What’s wrong with shopping? Neal Lawson reports that when he told people he was writing a book that criticized shopping their reaction was often hostile. But his case is that shopping has become a mass addiction fed by suppliers made wealthy through their traffic. All Consuming: How Shopping Got Us Into This Mess and How We Can Find Our Way Out is the title of his book. Though centered on what has happened in the UK in recent decades, much of it is applicable to other wealthy economies.
Consumerism has been with us for some time, but it accelerated over the past thirty years to become turbo-consumerism. Our consuming addiction ran away with us. What we bought became solidly entwined with our identity. We are not defined by what we do but by what we buy.
Lawson follows this theme through in sometimes amusing detail. Children’s birthday parties costing hundreds of pounds, designer handbags for men as well as women, wedding dresses at an average price of £826, clothes and trainers for the young which must be of the right brand, shopping expeditions hours long, and much more. At this stage of the book I didn’t find myself wanting to disagree with the author, but began to wonder whether he was going to dig deeper.
He indeed does. He tracks the phenomenon back to the free market philosophies of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek and others who as long ago as the 1930s were discussing different approaches to the government intervention being successfully advocated by the likes of John Maynard Keynes.
In 1944 von Hayek argued in his book The Road to Serfdom that social spending, as opposed to private consumption, was the road to enslavement by the state. It would be much better if companies and individuals were free to spend as they wanted and compete. His ideas had to bide their time, but the time came.
Think tanks nurtured the ideas, which eventually found their way into the political world, in the case of the UK through the conservative party via Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher. “The rest,” Lawson remarks, “is history. Taxes were lowered so people could spend more of their own money; council houses were sold in the name of a property-owning democracy; nationalized industries were privatized so that a wider public could buy and sell shares.”
Import and currency controls ended, financial services were deregulated, lending contraints relaxed, trade unions either smashed or weakened. Now it was consumers who mattered. The turbo-consuming society needed them. Not that it was much of a society. The individual consumer was the key. Thatcher as prime minister famously declared “There’s no such thing as society.”
Lawson moves on to point out the consequences which include obscene levels of wealth for some. He quotes the UN Development Agency claim that less than four percent of the personal wealth of the 235 richest people in the world would suffice to offer all the poor of the world access to elementary medical and educational amenities as well as adequate nutrition. The poor in the wealthier countries have become “flawed consumers”, who shop but get it wrong.
But shopping is costing earth in environmental terms. A consumer society was always on a collision course with the sustainability of the planet, but instead of steering away we have jammed our foot on the accelerator and brought the environmental crash closer.
Shopping is also failing to deliver the satisfaction it glowingly promises, commercialising childhood, producing a lack of care in our societal relationships, and letting us down in many other ways Lawson describes.
When he considers the alternatives, hoping that the current financial crisis will mean we want alternatives, he devotes some attention to ways in which individually we can live more sensibly and rewardingly, discussing such measures as downshifting, ethical shopping, and pursuing happiness in less self-defeating styles of life. But the book is by no means just a guide for better personal living. We need to act together, which means politically and as civic communities. Here he advances policies which challenge the dominance of consumerism and promote a more human and environmentally sustainable society. Many of them are against the stream.
They involve the state. Here’s a sample from his list: restricting advertising, taxing luxury goods, rationing key goods and services fairly, taxing waste, funding national home-insulation programmes, ending privatisation, making the case for the taxation of income and, especially, wealth as the basis for a much improved public realm. Utopian? No more than the Utopia of free markets and big rewards for the few while the rest of us console ourselves with buying what we can. That Utopia has crashed (he hopes). We have the chance to replace it. But “to be realists we must first be visionaries”. Give me his vision any day against the mirage of unending personal prosperity which has guided our "mad and unsustainable system."
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