"There must be more to life than having everything," Maurice Sendak once sighed - and increasingly, the Western consumer would seem to agree. Shopping is going right out of style.
There have always been rebels who refused to partake in the capitalist system, but until recently they lived in communal yurts and sported greasy ponytails while going bald on top. The new breed of non-shopper is much more alarming, because he or she is perfectly normal.
One of the movement's pioneers, for instance, is Judith Levine - the author of Not Buying It: My Year without Shopping. A New Yorker, Levine was seized with self-loathing after a particularly excessive bout of Christmas shopping. Together with her partner Paul, she decided to forgo all "non-necessities" for the whole of 2004: no yoga, no trips to the cinema, no processed foods, CDs, books, restaurant suppers, cheap handbags or impulse buys of any sort.
Defining the boundaries of necessity proved troublesome: Paul, an Italian, insisted that wine was a staple foodstuff, while Levine found herself pining for cotton buds. "I try to wash my ears with a washcloth but can't reach the sweet spot. Is impeccable ear hygiene a necessity?"
Not being able to meet their friends for a film or even a coffee put a strain on their social lives. But overall, the experiment was a success. Levine paid off $8,000 in credit card bills, and Paul declared their year of living frugally the best of their 13 years together. They became, says Levine, "like Denmark - Neither of us earned a lot but we both feel prosperous".
This is the nirvana that increasing numbers of disenchanted consumers seek: happiness through parsimony. In San Francisco last year, a group of affluent friends decided they were sick of all the "stuff" in their lives, and took a pledge not to buy anything new (except food, medicine and underwear) for six months. The boycott caught on, and now there are chapters in Maine, Alabama, Texas, Oregon and Wisconsin.
The movement has, inevitably, crossed the Atlantic. In recent months, British newspapers have dispatched female reporters to try their hands at the new asceticism. They have written movingly about the anguish of not being able to pop into H&M in their lunch hour, of gazing longingly at a forbidden pair of Jimmy Choos, of forcing themselves to look away when they see the red danger sign proclaiming "Sale! Sale! Sale!".
I do not question their suffering: shopping, as we now know, is a highly addictive and perilous pursuit. Twenty per cent of Britons claim to be unable to control their spending habit. Women are especially vulnerable to what psychologists call the "pathological pleasure" of impulse buying. They shop for emotional reasons, to feel a surge of hope on a grey day. Most impulse buys - clothes, shoes, cosmetics - are linked to appearance, because that is what women feel achingly insecure about. They are always searching for that elusive item that will transform them into someone better looking, cooler, more lovable. But, like all bingeing, it ends in disappointment and self-reproach.
Advertisers have ruthlessly exploited this weakness in the female psyche, cajoling us to buy for the sake of our self-esteem - "Because you're worth it". The rebellion against shopping is, in part, a two-fingered salute to the men in suits whose job it is to pull our strings behind the scenes. It is also a philosophical revolt against the empty materialism of pop culture, in which bling is the measure of personal fulfilment.
It's a worthy rebellion, in other words - but also hopelessly naive. If we all gave up shopping, what would become of us? Seventy per cent of the British economy is powered by consumer spending. The rest is largely accounted for by the public sector, which is paid for by the taxpayer, who makes her money through consumer spending. With no manufacturing to speak of, and agriculture dwindling into a hobby for retired stockbrokers, we are more than ever a nation of shopkeepers. But if no one buys, no one can sell.
Not everyone would suffer if the economy ground to a halt. Green-fingered young things could fight each other for patches of land for their subsistence farms. But who would look after the dying, the old, or the hopelessly impractical? I can't even be trusted with a pot plant: what would become of the likes of me?
And here's the other thing: frugality is the enemy of culture. What is civilisation, after all, but a delightful smorgasbord of non-necessities? Poetry, novels, cinema, philosophy, haute couture, Ming china, the Sistine Chapel, La Traviata, the Beetle, The Independent - none of these would have been brought into existence if people hadn't been willing to spend good money on things they didn't strictly need, but wanted.
There is nothing wrong with hankering after objects of beauty or interest. To live a whole life, human beings have to feed the eye and the brain as well as the body. We should, perhaps, be more discerning shoppers - but shop we must.Reuse content