On Friday 27th November, we all know what story our media are going to tell us. Even in the light of recent world events, it remains one of the few days of the year – like the day after Wimbledon or the FA Cup Final, or the Royal Wedding – when at least part of the front page news writes itself. The photographers are already considering the best angles and locations to shoot; the journos have their stories almost done, just waiting for the final press releases to pick out the highlights; the headline writers have long since set their work aside.
Black Friday 2015 will be heralded as the latest highpoint in the rise and rise of consumerism, with images of us fighting one another for the bargains, and graphic stories of physical harm bursting through the 24 hour channels at opening time.
But we will totally have missed what’s really going on. In years to come, we’ll look back and see this day not as the continuation of the dominance of consumerism, but a moment in its decline and fall.
To be able to see this, you have first to know what consumerism really is. Like most isms (capitalism, socialism, materialism), it’s a word we’ve come to use flakily, without really knowing what we’re talking about. Precisely, it is the social system that exists when the consumer is the dominant identity construct in a society.
When you think of it in this way, it is clear that consumerism is indeed what we have right now – but equally clear that it won’t be for much longer.
Firstly, you’ll realise that consumerism hasn’t been around forever, and so is far from inescapable human nature. Its dominance really begins in the aftermath of the two World Wars, before which we were arguably best thought of as subjects. The right thing for us to do back then was to get what we were given, to do our duty and keep our heads down. The consumer came onto that scene as a liberating shift, bringing us a revolution in individual agency in the form of freedom of choice, raising standards through competition and telling us that the right thing to do was now to get the best deal for ourselves as narrowly defined individuals, measured primarily in material standards of living, and in the short term.
The second thing you’ll see that it’s not at its zenith at all any more. That was in the 1980s – or more precisely, the year 1984. Apple and Virgin burst onto the scene that year, two iconic consumer brands; the idea that we could buy stuff to save the planet and solve global poverty was brought to the mainstream by the Body Shop as it floated on the London Stock Exchange and by Band Aid (well, the first installation…); and the LA Olympics, the first ever to be funded by commercial sponsorship, showed that we consumers could fund global sport and culture too. Madonna even had the poetic decency to cap it off by releasing Material Girl.
That was the zenith, not this. Now we’re in the period of insanity, when all the problems we thought Consumerism could solve are in fact multiplying, breeding with one another and deepening around us, and at least in the mainstream structures of society we respond by continuing to do the same things but expect a different result.
Third – in a moment of revelation – you’ll see what’s coming up to replace it. As a wit once put it, the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. It ended because we came up with something better. That’s what’s happening here.
Across every aspect of society, and across the world, the logic of the consumer is being challenged by something very different. Instead of just choosing what we want from the options offered, and hoping against reason and experience that if we all do that the best for society as a whole will somehow emerge, we’re exploring our moral and creative agency, shaping what the choices are, and finding new ways forward. We are orienting ourselves to the world not as consumers, but as citizens.
This is happening in politics, where from Partido de la Red in Argentina to Better Reykjavik in Iceland to Alternativet in Denmark, political platforms are replacing political parties, and participatory democracy replacing (or at least infusing) representative.
It’s happening at a local level, in communities across the world, where broad movements like Transition Towns, food growing groups like Incredible Edible, local currencies like the Brixton Pound, and many more are bursting out everywhere, claiming the power to reimagine and rebuild the world, refusing to wait for policymakers to devolve official control.
It’s even happening in business, where the logic of the consumer arguably has its spiritual home. New legislation is rippling across the USA, in 28 states and counting, which creates the status of the Benefit Corporation: an organisation which makes profit, but does so only instrumentally, in order to maximise its social or environmental impact. Shareholder activism movements are building worldwide, as we refuse to continue with a consumer logic of putting money in and expecting more back, and instead take a citizen interest in the activities of the companies who hold our money. Citizen businesses are thinking not just of their profit margins, but of their role in society.
This shift is not some pipedream. It is happening, and happening for real.
Black Friday 2015 is one more evidence point. Asda, the Walmart subsidiary who brought the phenomenon to our shores, are this year among those opting out. Creative reactions are building: outdoor stockist REI are instead promoting Wild Friday, a day to get outdoors and remember what life’s really about. Even in this most Consumerist of moments, the cracks are appearing. As we know from the history of social change, when walls crumble, they go down fast.
As a result, we have a moment in time right now. Our challenge is to respond constructively, and usher in the new era with positivity and courage. If we can seize this moment, this Citizen Shift, we can create a new and far more meaningful society, in which our young people feel there is something sacred and worthy of their investment, and in which we can all – not just those with the financial means to be consumers – have a genuine stake.
But only if we look up at the future. Not down at the front page.
Read the full report ‘This is the #CitizenShift: A guide to understanding and embracing the emerging era of the citizen’, a new report by the New Citizenship Project
Main picture courtesy of Gabriele Diwald