Some commentators have written about consumption in terms of our acquisitive society. Gaining respect — particularly amongst younger people –often depends on wearing fashionable gear and owning the latest electronic gizmo rather than for one’s personal qualities. It seems you are not valued so much for who you are but for what you possess. One might wonder whether an emphasis on consumption is arguably a cause of the problem of looting during the riots in 2011 in some English cities.
Looting and a consumption orientated society
Many people have been shocked, frightened and angry at the breakdown of law and order that has caused great damage in some of the larger cities ; violence against unarmed police, arson and destructive behaviour together with widespread looting and mugging which terrorised shopkeepers and residents. A lot of those going on the rampage were teenagers. How has this happened? How do we make any sense of these disgraceful scenes that have brought shame on a nation? There are probably several complex factors that can throw light on this. Here I am thinking about material consumption.
Talking about the looting, one man said to a television reporter,
‘People round here have got no money man, so people are going to do things like that—it’s opportunity isn’t it.’ A woman said that it is not wrong to loot ‘something that is mass-produced and you can get millions of them from a factory and if I could pick it up, of course I would take it home’
A journalist writing in the Independent newspaper noticed:
“the startling inarticulacy of so many of those now being dragged through the magistrates courts… The great majority appear to be those for whom tertiary education – or even a job – is almost as unlikely as a trip to the moon.”
You might have the illusion that by looting something expensive you can acquire added value to yourself.
Feeling undervalued in a society orientated towards consumption
All of us, including those with little money to spare, are exposed to non-stop advertising and the materialistic values of western culture. Those who can afford it, tend to take nice foreign holidays, drive smart cars, and live in large houses in prestigious areas. All this is well beyond the wildest dreams of the poor. Many people with little or no money feel of no value in a consumption orientate culture which judges worth in terms of money.
Someone talked on a radio phone-in about children overlooked by the educational system because they have practical aptitude but not academic aptitude.
“They get put to the back, they get ignored and they bunk off school. They are not given anything of value to do in a practical sense and have just been told they are useless. And so they go on the downhill spiral.”
Our culture seems to highly value verbal intelligence at the expense of practical skills using the hands although arguably the latter is what our economy needs much more of at this time. Consequently, many kids who have difficulty and thus little interest in reading and writing also lack job opportunities. They haven’t been helped by a national shortage of apprentice-style training that would have provided personal role-models and socialisation as well as other working skills.
Some are unwilling to work for low wages and others are just not employable. Welfare benefits have been thought to provide a perverse incentive not to look for low paid jobs. Each person addicted to the dependency culture will remain on the dole and the vicious circle continues as they each consequently continue to feel and act as a social failure. When you live in a consumption orientated society having no money is pretty much a definition of failure.
What does an emphasis on consumption do to the very poor?
The so-called very poor social underclass are likely to live in inhuman tower blocks or in anonymous sink estates with few if any social amenity buildings. Such people have seen those at the top of society getting away with amoral acts; greedy bankers, who despite their reckless loss-making investments, have exploited public funding for their own extravagant bonuses. They have read all about cheating politicians who have lied over their expenses; a kind of smash and grab of sorts.
Is it so surprising that many poor people in western culture have a sense of entitlement and want some of this wealth too? Of course, just because one is poor, doesn’t make one a criminal and lack morality. There can be no excuse for acting badly.
Gaining appreciation through consumption or through communication
It is not always so obvious that we might be really appreciated for what we do rather than how much money we have. Is there not a tremendous unsung spiritual value in being courteous, giving someone a little time, showing consideration, taking the initiative to do some little job that will be of help to someone else, and generally making oneself useful. What a pity more people cannot experience what it is like to feel respected, appreciated, and esteemed by others for what they do that is good and useful.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems