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Consumer greed is making suckers of us all If it's not useful or beautiful, then chuck it out

"Black Friday" shoppers in New York City. Credit: Stephanie Keith / Getty

"Black Friday" shoppers in New York City. Credit: Stephanie Keith / Getty

August 10, 2018   4 mins

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” was William Morris’ useful advice, providing an admirably stripped-down checklist to support us chuckers in our constant war with the hoarders. If it’s not beautiful or useful, get rid of it.

But the hoarders have a new option in their pathological avoidance of de-cluttering: hire some self-storage space. According to the 2018 Self Storage Association UK Annual Industry Report – and no, it’s not a riveting read – the self-storage industry continues to enjoy the boom times in Britain. There is now over 40 million square feet of storage space in the UK, much of it filled with the mountains of detritus that we have acquired over the years and, for some reason, find ourselves unable to part with.

We must all learn to be poorer, and most especially the prosperous West

These sad little (or not so little) storerooms of our useless crap tell an important tale about the spiritual and political malady of our times: consumerism. These are the places where the dreams sold to us by the advertising industry go to die. One day all our expensively accumulated rubbish will be cleared out into the skip – but we do not want to face how that mocks our consumerist commitments, how it rubbishes (literally) the underlying economic assumption of our times.

And yet our economy is driven by the consumer, and that economic growth (needed to pay off our national debts) is brought about by encouraging us to want more and more, to buy more and more, thus to further stimulate the economy. We are thus constantly pressured to sit in front of Amazon and buy things we don’t particularly want, and certainly don’t need, with money we don’t have. More, more, more. Growth, growth, growth.

When Keynes gave his famous lecture “Economic Possibility for our Grandchildren” in 1930, he predicted that “the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day”. He was roughly about right about this. But what he was completely wrong about was when he said we would work a great deal less, enjoying the fruits of economic prosperity in the Eden of creative leisure and free time spent with our loved ones.

Keynes was naive – he did not distinguish properly between the stuff that we need and the stuff that we can be made to want, especially by clever advertising. And whereas needs are potentially satiable, wants are not. So Keynes was wrong about his Eden of leisured prosperity because he didn’t imagine us being foolish enough to be kept on the treadmill by being made to want all the crap that we now pay to put into storage.

Consider: you are in the garden, messing around with the kids, doing nothing in the lovely weather, and you flop for a moment in front of the TV, and the adverts come on. And the message they all give is a version of this: this life, the life you have now, this messing about with the kids, is all a bit shit really. Just think how much better it could be with a new car/body/house/holiday/kitchen etc etc. Advertising’s aim is to first make you dissatisfied with your lot in life.

In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche attacks Christianity for doing exactly the same thing. That it has to wound before it heals. That it first creates the pain – your life is meaningless! – to which it then offers itself as the cure. Advertising works in exactly this way. It is a machine for the generation of unhappiness. I love messing about in the garden with my kids over the summer, doing nothing. This is indeed the garden of Eden. But the snake drips poison in my ear: this is all a bit rubbish really, things could be so much better. Look what they have next door.

And the problem here is not just a domestic challenge for the relatively prosperous West. In his extraordinary Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra diagnoses one of the causes of our present angry age as being a deep spiritual resentment – Nietzsche used the word resentment for this – that goes with the fear of missing out.

Our present age is characterised by a deep anger at not having what others have

Drawing on the work of Rene Girard and mimetic desire – that we desire what others desire, that desire is a form of copying – and adding to this the explosion of information technology that is the internet, Mishra rightly understands our present age as being characterised by a deep anger at not having what others have. As the two thirds of the world learns more about what we have had in the West, their anger at missing out intensifies.

But the world does not have anywhere near enough resources for the sort of prosperity that we have in the West to be enjoyed by all the peoples of the earth. And if that becomes the goal of billions, the planet will be made uninhabitable by the resulting carbon. If everyone on this planet strove for our standard of living, there is no way we could keep global warming under two degrees.

No, we must all learn to be poorer, and most especially the prosperous West. It is the largest spiritual and political challenge of our times. We must learn new joys, the joys of being without all the rubbish we are told we need. We must learn the beauty of more simple living.

We need to imagine the sort of simple joyous life that the atheist Keynes had in mind, but that has been subsequently contaminated by the poison of advertising

“No one voted to be poorer”, said Remainer MP Anna Soubry in a recent Brexit debate in the House of Commons, as if she were voicing something so blindingly obvious that just to hear it was to command universal assent. But the need to deal with being poorer – and especially by those not used to it  – is going to be the most important challenge of the rest of this century.

This is not a hair shirt philosophy of religious miserableness. We need to imagine the sort of simple joyous life that the atheist Keynes had in mind, but that has been subsequently contaminated by the poison of advertising. Having more and more was not a route to happiness. We weren’t just mis-sold PPI – we were mis-sold pretty much everything. We are taking more antidepressants than every before. And taking our own lives more than ever before.

So now we have to go through the painful process of detox. If it’s not useful or beautiful, then chuck it out. And don’t get suckered again. Consumerism is an evil that will destroy us all.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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