August 18, 2011
The famous sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that the London riots point us towards a minefield of defective and disqualified consumers.
By Zygmunt Bauman
These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.
In case of the minefields laid out by soldiers of one army you can send other soldiers, from another army, to dig mines out and disarm; a dangerous job, if there ever was one – as the old soldiery wisdom keeps reminding: “the sapper errs only once”. But in the case of minefields laid out by social inequality even such remedy, however treacherous, is unavailable: putting the mines in and digging them up needs to be done by the same army which neither can stop adding new mines to the old nor avoid stepping on them – over and over again. Laying mines and falling victims of their explosions come in a package deal.
All varieties of social inequality derive from the division between the haves and the have-nots, as Miguel Cervantes de Savedra noted already half a millennium ago. But in different times having or not having of different objects is, respectively, the states most passionately desired and most passionately resented. Two centuries ago in Europe, a few decades ago still in many some distant from Europe places, and to this day in some battlegrounds of tribal wars or playgrounds of dictatorships, the prime object setting the have-nots and the haves in conflict was bread or rice. Thank God, science, technology and certain reasonable political expedients this is no longer the case. Which does not mean though that the old division is dead and buried. Quite on the contrary… The objects of desire, whose absence is most violently resented, are nowadays many and varied – and their numbers, as well as the temptation to have them, grow by the day. And so grows the wrath, humiliation, spite and grudge aroused by not having them – as well as the urge to destroy what you can’t have. Looting shops and setting them on fire derive from the same impulsion and gratify the same longing.
We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty. The day after the 9/11 outrage George W. Bush, when calling Americans to get over the trauma and go back to normal, found no better words than “go back shopping”. It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops.
From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common. Shops and shopping acquire thereby a fully and truly eschatological dimension. Supermarkets, as George Ritzer famously put it, are our temples; and so, I may add, the shopping lists are our breviaries, while strolls along the shopping malls become our pilgrimages. Buying on impulse and getting rid of possessions no longer sufficiently attractive in order to put more attractive ones in their place are our most enthusing emotions. The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life. I shop, therefore I am. To shop or not to shop, this is the question.
For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled – and of own nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.
Supermarkets may be temples of worship for the members of the congregation. For the anathemised, found wanting and banished by the Church of Consumers, they are the outposts of the enemy erected on the land of their exile. Those heavily guarded ramparts bar access to the goods which protect others from a similar fate: as George W. Bush would have to agree, they bar return (and for the youngsters who never yet sat on a pew, the access) to “normality”. Steel gratings and blinds, CCTV cameras, security guards at the entry and hidden inside only add to the atmosphere of a battlefield and on-going hostilities. Those armed and closely watched citadels of enemy-in-our-midst serve as a day in, day out reminder of the natives’ misery, low worth, humiliation. Defiant in their haughty and arrogant inaccessibility, they seem to shout: I dare you! But dare you what?