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Monday, August 03, 2009 

The coming of the fauxocracy.

I want to agree with Neal Lawson and his views on consumerism, but he makes it so bloody hard with his sweeping generalisations:

As you read this, take a look around and at yourself. You are decked in and surrounded by symbols of consumer society. It's not just your clothes that give it away, but your watch, jewellery, mobile, MP3 player, bag; the furniture and the fittings; all are brands designed to speak for you. Wasn't it ever thus?

Let's see: I have on a pair of Rough Justice jeans, a plain black top and a band t-shirt on underneath; I don't wear a watch; I don't wear any jewellery; I have the cheapest Nokia you can buy, if you can still buy it, and only take it with me when I really need it; I do have a Sony NWZ 8GB mp3 player, with which I wear Sennheiser headphones; I never carry a bag and have completely non-descript furniture and fittings. Admittedly, this still makes me a very much the Western archetypal young male, even if not an ultra-conformist one, but the point still stands.

It's a shame because he does have something resembling a point. The paradox of individualism is that it's created a society just as collectivised as any totalitarian one. There are of course numerous different sub-cultures within any "individualised" society, but capitalism infects, subverts and controls all of them; they cannot exist without it. At the same time originality and freedom of thought are being systematically undermined: both are on their last legs, if not already dead. The best way to be an individual now is to never leave your room, to avoid using the internet (or at least none of the "social media") and slowly rot away. I almost wish I was joking.

The irony of Lawson's position is that he is of course selling a lifestyle just as much as those he so disparages. It didn't really hit me how much the "ethical" way of life is just as big business as anything else until I saw it had an entire section in Waterstone's, just like the misery memoirs have their own huge sections, usually under a euphemism like "difficult lives". Anything and everything, even misery, can be made profitable, the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch writ large. Ben Goldacre pointed out at the weekend that the Soil Association has £2bn backing behind it. Again, the main way to break free is not to downsize or buy less; it's to buy nothing. The impossibility of that position in the long term is also not helped by how then buying nothing itself also becomes an alternative.

Finally, Lawson presents a false dichotomy:

A life of turbo consumption cannot be the pinnacle of human development. Do we want a consumer society or a democracy? We cannot have both.

Except that the consumer society and democracy go hand in hand. The downfall of communism can almost certainly be linked to the development of the consumer society. Admittedly, communism ultimately collapsed upon itself, but the alternative was undoubtedly attractive to millions. This isn't to say that the consumer society and democracy can ultimately live together indefinitely; as Lawson suggests, none of the main political parties oppose or believe in any real alternative. Slavoj Žižek covered this excellently in the London Review of Books:

If there is one person to whom monuments will be built a hundred years from now, Peter Sloterdijk once remarked, it is Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who thought up and put into practice a ‘capitalism with Asian values’. The virus of authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe. Deng Xiaoping praised Singapore as the model that all of China should follow. Until now, capitalism has always seemed to be inextricably linked with democracy; it’s true there were, from time to time, episodes of direct dictatorship, but, after a decade or two, democracy again imposed itself (in South Korea, for example, or Chile). Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken.

What we might well be facing then is a fauxocracy, a plutocracy, or ultimately, a kleptocracy. Something to look forward to then.

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just like the misery memoirs have their own huge sections, usually under a euphemism like "difficult lives".

I hadn't been in a High Street bookshop lately, and hadn't noticed that there was actually a name for this genre. I had noticed the increasing plethora of books with titles like Hidden Pain or Stop It, Daddy (neither real, just the gist), and I'd been referring to it as 'child abuse porn'.

I think I like my label better.

It's true and worrying what you say about democracy and capitalism. If you take a look at now developed countries there wasn't a lot of democracy to be hadwhen they were developing. Even Switzerland wasn't a democracy until 1971 when women were given full suffrage.

It's encouraging in a way, because it means even countries ruled by oligarchic bastards may see industrial development, a rise in living standards and some relief from the grind of poverty.

On the other hand, it's deeply worrying that the rights we take for granted are so precarious - and that most people seem to have forgot how to fight for them.

The relationship between capitalism and democracy has long been ambivalent. Henry Ford preferred Hitler's industrial policy to New Deal capitalism, Pinochet was the poster boy for the neoliberal project. Just this week Hamush McRae was extolling the virtues of Chinese cvapitalism - and the regime's ability to control fiscal policy. It's amazing what a little repression and the odd massacre can do for moulding public expectations. McRae's answer is to take economic policy out of the realm of politics altogether - presumably leaving democracy as little more than an X-Factor style personality contest.

Those who wish for economics to be left to the market see democracy as an increasingly unnecessary interference.

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