Trailblazer ALL CONSUMING
Neal Lawson (2009)
Neal Lawson sees that Britain long ago moved from being what Napoleon called a nation of shopkeepers to being a nation of shoppers – a consumer society. It came about as scarcity of things to eat, wear and enjoy changed to abundance and therefore gave us choice.
Consuming applies to everything we buy: clothes, cars, food, holidays, escape, relaxation, support, care, health, education, even love. It is the extent to which we shop and buying’s hold on us that defines society as being driven primarily by consumption. (p2)
Lawson has no problem with shopping for everyday needs, for a few luxuries, and the occasional shopping splurge as therapy! His concern is that, until the credit crunch of late 2008, consuming had turned into what he calls turbo-consuming – and could return to that if government policies re-establish ‘business as usual’.
Over the last three decades we shifted from being consumers to being turbo-consumers. In that time our consuming addiction raced away with us – gratification could no longer be deferred: it had to be instant. We stopped comparing ourselves with the Joneses and attempted to match up to the Beckhams. The stream of new designer goods just accelerated at a faster and faster pace, to such an extent that throughout the 1980s and 1990s what we bought became solidly entwined with our identity. Now we are what we buy. (p2)
Lawson’s argument is that for centuries we had known ourselves and our families, and been known by others, by what we produced (in the broadest sense of how we earned our living). But in the second half of the 20th century we began to identify ourselves and others by what we consumed (in the broadest sense of how we spent our earnings – and what we could borrow).
CONSUMERISM INTO TURBO-CONSUMERISM
We shopped because we were competitive. We shopped because we were seduced by the experience. But we also shopped out of fear. We kept up the pace on the hamster wheel of consumption, secretly knowing that it took us nowhere, but terrified above all else of falling off. Then we would stop being consumers and put ourselves beyond the pale, non-people who couldn’t keep up. (p5)
But if that is an account of the internal forces driving individuals, the external opportunities to act in this way were becoming increasingly powerful. Lawson says, A culture that said greed was good and that there was no such thing as society fuelled a possessive individualism. He describes some of the factors which turned consumerism into turbo-consumerism. Globalization made many consumer items cheaper and abundant:
• The export industries of China and India, where manufacturing and labour costs were much lower than in the West, meant that cheap but good quality clothing flooded in, as well as a wide range of toys and other products;
• Electronic goods like TVs, DVDs, mobile phones, computers, cameras - often made in the Far East – became cheaper and readily available;
• Air flights became much cheaper;
• Cheap migrant labour from Eastern Europe made house decoration, extension and renovation cheaper.
Opportunities for shopping increased:
• Changes in the Sunday trading laws turned days of rest into days for shopping;
• Internet shopping enabled people to buy online 24/7;
• Relaxation of planning laws favoured the building of huge out-of-town stores.
Household incomes were rising, in part because many more women were going to work, many people were working longer hours, and with unemployment low there were plenty of jobs. The real income of the average household increased in the ten years from 1997 by £1,000 per year and for those at the top by much more.
The rapid rise of house prices from the early 1990s was one of the biggest drives of the consumer boom. Between 2005 and 2006 the number of £1 million plus properties almost doubled. As prices rose, £246 billion of this equity wealth has been withdrawn in the last ten years to buy new cars, holidays and home improvements. Millions of people were remortgaging their properties – pushing up the amount they owed so they could spend more. … It was the biggest house-price boom on record … and it fed the nation’s consumer addiction. (p85)
Lawson gives one more reason for the spending boom – and perhaps the most significant: the deregulation of the financial-services market in the 1980s and the widespread distribution of credit cards. Credit cards decouple purchase from payment and therefore reduce the pain of parting with money. (p86) Lawson gives some figures:
Britain became the credit capital of Europe. So vast had our borrowings grown that by the end of 2008 the total outstanding loans to individuals in the country exceeded £1.3 trillion. … The spending frenzy was increasing personal debt at the equivalent of £1 million every four minutes. … There were 70 million credit cards in purses and wallets across the country. (p87)
Lawson describes how the political theories of Friedrich von Hayek and his book The Road to Serfdom were adopted by Margaret Thatcher.
Taxes were lowered so people could spend more of their own money; council houses were sold in the name of a property-owning democracy; nationalized industries were privatized so that a wider public could buy and sell shares. At the time, Mrs Thatcher remarked, ‘The economy is the means. The goal is to change the soul.’ The ‘big bang’ in the City of London ended import and currency controls, allowing the globalization of capital and its free flow round the planet. Financial services were deregulated and easy access to credit was opened up by the relaxing of lending constraints. Producer interest, in the shape of trade unions, was either smashed or weakened. Now it was consumers who mattered. All the conditions necessary for the creation of a turbo-consuming society were in place. (p91
In the 1980s the paradigm shift occurred into a turbo-consumer society where the belief that ‘greed was good’ was given official sanction by a prime minister who proclaimed, There’s no such thing as society.
CAVEAT EMPTOR !
Lawson repeats the Roman slogan, ‘Buyer beware!’ Why is he concerned?
We have become caught up in the social disease of luxury fever and are restless souls, endlessly trying to ape our celebrity heroes, their lifestyles and spending patterns. It has left even the comfortable and affluent middle classes feeling like the struggling poor. Enough is never enough. Someone else has always got more, and that makes us miserable. And that was before it crashed down all around us. (p95)
SHOPPING IS COSTING THE EARTH
Lawson clearly sees that turbo-consumerism is the cause of global warming and associated climate change. He writes:
The evidence is now beyond dispute: human activity is driving potentially disastrous climate change and the relentless pursuit of more inevitably has an impact on the finite resources of the planet and its temperature. … Already we are seeing more floods and, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control, deadly heatwaves will occur more frequently, atolls will disappear, coral reefs will be destroyed, oceans will become acidic and snow will melt away from the highest mountains. The more ice that dissolves, the more methane gas is released – and the warmer it gets. Farming will be decimated, along with cities, ports and much of our transport infrastructure. It will be the end of living and the start of survival. At the heart of this impending ecological disaster is our manufactured need to consume more and more.
Lawson goes on to express the familiar concern that China, India and other fast-developing countries seek to copy our level of consumption. One image of success, of happiness and what it means to be human now dominates our globe. It’s the image of the successful consumer. We have it and they want it.
That is the first – and surely the most important – of the powerful concerns that Lawson puts in a long chapter on the consequences of turbo-consumerism. Other concerns are: the growth of selfishness, the boredom of those without the means of buying, the exploitation of poor workers overseas making some of the goods for our consumption; the erosion of public places by market forces, the threat to the future of democracy, the tyranny that can come from choice, the pressures that turbo-consumerism puts on families and the commercialization of childhood, the fast-food industries hand-in-hand with the diet and keep-fit industries, and the deregulation of gambling.
A POST-CONSUMER SOCIETY
Lawson seeks a steady-state economy which he describes in these terms:
A society in which children are free to be children, devoid of commercial pressures, where education is about the wonder of learning and opening doors in our minds, where work is creative and fulfilling but there is ample time for family and friends, where the guilt of planetary destruction is lifted from the pit of our stomach, where we can live in spaces and places that we are free to enjoy and share with others, where we know each other as equal citizens, and all our lives are valued for the incredible people we are and can be. A good life of caring, playing, dreaming, thinking, creating and feeling – not just consuming. (p235)
Politically he argues for a steady-state economy, a minimum wage, a maximum wage and the introduction of citizen’s income as an unconditional payment to all citizens as of right which subsumes and goes beyond the various state payments made today.
(I was overwhelmed with joy when I read this since it concurs with the political ideas expressed on this website at
He doesn’t say it, but citizen’s income will be desperately needed if his suggestions for restricting advertising, taxing luxury goods and rationing key good and services are enacted – for many people will be seeking alternative jobs.
There is much else in this book, but here I have given an indication of the extent to which it mirrors the concerns and ideas of this website and expresses them with evidence and eloquence. Dare I say it? Everyone should read his book.
This text was posted on 10 August 2009 and amended on 1 February 2010