Recession? Bring it on!

In the name of ‘saving the planet’, many in the chattering classes are praying for an economic slump.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics UK

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Amid the relentless gloom over spiralling food and fuel prices, increases in interest rates and unemployment rates, there was one glimmer of good economic news recently: in May it was reported that high street retail sales in Britain had increased by the largest percentage in over 20 years.

So despite inflation woes and talk about ‘downsizing’, it seems that thousands of people are still buying flatscreen TVs and iPods, barbecues and beachwear. These kinds of items seem to be flying off the shelves quicker than the latest apology from Boris Johnson.

The fact that more and more people can splash out on these things should, by rights, be viewed as A Good Thing. After all, for many decades the most recognisable and widely accepted measurement of the success and healthiness of a society was its ability to deliver prosperity to the mass of people.

So why on earth was this piece of economic good news greeted with barely concealed dismay by sections of the chattering classes?

Above a photo of a £3 George-at-Asda bikini, the UK Guardian announced that 250,000 of these bikinis have been sold, and demanded to know: ‘Whatever happened to the recession?’ Now, you don’t have to be an economics expert to realise that sales of a bikini that costs less than some pints of lager or a Big Mac meal at McDonald’s are hardly an indicator for economic growth or mass affluence. Instead, this garment, and others like it, seems to signify something else altogether: it is seen as a cheap good bought by cheap people with cheap and nasty tastes, who have not been put off from buying stuff by the talk about a recession. ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ is the question some people are asking.

As with the current ‘exposés’ of the cut-price clothes sold by Primark, and where these clothes are really made, the Guardian’s outrage about the fast-selling £3 bikini was also underpinned by the idea that buying cheap clothes means you must have cheap morals, too: you simply don’t care about the sweatshop conditions endured by the workers who made them (1). The implication seems to be that, since the government isn’t (yet) in a position to prevent hard-up shoppers from buying ‘unethical’ goods, then perhaps an economic recession will do the trick, and help get rid of proley, tacky consumerism once and for all.

Although well-to-do commentators are the first to complain when inflation increases hit their mortgage rates and school fees, they don’t mind when they hit low-paid workers. In fact, many seem to hope that the economic slowdown will hit low-paid workers quite hard. A few years ago, for instance, when McDonald’s announced branch closures and subsequent redundancies, trendy, organic, celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall expressed delight that this might spell the end for McDonald’s, and presumably also for its gormless employees and awful customers (2).

Superficially at least, today’s ‘bring on the recession’ champions use environmentalist rhetoric to disguise their deep-seated disdain for the masses. In the US, economics writer Fion MacCloud recently penned an article demonstrating ‘Ten Ways Recession Can Help the Environment’ (3). MacCloud argued that economic recession would mean fewer people buying fewer mobile phones and fewer cars, and fewer people flying abroad on holiday – and therefore, enforced poverty should be welcomed. From this standpoint, perhaps we should champion complete economic collapse? After all, famine and disease would mean there are fewer and fewer people… and thus would reduce humanity’s CO2 emissions further.

Indeed, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), which wants a world with fewer people, also believes that economic recession might be a very good thing. As spiked revealed in February this year, a spokesperson for the OPT believes that a recession will be positive since ‘if we keep on growing we’re doomed’ (see I agree with Ethan: bring on the recession!, by Brendan O’Neill).

Other environmentalists believe the coming recession has an ‘upside’ because it will force people to undertake more labour-intensive activities on a day-to-day basis. On the PlanetSave blog, one writer positively welcomes the recession because of ‘all the news stories about moms who now make their own laundry detergent and grow their own vegetables’ (4). How these developments can be considered positive is anyone’s guess. During the Western economic slump of the 1930s, and for much of the lifespan of the Soviet Union, such self-sufficiency was considered an embarrassing symbol of an inefficient and degenerate society. Now, in an historical period when a global division of labour is increasing productivity, rarely a week goes by without some broadsheet alluding to the ‘benefits’ of time-wasting self-sufficiency.

Why do green thinkers fantasise so much about isolated self-sufficiency? Perhaps because it is the ultimate practical realisation of being estranged from common humanity. Deep greens, and military minded right-wing cranks before them, often have a bizarre penchant for ‘survivalist strategies’ in the face of an imagined apocalypse. It fuels their fantasy of being as far away as possible from normal society. Some writers fantasise about a crippling recession as a way of speeding up the destruction of mass society altogether.

The banal but destructive prejudices of the estranged elites have been a fixture of their cultural imagination for much of the last century. John Carey’s classic survey of the elite mindset in the Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) revealed that, in the past, elite elements also had a hate-filled obsession with suburban sprawl, mass-produced food and the ‘awfulness’ of low-priced commodities. Yet although such sentiments were notable in some of the literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Carey shows, they were not as omnipresent as they are today.

Indeed, in recent decades, especially in the post-Second World War period, Western elites sought to restore their weakening legitimacy by advertising and championing all the things they periodically felt uncomfortable with: economic prosperity, individual liberties, mass democratic participation. For nearly half a century, these were described as the very cornerstones of Western society and progressive governance. This is why it appears so startling and shocking that, now, the political elites are openly contemptuous of what was once seen as their own values. As Frank Furedi argued on spiked, the European elites’ reaction to the Irish ‘No’ vote on the Lisbon Treaty is one alarming expression of an elite motivated more by sulking estrangement rather than strong engagement with mass society (5).

It seems that today – without a competing opposition that forces the elites to engage with wider society and to think through their ideas and outlook – the preferred option for isolation and estrangement has become the dominant response. And because the elite still wields notable cultural influence, this alienated and destructive mood can end up being generalised across the whole of society.

When she traced the genealogy of nihilism in modern society, the critical theorist Hannah Arendt located the destructive force precisely within the elite’s wider estrangement from society. Far from the nihilistic mindset being contained within elite circles, for Arendt the elites’ corrosive outlook often nurtures a ‘justified disgust’ at ‘respectable’ mass society. Although the elites once publicly claimed to be ‘the guardian of Western traditions and…moral values’, Arendt argued that they ‘actually hold [these values] in contempt’ and have ‘complete disregard for human values’ (6). Furthermore, she said, when the elites begin publicly to express their disregard for their own values, it has the effect of sounding, not malign and degenerate, but oddly ‘revolutionary’, because it appears to go against the very foundations on which their societies were created.

Today, this is very much how many elite environmentalists, such as the millionaire Zac Goldsmith and Prince Charles, are seen in radical circles. By appearing to reject all of the public and progressive values associated with their bourgeois backgrounds, they end up fooling disorientated left-wingers into believing that their outlook is somehow bold rather than nihilistic. It is these contemporary destructive influences, mediated by environmentalist rhetoric, that enables commentators seriously to champion economic decline and increased poverty as a way of cleansing mass society of its consumptive ugliness.

Now, some commentators are calling for a return to the ‘Golden Age’ of post-Second World War austerity measures, as a way of reining in plebeian consumption habits and protecting the environment. So if the recession doesn’t kill off tacky consumerism, maybe government-enforced rationing will.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume said Britain is experiencing a boom in doom mongering. He noted the way stock markets go up and down but the economy is going nowhere. A leading member of the Optimum Population Trust told Brendan O’Neill that ‘if we keep on growing we’re doomed’. Phil Mullan revealed the truth about the ‘credit crunch’ and argued that economic cycles are not what they used to be. Or read more at spiked issue Economy.

(1) See This Years Must Have Fashion: Pity For Indians, by Daniel Ben-Ami, 24 June 2008

(2) I’m Lovin’ It , Guardian, 4 March 2006

(3) 10 Ways Recession Can Help the Environment, Finance Markets

(4) Is Recession Good for the Environment?, Planetsave

(5) See After the Irish No Vote: Pathologising Populism, by Frank Furedi, 23 June 2008

(6) Totalitarianism: Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt, Harvest, 1948: p26

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Topics Politics UK


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