Home > General Politics > 2011: The year of the illegitimate consumer

2011: The year of the illegitimate consumer

Market researchers GfK NOP recently found that consumer confidence this month had fallen to its lowest level since early 2009 – at a time when the economy was still contracting. Boxing Day sprees saw a rise of 21.5% up from the same day in 2010, but the outlook on purchase power is bleak.

But what defines a consumerist society? One where there is mass consumption of tat, or where consumption is forced down our throats? One where there is more to your pound, or where someone is actually killed for a pair of trainers?

Whether confidence on the high streets is low or not, individuals in our society are seen primarily as the consumer.

Some commentators have analysed the UK riots through reference to consumerism. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman had the following to say:

These riots were, so to speak, an explosion bound sooner or later to happen… Just like a minefield: one knows that some of the explosives will true to their nature sooner or later explode, but one doesn’t know where and when.

This particular social minefield has been created by the combination of consumerism with rising inequality. This was not a rebellion or an uprising of famished and impoverished people or an oppressed ethnic or religious minority – but a mutiny of defective and disqualified consumers, people offended and humiliated by the display of riches to which they had been denied access. We have been all coerced and seduced to view shopping as the recipe for good life and the principal solution of all life problems – but then a large part of the population has been prevented from using that recipe… City riots in Britain are best understood as a revolt of frustrated consumers.

This chimes with various stories, told by those involved in the riots, re-told by the Guardian and the LSE in their Reading the Riots project. Stand out stories include:

“It was like Christmas; it was so weird … Snatch and grab, get anything you want, anything you ever desired”.

“The rioting, I was angry. The looting, I was excited. Because, just money. I don’t know, just money-motivated. Everything that we done just money-motivated.”

Interviewees spoke about the need on the streets where they live to have the best equipment, new phones, gadgets, clothing and accessories.

“Yeah, in our generation it is [important]. Clothes. Having the nicest clothes … the updated things, the big tellies, the fancy phones.”

One rather odd Guardian story had it that the consumers had chosen to target only big brand shops, not small businesses owned by families, seemingly unable to see how silly this strained appeal to a counter-narrative about support for local enterprise is.

Even Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek laid off seeing the riots through a revolutionary perspective, instead plumping for the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, which he defined as “those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.”

On the same day that there was a high street surge, a young man by the name of Seydou Diarrassouba died after being stabbed in a fight on Oxford Street. Police so far have stopped short of saying what caused the fight, but there are reports suggesting a row broke out over which trainers to steal from the shop he and some others were in. Allegedly, the young man is a part of a South London gang called ABM, which stands for All ‘Bout Money. Rivalries between similar gangs such as 031, G-Street and RSG Blood gangs from Brixton and Stockwell are supposedly to do with music differences between older members, but it probably won’t be apparent to younger members why there is such friction, only that they must uphold it.

The young man appeared in court a week before his death to face jail for stealing a phone from another man in the street, and it is rather telling that every picture of him in the papers have him, and those around him pushing or barging the police, wearing blue – this is supposedly because ABM has come to be associated with blue, and gangs associated with red are unofficial or fake “blood” gangs.

It’s not all good for the rich either. According to the Times recently (£) Paul Aitken, who runs the pawnbroker borro (which targets the cash-strapped, asset-rich), is about to receive his 100,000th loan application, three years in the business. He has put his success down to distrust in bank lenders, and a new found trust in alternative ways of lending. He told the Times:

the volume of clients has more than doubled and the average size of loan has tripled … We get a lot of people saying they don’t even bother trying at the bank any more.

The Times reported that loan funding for his company has come from Kreos Capital, which also backs Wonga – another element that will probably see great leaps of growth in the coming year.

It almost seems natural to say consumerism has gone pear-shaped this year, but a consumer is still a consumer when they take out high interest loans to fund a new pair of shoes that will last a year but keep him or her sweet with peers, or when ramming down the doors of Footlocker stores in Clapham Junction.

The consumer is low in confidence, but consumerism is doing fine.

  1. Edgar
    December 30, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    “We have been all coerced and seduced to view shopping as the recipe for good life”

    That is because to an extent this is true. Not having the latest, fashionable things can be a social disadvantage in job interviews, reproduction chances etc etc. One report said that children not connected to the internet were at a huge disadvantage. In a capitalist system commodities and purchasing power matter. Not only are we brain washed to be consumers, the system demands that we are. I would say we are every bit as brain washed as those folks in North Korea – down to the last atom.

    • December 30, 2011 at 3:18 pm

      I’ve read that somnewhere as well, if you remember the report please do tell. However on the substantial point you’re making, shopping must be looked at separately from living the good life and enjoying the minimum in order to reach one’s maximum that they can achieve. For example not having the internet is a hindrance in today’s world, and those who don’t have it are at an disadvantage – therefore they can not reach their potential. On the other hand, a pair of shitty trainers with a tick on the side is not, in the same way, a disadvantage, but one can hardly deny that achieving social networks and acquiring social capital is not, with some children and young adults – even old adults – reliant on factors such as image, which costs money that many don’t have.

      Of course it would be absurd to expect a welfare state, which ideally provides the minimum, to provide street trainers for pubescent brats. But the interview young person raises a point: consumerism tells you to buy in order to fit in, this echoes and is a rule applied by brattish kids – if you can’t afford the trainers, or nick the trainers, you’re priced out. Who is to blame here? Consumerism or brats?

  2. Edgar
    December 30, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Article attached. Also reported in todays Mirror.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/may/21/children-internet-access-exam-advantage

    I tend to agree with your point about Trainers! But my point is that consumerism isn’t just a state of mind but something borne from concrete actualities. Kids who run amok because they are deprived of consumer things are more aware of the nature of society than those noble souls who pour scorn upon them.

  3. December 30, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Excellent analysis but am I alone in thinking that tany measure consumerism is linked to the fallacy of the chimera of never-ending growth. Why is growth such a mantra or shibboleth of prosperity? Like many counties the UK is wealthy but the distribution of resource is badly skewed and exacerbated by the present government’s mad drive to enrich the very rich at the expense of just about everyone els As long as we pursue growth as if it were the sacred goal we are doomed to an ever more fractured and fractious society. Even if we all have iPads or whatever fashionable gewgaw is being presented as essential for happiness , contentment or continuing existence, there is not enough to go round :(

  4. Chris
    December 30, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    People don’t riot because of consumerism. In fifty years no one will look back on these events and blame them on consumer society, moral decay or anything like that.

  1. April 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm

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