On Friday, a significant number of my fellow citizens – most of whom, as far as I know, had no previous record of mental health issues – went completely mad. Footage of apparently unhinged hordes clambering over one another and desperately grabbing at plasma screen TVs filled news bulletins. Columnists up and down Britain could be heard sharpening their pencils preparing to launch a tirade against the worst excesses of consumer capitalism. Priests and bishops preparing their Advent Sunday sermons must have felt like Christmas had come early as this bout of collective lunacy gave them the perfect opportunity to remind their congregants that this time of year hasn’t always been exclusively about discounted vacuum cleaners.
Absurd as it may now seem, there was in fact a time when consumerism was the great hope of centre-left intellectuals. Michael Young, the man responsible for drafting the 1945 Labour manifesto, believed that, over time, politics would become less and less about production and more and more about consumption – and that this was an emphatically good thing. In 1960, he published a pamphlet called The Chipped White Cups of Dover in which he wrote the following:
‘It is not as producers that we feel sympathy for Indian or Chinese peasants – rather the reverse since other producers are possible competitors. It is as consumers that we feel for them: they too are people, whose families are dying because they do not get enough to eat.’
From the perspective of 2014, this is charmingly naïve at best. It turns out we are capable of making consumption every bit as competitive as production (clearly Young was an only child, because anyone who grows up with siblings learns that consumption can be fiercely competitive at an early age – I still can’t have a meal involving potatoes with my youngest brother without it descending into a feeding frenzy).
So, does Black Friday mean that the ideal of compassionate, socially conscious consumerism is dead? Of course there are myriad examples of consumers making positive choices, not fuelled purely by greed and idiocy. Just look at the success of the fair trade movement and the number of people buying organic – or the increasing ubiquity of brands like Innocent and Whole Foods. But, great as these examples are, they seem like little more than tinkering around the edges of the great global capitalist machine.
In their book The Breakthrough Challenge, sustainability guru John Elkington and former Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz call for a re-think of economics – ‘the master discipline of capitalism’ – itself. They don’t really go any further than this, but I’d suggest consumption as a good starting place. In the centuries since the field of economics first came into existence and economic man was assigned his two basic functions – produce and consume – there has been a serious imbalance in the amount of attention paid to the two halves of this equation. Economists have noted major shifts in the nature of production – from farming to manufacturing to services – and have expended huge quantities of intellectual energy trying to figure out the best ways to maximise efficiency and utility.
Meanwhile, consumption is the neglected child. Economists of left and right seem to be united in their complete indifference to how we consume, so long as we get on and do it. But, when looked at in the context of a spiralling global population, finite natural resources, a planetary ecosystem that can’t take much more abuse, and our basic human desire to live in a fair society, the argument that all consumption is good consumption simply doesn’t cut it. What’s more, the conflation of consumption – the process by which we meet our basic human needs and wants – with the greed, acquisitiveness and materialism of Black Friday is deeply unhelpful. We need to distinguish between consumerism – in and of itself no bad thing – on the one hand, and pure insanity on the other.
Economics can, I believe, help us out of this mess. It can start by applying some of the rigour and analysis it has previously reserved for the supply side of our economic life to the demand side. What if we thought about consumption in terms of efficiency and utility? I find it hard to believe that the mayhem in shops on Friday was a result of thousands of people’s TVs all ceasing to be fit for purpose at exactly the same time. An efficient consumer would think twice before throwing away one mobile phone that works to replace it with another that is likely to have an even shorter lifespan than its predecessor. And just as producers understand that the more of something you make, the less it is worth, perhaps consumers will one day cotton on to the fact that the more stuff you own, the less value any of it brings to your life.
And what if economists offered practical advice to consumers – not just on what model to buy, as publications like Which? magazine (something else Michael Young had a hand in setting up) already do, but on whether to buy at all? We, the consumers, may not like being preached to by economists at first, but in time, if the advice proved useful, I suspect we’d be won round.
So perhaps Michael Young wasn’t barking up completely the wrong tree after all. It is by improving ourselves as consumers that we will better ourselves as a civilisation. We just don’t yet have the mental frameworks and intellectual models we need in order to be the best consumers we can be.