[DEBATE] : Green toffs vs the 'shopping herd'
grinker at mweb.co.za
Tue Jan 8 16:28:18 GMT 2008
Monday 7 January 2008
Green toffs vs the shopping herd
The panic about greedy mobs invading Oxford Street during the New Year sales
is driven by elite disdain for consumerism and economic growth.
Did we buy too much at Christmas, or not enough? Are the January sales a
sign of economic health, or decadence? Proof that Britain is booming, or
something that we will pay heavily for later?
Breast-beating over the sales has become an annual event. In 2006, anxiety
focused on the worlds biggest ship, the Emma Maersk III, which was
carrying 11,000 containers full of toys half way around the world from China
- a sure sign of the victory of pester power over common sense. In 2005,
newspapers worried over the the lowest Christmas sales for 20 years (1).
In 2003, Sainsburys did badly, but Next prospered, while thinking people
worried, as usual, about Christmas excess.
This year, the expected collapse in Christmas sales failed to materialise.
The credit crunch was expected to make shoppers too scared to commit to big
purchases. The online gaming system, Wii, and The Simpsons Movie DVD boosted
Amazons sales, while Oxford Street, rather quiet on Christmas Eve, saw its
Boxing Day footfall (yes, people really do count this) rise by 7.8 per cent
on 2006. Some of the buoyancy was managed by retailers furious discounting
- around 80 per cent of goods were reduced in price, apparently.
You might think that retailers were to be congratulated on beating the
winter gloom. But the editorials in the highbrow papers only saw problems
ahead. Had the shoppers failed to understand that capitalist prosperity is
all built on sand, they worried? Dont those greedy plebs understand that
they will all be in Queer Street soon?
The mid-winter Saturnalia shows us the deep muddle at the heart of modern
capitalism. On the one hand, there is the existential fear that pulsates in
every barrow boy: that tomorrow the shoppers might just stay at home. It is
written into the free market system that you can never know what will happen
tomorrow, whether that stock on the shelves is gold or rubbish.
Since the 1990s the retail sector has been the healthiest part of British
business - not a great sign of the importance of innovation in industry.
That was how the Christmas sales turned into such a high-wire act for UK
plc. Instead of watching the results at the end of the financial year,
economic commentators were reduced to watching the winter solstice for signs
of the coming spring, like some Druid shaman.
But just as some retailers were nervously hoping that the shoppers would
empty their purses, an altogether different noise was coming from another
corner of the British establishment. The green loathing of greedy
consumerism that used to be the preserve of a handful of middle-class cranks
has spread throughout much of the British ruling class.
Toffs whose fathers were hard-nosed capitalists have turned into
eco-warriors these days. Leading green Lord Peter Melchetts fortune was
made by his father, Alfred Mond, at Imperial Chemicals Industries; ecologist
Tory Zac Goldsmith inherited his £300million from dad James Goldsmiths
Bovril sales. To the sons and daughters of the capitalist elite, nothing is
more distasteful than the mass market that made them wealthy.
Instead of celebrating the trickle down of consumer goods, the elite are
repulsed by it. They cannot bear to see hoi polloi driving cars like them,
or shopping in their shops. They erect elaborate consumer rituals to mark
themselves apart from the herd - but to their dismay, the herd keeps
cracking the code. In days gone past, the sheer awkward coldness of an art
gallery or music recital would have been enough to keep it exclusive, but no
longer. Even their costly organic food has been sucked up by Tesco and
The green sentiment favours an economic policy of restraint - and it is in
danger of succeeding in choking what growth the British economy has
experienced. When ordinary households took advantage of wider credit
availability to buy homes and cars in the 1990s, the green reaction was
intensely hostile and governments listened, cutting road-building
programmes, choking off house-building with green belt planning controls,
hiking fuel duties. And when those regulatory constraints on the expansion
of big-ticket consumer goods pushed up prices, the caution merchants
demanded limits on higher interest rates.
Of course it is a real problem that Britains retail boom was premised on a
trillion pounds of consumer credit, increasingly paying for goods from
abroad. But the inroad made by East Asian manufacturers into Britains
domestic markets is itself a consequence of a business climate that is, in
the words of the UK Department of Trade and Industry, risk averse. Despite
all the talk about a New Economy, the growth in employment has all been in
relatively low-productivity service sector jobs, so much so that average
productivity actually fell in the UK (2).
Disdaining product innovation in manufacturing as a race to the bottom,
Britains entrepreneurs are increasingly preoccupied with rent-seeking
behaviour - spying out opportunities to use their cash to lay claim to
someone elses hard industry. British law firms are the ones suing Third
World nations over debt bought up cheaply, and they are the ones pursuing
Chinese manufacturers claiming intellectual property rights over handbags
and childrens toys. At the climate talks in Bali at the end of last year,
it was British negotiators who imagined a world where restraints on industry
would be rewarded, just as it is British financiers who are already making
money trading in carbon futures, and British boffins who are wasting their
time making carbon-inefficient windmills.
If, as seems more than likely, the economy does slow down as predicted this
spring, why should we be surprised? The environmentally minded
intelligentsia has been deeply hostile to economic growth. Worse still,
their voices have shaped economic policy, demanding restraint in
road-building, house-building, consumer-spending and the spread of
technology. The gloom-mongers despair over Christmas spending is turning
into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
James Heartfield is author of Green Capitalism: Engineering Scarcity in an
Age of Plenty, published next month.
(1) Guardian, 22 January 2005
(2) The countrys strong labour market performance may, in the words of
the DTI, actually have the effect of lowering average measured
productivity. See UK Productivity and competitiveness indicators, DTI Paper
no 9, p25, 2003
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