A Thirst That Can’t Be Quenched?

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The Politics of The Consumer Society, 28th February & 14th March, Geoffrey Manton Building, MMU

Words by Neil Harrison

No longer simply the domain of fringe, leftist political organisations and agitprop (agitation propaganda) movements, such as Occupy and Adbusters, it appears antagonists of the capitalist, consumer society are entering the mainstream.
In his lectures on ‘The Politics of The Consumer Society’, MMU politics lecturer, Dr Mike Tyldesley, invites us to delve into an anti-consumerism debate which, particularly since the financial crash of 2008, has fast been gaining political currency throughout the Western world. Over the course of two lectures and a concluding group discussion seminar, MMU students from various disciplines are given the opportunity to pick apart the questions, arguments and concerns of some of the world’s leading authorities on the issue of consumption.
The opening lecture introduces some of the staple themes of anti-consumerism arguments, as Dr Tyldesley poses the question: “How long has the consumer society been around?” He guides us through the burgeoning anti-consumerist literature scene, pointing us in the direction of Kim Humphery’s excellent overview and analysis of the ‘new politics of consumption’, Excess: Anti-Consumerism in the West.
The economic, psychological, and above all, environmental unsustainability of the Western world’s obsession with consumption are outlined, and a short video is shown in which Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundationsums up the concerns of many anti-consumerists.
“The notion that the height of human ambition is to be a passive consumer, with no limits on what we might want to accumulate … is nonsense … it is not supportable with the planet that we’ve got. But also … all the evidence, all the literature (and there is a lot of it coming through at the moment) says it simply does not work; the more you consume, the more you get locked into a pattern of being on a ‘treadmill’ and seeking ever greater consumer fixes that only deliver listlessness and dissatisfaction and a desire for ever more. It is a thirst that cannot be quenched”.
Lecture number two, however, sets out to challenge this notion (or stereotype) of the ‘passive consumer’ and explores, as it were, the debates within the debate. Focusing primarily on the works of Professor Daniel Miller of University College London, we encounter a no less concerned, but entirely more pragmatic view of consumption and consumerism.
Miller argues that the notion of consumption has taken on a quasi-superstitious status in the minds of those who wish to see the trends of consumerism reversed. The rhetoric, he argues, has become full of stereotypes of ‘individualistic, hedonistic and materialistic’ shoppers. However, he believes that much of the consumer society consists rather of selfless people, simply trying to provide for their families. In this respect, he indicates the role of women as consumers in particular.

Rather than aim for the total disassembly of the capitalist system, Miller calls instead for, “Much more tightly regulated capitalist commerce, an egalitarian and humanistic social welfare system, and an ethical concern for the future of the planet and a sustainable environment”.     
The final session sees students who have attended both these lectures meet up to discuss the issues raised so far in the programme. Together, intermingling groups attempt to identify the key concepts of the arguments cited in the previous sessions. The lively debate throws up some interesting ideas and opinions, as everyone is given the opportunity to express how they feel problems associated with consumption should be addressed. Dr Tyldesley makes a particular point of asking us each to think about the skills and approaches we have developed as part of our own areas of study when offering our suggestions.  Around my table, for example, the group gets to grips with how best to progress anti-consumer politics: philosophy, media, I.T. and history meet, and ideas are soon flowing. Herein lies the important purpose of the whole course, as Dr Tyldesley explains,
“This is a big political problem and yet, we don’t talk about the debate enough in universities. I think, though, there is some really useful thinking out there. People of substance, with different ideas, are beginning to bring the problems [of consumption] out into the open.”
Certainly, if Dr Tyldesley’s objective in delivering this course had been to promote a greater appreciation of the nature of the anti-consumerism debate, then he has succeeded in arming at least one group of students with a new understanding, which they will hopefully carry with them into their future studies and careers. And who knows, maybe even into mainstream consciousness.
Neil Harrison is studying Social History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is an aspiring journalist and a terrible guitar player. Read his blog LooseRiver and follow him on Twitter @looseriver

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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