The culture consuming us all

Anti-intellectual youth culture is as much a victim of consumerism as any other section of society
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The Independent Online

What an odd society we are. After many years, during which the crisis in masculinity has become more than apparent, we are finally willing to state and to recognise some self-evident truths because of a set of exam results.

What an odd society we are. After many years, during which the crisis in masculinity has become more than apparent, we are finally willing to state and to recognise some self-evident truths because of a set of exam results.

Tony Sewell has been hawking his thesis about black boys and black culture for years now, and at last he has reached a national audience. He says that black youths are not interested in intellectual activity, and that fashionable youth culture, with its interest in money and consumer goods, is now more harmful than racism to black pupils' chances of success. Further, he suggests: "Black culture has been the dominant culture and it now affects everyone. So if the Government wants to improve standards for all boys it will have to get it right with black boys first."

David Blunkett has weighed in, too, with a sensible warning: "Unless we get things right now, there will be a very substantial backlash from males in the community, and that would be to nobody's benefit. It is in the interests of everyone, not least young women, that young men have status, a sense of purpose, and self-esteem in life.

"If they are no use to themselves, they are not likely to be of much use to young women. A young woman who sees no purpose in a long-term relationship with a young man is unlikely to form the kind of bonds which are the best basis for bringing up children."

These two statements, taken together, could quite easily be conflated into an ultra-conservative thesis. Such a thesis was in fact aired back in the early 1990s, in a controversial and ridiculous book called The Blackwomon's Guide to Black Mon. Written by an African-American woman, the book concerned itself with the crisis in black masculinity and the fact, even then abundantly apparent on both sides of the Atlantic, that black females were outstripping black males in every walk of life, especially in education and careers.

The solution, as prescribed in The Blackwomon's Guide, was for women to revert to treating their men as kings and subjugating themselves to them entirely. The book, needless to say, was highly controversial and dismissed by all but the most addled members of the right. Even so, some feminists will be most disconcerted by Mr Blunkett's statement, sensing that the inference might be drawn from it that there is only a certain amount of status, sense of purpose and self-esteem to go round, and that somehow women are grabbing more than their fair share.

For this is the old story that has dogged women's fight to be seen as just as capable as men. It is important to remember at this juncture that once, it was considered self-evident that girls fared much more poorly in education than boys because they were less intelligent. It has taken us the entire history of human endeavour to nail that lie, but at least the point finally appears to have been made. And what panic it has unleashed.

That panic is dangerous, though, because it would be tragic if we were to squander the opportunity we now have to reassess the way in which our society is developing by continuing with a crude gender war that once was necessary and now is not. Nor is that to say that women have won the sex war. Both genders are suffering now, in their different ways. More than ever, we are all in this mess together. That, in his old-fashioned way, is the only point Mr Blunkett is making.

Returning to the important points made by Tony Sewell, it is interesting to note that he pinpoints "money and consumer goods" as black youth's overriding interests. Is it a paradox or a truism that those at the bottom of the capitalist pyramid are the ones most exclusively focused on their role as consumers and least concerned with developing their role as creators? Or have these men taken the role meted out to them by Western, service-based consumer capitalism to its logical conclusion?

Does this role offer black youths, and their working-class white counterparts, the self-esteem Mr Blunkett is so keen to instill in them? No, it offers them alienation, crime, alcohol, drugs, violence, mental illness, misogyny, failure to take responsibility and seething resentment. These consumers are being consumed.

And what of the women who are supposedly faring so much better? Are they happy? Or are they being consumed as well? The writer and psychotherapist Susie Orbach urges us to construe anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders as "a metaphor for our times". According to her thesis, millions of women are refusing to consume in a hunger strike against the conflicting roles that society has to offer them. Their self-hatred, she says, is - among other things - a function of the way in which consumer capitalism commodifies women's bodies.

She also admits that certain treatments can transmogrify eating disorders into other addictions and compulsions common in our age. Alcoholics switch to bulimia; anorectics switch to heroin addiction or to other kinds of obsessive behaviour. All around we see the strange and awful fruits of obsessive behaviour, as we all become sucked into obsession. Even our consumer "lifestyles" are a parody of life - we consume food as status, status as fashion, fashion as sex, and sex as gardening.

Can it be that we are largely unhappy, broadly dysfunctional and all attempting to have lives that are not possible for us? (Except, of course, for the young men who are worrying us so much by opting out entirely.) There are those who seek to blame all this on women, and on feminism. But I blame it on a pervasive culture that - just as in Mr Sewell's observation of black youth - prizes money and consumer goods above all else.

What does strike me, in retrospect, is the manner in which feminism has been distorted by the market into becoming a handmaiden of capitalism. The norm among professional couples now is a large dual income and therefore plenty to spend on consumables and on creating jobs for other women to work cheaply in the home on cleaning and child care and in the provision of other services. Wouldn't it have been more sensible for men and women both to work less and both to have more time to themselves? Instead, both sexes have been forced to choose money over time. This in turn is causing our private lives to become fetishised and expensive.

That is why our national obsessions - fashion, interiors, food, gardens - are now huge, money-laden industries, more than ever fast-moving, more than ever susceptible to constant change in a never-ending search for contentment through acquisition.

As for women's collusion in the commodification of our bodies - our insatiable need for manicures, shoes, clothes, make-up, hairdos, diets, cosmetic surgery - this literal recreation both ties us into capitalism and alienates us from ourselves.

The result is much more work per household, much more to spend on goods and services, and much less private time. And while the need of women to have a place in the world outside the home has been exploited by capitalism, the race to remove from us the money we earn for ourselves becomes ever more hard-fought.

While we grit our teeth and stay on this treadmill, others cannot get on to it. Black boys are failing most in the present system largely because they were failing most when it started cranking up and have become increasingly demotivated. They won't try because they are sure they cannot win.

Girls are doing better than boys because the system has found them to have more to prove and, for that reason and others, to be more willingly compliant with the goals of capitalism. But this system is setting people against each other and watching to see what the results may be. The results, quite literally, tell us that females are doing better academically than males.

But there are other results all around, which confirm that we are all being played off against each other, and that the chances of anyone winning are slender.