“We bought the stuff. We wanted it. We defined ourselves by it. We allowed ourselves to drift into the comatose life of the turbo-consumer. We needed something to worship and something to believe in and had long since swapped God for Gucci. We had been living beyond our means, in debt beyond our ability to pay, in the naïve and hopeless belief that this would be the first bubble that would never burst. We tried to defy economic gravity so we could just keep buying. Because that’s all there was to do.”
All Consuming: How shopping got us into this mess and how we can find our way out is Neal Lawson’s disillusioned re-appraisal of the consumer lifestyle in the wake of the credit crunch. It’s one of a long line of books lamenting consumerism, but this one has the added impact of being released in the middle of a recession, making it particularly timely.
Consumerism is a somewhat slippery concept, being a strange hybrid of economics and psychology, but Lawson explains it all rather well here. He begins with the history of industrialization, going back to the enclosure acts and the urbanisation of Britain. It was here that it began, corralling the population into the cities and persuading them that they needed the new products of the industrial revolution. From there the book investigates the birth of the advertising industry, and the idea of crafting an identity through consumption.
For many people, spending your own money on the things you want is a God-given right, and Lawson is particularly good at the consequences of consumerism. How we choose to spend is up to us, but what we sow as individuals, we reap as a society: debt, depression, and a culture of competitive individualism. The more aggressive consumerism becomes, the more isolated we are from each other. “People have retreated further into their own private shopping world and become less likely to commit to shared initiatives,” writes Lawson, a thought that David Cameron might want to take into consideration as he builds his ‘Big Society’. “Happiness is found in the small things we buy alone, not the big things we change together.”
Another big consequence of consumerism is that since we are defined by what we buy and own, those without the means to consume are devalued. They become non-people, failures, and this has political connotations too. “Failed consumers have no economic and social role. They cannot buy so, in a consumer society, they have no purpose. This is one reason why the welfare state is crumbling for the poor and being reoriented towards the people who do matter, who do vote and do consume – the middle classes and so called ‘hard-working families’, which translates more accurately as hard-consuming families.” It was fascinating to read this at during an election campaign, as the tone of the debate around welfare has been exactly this, much more about stopping scroungers than about protecting the genuinely disadvantaged. But that’s no surprise. “Politicians focus on personal behaviour by addressing the social symptoms of the spread of consumerism because they no longer dare to address the cause of our social recession – ie the consumerization of society.”
All Consuming suggests that we “use the credit crunch and the recession to strike a healthier, more sustainable balance in our lives as consumers and citizens by reassessing what the good life and the good society are.” Tragically, we appear to be missing the opportune moment that the book describes. The economy is returning to growth, albeit achingly slowly. The economy is back on the rails, but there is nothing to celebrate if the track takes us off a cliff just round the corner. The consumer culture is unsustainable, socially, economically and environmentally. It’s very frustrating to see the election and the recession pass without these issues getting a mention.
That sense of frustration means that the strength of the book is also its biggest weakness. Reading it in the middle of the recession would have been much more powerful than reading it afterwards. It was meant as a call to take a unique opportunity for change, and now reads like a testament to a missed opportunity. And with the benefit of a few months’ hindsight, Lawson does somewhat overstate the recession, describing how it “all crashed down all around us”, leaving us “stuggling to buy even the basics.” That hasn’t been my experience, the buying paused for breath rather than keeled over altogether.
Nevertheless, the recession might not be as dead and buried as we might think. And even if we miss this opportunity, change is still possible, inevitable even. It’s unfortunate that it may require a double-dip recession or a depression to hammer the message through, but my optimism remains. The seeds of the future are all around us, and Lawson mentions the Slow movement, consumer boycotts, and the huge number of people choosing to downshift. He praises the idler, ethical shopping, and calls for restrictions on advertising like the ones in Sao Paulo. Schumacher’s ideas about ‘good work‘ get a mention, along with the steady state economy, equality, redistribution, preserving the public realm, and a focus on wellbeing. He celebrates the shorter work week, maximum and living wages, and electoral reform – all solutions that have featured on the blog here.
In short, you’d have been better off reading All Consuming a year ago, (or perhaps a year from now, who knows?) but it’s still a damning critique of consumer society and a helpful summary of how we can create a healthier, happier, more human society.