Grist. Mill. Liberalism: Consumption
Advance notice of an interesting book due in 2008 by Neal Lawson, examining our relationship with shopping and consumption. I've posted some opening thoughts on the related blog, and naturally, below.
I think the topic that Neal’s writing about is one that is ripe for discussion. It does seem that after nearly 20 years of a new sort of consumerism, it is right to look at the impact that it has had on, not just the state and the public sector, but in the widest sense, the ‘common weal’. I work in branding and marketing, but before there are any brickbats thrown, if you ask a lot of practioners within advertising, there is a growing concern at what they do, and the wider impact that it might have.
I’d echo Daniel Soule’s call for looking at how people are using the tools of consumerism to re-engage with civil society, but I think that points to the key issue: how far and to what extent is there actually a demand for public services to be delivered in a manner and to a service standard that it is believed that only the market or the private sector can deliver?
It seems that notions of a common good, public goods, merit goods ie those which we all benefit from consuming even if we can’t afford to consume them through our own means, is being left behind. While appreciating that technological developments can change those definitions (broadcasting was a public good once), I think we need to critically examine the idea that: not all goods and services can be bought in the same way as we do when we go to the supermarket.
We also need to consider the idea that seems to have sprung up that a vote is the eqivalent of, and of the same value, as making a purchase. Because it means that the idea takes hold that, if a party or government does something that I don’t like, then in some way my consumer rights have been violated, and I want my money back thank you very much. Collective decision making cannot last long in that sort of mindset.
Neal, I think it’d also be interesting exploring Bobbit’s idea of the ‘market state’, and whether it is actually the very process of ’shopping’ is that which will validate the state as one of a number of competing service providers in the future.
One more thing: it’d be interesting to do a comparison with the 18th century, and what society was like then. The period was of course the birth of the consumer society in the UK, and I’d wager that there were similar tensions and concerns as to what negative effects such displays of vulgar ostentation might be having. The main difference is now, of course, that more of us can afford to participate.