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All Consuming, By Neal Lawson
When the spending has to stop
Friday 03 July 2009
Stoked by easy credit and ever-rising house prices, Britons went on a decade-long spending binge which screeched to a halt last winter when spending "fell of a cliff" - in the words of one commentator. Until the bust, many thought the boom would never end. Diamond-encrusted mobile phones, £20,000 children's parties, £36,000 bar bills: in 2007, the average wedding cost £17,000. While not quite Bacchanalian, the excessess of the noughties crowd Neal Lawson's new book on consumerism.
He does not pick them out as an historical anomaly; to him they illustrate a trend that has taken over society, turning us from public-minded citizens into dissatisfied consumers; making us ever more materialistic, selfish and unhappy. We have become "turbo-consumers". Shopping is no longer functional, but our primary leisure pursuit. We are no longer buying the things we need to live, but living to buy things we don't need.
When did "doing the shopping" become "going shopping"? Lawson asks. The problem began when Margaret Thatcher accepted the free market dogma of Friedrich Von Hayek and other thinkers, and rolled back the state. The market started seeping more deeply into our lives, squeezing out uncommercial interests such as thinking, singing, walking, talking to neighbours and doing things for the community.
The result? A fractured society. As one survey participant told researchers for the Joseph Rowntree Trust: "We are in danger of losing sight of what is important in life, like kindness, playfulness, generosity and friendship. The immaterial things that can't be bought."
To pay for the ever-increasing lists of must-have purchases we work the longest hours in Europe, 301 more than the French per year. In the past 60 years, productivity per worker has doubled. But we are never happy - because advertisers and marketing experts persuade us that we can't be unless we buy more stuff. This approach to consuming is extending into traditionally non-commercial areas, like the dating experts employed by stressed executives to source long-term partners.
"We could live as we did in 1948 and have an additional six months off a year to do whatever we wanted, or strike some better balance between time and more things. But this is never the choice presented to us. The option is never more time, it's always buying more," complains Lawson. Instead, individuals should seize back control by considering working fewer hours and buying less; from businesses with good records on the environment, animal welfare and workers' rights, and by joining grassroots networks like book-swapping schemes and freecycle, which offers free unwanted items.
All these are worthy, if predictable, ideas, but Lawson is better at suggesting some macro solutions. His ten ideas for creating a more satisfied society include the unlikely - a ban on advertising outdoors and rationing of goods and services – and the more practical: higher taxes on luxury goods, a simple unified kite mark for ethical products, a ban on companies supplying educational materials in schools, and a 35-hour week (as practised in France).
Perhaps his chairmanship of the Brownite presure group Compass explains why Lawson is not more critical of Labour for accepting a modified Thatcherism, rather than forging a happier politics based on family, friends, community and environment. Surely Labour is as guilty as the Conservatives for believing that rising prosperity will solve social ills?
His account, while fluent and cogent, reads like a racy think-tank pamphlet. It is oddly passionless. Seemingly threaded together from cuttings and reports, it has few human talking heads and they have only cameos. In one fascinating glimpse of original research, "Amanda" says that when she meets prospective boyfriends, she is more interested in their clothes brands than themselves. "It's the image not the face," she says. We could have done with a chapter on Amanda.
Nonetheless, Lawson has a firm grip on the narrative of how consumerism came to dominate Britain. This is a welcome primer for policymakers on why the market is not the solution to everything but, when it becomes so overweaning, the problem itself.
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