New Internationalist

The bushfires of affluence

Issue 379

Jeremy Seabrook weighs the cost to just a few generations in Britain – and around the world – of being dazzled by consumerism.

As a child, I absorbed from my mother and her 10 surviving brothers and sisters an account of the life of their family, scattered across the countryside of Northamptonshire. A central event in this narrative was the suicide of a distant patriarch, who had fathered a child with his own daughter and then, tormented by remorse, had gone to the highest point in the neighbourhood and cut his own throat. This occurred some time in the second half of the 18th century. Although a very public happening, it was transmitted through time as a secret; the shame surrounding the story ensured that it would continue to be told.

As indeed it was. But this sad tale was not the main purpose of an oral tradition which came down through one family. We were part of a long collective memory which evoked a whole archaic rural culture, dominated by ancient superstitions and customs, signs and portents for human life read in the skies and the countryside, in the flowering of the fields and the behaviour of birds and animals; herbal remedies and folk-medicine, faith in a complex web of belief which fell into disuse during my mother’s lifetime and which is now forgotten beyond recall.

They had preserved a raw local culture, another dialect, unique to the isolated markettown which Northampton then was. In their daily speech they unselfconsciously used words known to Shakespeare and Chaucer but already lost to the standard tongue. One of the great delights of my adolescence was the discovery of a Northamptonshire Glossary, in two volumes, compiled in the mid-19th century by a country clergyman’s wife. I would sit with my mother hour after hour, asking her if she knew the meaning of this or that word, or was familiar with certain expressions; until, exasperated, she demanded to know why I showed such a perverse interest in things she had tried to educate me out of.

It is now a familiar story: a local culture of home, limited and constricting, which an aspiring generation seeks to leave behind; only to find that those who come after are avid to re-acquire the heritage apparently squandered by its predecessor.

All the children of my grandparents began work in the tanneries and boot and shoe factories of Northampton. The town was not large, and since you could see, through the red-brick funnel of the streets, the hills and meadows that enclosed it, the courts, squares and alleys felt even more enclosed and claustrophobic. The industry responded not only to fluctuations in the economy but, equally, to the pulse of war and peace. In wartime there was always plenty of work from military contracts, which gave people a prosperity that was slightly shaming, based as it was on conflict and violence. When business was slack, they fell into a grudging and penny-pinching poverty.

A new culture grew around the staple industry. This, of course, shared many characteristics with that of other industrial areas – textiles, shipbuilding, hosiery, steel – but its rural background gave leatherworkers a distinctive inflection. It was a closed world. The population of the town remained below 100,000 until well into the 20th century; and the community was sufficiently limited for everyone in each of the small industrial suburbs to know one another – perhaps 15,000 families in all, divided into five or six areas. They followed each other’s births and deaths through the local paper, observed and noted who had been in court for disturbing the peace, being drunk and disorderly, stealing or breaking and entering, fighting, who was granted a decree nisi and for what reason, who had stolen clothes from washing lines or had been arrested for importuning in public lavatories.

When I started to maintain a record of these things in the early 1960s, they had a double poignancy: the industrial culture which had overlaid its rural forerunner was itself already close to dissolution. Already the bushfires of affluence (the forerunner of consumerism) were sweeping through the old industrial areas of Britain, reshaping the people to another destiny than that of a lifetime of labour at the factory bench. Just two or three generations earlier, people had been compelled to forsake the rhythms of the countryside and its seasons for the harsher tempo of wage-labour. The customs and values of the rural life that had so powerfully marked my mother’s generation had long been buried by an industrial culture which was itself about to disappear.

There are few experiences more disruptive and traumatic to human beings than to lose faith in the values and beliefs by which they have interpreted the world, and which gave them meaning. When I tried to express the disorientation and sense of loss, it was ridiculed. I was accused of being romantic, nostalgic, setting my face against progress, kicking away the ladder which had permitted my own rise in the world. It proved almost impossible to make the more subtle point that the issue was the decay of a system of belief, not whether its beliefs might be worthy or without merit. The decay of faith in a sustaining way of life has been the story of the modern world. Few who have lived through it can remain unmoved by its passing.

That all this was happening at a time when people were becoming better-off than they had ever been did not lessen the confusion and anxiety of generations raised to work and want. Confusion, because what they had wanted above all, both in the earlier rural society and in the industrial life into which they had been driven, was an assured sufficiency, security and a moment of peace in which to bring up a new generation. The volume and variety of goods which were suddenly brought into the reach of people schooled in frugality and restraint proved overpowering.

This version of plenty bore only an incidental relationship to what people had striven for, to the effort and pain of the defences built up over the years by the labour and trade union movements. That this appeared the only pathway out of poverty was not questioned by people who had, above all, wanted a way out of the sparing, ungenerous subsistence which had always been their fate. It occurred to few that there might have been more just and more joyful ways out of poverty. People were not disposed to consider whether the full cost might appear only later; that the point of consumption was only the beginning of a long journey into dependency and debt; that the price to be paid socially – as opposed to economically – might one day become almost unbearable.

The dust sent up by the altered environment, the dazzling light let in by the demolition of hated sites of exploitation and overwork, the sound of hammering, beating and re-assembling of the new décor, made us unaware of its true nature. Only now can we begin to take account of the costs of the better world of which we are now the long-term inheritors.

There are few experiences more disruptive and traumatic to human beings than to lose faith in the values and beliefs by which they have interpreted the world, and which gave them meaning

It is not that people didn’t desperately need relief from poverty. What they didn’t ask for was the macabre attendants of that relief – the multiple addictions generated by market-dependency, crime and violence, fear of strangers and estrangement from our familiars, insecurity, the breakdown of old associations of kin and neighbourhood. That these brutal things are attributed to human nature by the defenders of this version of wealth has been the facile explanation for the nature of capitalist plenty. Instead of prosperity we got consumerism; instead of security, an unquiet dependency on the market; instead of plenty, more shopping facilities; instead of peace, a driven, relentless competitiveness.

The experience of the peoples of the world echoes that of the people of Britain. It is a question of degree: elsewhere the uprooting of ancient cultures is far more intense and brutal. Indigenous peoples everywhere – the tribal people (adivasis) of India, the forest-dwellers, coastal and riverine communities, subsistence farmers, nomads, slash-and-burn cultivators – have seen their lives broken, first by colonial interference in patterns of life that had subsisted for millennia, and later by a globalization in which the universal market makes its superior claim to their lands, wood, water, forest, the minerals that lie beneath the earth they occupy.

When I first saw the sweatshops of Mumbai and Dhaka, the garment factories of Bangkok and Jakarta, the slums of São Paulo and Manila, full of migrants from a wasting and impoverished hinterland, these did not appear to be representatives of alien cultures. They reminded me of the early life of my mother and her sisters, who sat beside the workbenches, cutting the threads and tying knots in the ends of machinestitched shoes.

Perhaps it is the fate of all cultures to die before they are rediscovered, to pass away before they become the object of a sustained rescue mission. I feel shame when I think of the heartless dismissiveness when I heard the raw, semi-rural rasp of their voices, and that I was not able to tell them that I recognize that they live on with me. I have discovered their voices long after – as they would have said – they had their mouth stopped with mould. It is an old sadness, this recognition that always appears to come too late; but which nonetheless continues to do its work in the world in the face of all the fashionable orthodoxies and transient certitudes of those who claim to have outlived ancient truths; to believe in a life which can transcend the limitations of the ages and gain something more than its uncertain joys, modest affections and inevitable loss.

Cultures do die. Practices and customs may fall into disuse. But the animating principles live on, waiting for their time once more. They are not so easily banished. They mutate, they take on new shapes, they remain, they assume a cunning new aspect to astonish with their novelty the old wisdom they represent. These quiet, conserving cultures are to be found, in one form or another, all over the world. They are not foreign or alien. They embody the familiar and the homely and the everyday – the things perpetually waiting to be rediscovered by those who think they have outgrown them, forsaken them for ever.

This is an edited extract from Jeremy Seabrook, Consuming Cultures – Globalization and Local Lives, recently published by New Internationalist and available in good bookshops and to buy at NI on-line stores: NI Australia NI Canada NI UK NI US

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