Tag Archives: consumerism

Consuming Life, Zygmunt Bauman: A Summary of Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Collateral Casualties of Consumerism

The concepts of collateral damage and collateral casualties have become a central part of political discourse.

The concept of collateral damage is that when harm occurs as an unintended consequence of an action, then the person doing that action cannot be held legally or morally responsible. The divorcing of the two is fundamentally about encouraging a kind of moral blindness towards the victims.

One tool which the politicians have in their box to justify collateral damage is the difficulty of measuring the likely amount of it for any given conflict – It is as if by not calculating the likely ‘collateral damage’ (or at least not publicly sharing the calculations) then this is what enables the claim of unintentionality to be justified.

Bauman now argues that collateral damage occurs not only in the realm of military involvement but also in the extension of the market into more and more spheres of social life – and the ultimate form collateral damage here is the commoditisation of daily life…

In the words of J. Livingstone, ‘the commodity form penetrates and reshapes dimensions of social life hitherto exempt from its logic to the point where subjectivity itself becomes a commodity to be bought and sold in the market as beauty, cleanliness, sincerity and autonomy.’

Arlie Russell Hochschild argues that the consumerist invasion into personal life has lead to the ‘materialization of love’:

Exposed to a continual bombardment of advertisements through a daily average of three hours of television (half of all their leisure time), workers are persuaded to ‘need’ more things.

To buy what they now need, they need money. To earn money, they work longer hours. Being away from home so many hours, they make up for their absence at home with gifts that cost money. They materialize love. And so the cycle continues.

For the top tier of knowledge workers, who spend long hours at work, employers go out of their way to make work environments homely, and one may experience a sense of home in workplace (albiet with your love relationship in your actual home kept going by commodities) – Whereas for the lower tier of workers, they are subjected to the very worst of Capitalism — Long working hours and insecure contracts, and not enough time to maintain meaningful relationships at home – and so for them, neither work nor home provides emotional anchors for these people.

The search for individual pleasures articulated by the commodities currently offered, a search guided and constantly redirected and refocused by successive advertising campaigns, provides the sole acceptable substitute for both the uplifting solidarity of workmates and the glowing  warmth of caring for and being cared for by nearest and dearest inside the family home and its immediate neighbourhood.

Politicians who wish to reinstate family values should think hard about the fact of the consequences of living in a consumer society – where people are trained to afford other people no more respect than the consumer goods they consume (who exist solely for our pleasure and which need replacing every two years).

The Underclass is the collective victim of the progress of consumer society.

The Term Working Class implies a people who have a useful function in society, the term lower class implies a society on the move – the lowest class being at the bottom of a ladder which it might climb. The term underclass belongs to a different image of society, one which is not hospitable to all, and one in which belonging is achieved by denying and excluding rights to certain others – and this group of others in consumer society is the underclass.

The underclass is seen as wholly cut off from the class system, a no-class, which threatens to undermine the class based order of society. This is just how the Nazis described the Jews.

According to H. Ganns, the underclass describes a wide variety of people – the workless poor, illegal immigrants, single mothers and drug addicts.

What all of these have in common is nothing, except that they are flawed consumers, they have no market-value – they cannot take place in the game of consumerism. They are conceived as an overall drain on society, like weeds who only drain from the beautiful garden, and thus the rest of us would be better off if they did not exist. They are largely conceived of (constructed?) in terms of the dangers they pose to the rest of us.

However, there is one useful function the collectivity of the underclass performs – As a source of moral panics – as a place to which we can attach the cause of our our fears – even though in reality these fears (or anxieties) are endemic to the rootlessness of consumer society itself.

The poor of society (and not necessarily just the unemployed) are useless because they cannot perform their principle duty – they cannot consume! They are thus outcasts, but they do not find solidarity as this, they experience this as loners and do not expect to be helped or find a collective way out.

So where is the place of the poor in the consumer society? In short, it is out of sight – either indoors, in ghettos, or in prisons, and mentally we are made ethically blind to them through the rewriting of their stories – from deprivation to depravity – it is their fault that they are poor.

The problem here is that once you remove a section of the population from moral consideration, they become collateral in solving society’s problems – Violence can thus be justified as a means of exterminating them, as happened with the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Nazi violence was committed not for the liking of it, but out of duty, not out of sadism but out of virtue, not through pleasure but through a method, not by an unleashing of savage impulses and an abandonment of scruples, but in the name of superior values, with professional competence and with the task to be performed constantly in view.

I think Bauman’s point is that we are doing to the poor in this country what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s – writing a discourse which removes them from ethical consideration and then makes their eradication a procedural duty.

A society unsure of its own reproduction is besieged by demons of its own making – For the order building societies of the past those demons were the revolutionaries who wished to build different orders, for the consumer society of today, its demons are those who cannot consume. The problem with this is that the more the consumer society progresses, the bigger the gap grows between those who are able to consume and those who want to consume and cannot. This is simply the logic of the market.

In consumer society the ultimate goal seems to be being happy through consumerism, which means always to be doing something, always to be consuming something (in other words the goal is the avoidance of boredom) – A busy life full of consumption is a measure of success and happiness – and thus people are compelled to do so. The problem is is that there seem to be no limits to the number of things you can consume, no limits to the number of things you can do – the goal posts keep moving, there is no end!

For the poor this a real problem because they are able to listen to messages about things you could be doing (from the evil advertisers) but are unable to participate, this can breed frustration and all sorts of other negative consequences.

The disarming, disempowering and suppressing of hapless and/ or failed players is also an indispensable supplement to integration through seduction in a market-led society of consumers.

Prison is the primary means by which this is done – the means through which society now exorcises its inner demons – and these demons are cast as ending up there because of their own fault, not because of society. And the harsher the punishments can be, the more effectively those demons are exorcised.

Bauman now traces the common usage of the term ‘The Underclass’ differentiating between Gundar Myrdal’s usage of the term in 1963 – when he used it to mean the coming threat of structural unemployment in the context of increasing productive efficiency – here being a member of the underclass was something over which individuals had little control – it was a failure of the organisation of society to provide sufficient jobs for people.

He contrasts this to the usage of the term by Ken Auletta – who argued that being a member of the underlcass in the early 1980s in America was not a matter of poverty, but of actively opting out of normative values – it was a choice to be feckless – However, his study was based on a highly unrepresentative sample of people from one training centre, in which you had to be an ex convict to gain a place – And here Bauman questions the lumping together of of all the various categories of people into one class.

Consuming Life, Zygmunt Bauman – A Summary of Chapter 3

Chapter Three: Consumerist Culture

A brief summary of chapter three, mostly just paraphrased, and basically just my own notes, comments and links to follow!

An influential, widely read and respected fashion handbook, edited by a highly prestigious journal for the autumn–winter 2005 season, offered ‘half a dozen key looks’ ‘for the coming months’ ‘that will put you ahead of the style pack’. This promise was aptly, skilfully calculated to catch the attention: and very skilfully indeed, since in a brief, crisp sentence it managed to address all or almost all anxious concerns and urges bred by the society of consumers and born of consuming life.

In order to belong You have to metonymically identify with the pack, it is not simply enough to follow its rules/ procedures (belonging is not a given!)

The only way to guarantee security is to stay ahead of the pack!
The reference to ‘staying ahead’ is a precaution against the danger of overlooking the moment when the current emblems of ‘belonging’ go out of circulation.
Fashion items come with a use by date – however great your gain from promptly following the call, the gain won’t last forever. In the liquid modern world, slowness means social death. This chimes with pointillist time.
Thirdly you have to make a choice, but you have only a limited range of products to choose from and you have no control over the range of choices!

The major difference which sets consumerist society apart from its productivist predecessor seems to be the reversal of the values attached respectively to duration and transience – consumer society rests on the denial of the values of procrastination and deferred gratification.

The ‘consumerist syndrome’ is all about speed, excess and waste – not only do we rush to acquire things, but we rush to get rid of them too, and because there are so many choices and insecurities, it is rational to hedge your bets (buy three outfits, and only ever where two of them for example).

A consumer society cannot but be a society of excess and profligacy

There are two basic ideas about why society is necessary:

Firstly the Dukheimian/ Hobbesian idea that it is necessary to prevent war

Secondly the Levinas/ Logstrop – that it is necessary in order to make the unconditional conditional (through establishing laws).

The classic scholars worried that if society disappeared we would descend into a war of all against all or become overwhelmed with a sense of moral responsibility but this has not happened because we are taught that now we only need have responsibility for ourselves, not for others.

However, the concerns of previous sociologists assumed that there would be some sense of the social in people’s minds – there isn’t any more…the advent of consumerism has sapped the credibility of both cases – each in a different way, though for the same reason – the expanding process of the dismantling the once comprehensive system of normative regulation. Ever larger chunks of human conduct have been released from explicitly social patterning, supervision and policing, relegating an ever larger set of previously socialized responsibilities back to the responsibility of individual men and women.

As Pierre Bourdieu signalled as long as two decades ago, coercion has by and large been replaced by stimulation, the once obligatory patterns of conduct (duty) by seduction, the policing of behaviour by PR and advertising, and normative regulation by the arousal of new needs and desires.

An intensely and extensively cultivated sentiment of urgency provides individuals and institutions alike with illusionary, though nevertheless quite effective, relief in their struggles to alleviate the potentially devastating consequences of the agonies of choice endemic in the condition of consumer freedom.

Following Aubert….Permanent busyness, with one urgency following another, gives the security of a ‘full life’ or a ‘successful career’, sole proofs of self-assertion in a world from which all references to the ‘beyond’ are absent…. When people take action, they think short-term – of things to be done immediately or in the very near future . . . all too often, action is only an escape from the self, a remedy for the anguish… and the deeper one sinks into the urgency of an immediate task, the further away the anguish stays.

An additional benefit of declaring a constant state if emergency is that  it makes people easier to manage – where work is concerned asset stripping and downsizing keep people in a constant state of needing to be updating their skills sets to look for work.

In a society of consumers and in an era when ‘life politics’ is replacing the Politics that once boasted a capital ‘P’, the true ‘economic cycle’, the one that truly keeps the economy going, is the ‘buy it, enjoy it, chuck it out’ cycle.

The life of a consumer, the consuming life, is not about acquiring and possessing. It is not even about getting rid of what was acquired the day before yesterday and proudly paraded a day later. It is instead, first and foremost, about being on the move.

If the ethical principle of the producing life was the delay of gratification, then the ethical guideline of the consuming life has to be to avoid staying satisfied. For a kind of society which proclaims customer satisfaction to be its sole motive and paramount purpose, a satisfied consumer is neither motive nor purpose – but the most terrifying menace.

Not being satisfied with what one has is crucial for the society of consumers – profit depends on it – and stigma is attached to those who settle for fixed needs or those who sit still, or are happy with who they are – such people are stigmatised as ‘flawed consumers’.

Consumers should be constantly striving to be someone better, or to be someone else altogether, they should always be on the move – and afraid of boredom and stagnation; and to be a good consumer, forgetting is as important as moving on.

Despite consumerism being dressed up as freedom… what is not allowed is the freedom to not change.

Pointillist time is uniquely suited to separating us from the past and helping us forget the future – part of the experience is thus life lived as ‘serial births’ – of life as an unending string of ‘new beginnings’

Lesław Hostyn ski, an insightful analyst of the values of consumer culture, has listed and described a long series of stratagems deployed in the marketing of consumer goods in order to discourage the young (and ever younger) adepts of consumerism from developing a long-term attachment to anything they buy and enjoy.

One such strategy is the replace the old barbie doll scheme through which Mattel promised young consumers they would sell them the next Barbie at a discount if they brought their currently used specimen back to the shop once it was ‘used up’…. Exchanging one Barbie doll for a ‘new and improved’ one leads to a life of liaisons and partnerships shaped and lived after a pattern of rent-purchase.

As Pascal Lardellier suggests, the ‘senti- mental logic’ tends to become ever more saliently consumerist: it is aimed at the reduction of all sorts of risks, the categorization of the items searched for, an effort to define precisely the features of the sought-after partner that can be deemed adequate to the aspirations of the searcher. The underlying conviction is that it is possible to compose the object of love from a number of clearly specified and measurable physical and social qualities and character traits.

Following Erikson…. pointillism  may well be the most salient feature of our times – the desire to forget the past, not be constrained by it, and experience everything in a lifetime – in a carpe diem way, but of course there is not enough time to experience everything and hence…we live in a tyrannical situation.
The individual consequences of extreme hurriedness are overwhelming: both the past and the future as mental categories are threatened by the tyranny of the moment . . . Even the ‘here and now’ is threatened since the next moment comes so quickly that it becomes difficult to live in the present.

A further consequence, examined ny Elzbieta Tarkowska, a prominent chronosociologist, has developed the concept of ‘synchronic humans’, who ‘live solely in the present’ and who ‘pay no attention to past experience or future consequences of their actions’, they live in a presentist culture – a culture which breeds humans who lack commitment to each other.

(As outlined in ‘Liquid Love’) Human bonds nowadays tend to be viewed – with a mixture of rejoicing and anxiety – as frail, easily falling apart and as easy to be broken as they are to tie.

Freedom from commitment is the most valued attribute of the typical relationship in consumer society, freedom to be able to eject a stale relationship is more important than committing.

Allowing another individual into your sphere of intimacy has always been anxiety inducing because others are inherently unpredictable – however modern relationships are different because the principle source of anxiety today pertaining to relationships is the fear of missing out on other relationships – the better highs one might be experiencing with new partners compared to the drudgery of committing to one person forever.

Anxieties no longer arise because of the other they arise because of the possibility of not having to be committed, which means relationships today are constantly judged against what other joys they are preventing us from experiencing (experienced automatically as a kind of opportunity cost).
The internet is the perfect medium for the intimate relationship in consumer society – because it takes little effort to forge relationships and even less to cut them off, the later being achievable at the click of a button.

Electronic (non face to face) relationships allow for a quick cutting off ’emotional ties’ – this ability to cut off ties quickly is what people value the most – and it is this that is the perfect training for life in a market-mediated consumer society – where the disposability of things is valued more highly than their acquisition.

Numerous members of the knowledge classes (who spend a lot of time online) have suggested that the internet offers a viable alternative to the traditional institutions of democracy, which people seem to be decreasingly interested in.

However, political communication online tends to take the form of shouting about one’s virtues – stating that you are for or against something rather than doing anything about it and forming a movement for change – Political Communication online has become fetishised – It enables people to feel as if they are doing something when in fact they are not.

In reality, the internet is an unlimited space which soaks up dissent into a stagnant pool, where dissent is recycled in the knowledge economy of forgetting, recycled as soundbites, while real liquid modern politics is able to go on largely unchallenged.

Bush and Blair were still able to go to war despite significant amounts of virtual protest. The internet sets up a chasm between real politics and citizens (if you can still call them that!)

In the liquid modern society of consumers no identities are gifts at birth, none is ‘given’, let alone given once and for all and in a secure fashion. Identities are projects: tasks yet to be undertaken, diligently performed and seen through to infinitely remote completion.
Even in the case of those identities that pretend and/or are supposed to be ‘given’ and non-negotiable (such as class/ sex/ ethnicity), the obligation to undertake an individual effort to appropriate them and then struggle daily to hold on to them is presented and perceived as the principal requirement and indispensable condition of their ‘givenness’.

Identity is a sentence to  lifelong hard labour. Remember that consumers are driven by the need to ‘commoditize’ themselves – remake themselves into attractive commodities

Two things alleviate the constant stress of having to continually remake oneself… Cloakroom Communities – which are phantom communities where one subjectively feels like one belongs just by being amongst others and Fixed Term communities – where some kind of collective activity takes place but one is free to leave with no consequence.

Both types of community have two things in common – firstly, the primary means whereby you indicate your belonging is through shopping – for products which display that you are part of the group, and secondly there is the absolute right to exit without penalty. In both of these communities the idea of the integrated self is a myth.

It seems as if the only types of identity community are temporary and based on buying in and then discarding, identities are short lived and experiential – you adorn yourself with that which is necessary and invest short term into the moment – then you move on.

The problem with all of the above is that (A) you’ll wake up with the same old self after every session, only older and poorer after every such session, and (B) this means of constructing and expressing the self denies everyone else recognition – because you can always exit at the drop of a hat.

It is as if we have constructed a social world where the only means of belonging comes with an in-price (through consumption) and will only ever last for the short-term – so you have to continually put a lot of effort into getting ready to take part in these short-term (fictitious communities) (NB – He doesn’t actually give any examples of these communities!). Identities constructed online are carnival identities – to be taken up temporarily and discarded whenever one is bored with them….

The ‘community’ of internauts seeking substitute recognition does not require the chore of socializing and is thereby relatively free from risk, that notorious and widely feared bane of the offline battles for recognition. In the internet-mediated identification game, the Other is, so to speak, disarmed and detoxified. The Other is reduced by the internaut to what really counts: to the status of the instrument of one’s own self-endorsement.

All of this comes from being brought up in Pointillist Time —

Permaculture as an Alternative to Consumer Culture

I’ve been thinking a lot about the viability of Permaculture as an alternative to the consumerist mode of existence recently.

Permaculture is the practice of working with nature to design efficient, productive ecosystems, incorporating the principles of sustainability and fare-shares. The Permaculture Association (The Permaculture Association n.d.) suggests that there are three main aspects to Permaculture – Firstly there is an ethical framework, secondly the principle of understanding nature, and finally a design approach to working with nature.

As always a few examples are the best way of illustrating what Permaculture actually is…

Firstly I recommend checking out the case of Lammas. Based in Pembrokeshire, on about 75 acres of land, this is one of the few fully legitimate (in planning terms) eco-projects in the U.K. It combines the traditional smallholding model with the latest innovations in environmental design, green technology and Permaculture. The ecovillage was granted planning permission in 2009 by the Welsh Government and is currently part-way through the construction phase. The current residents aim to bring in £100K per year from the land, up from £2500 from the previous tenant farmer’s sheep farming.

Tinkers Bubble is another famous (in eco-circles) example of 9 adults living on 28 acres of land living in self-built low impact dwellings. Very similar to the above, but just on a smaller scale.

A more individualistic example, and an absolute classic in eco-circles, is Tony Wrench’s Low impact roundhouse – built over a decade ago in Pembrokeshire National Park and (after a huge struggle) granted retrospective planning permission. This example proves what you can do with £3000, if you happen to have an appetite for a ruck with the planners.

For further inspiration, the Permaculture Network provides plenty of links to some pretty inspiring examples of Permaculture Projects which range from your squatting type examples such as Yorkley Farm in the Forest of Dean to basically people’s back gardens. (37)

Finally, I highly recommend Permaculture Magazine (with an international circulation of over 100K) which has the acolade of being my favourite all-time bath time reading material.

To what extent is Permaculture a viable solution to Consumerist Culture….?

In short, I’d argue that Permaculture is one of lynch pins of an alternative culture which is not based around consumption, but rather ‘co-production’ with nature. This diverse movement is full of innovators who focus on producing their own food, energy and to an extent goods using sustainable and creative techniques adapted to local environments, so rather than consumption being focused on, this seems to be about going back to production, and the way things are produced (sustainable) as a unifying principle.

Given the DIY nature of the Permaculture movement it is possible to spend the rest of your natural life learning (both intellectually and practically) about aspects of living sustainably – If you ever managed to get your head around everything to do with planting a food-forest, then you can move onto aquaculture systems, low-impact building or small-scale off grid energy systems – If you get the bug there is easily a lifetime’s worth of exploration, non of which is based around consumption.

(It may not be your thing of course, but personally I find all of this fascinating.)

Obviously there are limitations to what Permaculture can do – It can easily be criticised for being retreatist in the light of global problems such as militarism, the refugee crisis and the ethical challenges of multiculturalism; and possibly a bigger problem is just how middle class the movement is – besides efforts to big up ‘Urban’ Permaculture and reports of Permaculture in the developing world in the UK at least your only option to really do full on Permcaulture is to either risk your capital in a collective venture such as Lamas or find approx. £30-40K yourself, buy some land and prepare yourself for an almighty ruck with local Nimbys, not to mention the anachronistic weight of the UK planning system.

Bauman’s Consuming Life Summary – Chapter Two – The Society of Consumers

Bauman’s Consuming Life A Summary – Chapter 2 – The Society of Consumers

Summary of chapter One 

A fairly lengthy, paraphrased summary with a few comments in italics
In consumer culture people behave ‘unreflexively’ – without thinking about what they consider to be their life purpose and what they believe to be the right means of reaching it, without thinking about about what prompts them into action or escape, or about what they desire, what they fear and at what point fears and desires balance each other out

Nb – In defining consumers as unreflexive – that is, anyone who limits their conscious reflection to questions of what to consume- rather than focusing on the ‘deeper’ questions of life – Bauman seems to deny that such people have any sense of agency – they are not fully human. 

The society of consumers stands for a set of existential conditions under which the probability is high that most people will embrace the consumerist rather than any other culture, and obey its rules.

The ‘society of consumers’ is a kind of society which ‘interpellates’ its members primarily in their capacity as consumers. While doing that, ‘society’ expects to be heard, listened to and obeyed; it evaluates – rewards and penalizes – its members depending on the promptness and propriety of their response to the interpellation.

As a result, one’s ability to engage in consumerist performance has become the paramount stratifying factor and the principal criterion of inclusion in or exclusion from society, as well as guiding the distribution of social esteem and stigma, and shares in public attention.

(Following Frank Trentmann) This is historically unusual – for most of the modern period consumption was little discussed and when it was it was typically associated with eccentricity and wastefulness.

For the better part of modern history (that is, throughout the era of massive industrial plants and massive conscript armies), society ‘interpellated’ most of the male half of its members as primarily producers and soldiers, and almost all of the other (female) half as first and foremost their by-appointment purveyors of services.

It was the body of the would-be worker or soldier that counted most; their spirit, on the other hand, was to be silenced, numbed and thereby ‘deactivated’.

The society of consumers, on the other hand, focuses its training and coercing pressures on the management of the spirit – leaving the manage- meant of bodies to individually undertaken DIY labour, individually supervised and coordinated by spiritually trained and coerced individuals.

This coercive pressure is exerted on members of the society of consumers from their early childhood.. Following Daniel Thomas Cooke…

‘the battles waged over and around children’s consumer culture are no less than battles over the nature of the person and the scope of personhood in the context of the ever-expanding reach of commerce.’

The society of consumers does not recognize differences of age or gender (however counter-factually) and will not make allowances for either; nor does it (blatantly counter-factually) recognize class distinctions. From the geographic centres of the worldwide network of information highways to its furthest, however impoverished peripheries…

‘the poor are forced into a situation in which they either have to spend what little money or resources they have on senseless consumer objects rather than basic necessities in order to deflect total social humiliation or face the prospect of being teased and laughed at.’ (In Ekstrom et al, Elusive Consumption, 2004.)

However it is down to the individual to negotiate the staggering amount of info in order to make the right consumer decisions to avoid derision.
Since ‘social fitness’ is the responsibility of the individual, if people fail to make the right choices they are blamed (and thus constructed as ‘flawed consumers’) – we are taught to believe that there is nothing wrong with society, because there is plenty of choice, and so if people fail to succeed they are not deserving of care.

At least the above is the case if we are unreflexive viz our consumption habits.

Consumption is an investment in everything that matters for individual ‘social value’ and self-esteem, thus the crucial, perhaps the decisive purpose of consumption in the society of consumers is not the satisfaction of needs, desires and wants, but the commoditization or recommoditization of the consumer: raising the status of consumers themselves to that of sellable commodities.

If you wish to take part in society, you have to consume in this way – turning yourself into a commodity – this is a precondition which is non negotiable thus market relations are fundamental to the society of consumers, as is the calculating mindset which goes along with it.

I’m left wondering what Bauman would make of attempts to set up alternative, low impact cultures assisted by alternative financial avenues such as Kick Starter?

Becoming and remaining a sellable commodity is the most potent motive of consumer concerns, even if it is usually latent and seldom conscious, let alone explicitly declared.
The society of consumers, with its compulsive and willing individualization places a magnified emphasis on the on the subject as the one who has the duty to make oneself something, and on the individual as being the one who is responsible if one fails.
NB – I guess to simplify one of Bauman’s basic points you could just say that we believe that we are responsible for own successes and failures in life only because that is what society tells us, and this isn’t necessarily true.
In the society of producers, society took on the role of a ‘collective Prometheus’ – it took responsibility for the product in exchange for the individual conforming to social norms. If you just ‘became’ what society asked of you’ that was enough – your Promethean challenge, and sense of of Promethean pride could thus be earned if you fulfilled your social role.
However, in the age of individualisation, now that society ‘doesn’t exist’ (TINA) just becoming what society wants is no longer an option – ( in the consumer society the point, the task, is to continually become something else)
Being born, having become something are now sources of ‘Promethean shame’ and the task of the individual is to perfect themselves – to become more than they are, and there is never an end to this process… life is a never ending struggle of becoming.
Because of this, being a member of the society of consumers is a daunting task, a never-ending and uphill struggle. The fear of failing to conform has been elbowed out by a fear of inadequacy, and consumer markets are eager to capitalize on that fear, and companies turning out consumer goods vie for the status of the most reliable guide and helper in their clients’ unending effort to rise to the challenge. They supply ‘the tools’, the instruments required by the individually performed job of ‘self-fabrication’.
However, following Gunder Anders, it is absurd to think of those tools as enabling an individual choice of purpose. These instruments are the crystallization of irresistible ‘necessity’ – which individuals must learn to obey, in order to be free.
Cites teen fashion as an example.
I’d be interested in looking at the social construction of retirement in this… to what extent is retirement constructed as a time when we are expected to ‘consume hard’? Does all of this end then?

There are two versions of human history – That of life as a progression towards greater rationality and freedom, of which consumer choice is the latest ‘highest’ expression, the other is of the increasing colonisation of human life by commodity markets – the society of consumers is its zenith because humans are now obliged to interact with eachother at the same level as the products they consume (as explained above) – they purchase products in order to maximise their own market-value and they have no choice but to do so.
NB – I get the impression that Bauman sides with the later version.
Markets today are sovereign, you only get political rights if you are able to consume – people such as the underclass and illegal immigrants (flawed consumers) are seen as having no rights in the popular imagination, and there is no authority they can appeal to because the state’s ability to draw the line between the included and the excluded has been eroded by the market – it now makes these decisions, and it has no tangible body that can be appealed to if people feel unfairly excluded.
In recent decades the state has shifted many of its functions sideways to the market such that the state has now become the arbiter of market demands, evidence in the centrality of economic measurements as the state’s primary indicators of its ‘success’.

The secret of every durable (successfully self-reproducing) social system is the recasting of its ‘functional prerequisits’ into behavioural motives of actors – the secret is making individuals wish to do what is needed for the system to reproduce itself.
In the modern period, this required an emphasis on deferred gratification – people committing to the idea of putting off pleasure now in order to reap the rewards in the future.
We also see in the general theories of the time – such as Freud’s reality principle and in Bentham’s panopticon – that the good society could only be constructed with the individual’s subordination to the society.
(However, such theories were themselves a product of the crisis of community – the very fact that people were thinking about community demonstrates that community is no longer ‘taken for granted’ as it was in traditional times, and because of this, it was already losing its power as a coercive force).
Much of the modern period thus involved nation states vying to restrict freedom of choice through panopticon style discipline and punish rule, but this was always cumbersome.

In the post-modern era (mistakenly conceived as a decivilising process) the civilising process takes the form of the ‘obligation to choose’ but this breeds little resistance because it is represented and conceived as freedom of choice.
People now are obliged to seek happiness and pleasure and this is lived through as an exercise of ‘freedom’ and self-assertion. Today it is as if the (individualised) pleasure principle has taken over the reality principle as the primary regulating force in society. (Reminds me of happiness is mandatory.)
When society confronts us (which it rarely does as a totality, these days) it does so in ways which make it easy for us to act as solitary consumers… (rather than in large collectivities). Bauman now gives several examples of this:

  • As mentioned earlier on in the chapter, this starts with childhood
  • At university, the new future-elite of consumers are socialised into the norm of living on credit (phase one)
  • At home we have TV dinners and fast food, which protect solitary consumers.
  • The primary acts of consumption are done in swarms – groups who come together for limited times with loose connections.
  • Elsewhere Bauman has also written about the nature of shopping malls, privatised public spaces of individualised consumption.
  • Even our post-modern ‘collective’ carnivalesque acts reinforce individualism – we come together in fringe moments to get our ‘collective’ fix and then go back to being individuals again .. ..


The chapter finishes with something about tax cuts to the rich and shifting taxation away from income to expenditure which doesn’t make much sense in the context of the chapter.

Stop buying crap you don’t need now and retire 4 years earlier!

In this post I continue my statistical critique of the ordinary life of the everyday worker-consumer. This is done through comparing a hypothetical 35 year old who earns the median salary and has average expenditure to a hypothetical construction I call the frugal-consumer who spends as little as possible without completely cutting themselves off from society. The expenditure levels of the former effectively tie them into working for a further 33 years until the current projected standard retirement age of 67-8, while the later, assuming they maintain their frugal levels of consumption, will be able to retire when they are 52-3, or 14 years earlier, or in half as much time as the average-consumer on the average wage.

Here I consider spending on Consumer Frivolities (see previous posts for other categories of expenditure).

The average-consumer spends £216.71 a month on what I call consumer frivolities, which includes unnecessary expenditure on restaurants and hotels (£73.15), furniture and furnishings (£51.48), ‘miscellaneous goods’ (£69.33), which in the ONS family spending survey mainly consists of beauty products and jewellery, and finally recreation and culture (£111.06), which for most people means the cost of purchasing audio-visual equipment and subscriptions to various services, and also includes the cost of entrance to things such as cinemas, concerts and festivals.

Over the course of one year this amounts to £3,933 and maintaining this for another 33 years will cost £129, 798,  which represents 6.0 years working earning the median salary.

So what does the average person get for this £129, 798, or 6 years of toil? Most people would say it’s hard to generalise, because the consumer gets what ever they want for the money they’ve got, assuming the market can provide it. Some people will choose a house full of antiques, others a house full of gadgets, and stilll others closets full of clothes and  boxes full of jewellery. Increasingly likely, though is that money will be spent not on stuff, but on experiences, such as playing the dating game, or weekends away and longer holidays, supplemented by such products as fake tan and sun cream to prevent an actual sun tan.

To many people, such consumerist experiences are the very purpose of life: the products we buy define us, mark us out, and the events we purchase play a crucial part in our weekly, monthly and yearly life-course – they are things we look forward to, and back on, the events which help to maintain and define our relationships with our friends and family and give us something to talk about at work, other than work.

I’ve managed to resist the urge to be utterly cynical about the role which consumption plays in most people’s lives, because just recently I’ve come to perceive most ordinary consumption as tragic, and in this context cynicism seems innapropriate. Those people  who define themselves through their stuff become tied to it (and possibly require a bigger house in which to stuff their stuff), and for those who define themselves through their experiences, it seems to me that the way in which many people consume such events involves them not really being present because they’re too concerned with acting for the sake of sharing the experience via social media, and for me if you’re not actually present, then you’re not really even alive.

Ultimately such unnecessary consumption costs the average-consumer on the median salary 6 years of their working life. In contrast to this the frugal-consumer rejects the trivial, shallow and short-lived fake-joys of consumerism and instead engages in meaningful, productive and either free or very cheap activities when not working.

The frugal-consumer is not, however, an anti-consumer, and maintains an expenditure level on ‘consumer frivoloties’ which allow them to avoid being completely cut off from ordinary society. This is mainly because I could not, hand on heart, say that I am ever likely to cut out consuming frivoloties all together myself, cut down radically yes, cutting out altogether, highly unlikely.

The frugal-consumer spends just £60 a month on such frivolities, allowing for £20 a month on restaurants and hotels (so basically no hotel stays and one trip to a restaurant a month), £20 a month on furniture and furnishings, given that this category includes spending on basic household items such as hoovers, a further £20 for ‘miscellaneous goods’ because everyone needs a little something extra, and a whopping £30 a month for recreation and culture. This amounts to an annual expenditure of £1080 a year, a total of £35 640 over 33 years, representing a saving of £94 158 or 4.33 working years of working at the median salary compared to the average-consumer.

NB If this looks unrealistic, or even unbearable, something like the bottom fifth of the U.K.  in terms of income live such a life out of necessity rather than as part of an early-retirement strategy, so it is possible.



How the median income earner could retire at 52

If you’d like a fuller version of what’s below, please do buy my latest book

Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner, or A Critique of the Curiously Ordinary Life of the Everyday Worker-Consumer

Available on iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble – Only £0.63 ($0.99)

extreme early retirement

Also available on Amazon, but for $3.10 because I’d get a much lower cut if I charged less!


Over the summer I worked out that a 35 year old earning the median salary could potentially retire at 52, if they just stop buying crap they don’t need now. In contrast, the expenditure levels of the average worker-consumer effectively tie them into working until the current standard retirement age of 68.

This post is simultaneously a critique of the ordinary worker-consumer and of the Extreme-Early-Retirement model, which I don’t think can be applied in its fullest sense to an average person in the U.K. (Although if someone wants to modify my stats using different investment models to see if the retirement date could be brought forward, I’d be interested!).

In this blog post I compare two hypothetical 35 year old individuals (4) who both earn the median UK salary. One individual has average consumption and expenditure while the other has in mind the goal of retiring as early as possible and so is much more frugal, without completely having cut themselves off from society.

As testimony to my lack of Open Office Calculator and Inkscape skills, this is represented below:

Ret InfoTo make reading the above more meaningful, you should refer to this spread sheet throughout – Comparing 33 years of expenditure

For the sake of making an easy comparison, I’ve used expenditure figures based on one person living alone for the remainder of their life, and imagined that they have just bought their first property at the age of 35. The reason for selecting a 35 year old is because this is the age by which most people are settled into a stable career, and this is also the age by which most people are at least starting to think about retirement, if not yet looking forward to it in the near future. It also happens to be the age at which today’s typical graduate student can reasonably have expected to have paid off their student debts and have some kind of savings towards their first property. Although the figures in each expenditure category will vary considerably depending on variables such as age, or household make up, the levels of expenditure are generally not going to be that far away from how the majority of people spend their money for much of their lives, and thus most people should at least recognise something of their own and their friends’ expenditure habits in these figures.

However, to satisfy those who just can’t get over the problems of using averages when variables which will differ widely, I’ve included a link (4) to the spread sheet where I’ve done my calculations so you can add in your own expenditure and income levels in order to personalise these calculations for yourself, or you can even modify at a deeper level to add in things such as inflationary effects, investment returns and changes in circumstance over time.

The purpose of this exercise is to put in the starkest terms possible how many years and months (expressed in decimal terms) of one average human life one individual would have to spend working to buy certain things for the remainder of one’s normal working adult human life. In those stark terms – The expenditure levels of the average-consumer effectively lock them into working until the current standard retirement age of 67-8, while the frugal-consumer, assuming they maintain their frugal levels of consumption, will be able to retire when they are 51, or 14 years earlier, or in half as much time as the average consumer on the average wage.

Executive summary – A comparison of the 33 expenditure patterns of an average-consumer compared to a hypothetical frugal-consumer.

As far as I see it, there are three main factors which work together to keep the average 35 year old worker-consumer locked into the need to work for 33 years until they are 67-8. In terms of overall expenditure, the single most significant item is the 25 year mortgage with massive interest payments (costs 9 years). However, this lock in occurs primarily because the high cost of car ownership (costs 5 years), and what I can only characterise as fragmented expenditure on a range of unnecessary consumer frivolities (costs 4 years), which together means that a person earning the average median salary has no choice other than to drag the mortgage out over a 25 year period, and accept the attendant massive interest costs.

In contrast, what I call the frugal-consumer chooses to get rid of the car and buys a bike (saving 4 years), radically reduces consumption of frivolities (saving 2.3 years), and in addition makes some relatively marginal savings on necessities (saving 1.5 years) such as food and utilities. Taken together, these changes in lifestyle allow for an 11 year mortgage repayment term and much lower interest payments as a result (saving 2 years). All of this, factored with the lower cost of living, mean that this individual could potentially accrue enough savings over 16 to years to pay for 33 years worth of frugal consumption, allowing for an early retirement age of 52.

In future blog posts, I’ll compare expenditures across four categories – housing, transport (focusing on the car), consumer frivolities and things which may be reasonably regarded as necessities.

If you can’t wait, you can always buy my book – ‘Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner‘.


Boring but important – A few (selected) notes on data sources and expenditure categories and statistics

Categories of Expenditure In my analysis below I have four main expenditure categories, mainly drawn from The Office for National Statistics’ Family Expenditure Survey (5) -Mortgage repayments -Transport costs -Necessities – food, utilities, council tax, clothes, pensions contribution, communication, maintenance of dwelling, health -Consumer frivolities – recreation and culture, restaurants and hotels, ‘miscellaneous’, household goods and services, alcohol and tobacco and education.

To get my figures for individual expenditure based on one individual living along I’ve mainly used the data from the ONS’ family spending survey and divided by the average household size (2.4 people) where it makes sense to do this (dividing makes sense for clothes, but not for council tax). Because the figures are mostly weekly, I’ve multiplied by 52 to get the annual figures and then 33 to get the 33 year overall expenditure to the normal retirement age. I’ve calculated how many years working it would take the average consumer to pay for one category of expenditure earning the median net salary by  dividing the total cost of 33 years worth of expenditure by this figure (£21, 240). Where housing costs are concerned, I’ve used the figures for the cost of repaying the average mortgage which is £121 000 according to this is money (6).  Here, for the average-consumer repayment is over a 25 year term, while for the frugal-consumer, the repayment period is over an 11 year term.

Median Income

According to the UK Annual Survey of hours and earnings (7) median, full-time gross weekly earnings stands at £517.00 per week, which amounts to (*52) a median gross annual salary of £26884, which equates to a take home annual salary of £21, 240, or a monthly salary of £1770 after income tax and national insurance are taken out (£408/ week for those who like to work in weeks).

Potential problems with my modelling

Firstly, I don’t take into account inflation, I’ve just worked out everything at today’s prices, and neither do I take into account any returns you might make investing rather than paying down the mortgage, which is the main early-retirement strategy in my scenario. However, these two things being equal in both my average and frugal-consumer examples, you are still a lot better of spending as little as possible on anything other than the mortgage or savings. Another potential limitation of the model is that it is mainly based on someone having a stable job, and being single, although it is possible to ‘stick to the programme’ while moving around jobs and holding down a relationship, maybe even kids, just a lot more difficult. 

References (lots more in the book!)

(1)See the spread sheet above

(2)Office for National Statistics – Family Spending 2013



(4)ONS – Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings 2013 – http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ashe/annual-survey-of-hours-and-earnings/2013-provisional-results/stb-ashe-statistical-bulletin-2013.html

Britain – A nation of caravanners?


I’ve been re-reading Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity this weekend – I thought the following ‘caravan park’ passage so fitting as an analogy for British society that it was worth reproducing…. (pages 23-4)


The socially disengaged?
The socially disengaged?

‘The kind of ‘hospitality to critique’ characteristic of modern society in its present form may be likened to the pattern of a caravan site. The place is open to everyone with his or own caravan and enough money to pay the rent. Guests come and go, none of them takes much interest in how the site is run, providing the customers have been allocated plots big enough to park the caravans, the electric sockets and water taps are in good order and noise the owners of the caravans parked nearby do not make too much noise.

Drivers bring to the site their own homes equipped with all the appliances they need for their stay, which at any rate they intend to be short. Each driver has his or her own itinerary and time schedule. What the drivers want from the site’s managers is not much more (but no less either) than to be left alone and not interfered with. In exchange, they promise not to challenge the managers’ authority and to pay the rent when due.

Since they pay, they also demand. They tend to be quite adamant when arguing for their rights to the promised servics but otherwise want to go their own ways and would be angry if they were not allowed to do so. On occassion, they may clamour for better service; if they are outspoken, vociferous and resolute enough they may even get it. on occassion, they may find the managers’ promises not kept, the caravanners may complain and demand their due – but it won’t occur to them to question and renegotiate the managerial philosophy of the site, much less to take over the responsibility of running the place. They may, at the utmost, make a mental note never to use the site again and not to recommend it to their friends.

When they leave, the site remains much the same as it was before their arrival, unaffected by past campers and waiting for others to come; though if some complaints go on being lodged by successive cohorts of caravanners, the services provided may be modified to prevent repetitive discontents from being voiced again in the future’

Bauman contrasts this analogy to the era in which Adorno and Horkheimer developed their critical theory, pointing out their critical engagement with society took on the model of a household – they spoke (this is my interpretation now…. ) as if they were part of a shared household and had the right to redecorate it, and to make structural alterations.

Society (by which I think he means people in general, it’s not clear) used to accomodate the old ‘producer style critiques’ of Adorno and Horkheimer,  but now people only tend to listen to ‘consumer-style critiques’ as modelled in the caravan site analogy.

The challenge facing critical theory, according to Bauman, is to convince all those caravanners out there to ‘come back home’ to society. I sent a pingback to The Caravaning Club….. that should start the ball rolling, unless they define it as harassment?