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January 21, 2015


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From Arse To Elbow

As has been mentioned a few times on this blog, a citizens' basic income would be one way of simultaneously increasing growth and community. What's not to like? The reason why this, and other egalitarian measures, is outside the Overton Window is precisely because of the false dichotomy that Bourne presents.

Whereas once the church acted as an ideological arm of the state ("work hard, your reward lies in Heaven"), now it acts as an outsourced conscience, providing a low-cost "indulgence" for the rich and making pro-social policy look unworldy (funny how Justin Welby, after years in business, proved utterly naive in respect of payday lenders).

If John Sentamu didn't exist, Ryan Bourne would have to invent him.

Peter K.

For me the Ur-example is Weimar Germany. I don't understand why most people, especially conservatives ignore it. Here's Wikipedia which is we know is factually acurate about everything (here I think they are right):


"Brüning's policy of deflation (1930–1932)


The consensus today is that Brüning's policies exacerbated the German economic crisis and the population's growing frustration with democracy, contributing enormously to the increase in support for Hitler's NSDAP."

Isn't one of history's main lessons that we want to avoid making people frustrated with democracy? It seems a bit solipsistic and reckless for American and UK conservatives and the for the German elite to ignore this lesson.


You’re too kind, Chris. As usual, Ryan presents the reader with a false dilemma between either his favoured form of minimal state capitalism or the stone age/the gulag.


*Dr* Sentamu

Luis Enrique

This rampant consumerism idea gets on my tits. I mean 95% of my expenditure is on rent, food, utilities, transport. Once in a while i go wild, buy a book, some trousers, eat out at a restaurant or replace the broken bog seat. Yet in the mind of - well, whoever craps on about consumerism - we're all out there buying xboxes and designer underpants every spare minute. Consumer goods are a minute part of my life, i barely give them a moments thought. I am quite prepared to believe some people buy more clothes than they need, a few are borderline crazy shoppers, but I reckon the vast majority of people are nothing like this phantasm of consumerism that I read so much about in the guardian, by writers who observe shops full of stuff and adverts trying to sell us stuff, and whilst of course they see themselves above it all, are too quick to believe their fellow citizens are easily led by the nose, as opposed to bring fairly sensible people making sensible purchases.

I once bought an ice cream maker I never use, but I don't regard that as a crises for civilisation.

From Arse To Elbow

@Luis, rampant consumerism is less about us spending every minute of our waking lives buying unnecessary crap and more about extending the mode of consumerism to necessities. In other words, framing inescapable consumption as choice.

This is why Panorama devotes programmes to the doings of Tesco, why increases or cuts in gas bills and rail fares are always headline news, and why "rent" is still a poor relation to "mortgages" and "property investment" in media discourse.

The effect of this is not only to frame any argument against the priority of commodities over community as a restraint on choice, but to drown out consideration of what we might actually like within the domain of true choice.


And what if "robust growth" is no longer possible, due to biophysical limits to growth? (resource depletion, climate change) How would our current ideology set, with almost all its variation having appeared during strong growth eras, cope with it?

Luis Enrique

Hi Fate

I don't think your take on this is shared by the authors of the jeremiads about consumerism I am used to reading.

I don't understand much of it either - for example we have not choice but to eat, but we can choose what to eat. There might be some possible worlds in which this is not true, but I do not think I'd like them.

Suppose we did not suffer from "rampant consumerism", would we then no longer find changes in utility / transport prices newsworthy? Or for you is simply having prices these things "consumerism"?

I don't know what arguments about the priority of commodity over community are, or why what you'd wish to say would seen as a constraint on choice (unless it actually would be a constraint on choice).

Similarly, I don't know what you mean by the domain of true choice. I take it to mean that our choices are naturally constrained by what's available, but we could also think about how what's available, how things are done, could differ. If so, I reckon 'consideration' of those questions something most people aren't much bothered with, and I don't see that consumerism is why. It's always hard to see past the status quo, but that's true whether the status quo is consumerism, or something else.

An Alien Visitor

We lack choice because we lack control, so in our society we are led to believe by the apologists of the system (Luis is a prime example of this) that we have choice and outcomes reflect the choices we make. I beg to differ, I claim that if we had proper control over production then what got produced would look very different and priorities would be very different. We wouldn't sacrifice education and health services in order that the private sector could have room to make more of the useless shit they throw at us daily for example. So something gets lost along the way.

The consumer in a consumer society is a passive consumer, or an unthinking consumer, a consumer that doesn't think about the effect of the consumption on themselves or others (unless they are told be think that way!) and one that doesn't take part in the decision of what gets produced, other than the collective outcome of the marketplace.

In this system that seems as fundamental to me as workers not owning the means of production.

From Arse To Elbow


I was actually agreeing with the thrust of your original comment - that consumerism is a "phantasm" - but suggesting that both the critics and defenders of consumerism share an ideological purpose in treating every mundane transaction as a moment of significant choice. I wasn't lining up with the Jeremiahs, but reinforcing my earlier point that Bourne/Sentamu is a false dichotomy.

For example, issues ostensibly about "community", such as fair-trade and ethical sourcing, are used to reinforce the idea of consumer choice as something powerful and serious (the rights + responsibilities trope). I'm just trying to buy a banana. As you note, the Guardianista critique of consumerism is class-biased: you are dulled by advertising into buying crap at Iceland; I exercise my good taste by buying cheese at a farmers' market. The "rampant consumerism" critique does not seek an end to consumerism, but a better quality consumerism.

My point about media coverage is twofold. First, we are inundated with stories that imply we should care about retailers and the extent of market choice (the daily updates from the supermarket front, the perennial M&S "crisis" etc); that we should feel guilty about not being active choosers (e.g. switching utilities); and that we should be frustrated by a lack of choice (rail fares).

Second, this selectivity narrows the agenda. For example, renationalising the railways (which would disproportionately benefit the South East middle class) gets an airing, but renationalising the utilities (which would benefit most people) doesn't. The media also bias the domain of choice to our role as consumers, ignoring our role as producers (as AAV notes). For example, we could more quickly switch our energy sources from conventional to renewable via nationalisation than consumer pressure (even with subsidies).

Luis Enrique

see, there you go FATE, that's what I'm talking about (above). All you people are "unthinking consumers" only us enlightened few see this truth.

People love being regarded as morons - I just can't understand why this tendency within the left isn't more successful at the ballot box.

Luis Enrique

Fate - thanks for explaining. I'm not sure what I make of your points. I think I'm with you that in some contexts, choice isn't so important / desirable compared to other things (is that part of what you are saying?) and for sure command economies can change things more quickly than those relying on consumer pressure. That's a double-edged sword, mind.

Luis Enrique

oh and fate, sorry for initially missing your meaning, I think you and I speak somewhat different languages

From Arse To Elbow


No need to apologise. My second comment in this thread was perhaps a little opaque. It was late, and I'd just polished off a lovely little Malbec that I'd picked up in Borough Market that morning.

Anyway, my point is not that choice isn't important or desirable (we can all think of myriad occasions when it is) but that it becomes a fetish and thus intrudes on situations where it is trivial or irrelevant. This elevation of choice is characteristic both of choice-fundamentalists and critics of "rampant consumerism". Bourne and Sentamu need to get out more; or perhaps read The Dice Man.

Igor Belanov

Isn't the point when 'consumerism' has taken hold the time when masses of people treat shopping as a leisure activity?

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