consumption and prosperity

Sheffield, over the past couple of weeks, has paid testament to the enduring health of a consumer society despite the recessions, crashes and debt crises of recent years. With rising tuition fees, depressing job prospects and soaring costs of living, students have been one of the major groups in society affected by the government’s desperate scramble to cut spending in the belief that austerity measures will fix the struggling economy. An average student receiving base maintenance and tuition fee loans will now graduate with around £38,000 of debt. And yet retailers continue to target students in a way that would belie this financial burden, encouraging spiralling spending on commodities that a student budget simply can’t afford. Nowhere has this been more obvious recently than in the “student lock-in” event hosted by shopping centre Meadowhall last week.

Meadowhall is the biggest shopping centre in the north of England. Huge posters scream about their amazing student discounts, mid-season sales and other opportunities for saving money. The student lock-in promised to be an evening of entertainment, giveaways, exclusive student offers, and more, and self-described as “the UK’s biggest and best shopping party”. Handily, it was scheduled to coincide with the arrival of the first batch of student loan in hungry bank accounts throughout Sheffield. A lump sum of money and the inevitable interest-free overdraft? Clearly a “shopping party” is the solution.

Joyce Appleby has defined consumption as “the active seeking of personal gratification through material goods” (1999). As early as the seventeenth century it had been pointed out that whilst consumption was morally objectionable (especially in a religious, strictly hierarchical society as then existed in most of Europe), too much emphasis on the vice of private consumption would be detrimental to national prosperity – prosperity here meaning economic growth. Four hundred years later and consumption still promises prosperity, in louder terms than ever. The Meadowhall lock-in is just one example of this.

However, you only have to look around to realise that consumption has brought anything but prosperity, at least for the majority of people. Economic growth – or currently, the desperate struggle for continued economic growth – has taken on a very different meaning for most. If growth is dependent on desperate spending by people who can’t afford it, is that bringing those consumers prosperity? I doubt it. Movements such as the Equality Trust and Action For Happiness are working tirelessly to redefine prosperity in terms of human well-being rather than material opulence. Tim Jackson set out a convincing alternative picture in Prosperity Without Growth, which highlights the damage current ideas of prosperity and consumption cause both to individuals and the planet.

Events such as the “student lock-in” create the appearance of a culture of wealth and affluence even if the reality is far from this. In true Gramscian style, it is tempting to buy into this system, believe the shiny floors and bright colours of the shopping mall, and pretend that everything’s okay. But at a time when life satisfaction levels are falling, community bonds are weaker than ever, and the relentless drive of consumerism gives people the option of buying happiness on credit rather than examining their lifestyles for what truly matters, we literally cannot afford to continue this way.

Whilst an idea of prosperity based on economic growth may now be hundreds of years old, that still leaves it thousands of years younger than human society and humanity itself. This alone should prove that a consumption-driven economy, and consumption-driven ideas of welfare and well-being, are not inevitable. However, an individual’s happiness, if not dependent on ever-increasing consumption (which it isn’t, read The Spirit Level), will always be at odds with the prevailing capitalist ideology our economy is based on. So even something as seemingly simple as the desire to move away from consumerism and build a more meaningful life is a radically different position to that of the state, which seeks to maximise GDP rather than human well-being.

However, people are powerful forces of change. A good place to start looking for things to do that make a positive difference in one’s own life, as well as the lives of others, is the great organisation Action for Happiness: “For fifty years we’ve aimed relentlessly at higher incomes. But despite being much wealthier, we’re no happier than we were five decades ago. At the same time we’ve seen an increase in wider social issues, including a worrying rise in anxiety and depression in young people. It’s time for a positive change in what we mean by progress.”

It’s easier than it sounds to stop striving for possessions and start striving for happiness and quality of life. Small things can make a big difference, and they prove that prosperity does not have to mean economic growth at the expense of financial stability.

3 thoughts on “consumption and prosperity

  1. I thought the issues this blog post brings up are really interesting (so I’m sorry for the lengthy response it provoked!). I think you’re definitely right to point out the glaring clash between consumerist ideology and rising costs of living, personal debt etc. It’s also clearly reductive to say that human wellbeing is reducible to income.

    I wonder, though, if the post doesn’t skirt around an important issue (although you do tackle it in a “side-on” sort of fashion). This is the issue of economic growth. I’d argue that the soaring costs of living you initially identify are a consequence in a rapid decline in economic growth which, in the final analysis, is caused by the fact that the proceeds of economic expansion have never “trickled down”. The major issue, then, is not so much growth per se, but rather what becomes of the proceeds.

    So, for the last thirty years, real wages in the US have stagnated or declined (the same is true of the UK). That is, as a share of GDP, they have declined whereas the share of the economy going to profits has increased. This triggered the creation of easy credit (simply to hold off political crisis – stagnating or declining living standards lead to protests!) and parasitic imperial expansion in Latin America and the Middle East.

    It’s the build-up of US private debt that caused the crisis in the US housing market which led to the collapse of the banking system, which itself caused the UK banking system to shut down. UK banks stopped lending and, unsure of profits, businesses stopped investing. This meant government tax receipts declined, punching a hole in the public finances.

    The commonality in all this is that the governments distributing the economic surplus have never done so in the interests of people, but in the interests of profit. Even now, “austerity” has nothing to do with solving the deficit (all the facts suggest that government policy is making the deficit wider), and everything to do with increasing profitability – e.g. unemployment forcing down wages, privatisation of the welfare state, corporation tax cuts, an increase in the tempo of imperialist intervention in the ME (Libya, now Syria with the intention of moving to Iran).

    It’s for this reason I’m a bit wary of the “we” used in the Action for Happiness quote at the end. It’s certainly true that Western consumerist ideology has said “we’ve” aimed for higher incomes and a higher standard of living, but the ideology hasn’t matched the objective reality of a decline in wages for the working class majority (defined in the Marxian sense of someone who sells their labour power to live).

    So, I think one should be wary of mistaking the ideology for the reality. While happiness certainly can’t be measured in pounds and pence, it’s true to say that our material circumstances scaffold our psychological dispositions. Polls have demonstrated that people’s personal finances are the thing that make them most anxious. Obliquely, the people who self-immolate in Greece don’t do it because they’re depressed about the death of a beloved pet, but because they’re financial situation has driven them to suicide.

    Having said that, I think consumerism of the type you identify is deeply alienating. It replaces what are fundamentally social relations with economic relations, by fetishising the commodity over the labour expended to make it. I’m just wary of a move too far in the opposite direction. There’s a tradition in conservative ideology of idolising the “good” worker who’s happy with his lot. It’s clear that when David Cameron talks about happiness (which he did, very early in his leadership of the Tories), this is what he means. It’s politically expedient to say that happiness has nothing to do with income when you’re slashing away at the welfare state!

    All in all, though, cheers for this! I thought it was reet interesting! Sorry for the massive response! I think what you’ve discussed strikes on a load of really important issues that lefties have to get their heads around. 🙂

  2. Hi Sam (I did wonder who you were for a while, hah)!

    Really good point. I think that anxiety about finance does feed into the problems inherent with a consumption-driven society. A lot of desire stems from what is perceived as an acceptable standard of living, which for a wealthier society is higher than for a poorer one, obviously. If somebody’s aim is to emulate those with what they perceive as a ‘better’ (more affluent) lifestyle, easy credit and relentless advertising encourage reckless pursuit of an increasingly unattainable idea of prosperity, as it is one that does not contain the concept of ‘enough’.

    At the same time it is of course true that in order to have enough money simply to survive, or rather, to thrive within a community – enough disposable income to meet friends, etc., for example – a certain level of purchasing power is needed! Consumption doesn’t have to always be the alienating process I describe above, and there are very real problems caused by the system as a whole. I would say that the extent of financial anxiety that is evident in people across Europe at the moment does have some roots in the consumer mentality, and the broader myth propagated by governments / international society that infinite growth is both possible and attainable. When this idea’s falsehood becomes evident, anxiety kicks in because there’s no currently existent alternative system. And as you say, it’s ordinary people (the people Cameron et al are screwing over with austerity measures) that suffer the most. For somebody to then say “don’t worry, be happy”, is inexcusable, and used by the government as a way of avoiding responsibility for the consequences of austerity measures. So yeah, you definitely have to strike the balance. Real suffering of ordinary people can’t be explained away by elites just by telling people to be happy; at the same time, the continued encouragement of people to spend beyond their means isn’t going to solve anything either.

    I’m not sure any of that made sense. But thanks for commenting 🙂

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