Lost in the 21st Century
Consumerism has broken its promise. Perhaps now we can begin to reconnect.
A woman walks into a department store. She takes in the racks and stacks of stuff, the sugared music, the sale signs, the listless customers shuffling through the aisles, and is moved – suddenly and to her own astonishment – to shout. “Is this all there is?!”. An assistant comes round from behind his till. “No madam. There’s more in our catalogue.”
This is the answer we have been given to everything, the only answer. We might have lost our attachments, our communities, our sense of meaning and purpose, but there will be more money and more stuff with which to replace them. Now that the promise has evaporated, the size of the void becomes intelligible.
It’s not that the old dispensation was necessarily better: it was bad in different ways. Hierarchies of class and gender crush the human spirit as effectively as atomisation. The point is that the void that was filled with junk is a void that could have been occupied by a better society, built on mutual support and connectedness, without the stifling stratification of the old order. But the movements that helped to smash the old world were facilitated and co-opted by consumerism.
Individuation, a necessary response to oppressive conformity, is exploitable. New social hierarchies, built around positional goods and conspicuous consumption, took the place of the old. The conflict between individualism and egalitarianism, too readily ignored by those who helped to break the oppressive norms and strictures, does not resolve itself.
So we are lost in the 21st Century, living in a state of social disaggregation that hardly anyone desired, but that is an emergent property of a world reliant on rising consumption to avert economic collapse, saturated with advertising and framed by market fundamentalism. We inhabit a planet our ancestors would have found impossible to imagine: 7 billion people, suffering an epidemic of loneliness. It is a world of our making but not of our choice.
Now it appears that the feast to which we were invited is only for the few. Figures released last week show that wages in the United Kingdom are lower than they were 13 years ago(1). A fortnight ago, Oxfam revealed that the top 1% now possesses 48% of the world’s wealth(2); by next year it will own as much as everybody else put together. On the same day, an Austrian company unveiled its design for a new superyacht. It will be built on the hull of an oil tanker, 918 feet long(3). There will be 11 decks, three helipads, theatres, concert halls and restaurants, electric cars to take the owner and his guests from one end of the ship to the other, and a four-storey ski slope.
In 1949, Aldous Huxley wrote to George Orwell, to argue that his dystopian vision was the more convincing(4). “The lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. … The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.” I don’t believe he was wrong.
Consumerism is at odds with common purpose: you could pay your taxes or you could spend the money on a new car(5). It stifles feeling, dulling our concern for other people. Freedom to spend displaces other freedoms, as lotus eating allows us to forget our losses. Most forms of peaceful protest are now banned, but no one stops us from devouring the resources upon which future generations will depend. All this helps the global oligarchs to rip holes in the social safety net, find relief from the constraints of both democracy and taxation, and enclose and privatise our common weal.
Just as human society has been pulled apart by consumerism and materialism, pushing us into an unprecedented Age of Loneliness(6), so ecosystems have been shattered by the same forces. It is the consumerist mindset, raised to the global scale, that now threatens us with climate breakdown, catalyses a sixth great extinction, imperils global water supplies and strips the soil upon which all human life depends(7).
But nor do I believe that the acceptance of servitude Huxley envisaged is a permanent state. Wage stagnation, the brutality of the new conditions of employment, the breaking of the link between educational attainment and social advancement, the impossibility, for many young people, of finding good housing, all these confront us with the question that could be deferred only during conditions of rising general prosperity: is this all there is?
As the growth of Syriza and Podemos suggests, we cannot build political movements to challenge these issues unless we also build society. It is not enough to urge people to change their politics: we must create not only communities of interest but also communities of mutual support, offering the security, survival and respect that the state will no longer provide.
In a remarkable series of contemplations, extending beyond its familiar brief, Friends of the Earth has begun to explore how we might reconnect(8), with each other and with the natural world. It is looking, for example, at new models for urban living(9), based on sharing rather than competitive consumption: the sharing not just of cars and appliances and tools, but also of money (through credit unions and micro-finance) and power. This means community-led decision-making, over transport, planning and, perhaps, rent levels, minimum and maximum wages, municipal budgets and taxation. Such initiatives are not a substitute for government action – like David Cameron’s Big Society they are meaningless without facilitation from the state – but they can bring people together with a sense of shared purpose, ownership and mutual support that centralised decision-making can never provide.
Friends of the Earth also supports the empathy revolution championed by the author Roman Krznaric(10), and lifelong education that might counter the ever narrower schooling now inflicted on our children, whose purpose is to prepare people for jobs they will never have, in the service of an economy ordered for the benefit of others.
In these ideas and movements we find the glimmerings of an answer to the question: no, this is not all there is. There is attachment. Despite the best efforts of those who believe there is no such thing as society, we have not lost our ability to connect.
5. See also the discussion of Rami Gabriel’s work (2013. Why I buy: Self, taste, and consumer society in America. University of Chicago Press) in Friends of the Earth, December 2013. Consumption and identity: A review of literature which is relevant to the question: ‘what is a better foundation for people’s identity than consumption?’ http://bit.ly/1ECZopQ