Blame consumer capitalism too

I was taking a break from blogging last week, and so you were spared my thoughts about the rioting, arson and looting in parts of London and other UK cities (I hate alarmist headlines of the “London Is Burning” variety) as it was happening.

However if I had posted something, it probably would have been along the lines of what Charlie Brooker wrote in The Guardian:

If preventing further looting is our aim, then as well as addressing the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, I’d take a long hard look at MTV Cribs and similar TV shows that routinely confuse human achievement with the mindless acquisition of gaudy bling bullshit. The media heaves with propaganda promoting sensation and consumption above all else.

Back in the 80s the pioneering aspirational soap opera Dallas dangled an unattainable billionaire lifestyle in front of millions, but at least had the nous to make the Ewing family miserable and consumed with self-loathing. At the same time, shows aimed at kids were full of presenters cheerfully making puppets out of old yoghurt pots, while shows aimed at teens largely depicted cheeky urchins copping off with each other in the dole queue. Today, whenever my world-weary eyes alight on a “youth show” it merely resembles a glossily edited advert for celebrity lifestyles, co-starring a jet-ski and a tower of gold. And regardless of the time slot, every other commercial shrieks that I deserve the best of everything. I and I alone. I’d gladly introduce a law requiring broadcasters to show five minutes of footage of a rich man dying alone for every 10 minutes of fevered avarice.

Yes. And while the conservatives reflexively blamed the Left for the breakdown of parental authority, personal responsibility and self-restraint, it’s simply a fact that modern consumer capitalism has done more to undermine these important values than any PC leftist could ever hope to do– especially among those with little or nothing to lose.

Who, after all, is more likely to influence economically-deprived young people– nihilistic leftwing professors writing in obscure journals or advertisers with multi-million dollar budgets dedicated to convincing us we must have the latest model of athletic shoes or technological gizmo? Who is more likely to promote selfishness, instant gratification, rejection of anything smacking of “old-fashioned,” glorification of the new and different, a preference for appearance over substance, etc?

And as any sentient person has noticed, marketing to consumers has in recent years become increasingly flashy, sexually-suggestive, crude and tasteless– in a way that does little to encourage the better sort of traditional values that tend to keep people from behaving violently and lawlessly.

In his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell– who described himself as a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture– argued that it is capitalism itself which has undermined the moral foundations of the original Protestant ethic that created modern capitalism in the first place.

The greatest single engine in the destruction of the Protestant ethic was the invention of the installment plan, or instant credit. Previously one had to save in order to buy. But with credit cards one could indulge in instant gratification. The system was transformed by mass production and mass consumption, by the creation of new wants and new means of gratifying those wants.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, I’m not calling for the overthrow of consumer capitalism. The consequences of that would probably be even worse.

But if some people take any opportunity they can to instantly gratify their wants– bypassing installment plans and instant credit– is anyone surprised?