Wednesday 9 December 2015

Buy it, want it, need it, buy it, want it, need it...

Excuse me for being obvious but I've been thinking about 'consumerism'.

Human beings have always had needs. As hominids emerged in evolution, co-operating to hunt and survive, they/we made tools and hunting weapons in order to do that. That said, when I went to Grimes Graves I was told that neolithic people also produced flints that were identical as those used for hunting and skinning but hoarded them. So, there are piles of brand new, unused flints in mini-hoards. The reckoning is, is that they are for some kind of ritual or religious purpose, perhaps as votive offering to the gods thanking him/her/them for enabling the hunt or wishing that the god/goddess brings it to fruition. Either way, it's a 'surplus' of objects that these people have made - beyond practical needs or use. In other words, early on in societies, humans discovered they could produce stuff beyond utility.

Between then and now, humans also discovered that you can produce objects for play and leisure and that these can be sold. They discovered that even the most basic items of basic, essential need can be sold - the clothes we absolutely need to cover ourselves against the weather, and of course foodstuffs. And then beyond that, even, humans found that we can sell images of ourselves to each other, we can sell ideas, we can sell each other (slavery, prostitution, football players). Even the 'basic-need' products can be turned into items that appear to be more worthy than others based on what they look like rather than what is in their content: a packet of crisps can be more 'desirable' than a bit of protein that I need. We now live in a world where virtually anything and everything, anybody, any feeling is itself marketable, or, just as importantly, can be used, adopted or adapted to make something else marketable.

For all these things to be sold, they have to be produced. You have to have a system (or several interlocking systems) of production. The present system involves bringing people together in order for owners to make profits. That's the only system available today. Now, when politicians talk, they talk as if the function and purpose of production is to bring us all these goods that we consume. So, when they talk about 'the economy' or 'Britain doing better' and the like, and 'living standards' they imply that this is all about the pleasure we get from going beyond subsistence into consuming the things we like and want and desire. What's more, in order to reach this point of pleasure, we have to have the profit-making system. Otherwise we wouldn't have all that pleasure and gratified desire. (Let's leave to one side for the moment, that millions don't get to gratify the desires created by the system because they don't have the means (money) to get what they want!)

So, our consumerism becomes the justification for profit-making. Profits, we should remember, are what's pocketed by owners. The need to make a tiny group of people rich becomes, in their language, the essential and only way in which we can become satisfied. Their wealth is our means to become happy, they are telling us. We must help them become rich. (Of course they don't express it exactly in those terms.)

This puts into context the kinds of 'news' reports we hear which talk about retail sales as a problem for all of us. So, if Tesco's sales, say, are going down, the news report invites us to share in the worry about this. We hear about how this or that is going to 'stimulate' demand. We need to be buying more, they tell us. We need to be buying more so that these firms can 'do better'.

Now, pull back from that. Do we need to be buying more because we need what they are selling us? OK, sometimes. But not all the time. And not all of the stuff they say we need. In fact, they're not bothered whether we need it or not. We just have to have it - not because we actually need it, but in order for the owners to secure the profits they need. We consume for them. Not for us. And yet it 'feels' as if it's for us. 'I'm going to buy another jumper.' Not 'I'm going to buy something that will help Jumper Inc. owners be richer.'

(As I say, this is in its own way, very obvious. And very Christmassy. Which I enjoy, by the way. I am not Scrooge.)