openDemocracyUK

'Violent shopping': the riots and consumer capitalism

The report on England's riots recommends protecting children from excessive marketing. Too little, too late. If we want to prevent future riots, we have to kick back against consumer culture in its totality.

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Neal Lawson
28 March 2012

So in addition to focusing on schools and problem families the report on the riots also recommends the Government appoints an "independent champion" to manage conversations between big brands and the government about how to protect children from excessive marketing.

Talk about breaking out the sticking plasters to fix the broken leg. Riots happen for myriad reasons but rampant materialism in poor communities is a big one and no ‘independent champion’ is going to fix this.

It was the shops what done it. As I type that I can just feel the latest iPads (oh the irony) being tossed aside with indignation. It's individual responsibility they rage.  Not every poor person rioted, ipso facto, it must be an issue of bad parenting or schooling. It's not my problem, it's theirs.

But why did so many kids riot and why was the focus not the police but the shops?

We live in a world where we are what we buy. It is how we form our identities and mark our place in the pecking order. Even those who claim they don’t follow a fashion pick particular items out of thousands of possible choices with infinite selective care in order to belong to their tribe. Why else would you ‘not be seen dead in that’?  We express our need to belong and our desire to be different through shopping. 

Enter the Independent Champion. Her or his job would be to manage conversations between politicians and retailers. Just think about that. That’s politicians who want growth and jobs at any price and retailers who are under enormous competitive pressure to sell us not just more stuff but a never-ending stream of new things. That is how the modern economy works – by persuading us to work all hours to buy things we didn’t know we needed with money we don’t have. To do this the retailers employ an army of neurologists, psychologists, designers, branding experts, marketers and advertisers.  Every new means of technology is deployed. There is no escape. You were born to buy.

But what if you can’t even get credit, you have no hope of a job, let alone a place at university? What if the gang is your family? Then the right brands matter more than anything.  They are all you have to form your identity and your meaning. You are told and shown everyday what it is to be normal in a consumer society but all you can do is window shop. 

So when the chance comes along on a hot London night to become normal, albeit through abnormal means, you seize it. All of a sudden you give window shopping a new meaning. The life long hopelessness and the daily humiliation can be averted. The feelings of powerlessness and meaningless are temporally lifted. You take your chance.

But when they take their chance, just as thousands of others take theirs through the ‘normal’ route of school, university and internships, when they show enterprise, initiative and some get up and go – we despise them. We hate their cheating ways. We are appalled at their lawlessness. We want them to be locked up and the key thrown away. We work hard and play by the rules. We want safety for our law abiding ways and to get on with our all consuming lives. We think those things because that is their only social role – to make us fear being like them so we stay dutifully on the consumer treadmill. 

This is the unique role of the ‘other’ today. To police us.  Before, in the society of producers, the abnormal were the unemployed. But they had their uses. They would be called into action to fight or work if the conditions arose.  Therefore they had some value and therefore were worthy of some investment in terms of education and welfare. Today, in the society of consumers, the failures and  rioters have no value.  Today there is no reserve army of consumers. They have no place. Except to keep us on the straight and narrow by showing us what happens if we don’t keep up. 

The job of consumer capitalism is to make as much money as possible, by any means and at any cost to lives, society and the planet. Its ability to systematically order our lives on the consumer treadmill and persuade us through propaganda to do what we would otherwise reject as ridiculous, in part because it denies any other ways of being human, is close to totalitarian.  If there is no other way to be and that depends in part on the demonization of a minority ‘other’ what else is it?  Just because it’s a regime based on seductive oppression rather than physical fear just makes it more potent.  The upshot is that we blame and persecute those who never had a chance and tell them its all their fault.  

In other countries they have more equality so more have a chance.  Some, like Sweden, ban adverts to children under 12, others outdoor advertising.  Such things help stop riots.

But what would make a real difference is starting to create the conditions where we can be fully human and more, much more than shopping machines. It means we need more time and less things.  But it starts with the recognition that we are all born wonderfully different but equally deserving of the right to make the most of those differences.  So that if we had the chance to look into the eyes of the rioters what we would see is not ‘the other’ but ourselves – our own hopes and fears. Then we have the chance for empathy with them and not just to despise them. Then and only then can we all have hope.

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