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.
Slavoj Žižek appeared on the BBC’s Culture Show a few days ago. I’d been meaning to write it up and am only now getting around to it. His performance is dazzling, as per usual, and we socialists do like our in-jokes, but I thought that this time, rather than just show the video, I might pick up on a point or two of what he says, and how it relates to his wider oeuvre and his practice of what he preaches.
In the interview, Žižek maintains that the purest form of ideology is in cinema, that it is ‘more real than our everyday reality’. It is with this in mind that most of Žižek’s written works must be read – and to this is then applied the unique blend of Žižek’s systems of analysis: Marxist, Lacanian psychoanalysis and so on. I can see how certain ideologies can be evinced through certain movies. Žižek uses blockbuster ‘2012’ as one of several examples he gives.
One message from the film suggests that ‘in order for one stupid American family to come together,’ most of the world’s population must be wiped out – that solidarity under current conditions is impossible, that even imagining is pointless, for the individual as much as for Hollywood.
There is a logic here; it is a motif repeated in almost every Hollywood disaster movie – the disaster wreaks a personal effect, which is almost universally good, presented as the exposure of the people underneath the day to day existence. Except that who we are day to day is who we are; the normal processes of the system are what the system is.
What Žižek is suggesting, and where I agree with him, is that in this repeated motif, we can see a function of ideology. It is the argument that we should disregard banality, disregard our day to day drudgery, because who we are, and who other people are, underneath sets us apart from all that. The moral of the story is a sedative.
Thus the constellations of message produced by Hollywood takes on the role of one more arm of the hegemonic ideology. Here is an opportune space to query Žižek’s epistemological assumptions. Žižek does not believe in an objective reality; what decides between competing interpretations is the “master-signifier”, a resistance to the infinite regression of over-intellectualized reason, “It is so because I say it is so!”
The concept of hegemony is based on the idea that one can know the real processes at work through the system of socio-economic organization we call capitalism. Having gained further knowledge of cinema and this particular movie, we can then suggest how its message might relate to this broader process that we’ve observed, i.e. the attempt to normalize as common sense everything that upholds values conducive to the smooth running of that system.
We can argue over the meaning of ‘2012’, much like people argued over the meaning of Avatar. Yet we do so within the universe of the things actually contained within the film. Moreover we do so in the context of pre-existing ideology, the common sense factor, and mechanisms of dissemination controlled by the gate-keepers of the common sense factor (the press), all of which will have an effect on interpretation.
So the reality of the processes of capitalism have an effect in determining the interpretation. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s not limitless. It is not merely raw material to be warred over by competing factions wishing to hegemonize it and utilize its popular appeal for their own ends, much in the way that some Left groups tend to approach nationalism or ethnic identities.
It will contain the same contradictions as the ideology (or some part thereof) of the system which created it. We resolve those contradictions using the fundamental analytical categories provided by Marxism. It’s only when looked at in this way can we avoid what seem like wanton extrapolations from a film, however tightly packed it might be with ideology, however closely it may be linked to how capitalism thinks about itself, to the whole world or a whole ideology, or a whole socio-economic system of organizing.
In the interview, Žižek continues, “If you want to approach how beliefs function today, I claim, the best example I can imagine is that stupid cartoon which I’ve seen five, six times, because of my small son, Kung-Fu Panda.” Žižek goes on to link in the Marx brothers and how these explain the appeal of Silvio Berlusconi:
“This guy looks as an idiot, acts as an idiot, but this shouldn’t deceive you, this guy is an idiot”. Berlusconi is wealthy, his corruption is the subject of much debate, much like his links to the fascists and his many affairs with beautiful women and his changing of the law to suit his private interests. People, it seems, simply don’t believe that one can act like such a moron and yet be a moron.
This type of analogy seems different the previous one, more straightforward, assuming that what we can see in day to day life is real, and that we may look for reflections and distortions of the ‘real’ in cinema.
Whereas in the previous example, Žižek was taking a specific film and generalizing to the form in which capitalist hegemony attempts to oppress people, in this one it is mere metaphor for what we can see with our own eyes. An opportune film demonstrates a phenomenon we’ve all wondered about over George W. Bush and Berlusconi.
Simply put, how can people continually elect a moron? Žižek calls this the ‘double-cynical wager’, that if someone acts like what they are, then people will expect them not to be that. The explanation of this surface-phenomenon might be complex, but we’re still working within the confines of empirical data.
When attempting to explain such phenomenon, using cinema as a means to extrapolate meaning, whether by analogy or some other process, is as valid as reaching for any of the other items in our shared cultural universe. Cinema is as common a language as any, and there’s the added value that it’s entertaining – though even here, I think, we locate a flaw in our esteemed theorist.
He suggests that the current situation demands that we wake people up to the ideology that they live and breathe as part of their daily routine. Yet there are very few people who are going to read the tracts of any of the current shower of academics – Marxist, liberal, libertarian, whatever. Presumably it is through this entertainment, which include several visual endeavours and lecturing at a rubbish tip, that we might wake people up.
I think this loses sight of the need to approach people where they are, in languages with which they are familiar.
Žižek also suggests that if he were taken seriously, it would mean that he is ‘integrated’ into the cosseted, cultural buffer against revolutionism that universities so often form. While this is probably true, and Zizek’s antics make him stick out like a sore thumb, being taken seriously and being integrated need not mean the same thing. It really depends on who Žižek wants to take him seriously.
If it’s fellow academics, then being taken seriously and being integrated often are the same thing. One need only compare the lives of academic socialists such as Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson. However, if Žižek wishes to be taken seriously by the people he wishes to carry out the revolution (however he wishes to define them, assuming they’re not an intellectual elite), then he needs to get his hands dirty at public meetings and on the doorsteps as well as writing such stylish prose.
That will prevent his integration to the Academy.