“What is the sound of a machine breaking down? What noise does this machine make as it refuses to stop? Today, when I woke, I was already exhausted” (Snack Syndicate, “Groundwork — Protocols For Listening in (and after) Social Isolation“)
I’ve been thinking a lot about consumption during lockdown. What we consume. Why we consume. Who usually makes our consumables. One of the things on repeat in the media at the moment is that because the economy is tanking we need to spend, consume, more. Even though people are losing their jobs left and right, we are being encouraged not to save. In Australia even our retirement funds have been opened up for us to spend. Graphs on the nightly news track consumer confidence. We’re spending more in supermarkets and on homewares but less on retail and restaurants. Across the board those still with jobs are saving too much, and those without have nothing spare to spend. The rich lament that there’s “just nothing to spend money on“. In the UK young people have been told to go out and spend for the country, but are now being blamed for the spike in COVID-19 cases. Being a “good consumer” at the moment is fraught, to say the least.
This week The Guardian started a discussion about “lockdown shopping“, for readers to contribute stories of purchases in isolation. Many of the comments noted a sense of “doing one’s bit” to help the economy, by buying things. But well before COVID-19 much of our sense of agency had been whittled down to our consumer power. I’ve noticed the impulse comes out when things go wrong. When a friend is going through a tough time my first instinct is often “what can I buy them?” (flowers, plants, chocolate, etc) instead of “how can I be there for them?”. Of course a gift signals care and concern but it is interesting to think how this impulse might also reveal how I defer first to consumption, rather than say, creation or care.
Trying to prop the economy up with spending keeps us in an impossible bind. Many of us are not spending enough but we’re also not saving enough for our future livelihoods. Right now being encouraged to spend money to keep the broken wheels of capitalism spinning feels a bit like being asked to contribute to a giant Go Fund Me so that everyone can still have a job.
Under capitalism the donations are never going to go into the right pockets. Even in countries like Australia where governments have provided funding supports (though these are quickly being slashed) the ruling class have been skimming them for profit. In real terms wages have gone down over the COVID-19 period while profits have gone up, with shareholders scooping up subsidy gains. Capital stays winning while labour loses. It’s enough to make your blood boil. If you’re like me I’d wager it may also be enough to make you reach for the dopamine hit provided by online shopping. It’s understandable to pursue small pleasures in the big disaster of it all.
One of my own recent rage/despair purchases was the September edition of British Vogue. I’ve been buying British Vogue on and off since Edward Enninful took the reins, who promised to take the fashion magazine in more radical directions (the fact that Teen Vogue has gone rogue since going online is also fascinating, but another story). The September 2020 front cover features Marcus Rashford and Adwoa Aboah in Black-Pantheresque attire, with the banner “ACTIVISM NOW: THE FACES OF HOPE”. The four-page fold out features over a dozen activists and commentators, largely connected to the Black Lives Matter movement. But flip the cover pages over and there’s an enormous spread from fashion house Ralph Lauren, featuring a diverse cast of mostly Black and Brown models all decked out in POLO. The ad states “We believe in a quality of life that is authentic and optimistic – one that embraces a spirit of togetherness, and honors the individual beauty in each of us”. What this juxtaposition of the brand with the cover amounts to is that the radical focus on activists is immediately recuperated. Activism is sold back to us the moment it is featured.
The overall theme of the issue is “hope”, and many of the advertisements proclaim radically generic ideas like “Hope is not a trend” or “We are one”. Much of the content is also dedicated to leading figures in the fashion industry talking about what needs to change in light of COVID-19 – namely that the furious churn of fashion needs to slow down. But as dynastic designers like Donatella Versace state their new drive to make “everything sustainable”, the contradiction is palpable given their exceptional wealth and intimate ties to the very richest of the ruling class. There can be no sustainability, no justice, no peace, within a system fundamentally geared toward profit, of which the fashion industry plays no small part. This is precisely an industry where creativity has been distorted into hyper-consumption, and where the artistry of couture is reserved for those at the top. Just like every other industry, there is no real way to be ethical under this deeply extractive system.
I am not making these judgements of the fashion industry from afar. I love fashion, and I love fashion magazines. I too recently bought some pleated pants, under the auspice of “doing my bit” for the economy (and trying to achieve the “dark academia” trend). It made me feel good to purchase something and receive a parcel in the mail. But COVID-19 has exposed an unbridgeable rift in capitalism that was always in its fabric. No amount of pant buying is going to keep me or my friends employed. And there is no way to make for-profit driven business “sustainable”. We knew it already, but now it’s confirmed: this is a profoundly unsustainable system.
I recently attended an online reading group where we discussed the piece “Groundwork — Protocols For Listening in (and after) Social Isolation” by Sydney-based poetry team Snack Syndicate. The piece offers a meditation on labour practices under lockdown, and in it they ask “What is the sound of a machine breaking down?” I read this question to (maybe) mean, what might the death throes of the oppressive structure actually sound like, if we listen? In the reading group I had no answers, only vague gestures toward the utopian possibilities of imagining different worlds. But reading British Vogue this week I felt like I could, maybe, hear the machine slightly breaking.
Not everything can be easily recuperated. Despite the best efforts of advertisers, an ad declaring “hope for the future” is always going to jar with actual demands of activists who want an end to white supremacy, real action on climate catastrophe, and a new order – not the old normal. The sound of the machine breaking is the contradictions getting so wide and deep that you can hear the cracks. Even if brands do try and sell mass uprisings back to us sometimes, these always stay incredibly surface-level. They have to, because actually smashing up the current (racist, sexist, homophobic) system and eating the rich isn’t really something a CEO is going to want to promote.
You can’t buy change. The less that we can think of our power in terms of consumption the better. So many actions championed pre-COVID – use less plastic, go vegan, install solar panels – have been well-intentioned but have primed us to think of our political power in terms of consumption.
Going vegan and going off-grid is actually easy for many of the readers of British Vogue to achieve. The very wealthy can employ someone else to do their shopping for them, set up their houses, install the right things. British Vogue shows that the 1% are doing great at adapting to (and selling) “clean beauty” and “ethical fashion”. Consumption as power washes the hands of those that can afford to consume “right”, and does nothing to address the underlying system of exploitation (that they are running!) that means we have mass produced plastic, factory farming, and fossil fuel dependance, etc, in the first place.
All of this is to say that I don’t think you should feel bad about your current consumption or lack thereof. No amount of purchasing power is going to save us right now. Sure, keep buying local, buy the plants and the pants. Or don’t. Either way make sure you listen out for the cracks, and dive right in.