Tag Archives: consumerism

Changing the story

Richard Pithouse, reflecting on the recent riots in England…

…The young people contained in decaying council estates are bombarded by relentless corporate propaganda conflating access to consumer goods with meaning, beauty and dignity. Cameron likes to say that there are communities in England that are broken. But it is a society that tells young people that they have to consume to live with dignity but denies them work or the money to consume that is broken.

In the age of enclosure, rioters tore down fences. In the age of mechanisation, rioters smashed machines. Its hardly surprising that in the age of consumerism some people should leave their grim and fearful council estates, with their stairwells littered with needles and rank with the stench of urine, to, for a night or two, occupy, smash and loot the temples of consumerism…

They have seized public space, desecrated the temples of consumerism, a religion from which they are structurally barred from full inclusion, and affirmed their existence in a society that holds them in contempt and insists that they keep to their place.

There has, to be sure, been vile and tragic behaviour amidst the upheaval. And while vile acts must always be resolutely opposed we should recall that in a riot, an event that is spectacularly outside of the norm, every perverse act is hyper visible and will be exploited to stand in for and to condemn the whole. In the everyday passing of time the structural vileness of society… is masked as normal and remains largely invisible.

from The Return of the English Riot
by Richard Pithouse

The over arching meta-narrative of consumerism – a meta-narrative we are not suspicious of, despite what postmodernism would have us believe – is not serving us well. Coupled with a ‘do whatever is right for you’ approach to morality, it isn’t working at all. Whether you are spinning corporate propaganda to convince a fifteen-year-old that new trainers are a matter of life and death, or whether you are a fifteen-year-old who believes you must satisfy your own desire for new trainers no matter the cost – what feels right to you may cause untold grief and heartache for someone else. Unfortunately, a society that privatises morality has no framework to address these issues.

What is needed is not an increase in wealth, or structural social changes so that the poor can participate in the religion of consumerism. What is needed is a change of religion.

People need to know they are valuable, not on the basis of what they own, or what they do, but on the basis of their humanity. Meaning, dignity and beauty are their birthright, not something they have to purchase on the way.

People need to know that it is possible to move from devastation and despair, through to peace and hope.

People need to know that mercy and forgiveness and grace could swallow up the whole world’s evil, if only we let them.

People need to know they are so loved, that God didn’t even spare His only Son, but sent Him to the cross and raised Him from the dead so they could be in a relationship with Him.

People need to know your story church.Tell it,  live it out. Never has it been more necessary.

Idea for a social experiment

Lets take a group of people and constantly bombard them with the idea that they ‘need’ certain possessions in order to be ‘happy’ and fulfilled’ say, for the first sixteen years of their lives, while simultaneously keeping them in poverty so that they can never have access to what we have trained them to believe they ‘need.’ Then lets cut any kind of funding which helps keep these people from pushing forward, achieving any kind of education, having any hope for the future or even from just being entertained for a few nights a week.

Lets make sure no one cares enough to challenge their greedy, self-centred attitudes; to teach them about respect and discipline; or to tell them that they are worth something. In fact, lets silence all other messages, except the ones telling them what possessions they ‘need’ in order to be ‘happy.’

Then lets sit back and see what happens…

E.B. White and rebalancing a lost equilibrium

Written by E. B. White, November 1942:

I am beginning to believe that our new world that will open up after the war should be constructed round a repopulated rural America, so that a reasonably large proportion of the population shall participate in the culture of the earth. … and the country should be inhabited very largely and broadly by all the people who feel at home there, because of its gift of light and air and food  and security, and because it supplies a man directly, instead of indirectly. The trend toward the ownership of land by fewer and fewer individuals is, it seems to me, a disastrous thing. For when too large a proportion of the populace is supporting itself by the indirections of trade and business and commerce and art and the million schemes of men in cities, then the complexity of society is likely to become so great as to destroy its equilibrium, and it will always be out of balance in some way. But if a considerable proportion of the people are occupied wholly or partially in labors that directly supply them with many things that they want, or think they want, whether it be a sweet pea or a sour pickle, then the public poise will be a good deal harder to upset.

The idea that we should ‘participate in the culture of the earth’ finds strong support in Christian theology. The opening narrative of the Old Testament tells how mankind was given the mandate to be fruitful, to multiply, to care for the land, to be in authority over the creatures who lived there (Genesis 1:28-30).

But ever since the fall, there has been a destruction of the ‘equilibrium’ of society. It is, indeed, ‘out of balance’ in many ways and the whole of creation groans in anticipation of the promised restoration and liberation from decay (Romans 8:21-22).

One of the main imbalances occurs in the way the global village produces and consumes. The ‘village’ aspect of our society means that our choices and actions affect everyone else – we’re all neighbors in that sense. However, the global aspect means that the end results of our choices aren’t usually visible. My ‘neighbor’ doesn’t necessarily live next door to me, which makes it easier not to care about them. So some people in the village end up getting their environment destroyed while working in slave-like conditions in order to ensure that other villagers can buy cheap clothes and eat chocolate.

White’s suggestion that people become more directly involved in producing what they want to consume feels extremely relevant, even though it was written almost seventy years ago. If you make something yourself, or have a real relationship with the person who made it, a whole new perspective can be gained on ‘stuff’ and, maybe more importantly, the people who make it.

For me  this has recently occurred in the form of purses made for me from old bed-skirts, seven-foot wooden crosses being constructed out of wood from a friend’s garage, and meals made from things grown in another friend’s garden. Even though I couldn’t have made all those things myself, I know the people who did make them, who made them for me. And if someone takes a few minutes, or a few hours, or even a few days to make something you need or want, it places a whole different value on that thing which can’t possibly be expressed in financial terms.

Being much more closely involved with the production process can also shape you in unexpected ways.

It’s a lot more humbling to ask for help making something, or to receive a handmade gift, than it is to go shopping in a store. It provokes gratitude and an appreciation of the value of things way beyond what they cost in money. Being dependent on the kindness of others, even to the smallest degree, really heightens your awareness of grace.

Positioning ourselves to become more closely involved in making what we want to consume will take a great committment in terms of time and effort. But it can be a good way of restoring some balance to the global community. It may also be a way we can stop taking from those who already have less than us, and instead receive with humility from those who choose to give.

Ultimately we are called to be an interdependent community, fully reliant on the kindness of God to do for us what we can never do for ourselves; fully reliant on each other to be mediators of that grace to the earth and all who live in it.