The Community of Things

by Jon E Wilson

Consumerism isn't as selfish as we might first assume. Progressive politics needs to recognise that there is a social side to materialism.

First published: 23 September, 2011 | Category: Culture

Shopping is usually a collective act. Most of the time it is done in groups, in families or with friends. Much of our consumption is for other people; or we have other people in mind when we’re doing it. In the supermarket, we buy for our families. In the high street, teenagers buy the same clothes and music as their peer group. Consumption by children and adults is driven by a sense of what we need to keep our collective lives together; and by the way in which owning the same things as others gives us status amongst our peers.

In their effort to reformulate progressive politics, many on the left have called for the creation of a `post-consumer society’ in which more noble values than shopping lie at the centre of British life. Neil Lawson, Director of Compass, blames consumerism for most of the ills of modern capitalism, from the decline of democracy to climate change. A similar point is made in very different language on the right. Conservatives like Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts suggest that our present `orgy of consumerism’ undermines common `Christian values’ and `sensible husbandry’. In public discourse the abstract concept of `consumerism’ almost always describes a bad thing. Consumerism is criticised as a debilitating condition that destroys the sources of solidarity and common life. The critique in each case is that consumption is driven by a selfish desire to infinitely accumulate.

Perhaps politicians and policy-makers don’t spend enough time shopping. But for whatever reason, the people who read journals like this seem to have forgotten that consumption is a social act. The individual act of handing over cash or card at the checkout or clicking `buy’ on our PC takes up a tiny fraction of our lives as consumers. Most of our time `consuming’ is spent on thinking about how the objects we want relate to the people we live around. Either we are directly buying things for other people (`will my husband like this for his tea?’) or thinking about how other people will relate to them (`what will my girlfriend think of these jeans?’).

After spending a year watching ordinary shoppers in north London, the anthropologist Daniel Miller concluded that everyday shopping for provisions is a ritual, performed largely by women, centring on `love and sacrifice’. Rather than being a pointless act of individual consumption, Miller found that most shopping was dominated by devotion to those who we care for, often to the point of self-denial. Thrift is essential. Shopping is a learnt skill, in which we try to save rather than spend profligately, as we compare prices, look for bargains and often simply refuse to buy when we think things are too dear. As Miller argues, shopping is an act that `objectifies certain values’. In other words, it expresses the things we hold dear. For some, of course, it does objectify an attachment to hedonism and excess. But for most of us, though, it expresses love, devotion and concern for people in the small communities, families, groups of friends and neighbourhoods that make up our lives. Rather than expressing rampant selfishness, shopping embodies the importance of small-scale solidarity and ethical responsibility. Much of the time, those who criticise consumerism are opposing an entirely artificial and unrealistic conception of how people relate to things.

Of course consumerism has supporters. Some progressives, let us call them Blairites, argue that Labour needs to stand up for `aspiration’ and people’s desire to `get on’. Any attack on consumerism is a dangerous lurch to the left. As Tom Harris argues, people `want a bigger home, a nicer car, more frequent holidays, higher salaries, lower tax bills’, in short `an increased level of wealth’. Sometimes these supporters of consumerism do recognise that some forms of aspiration have social roots. More often, though, they assume that people are driven by the same asocial individual desire to accumulate which is the basis of their opponents’ criticism.

Take the conservatory. For Labour’s right, building a conservatory is a sign of aspiration. In a recent Progress article Siobhan MacDonagh suggests that Labour lost in 2010 because `we could no longer understand why someone might want to build a conservatory’. Yet politicians who champion the `conservatory vote’ don’t have much to say about why people actually build them to start with. MacDonagh’s only explanation is that it ties in with people’s desire for more and better, and connects with a vaguely expressed need for Labour to look to the future not the past. These are extraordinarily abstract ideas - but they boil down to the argument that progressives need to acknowledge the public’s desire to accumulate more things. This is simply the mirror image - though with a positive spin - of the left’s inaccurate diagnosis of our society as essentially selfish.

To me, conservatories seem a sensible way for people to develop their densely connected social lives. They provide more room for friends and family to sit together, or for children to play; they bring more light into our dwelling space. The peculiar British desire to build extensions is not a sign of our particularly aspirational culture, although it is a sign of aspiration in one sense. It is a response to a housing market that makes anything other than outright ownership deeply insecure, and encourages people to build rather than move when their circumstances change. More than one Labour Party branch meeting has taken place in a conservatory, as people sit around scheming for socialism in a space that the foolish think is the sign of our acquisitive society. Conservatories reflect a desire for solidarity as much as accumulation.

My point is that whether they write to praise or condemn it, those who talk about consumerism have adopted a very peculiar idea of what it is. Everyone seems to think that when we go shopping, we are all driven by the same individualistic urge to consume for nothing but personal pleasure. Where does this idea come from? I suggest it stems from the absolute dominance on all sides of a false view of human behaviour derived from classical economics. Such economists assume that people make decisions by calculating the means by which they can maximise their wealth. They also presume that, albeit with diminishing marginal utility, individuals have infinite desires. As John Stuart Mill put it, political economy is not concerned with `treat[ing] the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society’. Rather, it is concerned with `man’ `solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end’. Economists tend not to interest themselves in the forces that shape people’s desire for particular things. They leave concern for the fabric of real life to the humanities and qualitative social sciences, treating consumption as a purely quantitative phenomenon, expressed in statistics and graphs, not people’s real lives. This indifference to the social life of things makes classical economic theory an extraordinarily poor guide to the culture of contemporary consumerism.

Of course, few serious economists have ever claimed it could provide such a guide. The dismal science never intended its abstract theory of human motivation to be a description of the complexity of real life. The selfish and infinitely acquisitive individual was an intellectual mechanism allowing economists to make calculations about things like the amount of production that occurred in a particular society. But in the 1980s some Conservatives returned to the liberal idea of economic man as the basis of a political philosophy, arguing that people should act as selfish individualists. For men such as John Redwood and Peter Lilley, most of whom began their careers in the City, greed really was good. But they were always few in number, and now are a dying breed. Thatcherism made an effort to entwine people’s desires with the needs of the market; my argument is that that effort was not as successful as many believe.

Those from the left who complain about consumerism treat a set of concepts created within the most abstract of social sciences to describe the way people are supposed to be motivated in real life. There is a strange paradox here. In condemning people as acquisitive individualists, progressives presume that the language of their right-wing opponents provides the most persuasive description of contemporary society.

Unless we do something about it, the paradox will have perilous political consequences. The point of David Cameron’s `Big Society’ is to show that ordinary people are decent and caring; in other words to chime with most people’s sense of themselves. If the left embraces a virulent challenge to consumer society, we’re left criticising the behaviour of people whose side we’re supposed to be on. Much of the time, anti-consumerists seem more concerned to convert a sinful nation to righteousness than to win political power. But politicians who believe that most people have malign motivations are likely to be told by the electorate that they have no place to represent them in a democratic society.

What causes this failure of imagination?

Progressives rely on the analysis of social scientists who share neither their values nor their desire to root politics in the everyday lives of the people they seek to represent. The British left’s biggest weakness is its failure to imagine the world it wants to change on its own terms. To overcome that weakness, we need to understand where it comes from, and fight in those spheres. I think it comes from two different places.

First of all, the education of our political class has much to answer for. We are ruled by people with degrees in disciplines that begin with abstract premises about what it means to be human. As Maurice Glasman points out, both Labour and Tory front benches are stacked with Oxford PPEists.1 Political science, Philosophy (at least in its Oxford variant) and Economics train people to make highly complex hypotheses based on abstract premises about human behaviour. In these disciplines hypotheses are tested by statistics that reduce people to numbers; sometimes they are used to make policy. An extraordinary simplistic idea about why people do what they do is used because it’s the only way to make the maths add up.

Economics and some variants of psychology have extraordinarily high prestige in the public sphere and policy world at the moment. Geeks comfortable with theory and numbers, but less good at getting on with ordinary people, are considered cool. Ironically, it is the disciplines that got us into this post-credit crunch mess in the first place that are supposed to offer the route out.

Instead of the abstract starting points of mainstream social science, our political culture needs to be infused by forms of thought that begin by finding out what people think about their lives, and which listen to the stories people tell about who they are. Disciplines like history, anthropology and cultural studies explain human action by understanding the fallible stories people tell about what they do. Yet the place of these interpretative subjects, which attempt to understand how people understand themselves, has been marginalised. Forms of policy-making based on interpretation are rejected by politicians and policy professionals for not being hard-headed enough. Only policy based on the often false certainties of science is to be taken seriously: anything that doesn’t have its own technical language is seen as being mired in subjectivity. This perspective drastically misses the point. More subjectivity is exactly what we need. Labour’s troubles today stem from nothing if not a failure to take seriously the subjective point of view of citizens - the real, everyday experience.

But abstract social science can’t be blamed for everything. The idea of possessive individualism has some kind of basis in social fact. There are people out there who fit the model of individualistic accumulation: the seriously wealthy, or at least people who’ve become seriously wealthy through business. What we too often fail to recognise is that there aren’t many of them, and that most of us don’t act like them most of the time.

The second reason for the false but dominant idea that ordinary consumption is driven by selfish individualism is this: even if ordinary consumers aren’t driven by the imperative to accumulate without taking into account the social consequences, our economic system as a whole is. Whilst ordinary people, perhaps also small firms, are constantly concerned with the immediate social consequences of their actions, big business is interested in accumulating without looking at the social effects of its acts. And those who have the greatest power in the system personify the characteristics of the organisations they run. As a result, super-rich executives, fund managers, traders and bankers consume in a way that is different from the rest of us. They accumulate as way of measuring their own personal worth, imagining that money is a measure of ability or skill, not something that gets them real things that they use. Wealth, along with conspicuous consumption, becomes a way of `keeping score’ in the game of business.

Unlike the rest of us, the super-rich are concerned purely with the accumulation of what Karl Marx called exchange value. For them money is the measure of all, and shopping is just a way to display the numbers on their bank balance in a tangible form. Unlike ordinary people, the rich consume competitively. There are good reasons why someone might want a four-bedroom house instead of a two-bedroom flat. There is no conceivable `use’ for having a mansion with thirty rather than twenty bedrooms. Even if you like sailing, it is irrational to own a boat which is 70 foot instead of 30 foot long, unless it is to show that you can buy bigger and better than your rival.

With their yachts and mansions, the rich are a different breed. They live in a society with its own, deeply weird culture. The mistake New Labour made was to assume that to recognise ordinary people’s aspirations is to believe that everyone wants to behave like them. The myth our society propagates is that we all behave like billionaires, and would do exactly the same if we had their cash. Perhaps the catastrophic way lottery winners often mismanage their money demonstrates this best of all. The mistake lottery winners’ make is to think consumption has the same social significance when you have millions as when you’re scraping together a few quid. The dreams we make about what we’d do after winning the lottery are dominated by the idea that we’d give the people we love things which mean things to them. But outside random acts of luck (including being born into a rich family), serious wealth can only be accumulated by disconnecting money from the real, social life of things. If you are a businessperson who sees money as the only measure of success, it’s hard to care passionately about the particular things that the factories you own make. There will always be new things you can do to make more money. Similarly, if you practically care about the material space you live in, you might want an extension or an extra couple of bedrooms, but you are unlikely to want a house with thirty bedrooms. The trouble with rich people is that, unlike you and me, they care too little, not too much, about material things. We need more materialism not less.

Our society is obsessed far more by abstract forms of measurement than by the real stuff we live amongst. Driven by the imperative to make the numbers stored somewhere on a bank’s computer system get bigger and bigger, the problem with contemporary capitalism is that it is not sufficiently material. The abstraction of our economic system is reflected in the obsession of our political system on ideas, numbers and statistics, rather than real relationships and tangible things. This abstraction is one of the things that makes it so hard for so many people to think that politicians are on their side. Labour used to have a lot to say about the material lives of working people. It spoke not just about growth rates, unemployment data and the number of new schools built, but about the quality of housing, the fabric of our cities and the price of a loaf of bread. Instead of arguing about statistics, Labour used to tell stories about things you could do and see. But as we lost self-confidence in our ability to organise our collective social and economic lives, Labour politics has become more intangible and seemingly unreal.

The Labour Party and materialism

Labour needs to recognise that most people use money and things in a way that runs directly counter to the forces that dominate the system we live within. We struggle to create a stable identity, to establish a secure home and to achieve some degree of control over our lives within an economy and culture that tells us we need to move, change and accumulate all the time. In our real lives, we struggle with the abstractions that rule our capitalist economy and govern big bureaucratic employers. We are real people not numbers in a spreadsheet. When politicians too treat us as abstractions, it’s hardly surprising that so many try to make a home for themselves by doing without politics.

The idea that Labour needs to renew itself by challenging the desire for material goods is completely wrong. Indeed, the exact opposite is true. We live in a world of physical objects, not abstract concepts. How we arrange those objects reflects our values. As I’ve argued here, people tend to use objects to express the values of solidarity, of community, of the joy of togetherness - values which we associate with the politics of the left rather than the selfish individualism we more immediately connect with the right. Instead of merely appealing to people’s abstract sense of justice and equality, Labour would do better if it sought to embed itself in the social life of Britain, if it understood and reflected the social connections people make between themselves and things.

How should it do that? Proper attention to the spaces and places where people live, work, shop and play would be a start. Housing is not just a matter of making sure one very large number of people can rent or buy another very large number of new homes. It is about whether we can afford to redecorate, how safe the walk from the bus is, whether there is local green space for children to play in, where the nearest shops are: in other words, our ability to control the material space we live in. Money gives us the power to control how and where we live. But without money we need local, democratic political power to allow us to collectively determine the shape of the streets and houses where we live. Many local Labour Parties have recognised they can’t win council elections without taking up these issues: protecting social housing, saving local Post Offices, improving the design of local new builds, or protecting a park from cuts. Local power to democratically control material space needs to be central to the national story Labour tells of what it is about.

It also means taking the politics of consumption seriously. Co-ops are a good start. But we should embrace co-operatives not only as an embodiment of the rather abstract virtue of `mutualism’, but because they are a way in which ordinary people organise to be able to buy cheaper - and then try actively to get local people involved in running them. Co-ops connect to credit unions and other local mutual organisations which provide responsible credit, which Labour also should be championing as fervently as it can. Credit unions help forge a sense of our locality as somewhere that borrows and saves together. Recognising that most consumption is socially rooted and responsible, we should have no truck with the censorious tone of some who suggest that the problem of debt is not the high interest rates charged on loans and credit, but the poor’s propensity to consume beyond their means. If we listen to what people say rather than impose the abstract idea that everyone has infinite wants, we’ll discover that most people only go to the loan shark when their income simply doesn’t support their needs.

Perhaps more important than all this, we need a change in language. Politicians and journalists seem to have swallowed a narrowly economistic interpretation of human motivation - that people behave in ways that are concerned with their own, often small and local sense of the common good. A first step is to recognise the extraordinary gap between what most people actually do and how the world of politics thinks we act. We also need to recognise the distance between the `aspirations’ of ordinary people and the strange world of the super-rich. It is time we started talking about how weird the rich are. But it’s also time we stopped beating up on our `voters’ for living in the real world, and for wanting to consume. The job of politicians is to tell stories of the way people lead good lives together with things.

The right wins the battle of ideas because it provides a compelling account of how the world is. By staking our claim to create a different future upon a false, often downright nasty, account of how people are, we on the left give up any chance of winning the debate. The success of Labour politics depends not on our ability to imagine a different future, but our capacity to describe the present in terms that make a different way of doing things possible.

This article is from issue 48 of the journal Soundings and is exclusively available online at NLP.

Jon Wilson teaches history at King’s College London, where he helped lead the successful campaign to pay the London Living wage. He is a Labour activist in Greenwich and Woolwich where he coordinates campaigning, and helped set up Labour Values. Jon’s research focuses on what makes governments lose touch with the people they rule, and has predominantly focused on British rule in India. His most recent book is “The Domination of Strangers. Modern Governance in Eastern India”.


1. Maurice Glasman, `Labour as a Radical Tradition’ in Maurice Glasman, Marc Stears, Jonathan Rutherford and Stuart Wood (eds.), The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?