Holy Waters of Austerity

The thought occurred to me tonight as I was pushing a trolley around Tesco that perhaps John Waters was the future. It’s all too easy to think of Waters as a decomposing relic from a previous epoch, and yet he appears in the Irish Times every Friday, with no indication of stopping any time soon.


For those unfamiliar, John Waters writes about how society’s strivings for certain things and simultaneous disregard for other God-shaped things will leave it in a very bad place. And this Friday past he railed against the adoption of ‘materialism’ as the reason for the riots in London. Not without contradictions, however: the most whopping of these was his own endorsement of materialism as the motor for society’s reproduction:

the very mechanisms required for the generation of activity and wealth depend for their propulsion on the existence of inequality: this being what “motivates” and “rewards” those who participate in the communal effort to master the given resources

What he really means when he criticises ‘materialism’ is demands for equality. By Waters’s lights, the demand for equality hinges on a vulgar preoccupation with people having equal amounts of stuff allotted to them by the state. If only people would dispense with this shabby materialism* and focus on the spiritual dimension of things, society would find meaning and truth. It is hard to imagine him getting very far with this argument with someone who had just missed six straight meals, but if he did so he would not be John Waters.

Nonetheless I do get the feeling that he has captured something of the spirit of the times with this. The riots in London have produced a striking number of analysts and commentators singling out ‘consumerism’ as one of the causes of the riots. On the face of it, there is something to this. As a seemingly inexhaustible supply of reactionary pinheads seem hell-bent on pointing out, it was places like Foot Locker, not the Houses of Parliament, that got turned over. But I haven’t heard anyone say yet that maybe they were taking these things because the continual bombardment by advertising/propaganda had made them extremely miserable. I mean, rich people are treated like gods in Britain (and elsewhere too of course). Images of their happiness and leisurely lives are used to make people feel terrible about their own lives. And alongside the images of rich people’s happiness, there is always an advertisement for some product or service that promises to salve the misery induced by the images of the rich people. Maybe the looting was in many cases simply extreme retail therapy due to the devastating effectiveness of the advertising/propaganda industry. Or maybe some people just fancied a plasma TV or a new pair of trainers. How should I know? However, here are some young looters providing some very coherent reasons for their activities.

The young people out rioting are being continually presented as being completely in thrall to the prevalent consumerism and grasping acquisition across British society.

And when I hear this, I hear echoes of what happened whenever Ireland’s supposed economic miracle went down the toilet, taking the toilet with it. The widespread reaction was that ‘we’ had got carried away with ourselves, had gotten too greedy, spending vast sums of money on crocodile-skin jumpsuits and the like.

The next thing you know, the government is predicting living standards are going to be cut and implementing an internal devaluation programme (i.e. driving wages down and driving unemployment up) because ‘we’ have been paying ourselves too much (this is an all-too-common phrase, suggesting for instance that Michael O’Leary and Ryanair cabin crew sit down together to decide each other’s wages). Never mind that it was mostly men in the upper echelons of banks who acquired untold billions of debt to inflate a property bubble, and their collaborators in government and the construction industry, who drove Ireland’s economy into such a parlous state: the ‘we’ narrative -the people of the hundred thousand unrealistic expectations- served to abort any systematic considerations of just who is responsible, and who ought to pay. It’s still a very serviceable narrative.

So there is something to beware in this newfound inclination towards asceticism, not least the fact that it sits very snugly with the idea of austerity and the moral penance the latter connotes. If you can charge everyone with an obsession with baubles and toys, you can socialise responsibility for the economic crisis, in such a way that those who are not in the least bit responsible for provoking the crisis -for instance, the residents of places like Tottenham- are shouldered with a burden created by business and finanical elites ably represented by the Conservative party, all of whom are both eminently responsible for the crisis and extremely well positioned to benefit from the deepened precariousness of everyday living that the cuts will bring.

And something else: this asceticism, this rejection of consumerism/materialism, most likely will also entail manipulating people with the idea that they should not demand equality, since demanding equality means being obsessed with stuff. Never mind that seeking free public health care and education, decent paid jobs and public facilities for everyone has nothing at all to do with wanting a second Rolls-Royce parked in the garage: the demand for them will be presented as in the same vein, as a demand made by people ‘living beyond their means’ whose ‘materialism’ is evidence of common cause with pure criminals.

*As an afterthought, there is also a whiff, in the charge of ‘materialism’, of a fairly hoary anti-Marxist stance, by people who have not actually read Marx of course but who think that Marx was all about ‘materialism’ and that this meant a mechanistic concern with accumulation of stuff (which perhaps resulted in endless poring over tractor manufacture figures) and a wholesale rejection of the spiritual.


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One response to “Holy Waters of Austerity

  1. An afterthought on your afterthought:. In popular discourse materialism is conflated with consumerism in a way that is careless. With John Waters it is deliberate. Materialism is a serious philosophy, the opposite of idealism (including theism), asserting the primacy of matter. It is a belief that all that exists, including higher forms of consciousness (including the ‘spiritual’), come from the evolution of matter into higher and higher forms. It can sometimes, although rarely these days, involve endless poring over tractor manufacture figures. Mostly it involves explaining the world in terms of natural forces without resort to supernatural ones. It means living without God-shaped things. This is quite different from consumerism, which is being obsessed with acquisition of stuff. Sorry if I sound like a crotchety old philosopher, but that’s what I am. It’s not a go at you obviously, but at what I hear every day.

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