So what if happiness is a warm McMansion?

KARL Marx bombed as a soothsayer. The workers’ revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the grand victory of whatsit over the other thing … at the time of going to press, none looked imminent. In fact, instead of producing its own gravediggers, the bourgeoisie has just produced more and more of itself. 

The extent to which Marxism has eaten itself is revealed on the internet, where enterprising e-merchants are doing a brisk trade in communist kitsch. RadicalJack.com invites fashion-conscious revolutionaries to purchase a range of funky T-shirts featuring the big man’s beardy visage (only $US15.99, or $17.77, plus postage and handling). On sale elsewhere are “Karl Marx is my homeboy” tote bags, “Religion is the opium of the masses” maternity wear, “Comrade” barbecue aprons, pop-art Marxist baby bibs and, my favourite, the classic commie G-string with saucy hammer-and-sickle motif. 

Like Beta video players, hypercolour leisurewear and flat-earth theories, communism and its rabble of illegitimate offspring are widely regarded as evolutionary dead ends. Yet books critiquing materialism are doing a brisk trade, even if their vibe isn’t blatantly Marxist so much as nostalgically Marx-esque. At the heart of 21st-century anti-consumerism is the explosion of choice stemming from what Queensland-based cultural studies scholar Alan McKee tells me is the democratisation of the aristocracy. “Aristocratic culture has always been characterised by cultural choice,” McKee says. “Choice has now become levelled down. The common person has a choice in terms of what to eat and drink, wear, look at, do for entertainment, arrange around their domestic space, that is similar to that of aristocrats of previous centuries.”

 The trouble is that, like Marx and a whole bunch of thinkers on Left and Right, there’s a tendency to infantilise the new working class of nouveau capitalists. At best, they are naive and vulnerable; at worst, they are foolish and undiscerning. If an attractive celebrity tells these impressionable automatons to buy a shiny new iPod Shuffle Bottle-Opener Keychain, they will buy a shiny iPod Shuffle Bottle-Opener Keychain. It’s a simple case of monkey see, monkey do. Except, of course, that it isn’t.

The capacity to shop used to be very handy for distinguishing the elite from the rabble. But as the leisure class has expanded to include just about everyone, conspicuous consumption alone is no longer useful for making vertical social distinctions. Hence the need for particularity when it comes to passing judgment on the purchase.

 Anti-materialists usually begin their arguments by dividing goods into things people need and things they merely want. They assume this schism is self-evident and universal. But this isn’t the case. In 2004, McKee asked 40 middle-class academics to categorise the following goods into needs and wants: washing machines, books, bathroom cleansers, cars, breakfast cereals, shaving products, televisions, children’s toys, lipsticks and CDs. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a single item with a universally agreed-upon status. The closest was the washing machine, but even here six people said it wasn’t a real need. Almost half said cars weren’t real needs. Most said lipstick wasn’t a real need but six thought it was. 

“The simplistic binary nature of need versus want is a spurious distinction,” McKee says. “Beyond oxygen, water, basic nutrients and shelter, we need nothing for physical survival. But there is more to being human than that. It’s reasonable to argue that we also need human interaction and companionship to be mentally healthy. And then, in order fully to belong to and enjoy a society, who decides what we need then? Of course, what you find is that people tend to see their own wants as needs — and other people’s needs as wants.”

 This explains why anti-materialists rarely call for an end to books (even though these are a staggeringly inefficient means of transmitting information), yet routinely lambaste the internet (a lean, green informing machine that leaves only the most petite of electronic footprints). It’s also revealing that the most despised consumer items are often those that allow the newly moneyed to approximate the trappings of their betters, such as the McMansion.

 Wide-screen TV sets are another much-maligned folk devil in modern anti-materialism moral panics. As with McMansions, they have become shorthand for the evil excesses of consumption. As with McMansions, their dimensions are tastelessly sprawly. And, as with McMansions, their gigantic carbon footprint makes it possible to sniff at the Kath and Kims of the world while insisting one’s sole concern is for the planet. This is not to say the Big Macs of TV screens and housing are not environmental liabilities. Just that anti-materialism discourses often come with a patronising, class-related subtext. 

None of the books under review is concerned solely with materialism but all give it a serve at some point. The first accuses consumerism of failing to deliver the happiness it promises, the second claims it is corrupting children, the third argues it is destroying the planet and the fourth blames it for making us rude. Each author makes strong points, but each also engages in unhelpful classism.

 Happy? by Tony Wellington, an Australian painter and jack of all media trades, is an earnest book, written plainly and bristling with statistics. Pursuing happiness has become a Western obsession and Wellington’s criticisms of the quick fixes pushed by the rapture pimps (fame, self-esteem, romance, religion and shopping) are timely. He notes that increased prosperity within developed industrial nations has little impact on wellbeing. When people are on the breadline, income counts. But once a nation’s average per capita income is more than $US15,000, higher incomes do not correlate with higher levels of happiness.

 Similar findings have resulted in a rash of self-reflection, along with calls for non-economic measures of national success, the rise of guerilla anti-consumerism movements such as Buy Nothing Day and a market for books against markets such as Clive Hamilton’s Affluenza. Hamilton has also suggested a new organisation, Overconsumers Anonymous, “to provide us all with a 12-step plan in which we first must admit we have lost control and then submit ourselves to a higher power”.

 When considering the link (or lack of a link) between buying stuff and being happy, it’s worth remembering that it is very new to think everyone in society has the right to be happy and materially comfortable. In the past, only the crustiest members of the upper realms were in a position to wonder whether too much spending power was problematic. Wellington’s harking back to some glowing, non-consuming golden age is therefore rather whiffy. He writes:

 Gone are many of the prescriptive constraints of heritage and tradition that provided reliability and comfort to earlier communities. Our forebears of centuries ago did not have to concern themselves with so many decisions about where to go, what to do and how to behave. They didn’t have to choose between hundreds of breakfast cereals, various modes of dress, or what style of music to listen to. They weren’t cut adrift in a sea of choices …

 Call me new-fashioned, but I’d rather deal with the trauma of choosing between a zillion muesli brands than returning to prescriptive, traditional constraints such as working seven days a week for a subsistence income or being viewed as nothing more than a husband-owned uterus. 

Another common complaint about consumerism is that people are more interested in the process of purchasing than in the purchase itself. “Where possible,” Wellington urges, “avoid shopping as a form of entertainment.”

 The immediate question that comes to mind is why? Why should the joy of owning transcend the joy of purchasing, particularly if the buyer comes from a background where purchasing is a novel experience?

 Suggestions that one should shop infrequently, seriously and only from an approved list before sitting at home in quiet contemplation of the product are linked to a new middle-class obsession with things that are slow. Witness the so-called slow movement encompassing slow food, slow travel, slow design and slow sex.

 ”By contrast,” McKee says, “working-class culture favours the fast. Fast food, fast women, roller-coasters, shouting back at the performers, moshing, talking over the film. So there’s a real middle-class aesthetic to these complaints, a real desire in the anti-materialist writing to impose alien middle-class values on to working-class consumers.” 

Wellington is unconvinced. He is appalled at racy new contraptions such as mobile phones, the internet and TV, accusing the latter of reducing our productivity, interfering with relationships, damaging family ties and making us fat and unhealthy. “Are today’s young people learning to observe and appreciate nature,” he asks, “to pause for reflection, to cope with solitude, to use their imaginations?”

 Concern about the moral fibre of the young and the malignant influence of their newfangled playthings has a long history. Consider the following warning about the emergence of a dire new threat:

 Many young girls, from morning to night, hang over this to the neglect of industry, health, proper exercise, and to the ruin both of body and of soul … The increase of (this) will help to account for the increase of prostitution and for the numerous adulteries and elopements that we hear of in the different parts of the kingdom.

 That warning, from the 1792 publication Evils of Adultery and Prostitution, is about the moral dangers of reading novels. In Why TV Is Good for Kids (2006), a more recent book, Catharine Lumby and Duncan Fine note that similar panics have emerged over pre-modern feasts and festivals, 18th-century theatre, 1890s music halls, Elvis Presley and comic books. Indeed, Lumby and Fine say it is difficult to find an era when yoof culcha ever received a clean bill of moral health. One thing that is relatively new, however, is childhood:

 Go back to the Middle Ages and after the age of seven, children belonged to adult society. And they were exposed to all aspects of adult life in a way we would find shocking today … a very large body of literature on the cultural history of childhood shows that the construction of children as innocent of the adult worlds of work, sex and violence only dates back to the 19th century.

 Despite the endless “Won’t somebody think of the children?” headlines, most children are far better off when it comes to health, education and recreation. This is why it’s hard to keep a straight face when confronted by the alarmist subtitle of Buy, Buy Baby: The Devastating Impact of Marketing to 0-3s by American journalist Susan Gregory Thomas.

 In the late 1990s, American research showed that babies’ brains develop and make more significant connections between the ages of zero to three than at any other point in their lives. These findings triggered a billion-dollar market of baby products billed as having educational benefit, such as the Baby Einstein range of DVDs, books and activity widgets.

 Thomas suggests the latter is a shocking new development, yet, as American academic Ellen Seiter points out, grandiose claims about the educational benefits of toys have been around since the 19th century. What is new is mass access to products promoting the high culture ideal that a child’s every waking moment is an opportunity for cognitive and educational advancement.

 Thomas is strongest when she reveals that, despite the over-the-top marketing claims, baby and toddler products promoted as educational offer no special benefits. She also deserves commendation for taking on the sacred middle-class cows of classic children’s books and “quality” TV programs such as Sesame Street. But while parents may be wasting money buying products under false pretences, Thomas’s contention that their offspring are being devastated is unconvincing.

 First, research into babies’ and toddlers’ perception of TV, toys and advertising continues to produce results that are either neutral or ambivalent. Second, like Wellington, Thomas fails to engage with the enormous amount of academic work challenging the notion that consumers — even those in nappies — are passive, naive and easily duped. Seiter puts a strong case in her 1995 book, Sold Separately: Parents and Children in Consumer Culture: 

The (toy and TV industries’) characterisation of the children’s audience as fickle and discriminating must be taken seriously. We know that children make meanings out of toys that are unanticipated by — perhaps indecipherable to — their adult designers, who are often baffled by the success of toys like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

 Thomas, in contrast, sees the mere existence of multinational toy empires as proof of damage. Consider her grave quotation of an anonymous health professional who has a hunch that babies riveted by Baby Einstein DVDs are slipping into a “low-level seizure state”. She also makes dark references to marketers being child experts “just like pedophiles” and takes potshots at working mothers who leave their children “unchaperoned” with strangers on TV.

 The irony is that her misreading of the evidence means she is open to accusations of misleading parents and exploiting their anxieties in order to move units, just like those behind the products she condemns. Also ironic is the fact that, of the four books under review, the two that are the most blatantly la-di-da are the two that approach the whole class and consumption issue with nuance and originality. Elizabeth Farrelly in Blubberland and Lucinda Holdforth in Why Manners Matter are such exquisite writers it’s all too easy to forget that they have just called you a visually illiterate, ill-mannered, future-eating bogan. There’s just something about the camped-up, self-consciousness nature of their snobbery that makes it far less offensive than it should be.

 Farrelly begins Blubberland with this endearing mea culpa:

 I, like you, drive too much. I buy too much — of which I keep too much and also throw too much away … For my own future, as well as my children’s, I must change. And yet — this is what’s weird — I, like you, can’t … That’s what drove this book into being. A craving, at the very least, to see what the f..k is going on with this crazy species.

 This chummy, conspiratorial use of the second person is a chimera. Farrelly, a Sydney newspaper columnist and academic with a PhD in architecture, soon makes it clear that the red-carpet entry to her particular species is patrolled by a snooty door bitch. Defining blubber as the brimming superfluity born of an excess of wilful wanting (as distinct from wilful needing), Farrelly says good blubber is the “edicule, gazebo or porch that add to a building nothing but graciousness”.

 Bad blubber is “the track-suited, mind-numbed couch potato, the quadruple-garaged McMansion, the vast glittering malls and dreary look-at-me suburbs interspersed with limitless acreage of concrete, asphalt and billboards”.

 Farrelly’s horror of the asphalt class is palpable. She believes in the healing power of art, creativity, truth and beauty. For her, McMansionland is a form of living death:

 For your standard sensitive architect type a half-day in (the Sydney suburb of) Kellyville can cause deep existential despair. Not just depression. Despair. Despair of the go-on-without-me type. It’s not just the vast McPalaces themselves, set bloatedly cheap-by-jowl along what passes for street. It’s the heartbreakingly, wrist-slittingly obvious fact that this — this — is what people like.

 These expressions of distaste are so over the top it’s hard to rise up in anything but mirth. Also, Farrelly is clearly suffering so much at the hands of track-suited she-hos and he-skanks that she seems far more victim than oppressor. 

And she is a joy to read. Her imagery and references are brilliant and hallucinogenic. She leaps between eras, genres and media; between pre-Socratic philosophy and Doctor Who; between Friedrich Nietzsche and Ian Thorpe; between vagina dentatas and America’s first fully enclosed shopping mall. And most of the time it all makes perfect sense. Particularly powerful is her argument that if a green settlement pattern was designed from scratch, “the product would not be suburbia, or urban villages, or Greek fishing towns or even, say, Barcelona. It would be Manhattan … the greenest city on earth.”

 In the final chapter, Farrelly outlines her green dream of a sustainable, semi-edible cityscape with no height restrictions and lots of lifts, the most energy-efficient passenger vehicle. It’s a place where even a bogan reviewer who had to pull the tracksuit out of her bum to go and look up edicule in the dictionary would be thrilled to live.

 Lucinda Holdforth shares Farrelly’s use of expletives, self-deprecating confessions, droll wit and unapologetic snobbery. “Nothing erodes manners like the common ownership of the means of production,” she says of the then communist city of Belgrade.

 Yet, like Farrelly’s unorthodox take on green cities, Holdforth reinvents manners and applies them eccentrically. Laws against euthanasia, for instance, are rude because they force one to overstay one’s welcome at the dinner party of life. Her concise, eight-point template for modern manners is brilliant: “Point four — look after the weak; point five — obey the laws and regulations, unless you are mounting a campaign of civil disobedience.”

 The section of the book dealing with consumerism bemoans corporate society’s tolerance of workplace bullies and pigs, and promulgation of mock manners of the “Your call is important to us” variety. Holdforth claims the extreme levels of emotional engagement required of staff, who must be pumped up all the time, make workers too tired to be well-mannered in their downtime. This is why the two balding briefcasers sardining her on a Friday night commuter flight don’t speak, even though it’s “almost certainly the nearest any of us have ever come to a threesome”.

 Why Manners Matter sets out a powerful case for a new set of subversive rather than conservative manners that are flexible enough to accommodate a variety of classes and cultures, and which may be essential to sharing an increasingly crowded space.

 To understand the potential of such a philosophy, you only have to imagine what would happen if, instead of lobbing missiles at each other, the Israelis and the Palestinians took to saying, “No, please, after you … “

 Reflecting on the elitist sub and supratexts of these books, it is easy to think: So what? So what if up-market commentators think it’s OK to have a swollen library, six versions of a famous symphony and a painting in every room, yet condemn collections of sports shoes, Kylie Minogue CDs and comic books? So what if they think decisions to buy the former are rational while decisions to buy the latter aren’t?

 Well, for starters, it’s bad manners. “I immediately think of the advertising campaign for one Sydney newspaper’s latest (TV) listings guide,” McKee says. “‘Never watch rubbish again,’ it says, showing a picture of a young woman sitting in front of a pile of garbage bags. That’s how they describe the programs that I love: Big Brother, Australian Idol, The Simpsons. How rude.”

 This type of hoity-toity hypocrisy is also unfashionable (control fantasies about benevolent states dictating what can and can’t be purchased are so pre-Berlin Wall fall), uneducated (there are more books on mass cultural nuances than you can point a turkey twizzler at) and crass (the anti-materialist who attacks mass consumption yet excuses her own purchasing is like the barbecue pig who begins an anti-Aboriginal tirade with “I’m not racist but …”).

 Most worrying, however, is the way biases driven by, as Seiter puts it, “the aesthetic norms of high culture” obscure and confuse the issues that count.

 Community happiness, babies’ innocence, environmental degradation and, yes, even being nicer to pregnant women on buses are all worthy concerns. But solutions will always be elusive so long as rational consideration is hijacked by blind panic and pleb bashing.

 BOOKS REVIEWED

Happy? Exposing the Cultural Myths About Happiness

By Tony Wellington

Beaut Books, 354pp, $24.95

Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness

By Elizabeth Farrelly

New South, 224pp, $29.95

Buy, Buy Baby: The Devastating Impact of Marketing to 0-3s

By Susan Gregory Thomas

HarperCollins, 272pp, $32.99

Why Manners Matter: The Case for Civilised Behaviour in a Barbarous World

By Lucinda Holdforth

Random House, 175pp, $29.95

- originally published in The Australian Literary Review in The Australian on 05-12-2007.

 

 

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