The goods we consume – clothes, cars, jewellery, holidays, meals, gifts – can be seen as a way of communicating things about ourselves: our social status, our values, our emotions. People consume things not simply because they need them to survive, nor because they are greedy mindless zombies in delirious thrall to modern advertising, but as a way of providing information and telling stories about themselves to others.
Cities and the countryside have become dominated by cathedrals of consumption: theme parks, shopping malls, casinos, tourist attractions, sporting venues and museums. Consumers are invited to explore new products and experiences with which to create meaning in their lives. Different quests go on – for bargains, for difference, for spiritual fulfilment. The internet is now turning homes into temples of consumption in their own right.
There is a powerful tension between the concepts of citizen and consumer. Currently, political culture is poised between giving primacy to voting or shopping. Since the late 20th century, consumerist values have spread and mutated throughout society. They have turned politics into a spectator sport and politicians into competing brands. They have eroded welfare systems and promoted the achievement of freedom, happiness, good health and education through individual choice exercised through the market. Can the concept of ‘the citizen’ form the basis of a movement that mounts a serious challenge to consumer capitalism?
Choice is a core value at the heart of consumer capitalism. The underlying rationale is ‘the more choice the better’ for consumers, the economy and society. But it has its limitations. Choice without information is not real choice, yet how can consumers get all the facts they need? Choice is also not absolute. ‘I choose to drive to the supermarket in my car’ can close off other options such as: ‘I choose to buy all my food from locally owned shops I can walk to’. Much so-called ‘consumer choice’ boils down to relative trivialities, compared to matters of life and death, political and civil rights, or the future of the planet. Surely choice should not just be a matter of which product to select, but also of whether and how to consume.
Rebellion against mainstream consumerism has always been an important part of youth counter-culture: the long-haired lovebead-draped hippies of the 1960s; the punks sporting safety-pins and razorblade-jewellery in the 1970s; ripped, bleached, tie-dyed jeans in the 1980s; the corporation-bashing subvertisers of the 1990s. But consumer capitalism has always had an extraordinary capacity to take what directly threatens it and convert it into a marketing opportunity. Perhaps the truest rebel-consumers are those who have embraced anti-consumption – whether through boycotts, local bartering systems (eg LETS schemes), or ‘Buy Nothing Days’. Is ‘buy less’ becoming the final frontier of the consumer-rebel, a challenge to the core assumptions on which the global economy is based?
A long tradition of individual and collective consumer activism across the world has taken many forms: campaigns, legal cases, education, whistle-blowing, direct action. The Irish gave the ‘boycott’ its name, but Americans practised it much earlier against the British in the struggle for independence, as did the people of the Indian sub-continent following Gandhi’s lead. The 20th century co-operative movement enabled some consumers to take control of production. In the US, consumer advocate Ralph Nader rallied activists to fight against corporate greed. Today a new wave is bringing together different existing strands of activism and trying to restructure consumption completely, on more ethical and ecological grounds, exposing and rejecting exploitative conditions, unfair trading relationships, pollution and waste.
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