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In defence of ‘stuff’

It’s the tales of pathological consumption that are dangerously out of control, not our spending.

Anna Travis

Topics Politics

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If the reams of scary reportage on Britain’s unprecedented levels of personal debt, competitive misery and shopping addiction are anything to go by, then we have finally bought wholesale into an ugly, regressive morality tale of the helpless consumer. Over the past decade, commentators have been competing to see who can present the most alarmist research on the psychological damage, spiritual impoverishment and moral decay caused by our compulsive spending and consuming. The recent high profile campaign to cure childhood of various modern ills cited ‘mass marketing’ as one of the big three toxins. (1) Spendaholic Britons are apparently in the paralysing grip of a debt crisis: ‘Credit card lending rose by £400m last month…. On average every man, woman and child in the UK owes at least £2,300.’ (2)

Yet pathologising our spending habits has created a demeaning, damaging vision of the human subject as a vulnerable, selfish automaton; a hopeless, amoral being. This commentary on our ‘sick’ spending and Pavlovian response to advertising is symptomatic, not just of therapy culture, but of a deep ambivalence towards what are, in fact, some of our more healthy impulses and ambitions.

Before interrogating the political message of these distortions, it is worth challenging the hysterical tone of the debt statistics in particular. The ‘on average’ nature of the figures cited above, for example, means they include a majority of ‘typical’ middle-income households. Is £2,300 worth of debt so crippling to this group? Surely such a sum is comfortably covered by the average earnings of those involved? Or take Credit Action’s panicked estimation that ‘Britain’s personal debt is increasing by £1million every four minutes.’ (3) Is this so terrifying if it includes, in the main, households that take out loans for home improvements or new cars? No, but these planned investments in assets add up to the image of a rational consumer, not the impulsive, ‘frivolous’, irresponsible one contemporary experts prefer to cast us as.

Spendaholics and the politics of behaviour

There is a long history of preaching against the corrupting potential of wealth. It began with ancient creeds, surfaced in general Christian teachings and Puritan doctrines, then re-emerged in the nineteenth century bohemian revulsion towards bourgeois, commercial ‘vulgarity’. What distinguishes today’s anti-consumer sermons, however, is their tendency to cast ‘the masses’ as greedy cartoon demons, and the eco-friendly, middle-class thrifties as the saints. Lifestyle ‘downsizers’ occupy the moral high ground by virtue of their lack of desire for stuff, and their ability to declutter – materially and therefore spiritually.

The crude equation is: more stuff = sad, less stuff =happy. As Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University tells the BBC: ‘During the past 25 years, people have had material things far more, and yet it doesn’t seem to have generated greater happiness.’ (4)

An American book reporting from the frontline of decluttering, is soon to clutter our shelves. It describes, in anthropological terms, a couple’s attempt to spend nothing for a year (other than on the absolute basics: mortgage, heat and food). Early reviews praised the lessons learnt about freedom from consumerist tyranny.

So why are we slaves to the 2006 version of the slavish consumer? Daniel Ben-Ami has argued previously on spiked that ‘We live in a world in which there is an unprecedented degree of cynicism about the benefits of economic growth…affluence …is typically subject to numerous caveats. Among other things it is accused of damaging the environment, leading to inequality and failing to make people happy.’(5) The concepts of affluence and happiness are diametrically opposed today. So, imagery of consumerist hell reflects our ambivalence towards material growth generally. But what it further reflects is the new politics of behaviour.

Even if the loan sharks were banging down all our doors, why has this suddenly become anyone else’s business or cause for alarm? It is precisely the private nature of disposable income and personal loans that so disturbs the lifestyle experts. It is one of the few, albeit banal, arenas left where people exercise unmediated control over their immediate material circumstances. Even then, we are not free from moral condescension regarding the eco or ethical credentials of our purchases, but it is still excess money, to do with as we see fit.

What also upsets the lifestyle experts is aspiration. One of the rhetorical clichés deployed in this debate, to reinforce a picture of humanity as despairing, vulnerable and in need of expert guidance, is the portrayal of ambition as a competitive sickness. What Alain de Botton recently called ‘status anxiety’ not only adds to the picture of our damaged passivity, it also reduces aspirational desires and social interaction to banal, cold forms of one-upmanship (6).

Our lack of altruism and vicious competitive detachment from others is continually emphasized in subsequent modern studies. According to BBC News, researchers at Warwick University have discovered most people need to feel richer than their neighbours, even when they do not know them – to the point where we would cost ourselves money in order that our ‘imagined rivals’ might be poorer. The use of ‘imagined rivals’ increases the sense of our irrationality and diminished autonomy, as does the cash rich, time poor debate. As Professor Judith Schor tells the BBC: ‘Spending then has to compensate for the fact that we’re losing time – we’re losing control of our lives.’ (7)

What academics like Professor Andrew Oswald term the ‘culture’ or ‘curse’ of ‘comparison’ is apparently the central virus of modernity, infecting every area of our lives. Britain’s politics of behaviour and happiness policies turn to the minutiae of our domestic and internal lives for purpose. They address us sternly and unconvincingly on this subject, citing the main obstacle to our happiness targets as our desire for more stuff: ‘The pursuit of wealth stops us pursuing the things that make us happy.’ We are compelled, in the eyes of the experts, to shop mindlessly in an attempt to heal our mental wounds. Describing buying in these pathological terms then subtly leads to other agendas of behaviour modification: ‘Instead we should be concentrating on friendships, relationships and health.’ (8)

The creation of recent concepts such as ‘ethical debt’ reveals similar political motives. The ‘problem’ is no longer discussed in simply economic, but social terms. As a leader in the Observer put it: ‘Debt to finance university education is more worthwhile than the more widespread borrowing for lifestyle accoutrements – new cars and kitchens. This consumer debt is the real…social problem.’ (9)

Notions of control

The addiction cycle is obsessively applied to the shopping experience. According to the BBC News article, when we shop we don’t exercise consumer choice, or indulge in harmless escapism, but experience a hunger and high: ‘compulsive and uncontrollable buying affected between two and five per cent of adults.’ Then there is the withdrawal: ‘the shopping buzz does not last for long’, increasing doses: ‘The pleasure from having extra things wears off’, and finally the treatment: ‘one manufacturer has released an anti-depressant drug it claims can help combat the urge to spend.’

Just decades ago, in contrast, there existed a far more powerful sense of human agency and control regarding personal budgets. For instance, the poet Al Alvarez, in his autobiography of the shabby genteel Oxbridge set of the 1950’s, (10) talks of his friends’ spending habits as metaphors for their character. Hopelessly generous eccentrics would fritter meager post-war inheritances on parties or daft whims. They lived blissfully on the breadline, oblivious to the causes of their eventually hand-to-mouth existence, because it was the result of such deeply ingrained traits. Equally, other mean-spirited characters manifested their repressed nature in spectacular acts of tight-fistedness. Ultimately, at this time, there was the sense that it was your innate, often charming qualities that dictated how you spent, not sinister external forces.

Instead, in our therapy culture, we are cast as victims of a spending disease, attacking us from the outside. We are passively lured by advertising, or ‘pushed’ by opportunistic creditors. Our spending is now dictated, not by delightful individual quirks, but homogenous psychological problems that manifest themselves in ways beyond our understanding or control. These are habits that require the intervention of a psychologist or debt counsellor. Shopping has become the act of blindly and mindlessly ‘compensating’ for past emotional traumas with the purchase ‘high’.

The pressure of perfection

Advertising is currently discussed as if it contains hitherto unforeseen persuasive powers. With loud calls to ban ads selling anything from junk food, ‘skinny’ fashion to alcohol, its corrupting potential has never appeared more potent. There has been a certain pseudo-scientific discourse that overstates the case for the subtle, often unconscious, effects of advertising, since the marketing industry first emerged. These ideas, however, have become unchallenged orthodoxy. We are all apparently easily cast under a spell of glamorous imagery and emerge dazed and downtrodden from these dreams and the supposed pressures of perfection they apply.

There is much transference of these fears onto the innocent young, in need of protection. Yet adults don’t fare much better in their portrayal as passive victims of advertising. If we are not being hounded by the ‘pester power’ of our offspring, then we are probably binge drinking, hopelessly seduced again by the glamour of a spirits advert.

In defence of ‘stuff’

The spiritual corruption of overspending is normally presented as afflicting working class consumer souls far more deeply than middle-class ones. ‘Chav’ baiting is founded on a disgust of conspicuous consumption and the perceived vulgarity and psychological chaos that ensues: for example for lottery winners, or young Premiership footballers.

Working class children and their junk pushing parents, are also felt to be in greater need of protection from the pressures of perfection. Ed Mayo, head of the National Consumer Council, wrote in the Guardian recently: ‘Our research shows that children who have the least want the most. This “aspiration gap” is most marked in the poorest households. Poorer children tend to get more pocket money and will get crisps and snacks in their lunchboxes – but these are the children most likely to be disappointed when birthdays come around.’ (11)

Overstating the case of the pathological spender however has now moved beyond class politics and become a morality tale of the modern human condition. It’s all-encompassing cultural reach is reflected in TV schedules (Spendaholics, Spend, Spend, Spend, Bank of Mum and Dad, Britain’s Streets of Debt, Skint, Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole In My Heart – to name just a few), government policy and a general tone of media despair. On the whole this mood goes unchallenged.

But surely we need to remind ourselves of the immediate transformative effect of so called ‘stuff’? Stuff is what we are surrounded by, dressed in, dictates our levels of physical comfort, can provide us with knowledge, entertainment, aesthetic pleasure, cultural enrichment, enhanced potential for communication and social stimulation. What is so spiritually deadening or morally offensive about that?

Doing up your house, upgrading your mode of transport, treating yourself, family and friends to a good time, buying great cultural experiences and holidays, buying time-saving gadgets. These are major sources of pleasures in life. Certainly shopping cannot compete with more substantial, free sources of happiness such as friendship and love. It certainly cannot compensate for a culture lacking in political purpose or pursuits of intellectual discovery; but neither will it stain our souls or damage our psyche.

In the face of today’s anti-consumerist sermons, we need to restate a case for the power of new things to transform our immediate experience and material surroundings. A variety of commentators, philosophers and experts might wish to pathologise our desires for comfort, diversion, stimulation, increased leisure-time, and our aspiration to improve our physical living conditions. But ‘stuff’ can change our quality of life, and even has some potential to change society at large, especially in the developing world.

Those interested in progress, and concerned by all this fatalistic doom-mongering about the human condition, need to defend our quite healthy materialist impulses. Here’s to raising the aspirational bar for all.

(1) Sue Palmer et al, letter to the Daily Telegraph, 12 September 2006

(2) Does spending make Britain happy?, BBC News, 25 April 2003

(3) Facts and figures, Moneybasics

(4) Does spending make Britain happy?, BBC News, 25 April 2003

(5) Who’s afraid of economic growth?, by Daniel Ben-Ami

(6) Does spending make Britain happy?, BBC News, 25 April 2003

(7) Does spending make Britain happy?, BBC News, 25 April 2003

(8) Does spending make Britain happy?, BBC News, 25 April 2003

(9) ‘When debt can be a virtue’, Observer, 1 Oct 2006

(10) Al Alvarez, Where Did It All Go Right? (London: Bloomsbury 1999)

(11) Ed Mayo, National Consumer Council, ‘More childish behaviour’, Saturday Reply, Guardian, 16 September 2006

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Topics Politics

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