Blogging: Identity and Commodification
I’m thinking a lot lately about humanity and what it means to be made in God’s image, where that has been distorted and how it can be restored / recovered. I have a real bee in my bonnet about it. I think consumerism has affected human identity, making us feel our highest calling is to own stuff, to be identified and given status according to what we have. It’s hard to over-estimate the impact of marketing and big brands upon us as a people over the last twenty years.
In my lifetime, I trace this back to the 80’s boom and Thatcher’s mantra that there is no society – just individuals, who work so they can consume. The council houses were sold – our shared heritage, our contingency, our sense of community, our groups of neighbours who looked out for one another, suddenly became separated by ownership. We were apparently “somebody” if we bought our house and changed the style of our windows. At the same time as some became obscenely wealthy by betting on the future, others became poorer as the old heavy industries closed down, the miners and their wives beaten up by the police at the picket lines, humiliated and with barely enough to eat for many months, wrestling against the changes being made forcibly to our economic and social fabric.
Once Blair’s government came in, we entered an odd period called “new labour” which deliberately continued the consumerist ethos but tried to make it seem socialist by expanding the market to give access to purchasing power to people who had formerly been without disposable income. So if you were moving into a flat after a wait on the housing list, suddenly you had access to loans from the government at a cheapish rate, with payments deducted direct from your benefits. You could borrow enough to buy a new sofa and a telly and other items. You could borrow more on loans at Christmas too, so your kids weren’t “left out” of what everyone else was having. Later during the labour years, there was a widespread scheme in deprived areas where laptops were given to families so children could access the internet for homework and so they didn’t fall behind technologically. It was launched just before the iphone. Lots of the laptops were then found to have been sold on ebay as parents used the cash to buy themselves an iphone instead.
This may sound horribly judgmental, political and bitter up to this point. It isn’t – I’ve been a lifelong Labour voter until recently when I began to vote Green. I am from a poor north-eastern mining family and spent much of my time as a child on an estate in Pennywell with my Nan. She wore her slippers and a headscarf to walk to the parade of shops, with her neighbours in and out of each other’s houses all day long, buying from the bread van or the Liptons tea van and watching marching majorette marching bands for entertainment at the weekends. All the people who lived there would be termed poor today but almost all households had someone who worked and there was a genuine sense of care and relationship among the neighbours. Miners Gala’s still took place, along with cricket matches and other social activities.
What I note is that during the last thirty years, working class community like I remember has all but disappeared. Apprenticeships and decently paid blue collar jobs have shrunk massively. The trades-union movement, guardian of the working class, has been attacked by successive governments, and also morally reduced as a few of its own leaders have lined their pockets while working conditions and rights have eroded. Working “men’s” clubs, social clubs, company sports and social clubs, pubs on housing estates, have all but disappeared in some parts of the country – certainly here in Cirencester that is the case. The church has not always been present or willing to be a place of welcome and gathering.
What it has been replaced with is the individualism of being a consumer and the expansion of ‘the market’. In that sense, Thatcher was certainly the fulfiller of her own repulsive prophecy. There is now not a lot left of what we might call society in some places. Only lots of individual consumers. People still connect and congregate at various places such as the school gate and even the job centre but there may be no strong centre of gravity, nothing that holds you and helps you along when life falls apart. Work, making things and production contained an inherent creativity and dignity and was set for the most part in a culture of community and respect. I’m not sure we could claim that about banking and trading, a specialised industry for tiny numbers of elites that creates no sense of community around it in a locale, but instead further instils a dog eat dog competitive ethos and flaunts its bonuses and fast cars as the pinnacle of societal achievement.
It is inherent to the nature of human wellbeing to share relationship, narrative and meaning together with others, to whom you are connected. I wonder if one reading of “the Fall” narrative is to see it as the people choosing consumerism over against relationship with God and their surroundings. They had community, locatedness, purpose and relationship, but they didn’t see the value of those in the face of the distorted sales pitch. The shiny palm oil marketing executive focused them on the short term gain of the item they didn’t have. This narrative repeats in the story of Cain and Abel, in which one murders to keep what he has, and is cast out of relationship with God and his family, wandering and restless without rootedness and connections. Esau then follows, abandoning his principles and family ties for a bowl of stew.
It is important that humans are made in God’s image, and that we fulfil the potential of the Divine image through relationship, with God and our fellow humans. Consumerism is potentially a distortion of that, idolatrous and dangerous if we give up on who we are and our future for the sake of a short term gain. We are bought off from having plans and dreams and a future, by having whatever it is right now. We are made into utilitarians, slaves to the market – our purpose on earth is to spend, to sustain an economy by buying things – that is our role, all we are allowed. When in fact, to be fully human and made in God’s image is to create, to order and shape culture, to push back malign forces that distort and create safe and beautiful communities for the wellbeing of all and the earth.
Allowing corporate forces, at best amoral, into the driving seat allows them power over our culture, allowing them to shape and determine what is of worth and value; this ultimately breaks down community by making individuals of us all, with items defining our identity. Corporations who purvey goods are only interested in us as consumers, not as fully human, willing to dehumanise us. They strip out any shred of common good by failing to pay taxes in the pursuit of profits. They are willing to tell us we are not fully human without their product, putting themselves in the place of God by framing our wellbeing via the supply of goods.
I’m not sure we can easily or quickly reverse the structural changes to our economy. I am not sure that the massive expansion of the state under Blair, turning everyone into consumers, was necessarily the answer. Nor am I saying that people who are poor should be denied access to what they need to live with dignity. Poverty is not romantic or glamorous, it’s hard, hungry and fearful and these also distort human identity. I know because I have been there. The recent sanctions and welfare changes have perhaps been the most aggressive attack by a state on its own citizens I can think of, unthinkable for a Western democracy like ours, literally killing vulnerable people off in a state sanctioned survival-of-the-fittest game show.
So when the bishops of the Church of England encourage everyone to get out and vote and engage on the political landscape, it’s because these are quite literally matters of life and death, of the utmost importance for humans made in God’s image, for the Church, our community life and our future. (https://churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2015/02/house-of-bishops%27-pastoral-letter-on-the-2015-general-election.aspx )
I believe the antidote to our problems will likely come from the grass roots, from a revolution that re-creates community ties and is rooted in the local. Purpose and meaning and self-determination, even within the constraints of the lack of jobs, can be found in communities establishing groups and connections for themselves. The rise in community gardening and allotments, community choirs, co-housing projects, new churches meeting on housing estates, are all hopeful signs that change is on the way. Through these kinds of local empowerment, we can re-discover our connectedness to one another, to the earth and our locale and reimagine our humanity and culture with the dignity God intended.