Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Guest blog by Terry Leahy


Terry Leahy, author of Chapter 6 of Life Without Money comments on a recent book.

Daniel Miller’s recent book Consumption and its Consequences (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2012) continues his ethnographic work on the reasons why people consume, but also looks at these issues in relation to the environmental problems of consumption. The middle part contains the heart of Miller’s argument that no amount of green consumerism is likely to restrain consumption in ways that sufficiently protect the environment. This argument he summarizes here:

At one level most consumption is about basic household provisioning, as in food or clothing. More deeply, it is also about the intensity of relationships with the people you care most about or live with, about status and local symbolic systems. (158)

One study, which informs this, followed shoppers on their trips to the shops in the UK. Miller was mainly looking at housewives. What he found was far from a glorious indulgence in ‘materialist’ consumerism. Housewives were concerned to save the money of their family and careful not to splurge on their own fancies. In another of his studies, he looks at the way the people of Trinidad express themselves in showy purchases of clothing or refitting their cars with flash upholstery. He traces this to a situation in which money and dignity is in short supply and local people establish their status through display and a personal expression of their own style.

But what does he then propose to deal with the environmental crisis we are now facing? It is pointless to try to urge people to make different consumer choices; this is the wrong end of the problem to be tackling. We should tackle the production end. The way to do this is to engage scientific advice on what production needs to be curtailed for the sake of the environment. For example, we could ban gas guzzlers, restricting engines to 1.6 litres.

What Miller does not really take into account here are the vested interests of a capitalist economy that make this solution difficult. Such a regulation might well be scientifically rational but the impact would be massive on the economy, wages and jobs, a political hurdle preventing the well-meaning solutions Miller suggests from implementation already. People voting as consumers makes effective environmental regulation very difficult politically. Miller is certainly right in thinking that the current situation makes it difficult to reign in environmental damage through moral campaigns directed at consumer habits but this same situation makes it equally difficult to adopt the solution he recommends.

Miller does not believe any major change away from capitalism is possible or desirable. He writes of himself as a Norwegian social democrat. Miller does not highlight the key importance of people expressing themselves in consumption because they are alienated in their work, a central aspect of consumer pressures in every country that relies on wage labour. They seek expression and social connection through their consumption because they get little of either at work. Whether goods are provided by the market or by the state, the provision of goods has to be impersonal and bureaucratic.

This is where the idea of the gift economy comes in. It is a third alternative for modernity — not capitalism and not a centralized state based socialism. It is really a package of ideas for organizing production and consumption that gets beyond the impasse Miller describes. The model of ethical behaviour normalized in a gift economy is for people to look after the well being of others and to ensure an equality of outcomes.

How would a gift economy avoid the problems that modern economies now experience with consumption? The daily experience of work in a gift economy is engaging and meaningful. Working harder does not produce an increase in your own personal consumption and working is not necessary to survive. There is less motivation to consume because the pleasures of social connection and self-expression are also a strong feature of work. There is less motivation to produce because you are not required to produce to gain an income and consume and you cannot consume simply more by producing more, mechanisms which prevent over-consumption.

In a gift economy there is no government, so no possibility for environmental regulation by government. Producers control the methods of production and are concerned about their own health and the environmental wellbeing of their own community. Production is not for the market, but for use. Decisions about what to produce and for whom are made by a vast and complex set of decision makers. The aim of producers is to produce and allocate goods that are most needed and likely to give pleasure. Doing this they will be most rewarded with status and maintain support for the gift economy. Such a structure for making decisions would certainly do a lot better than the market in terms of redistribution and environmental outcomes and just as well in efficient production and allocation of goods and resources.

To make a final comment, let us return to the Green shopper characterized as a cold-hearted fish who puts abstract environmental goals in front of the interests of their family. How does the gift economy deal with the trade-off between altruism and localism? In the gift economy the producer looks after their community and family by making sure that their production is not damaging their community and environment. Control at the point of production reconciles the supposedly abstract environmental issues with the local and family issues. What about the needs of people outside of their immediate community? People do not just work to provide for their own community but provide gifts for those to whom they are not personally connected by locality. The intention of this work is to bring other people closer and to extend the arena of intimacy to concrete others, rather than to perform a sacrifice in relation to impersonal ideals. They are making friends and extending the affluence of all parties at the same time.

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