem of consumerism push him back into well-worn territory. They include restrictions on advertising, taxing luxury goods, rationing, promoting ethical consumption and making happiness a government priority. Like many environmentalists, Lawson looks back to the last world war for inspiration:

‘During the Second World War we gave up some freedoms, in particular the freedom to consume, to enjoy others deemed more important. We accepted rationing, blackouts and the evacuation of children because of a greater threat.’

As with the rest of the book, his memory of the war is highly one-sided. He could have added carpet-bombing of civilian areas, extermination camps, the dropping of atomic bombs and tens of millions killed.

No doubt Lawson would recoil if confronted with information about the mass carnage of the Second World War. But the physical brutality was closely related to the rationing and forced restrictions in consumption that he advocates; those things were enforced precisely so that more money and manpower could be focused on widespread destruction.

One word Lawson shies away from using is ‘austerity’. In this he differs from David Cameron, the Conservative party leader, and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, who openly argue that Britain needs a new age of austerity (2). In contrast, Lawson, like his former boss Gordon Brown, avoids the A-word, preferring instead to indulge in platitudes such as ‘less is more’.

Ultimately, All Consuming is an elitist tract. The scorn with which it regards those who market different brands of trainers or televisions can easily be applied to the consumers themselves. They are presented as gullible individuals who are easily manipulated by powerful corporations. That is why restrictions on advertising are seen as necessary: to protect victim consumers from abusive companies.

Ironically, even the most fashion-conscious teenager is less obsessed with consumption than today’s anti-consumerists. The learned professors, journalists and political lobbyists who study in detail the choices available to the public are a sorry sight.

Of course such self-appointed experts are not opposed to all forms of consumption. Although they despise the purchase of luxury items by the masses they are happy to indulge what they see as their own refined tastes. Indeed, the notion of ethical consumption is essentially a way of validating the shopping of the elite while deriding the masses at the same time.

From the elite’s perspective, consumption becomes what author James Heartfield calls ‘status affirmation’. The purchase of what are deemed to be ethically acceptable products is seen as marking individuals out from the rabble. So anyone who likes, say, ordinary chocolate biscuits is sneered at as a gullible consumer while those who eat overpriced organic Duchy Originals are viewed as cultured individuals.

Under the ethical tag lurks a new form of snobbery. Only the attack on consumerism is supposedly for the benefit of society as a whole.

All Consuming is a junk book in what is a largely trashy anti-consumerist genre. It is virtually devoid of serious intellectual content. If it was a food it would be nowhere near good enough to be served in the likes of McDonald’s or Burger King.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here. An earlier version of this review appeared in Fund Strategy magazine.

This article is republished from the July 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

All Consuming: How Shopping Got Us Into This Mess and How We Can Find Our Way Out, by Neal Lawson, is published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) For a review of Galbraith’s book 50 years on see The midwife of miserabilism, by Daniel Ben-Ami, spiked review of books, January 2008

(2) See Cameron’s speech on the age of austerity on 25 April 2009 here. For Clegg’s comments see Post-recession Britain must be austere, green and fair, says Nick Clegg, Daily Mail, 3 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.

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