Brixton’s Fuel: Politics Not “Consumerism”

brixton I mentioned that Billy Bragg has attributed the ongoing British riots in part to “exclusion from consumerist society.” As TCTer Justin points out, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman takes this ridiculous diagnosis much farther, attributing the riots to the “non-shopping” of “defective consumers.”

Here is Bauman’s underlying claim about the nature of contemporary social life and social structure:

It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops.

This confirms what I said in a comment on the prior Billy Bragg post: Those who swallow the “consumer” vocabulary have a license to make up the wildest bullshit. If you doubt that, consider the utter silliness of each of the bolded phrases from this supposedly emininent supposed sociologist. Not one of them is even a half-truth, yet Bauman presents them as if he were revealing the motor of history. Empirical evidence about what actually motivates people? No need for that! We have “consumerist society” incantations, which are true in and of themselves, by mere recitation.

The spread of such gibberish speaks volumes about the sorry state of what passes for a left/realist/progressive survivalist movement these days. As the mainstream media amplify the usual interpretation — verbalized by David Cameron, who attributes the events to “pockets of our society that are not just broken, but are frankly sick” [ed: Cameron is not thinking of capitalists here, despite the rather plain fit of his diagnosis to them] — Bauman simply papers over reality in the name of rote pseudo-explanation.

The fact is that these are not frustrated shoppers who have somehow had their Harrod’s charge plates retracted. These are young and poor and often non-white UK residents who are being forced to pay for the implosion of the Thatcherite supply-side capitalist orgy that is now meeting its own logical end in Britain and around the world, and which has always pissed on the poor and the average. The situation is well understood on the ground:

The welfare state is under a sustained assault. Each day brings news of ever more drastic government plans – privatisation of the health service, destruction of the benefit system, public services cut to pieces.

The politicians say it is because we’re in a financial mess. This is nonsense – public debt is no worse than at many times in the past. The rich are getting richer, the bankers once again paying themselves massive bonuses. Yet the rest of us are expected to give up our essential public services to pay their gambling debts.

The bankers’ crisis continues to cause mass job losses. But while numbers on welfare increase, the government is slashing benefits for the unemployed, sick and disabled, single parents and those on low wages. Anyone out of work is threatened with sanctions and workfare.

To justify this, the government paints benefit claimants as useless scroungers who have to be bullied to get a job.

The Manchester Guardian reports:

The biggest losers, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said, are likely to be single people without children, those working more than 30 hours, those not in receipt of housing benefit, and households with savings of more than £16,000.

In other words: mostly young, working class people.

And, as Billy Bragg does note, the slashes are far deeper than mere dole reductions.

Meanwhile, the usual Tory mendacity has been gratuitously throwing salt into these wounds. PM Cameron’s depiction of the rioters as sick residents of mere social “pockets” is hardly a new phenomenon. As Britain’s economy has tanked and structural unemployment climbed, Cameron has all along portrayed the unemployed as shirkers. This, despite the well-known-in-Brixton fact that Cameron himself is about as thoroughly ensconced in inherited British upper class privilege as it is possible to be. As such, he has, of course, never himself done anything but “work” as a Conservative “researcher” and politician, with the usual in-between “gap years” and club outings.

Finally, a socio-political observer I trust deeply is actually in England at this very moment. His report:

I have probably less information than anybody else here about the exciting events elsewhere in Albion — haven’t been following the news reports closely at all. TV is as useless and mendacious here as it is in the States, and overheard conversations equally censorious, wrong-headed, and petty-bourgeois.

In other words, the stiff-lipped British overclass is roughly the same as our Yankee-Confederate one — just as deluded and ideologically high on its own fumes; just as powerful in the realm of communications; just as uninterested in, and thoroughly out of, answers.

Hence, it seems to me that the oppressed youth of Britain are merely taking the rather obvious next step. They are engaging in straightforward politics under the conditions they’ve been placed in.*

If only the youth of America could start making similar attempts to save themselves, and perhaps the rest of us in the bargain.

*Speaking of evidence:

Speaking to Reuters late on Tuesday, looters and other local people in east London pointed to the wealth gap as the underlying cause, also blaming what they saw as police prejudice and a host of recent scandals.

Spending cuts were now hitting the poorest hardest, they said, and after tales of politicians claiming excessive expenses, alleged police corruption and bankers getting rich it was their turn to take what they wanted.

“They set the example,” said one youth after riots in the London district of Hackney. “It’s time to loot.”

15 Replies to “Brixton’s Fuel: Politics Not “Consumerism””

  1. Thanks for saying more, Michael, and thanks for providing links. What you’ve said contained some details I wasn’t getting previously, and gives me food for further thought. I suppose the optimistic thing is a growing awareness that there is a global problem– not merely of injustice, but of increasing injustice; though, as you say, there could be a more active and visible response from the citizens of the U.S.A.

  2. Just a quick after-thought: As someone who is not a sociologist or social scientist, but who has spent a bit of time thinking about motivation and desire in the context of Plato studies, or broadly philosophical/ moral psychological contexts, and noticing your complaints about Z. Bauman, I would be curious to know what you regard as respectable research about what really motivates people. My own experience for the past two years after returning( unhappily) to the USA has very much been that whole I crave more friendly relationships with people, that is unattainable in the suburban hell which I currently inhabit. Nor can I purchase groceries comfortably and at all conveniently without contributing to climate change. What I can easily do is shop on- line. Perhaps this is to one side of what you’ve been saying, but in any case, it seems to me that there is a kind of psychological principle behind my behavior, and it is not clear to me when’re you would not regard it as defective, methodologically speaking. I can’t get what I actually want, so go for something second, or third best, and am dissatisfied. And that seems to me to be one of the major flaws of talk of consumption– that people’s real or deepest desires and needs– autonomy and respect from others–get marginalized. If I have misunderstood you, please do not hesitate to say so.

  3. I have just looked at the Z.Bauman piece, and it seems to me that if you strip away the fluff, his psychological analysis is demeaning and insulting to the people who are damaging property and rioting. Do they really think that a new TV or whatever will solve their problems? I bet not. But on ZB’s facile account, that would be so. (sorry Michael,perhaps I have seen my way to understanding your original point, but I would put it differently: I do not believe that the rioters ( or anyone else) are (is) quite so stupid and confused as ZB seems to think. If I were a sociologist, I would want to dissociate myself from ZB, as you have done…

  4. I think you get the point quite well, ML.

    I don’t think it’s a mystery how one does serious work on micro-sociology/social psychology: You pay attention to the facts of expressed empirical ideas, behaviors, and events; and you apply, to the extent possible, science’s rules for collecting and assessing evidence.

    Meanwhile, one common denominator of “consumption” studies is that the practitioners virtually never even try to gather robust empirical information. At most, they stroll around a mall and gather “impressions,” almost always heavily pre-determined by their own pre-conceptions. And they literally never properly question what little empirical evidence they gather. How could they, when they make it a point to begin with a whopping case of conceptual bias? That, of course, is the word “consumer.”

    Apply the basic rules of research to Bauman’s verbiage: Clearly, he is quite uninterested in the actual people and events he claims to be explaining. Instead, he has his story, and he’s sticking to it.

    None of which is to say it’s technically that difficult to do good social-scientific work on human motivations. In fact, here’s an excellent item I stumbled across just this afternoon:

    Notice that these researchers make a point of being detailed and careful and openly inquisitive in systematically approached observations of actual people. The “consumer culture” people never do that, not least because their own conceptual bias prevents formulation of decent research questions and strategies, and also in part because they know that careful empirical work would obliterate the mountain of wrongheaded bullshit they’ve made careers peddling.

    What is difficult is finding a way to do serious, on-target social science within today’s university order. On that, see Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals. The situation is not an accident. Jabberwocky and petty (often pseudo-statistical) flea-fucking rule the roost and bring in the private grants. C. Wright Mills lies a-moldering in his grave, and probably wouldn’t get either a grant-maker’s nickel or (consequently) a sniff for a tenure-track job these days.

    People consume, meaning people destroy products, but, contra Bauman et al., almost never intentionally or happily. And the complex of activities surrounding product use is, despite its extreme promotion from above and the claptrap spewed by “consumption” sociologists, still merely one portion of social life. And have you ever noticed how the “consumer society” blatherers are all essentially uninterested in how ordinary people view so-called “consumption,” and how commoners might be secretly or openly angry that their full views get trampled and ignored by the overclass and the dominant institutions? Instead, these talking heads merely assert that “We’re all consumers now.” No distinctions, no nuances, no room for empirical comparisons and contradictions. How embarrassing. It gives sociology an even worse name than it already has.

  5. Thanks again, Michael, for saying more. While I am not aware of the particular work by Dacher Keltner to which you allude, his approach to the emotions starts with very powerful assumptions which decide what he is looking for. At times, for example, he seems to identify emotions with the facial expressions of emotions. ( He thinks of brief flashes of emotion more than,say, a lifetime of love.) So,if my memory serves me well he is not very sympathetic to a range of views emphasizing thoughts or judgments (appraisals) as an important part of emotion, or perhaps such components do less work than they should within his thinking. (I think I could defend these claims but to do so would take some work. I haven’t been focused on such issues lately, though perhaps I may be in the future.) But apart from my doubts about his starting assumptions, I do appreciate the role of detail and experimentation in Keltner’s work.

  6. Michael,

    i stumbled into your clearing while listening to Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi book tour presentations for, Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay.

    i’ve read through 14 pages of your blog’s archive.

    there is so much i want to comment about–and i have several recommendations for your Hall of Mirrors (, which could just as appropriately be called Hall of Shame–but i’m taking time for a proper muse.

    for now, to stay on topic, i proffer the following:

    the latest from about rioting, Revolution, “consumerism” and Capitalism:

    there are 2 paragraphs which, i think, speak to your message and mission:

    “What Foucault and the Maoists were debating goes to the heart of how we imagine revolutionary change will take place. Will the revolution be an uncontrolled insurrection – whose symptoms include looting in the streets of London, for example – where the people’s rage against consumerism is fully released and their judgements implicitly trusted? Or, will we fear the mob and act, more or less explicitly on the side of power and the status quo, to quell and control the released flows – grabbing a broom to keep the streets clean for the next day’s ecocidal shopping?”


    “The London Riots may not be pretty but as the old-lefty adage goes: ‘Revolution is not a dinner party, nor an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be advanced softly, gradually, carefully, considerately, respectfully, politely, plainly, and modestly. A revolution is an insurrection…’ And the London Riots are, whether we like it or not, what an insurrection might look like if the forces of capitalism do not peacefully, voluntarily relinquish their stranglehold.”

    it’s interesting to me that the author, Micah White, clearly, in my opinion, interchangeably uses “consumerism” and “capitalism” when, as you so often eloquently point out, they are not synonymous (“consumerism” is an imposed and enforced Capitalist method and madness).

    however, i do love that “old-lefty adage”.

    this devout atheist exclaims, AMEN TO THAT!

    and i think there is much to consider in White’s wisdom that, “I suspect that when revolution comes, the ones who have been too long waiting for it will be the very ones who miss it.”

    it all reminds me of something Adam Curtis recently said in an interview about his important (in my view) documentary series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (if you haven’t seen it, i highly recommend it — for those interested, you might try,

    “I’m very sympathetic to a lot of the protest movements and to challenging power in society, but you’re not going to do it through self-organizing networks where you all sit ’round, and there are no leaders, and there is no sort of guiding vision except self-organization. It’s a retreat, I think, and i think in many respects I think it’s a cowardly retreat, on the part of the Left, from confronting the fact that power is getting more and more and more concentrated in our society and we don’t have an alternative. And they retreat, like bureaucrats, like librarians, into process. Processes of organization without actually inspiring me with a vision of another kind of way of organizing the world.”
    – Adam Curtis, culled from,

    and speaking of and Halls of Shame, Adbusters’ head honcho, Kalle Lasn, made it into my personal Hall with this “gem”:

    “And then, finally, there is this inspiring and uplifting question to ponder: Can we rediscover our ideals as a nation and learn once again how to cast that magical soft-power spell which so enthralled most of humanity in the decades after World War II?”

    “magical soft-power spell”?!


    Earth to Kalle!

    it seems to me the goal should never be about restoring amerika to its “former” fascist “glory”.

    the goal should be to dismantle The Fascist State once and for all (Michael, i know you don’t believe amerika is fascist, or that amerikans would tolerate fascism, on these points we disagree).

    the Too-Big-To-Fail ill-logic applies to the not-so-United States as well.

    in solidarity,

    Winston Smith

    Under the spreading chestnut tree
    I sold you and you sold me
    There lie they, and here lie we
    Under the spreading chestnut tree

    Postscript: regarding the folks over at

    while i agree with much of their analysis, i’ve long found their blog unnecessarily and counterproductively arcane. they have an overeducated penchant for torturing the English language. so much so that i gave up on their blog years ago.

    and, as far as i was able to discern at the time, they’re hopelessly and arrogantly stuck-in-the-rut of infinite growth, debt-as-money, Keynes vs. Hayek economics-as-a-science instead of the mythical, political, pseudoscientific BS it really is.

    the cold, harsh, indifferent fact is: we’re not going to grow, “consume”, indebt and complicate our way out of the problems of growth, “consumption”, debt and complexity.

    which is why i can’t stand the fake-Left’s constant drone of, “save the middle class” (best exemplified by people like Elizabeth Warren)!

    F the middle class (and higher)!

    the biosphere, let alone humanity, cannot support or tolerate amerikan-style middle class lifestyles much longer:

    “The world population, currently at seven billion, is well beyond Earth’s ability to sustain. By 2050, with a projected population of 10 billion people and without a change in consumption patterns, the cumulative use of natural resources will amount to the productivity of up to 27 planet Earths, the study found.

    “Sustaining the current seven billion people on the planet requires a major shift in resource use. At present, the average U.S. citizen’s ecological footprint is about 10 hectares, while a Haitian’s is less than one. The planet could sustain us if everyone’s footprint averaged two ha, Mora said.”
    – Data Shows All of Earth’s Systems in Rapid Decline (

    Michael, while consumption may not be our intention, it is, clearly, a consequence of the nightmare of the amerikan dream (i doubt it matters much to the biosphere if consumption is intended or not, or if it’s a Capitalist/Fascist method-and-madness or not).

    televisions, washing machines, cars, computers, refrigerators, bottled beverages, houses, “upgrades”, etcetera, of the current, amerikan-nightmare scale are not remotely sustainable: period.

    this profoundly counterproductive disconnect and cognitive dissonance is manifested by Chris Hedges when he constantly writes about saving the amerikan middle class while calling for, “a radical new ethic of simplicity and rigorous protection of our ecosystem”.

    the two are diametric: each the enemy of the other.

    as the old saying goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    but that is what amerika’s fake-Left is all about.

    amerika’s “ordinary citizens”–fake-Left, real-Right or nonexistent-Middle–will not voluntarily end Car Culture, McMansion Living and Shop Till You Drop.

    they believe it is their birthright (indoctrinated by The Fascist State or not).

  7. Winston, thanks for the comment and big raft of ideas. Very interesting.

    I actually did a post about AdBusters. There’s a reason they run pieces projecting “rage against consumerism” onto London rioters who are, among other things, stealing television sets. They are a thoroughly middle-class, dilettante, fluff operation, as much about striking a cool pose as changing anything that matters. Not useless, but not powerful, either. Indeed, I suspect Kalle Lasn is marketing his mag and sneakers to his pack of 100,000 hipsters as much as he is trying to depose capitalists. In any event, we aren’t going “art” our way past the overclass.

    I still like SMBIVA, though it is a depressing topic to keep up on and the comments section has been infested by some tiresome anarchist and libertarian solipsists.

  8. This commentary also seems to echo “anti consumerist” reasoning for the riots, but also echoes your viewpoint
    I must admit, it does read like a flowery Tyler Durden in parts. I just dunno how England’s gonna get out of all this; I assume it’ll be to the jail cells for most of them. Christ, even post riot coming togethers is something of a double edged sword:

  9. Juan, just FYI, but I hate Guy Debord, who couldn’t be more wrong, IMHO.

    Meanwhile, Jenny, I saw that one spot where “consumerism” came up, but this from Calder seems spot-on:

    “But it was you who pleaded simpering for both the anarchy of the market and its martial defense. Now, when it shows its full consequences, you might have the rare decency to remember your words and stay quiet.

    “You cried out for this bed to be made. Now you cry when you find it to be hard, when you find it too loud outside to sleep peacefully.”

  10. My reference to Loic Wacquant was, alas, prescient. Before meeting the so-called US “super cop”, Cameron should read some of Wacquant’s work, as Wacquant summarizes research showing that police methods did not lead to a drop in crime. (e.g., in “Punishing the Poor”)
    Or, see “The ‘Scholarly Myths’ of The New Law and Order Doxa”, available onine at

  11. My reference to Loic Wacquant was, alas, prescient. Before meeting the so-called US “super cop”, Cameron should read some of Wacquant’s work, as Wacquant summarizes research showing that police methods did not lead to a drop in crime. (e.g., in “Punishing the Poor”)
    Or, see “The ‘Scholarly Myths’ of The New Law and Order Doxa”, available onine at

  12. Yes, especially if–unlike depictions in the media–most violent crime is found in the poorer neighborhoods!

    By the way, I wanted to make a comment (since this is a blog and so a bit less formal) on something I’d said before–or my choice of words. I actually found myself using a Thatcherism–“less well off” instead of “poor”! (I’ve read–perhaps you have too–that during Thatcher’s time in the UK she banned use of the word “poor” in official government reports, insisting that “less well off” be the words used.) A good example if you are trying to illustrate the concept of “euphemism” and explain how it can be pernicious….
    But I think the real question (with your most recent comment in mind) is: Who is fooled? And, I suspect that the answer would be very informative–roughly the people who are fooled are those who get some advantage by following the lead of the “leaders”…..

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