A Riot of Consumption
You deserve it. You deserve a tropical holiday, a luxury car, designer sneakers, the latest igadget, a weekly pedicure, Miranda Kerr’s breasts (to have or to hold) and a thousand gorgeous possessions to place around your home and body. Anything money can buy and money can buy anything. All of these things will come to you as if by magic, not because you earned it but just because you’re worth it. And without these things you’re worth nothing.
The memory of Mark Duggan, the man whose shooting by police sparked the initial riots, has been trashed in a literal free-for-all. In a bewildering turn of events, the usual expression of street level mayhem turned into something unprecedented. The rioters turned their rage on the palaces of dreams, and souvenired from the aisles of exquisite temptation.
Not exactly of Will and Kate’s circle, the young people involved, it is by now well rehearsed, are without prospects with time on their hands. Most are cocooned in miserable housing estates with the despair and disenfranchisement of intergenerational welfare pressing in on their hungry, unbridled souls.
The commentariat have got them pegged. They are angry at the austerity measures, they are disillusioned at the MP rorting scandal, and the insidious involvement of the Metropolitan police in the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal. They are the ‘children of Thatcher’, on the wrong end of the widening gap between wealth and poverty. They are dragging themselves throughthe long days of their lives with no sense of a place in the world. Over and over again they are told that they give nothing and take too much.
But they are something else too. They are consumers and consumption has become fundamental to the expression of their identities. They are besieged by advertising and daily goaded with beauty, luxury, celebrity and finery. The rally cry of the London riots sets it apart from any protest event in human history. What Do We Want? Stuff.
While consumption aims to incite a permanent state of dissatisfaction – only momentarily sated by the splurge - and there have always been shoplifters and pilferers from every socio-economic strata who have flouted its contract, what we are seeing here is in essence an unparalleled and violent response to the deceit of the consumer accord.
The contract, and it underpins our economy, no longer holds for these looters. With renewed purpose the feckless security guards will while away their days imagining the underside of shopper’s clothes. There will be more of them, and more police standing by, because kids know that only a critical mass and a balaclava is needed to get stuff free.
It’s not as though corporate consumption presents such a compelling moral order they feel obliged to kneel under the vaulted ceilings of its temples. They may not believe that it’s immoral to take excessively marked up things from stores manned by underpaid staff, made in third world countries at irreparable cost to the environment.
Is there any political content to their destruction and theft? We witnessed an uprising of the demographic most targeted by advertising – childless young adults with less financial constraints than families juggling mortgages with disposable incomes. Only they don’t have that last thing do they?
They are enmeshed in welfare, sometimes generations of dependency with little prospects for employment. In the economic backwaters of the mega-metropolises access to a reasonable education has not improved their life prospects. They are living an unrelenting stalemate.
The disjoint between the despair of welfare and the plenitude of consumption may well be impossible to sustain daily. The promise of gratification has become a screeching imperative. And they know it is also a lie. The advertising that encircles their every move is not a pledge that life will get better; it taunts their deprivation and it has goaded them into violence.
Worse, consumption, not welfare, instills entitlement. What are the good things in life for them? What makes up their dreams? A qualification, a meaningful job, financial autonomy? Dreams are now things we buy. Our Rapid Eye Movement has become an acquisitive, unrelenting survey over a saturated surface of superfluous stuff. Every facet of our lives is enmeshed in the acquisition of goods, most of which we don’t want anymore within a few short months. It is as senseless as, well, looting.
Where the materials are sourced, and by whom, who profits from it, how the labor is remunerated, how much it damages the environment, all of these ‘means of production’ are invisible. They need to be. They bear a remarkable similarity to looting.
There are no consequences for consumption. Under an ethical milieu that thrives from divesting all sense of responsibility the logical conclusion is surely to resist actually paying up.
There was a time when the disenfranchised organized, say as workers. How do the permanently unemployed organize? They may not have a manifesto, but there is no doubt what is being targeted here. They are not kicking in police stations, prisons, parliaments, embassies or even heads, they are kicking in shopfronts. Could it be that consumption, an organizing principle of our lives, has failed them?
There are clear issues to address here. Police violence and racism. Education and employment. Housing and social inclusion. And though it’s not chic critique to say it of course parenting matters. Of course they feel universally unvalued. But I wonder if their parents have much time to show love, and how, under a cloud of exhaustion and sadness they overcome the alienation they feel towards their own kids when they behave badly. How do you tell your kids you believe in them when they are destined to ‘die in the ditch of welfare’, as Noel Pearson had put it. ‘Family pressures’ means unraveling relationships. There’s no respite from poverty.
But there is something else too that hasn’t been given enough thought. Telling kids hundreds of times a day that they are entitled to an abundance of beautiful, enhancing, pleasurable things that they are unlikely ever to be able to afford, and that to be without amounts to failure, is nothing more than taunting the disadvantaged.
(This piece first appeared on The Drum, ABC online, http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/2836576.html, 12 August 2011