The Dark Side of Consumerism

London riots

In the week or so since the riots burst forth in England there have been a gush of articles looking to explain their causes. Acting out of my "confirmation bias ( another story in full bloom in the media right now)," I found an explanation that was right on target for me.

Zygmunt Bauman, writing for the "Social Europe Journal" argues that these upheavals are the result of "Consumerism coming Home." The Journal covers "issues of critical interest to progressives." Bauman is a well-known sociologist and is Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds. His main premise is that social upheavals, such as the London riots, are the result of inequalities or disparities between "the haves and the have-nots."

These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers. . . All varieties of social inequality derive from the division between the haves and the have-nots, as Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra noted already half a millennium ago. . . The objects of desire, whose absence is most violently resented, are nowadays many and varied - and their numbers, as well as the temptation to have them, grow by the day. And so grows the wrath, humiliation, spite and grudge aroused by not having them - as well as the urge to destroy what have you can’t. Looting shops and setting them on fire derive from the same impulsion and gratify the same longing.

His piece is short and evocative. I urge you to follow the link and read the whole article. He connects "having" to the dominant consumerism so characteristic of affluent societies, writing "We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty." The poor and the unemployed cannot enter the bazaars where having the money to offer for the goods is a ticket of admission. They suffer the "stigma of a life un-fulfilled," a double whammy that feeds their own lack of self and their shame at not living up to cultural norms.

The London riots are only the latest signs of the pent up anger that bursts forth when triggered by some event that might seem to be totally disconnected. We in the US should take careful note of what is happening abroad. Our level of inequality now exceeds that of the UK. Consumerism is at least as strong an ideology underpinning of our culture. The wealthy have returned to the marketplace, perhaps never having left it. Electronic devices of all ilk are joining sneakers as a symbol of belongingness. Bauman likens shops to "temples" with the power to cure all of our earthly ills.

The riots are extreme events, but the underlying condition is, if anything, growing stronger and more widespread. The civil unrest that follows is of great concern to societies that are built on a voluntaristic foundation. There is no signs of sustainability in these events, just the opposite. Flourishing comes only when Being replaces Having. Consumption is inevitable, stemming from our biological needs for sustenance and our cultural norms. But consumerism is not. Flourishing depends on replacing a set of concerns focused primarily on the acquisition of wealth and the quantity of our possessions to a set of cares focused on the quality of relationships with each other, our own selves, and the world that is always out there. One's love for others and the world has no connection to the things one possesses, once the basic needs of subsistence are satisfied.

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David M. Carter said:

Frankly, I am a little offended by Bauman's premise about consumerism. Like many social theorists, I think he overcomplicates the issue. The basic problem is corporate control over governance and social systems. Bauman's position implies that the looters of London are lacking in something; in this case consumer power. I prefer to think of the violent reactions as having been caused by plutocratic dominion over those with the fewest resources and opportunities. These people don't want things. They want to be treated as equals.