THE BLOG

Austerity and Consumerism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

11/12/2013 11:46 GMT | Updated 09/02/2014 10:59 GMT

I wandered into a beautiful Shoreditch boutique called Labour and Wait the other day, and walked out with brown paper bags full of plain enamelled pie dishes and school canteen tumblers. Unpacking my purchases at home, I wondered why, given the asceticism of my purchases, I still felt my usual pang of shopper's guilt. If anything, it felt even worse.

Back in the days when multinational corporations were straightforwardly evil, when McLibel was grinding its way through the courts and the world was awash with pre-crash bling, consumerism was so much easier to critique. We played David to the Goliaths of Harrods and Tesco, opposing their brash materialism with left-wing politics and stabs at pious abstinence.

Now, in the brave new millennial world, those corporate Goliaths are masquerading as Davids. Starbucks displays its Fairtrade beans in rustic sacks and personalises your latte. Tesco owns a majority stake in 'mom and pop' coffee shops Harris and Hoole. New media giants hold our data in their 'clouds' and sell it on to advertisers, while at the same time announcing that 'The Internet is under new management: Yours'.

As a nation finds itself breaking pre-Christmas sales records once again, the virus of corporate consumerism has become more resilient than ever. It's wised up to citizen-consumers' hostile antibodies, and developed into an insidious, virulent strain. You knew where you were with bling. But now materialism presents itself as anti-materialism.

Austerity chic exploits the counterintuitive fact that hedonism and abstinence are not opposite poles: there's a delicious pleasure in abstemiousness. Cue the Labour and Wait aesthetic that perfectly illustrates our brand of acquisitive excess in denial. Save With Jamie (and the use that is made of food writer Jack Monroe) exemplifies the new message: you too can save by spending.

George Monbiot got rightly exercised in the Guardian the other day about his own paper's Christmas shopping issue, showcasing wooden cycle helmets and papparedelle rolling pins. But the point is that these wholesome fripperies camouflage their own extravagance through the use of modest, plain imagery. They neuter our ethical impulses by embracing and incorporating them. That naturalistic wood/fox/owl/tree symbolism is a pretty form of greenwash. Those make-your-own kits conceal the accelerating cycle of built-in obsolescence. We sit agog on the sofa in front of the Great British Bake-Off, scoffing a 'Basics' range doughnut from Sainsbury's 'in-store bakery'.

New technology is piously anti-materialist - all that Farenheit 451-esque decluttering of bookshelves and 'saving trees' by not printing things out. The ultra-thin tablets and smartphones that customers were fighting each other for on Black Friday display a kind of catwalk anorexia. But Apple's vernacular minimalism distracts us from the internet's massive environmental footprint and the disposability of those expensive, unmendable, hermetically-sealed toys.

The sneaky thing about austerity is that it portrays itself as the solution to pre-crash excess: the January diet after the December binge. But it's actually the continuation of that excess in penitent disguise. Austerity is modern capitalism's disingenuous alibi: public belt-tightening combined with private business as usual. Keep Calm - as the organic cotton hand-printed tea towels have it - and Go Shopping.