Monday, June 10, 2024

Keeping up with the Joneses (1996)

TV Review from the June 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Popular investigative programme 3-D (Thursdays, 7.30 pm. ITV) featured a welcome, if brief piece on conspicuous consumption—that is, consumption of commodities for show. Two families depicted in the programme had undertaken a comparative orgy of competitive consumption in order to impress—and ultimately outdo—their neighbours. The interior designers must have been falling over themselves to get the contract for both their houses, which as the programme demonstrated, are fully decorated and redesigned at least once every twelve months.

This attempt by the two households to "keep up with the Jones’s" has had slightly divergent results. One family has become so obsessed that they have landed themselves in debt to the tune of several thousand pounds and have resorted to the advice of a “money counsellor”. The other family, with both adults unemployed, have amazingly managed to avoid this trap—at least so far—with the wife asserting that if her obsession with bettering her neighbours led them to get into debt, then she would know she had a problem. But nobody on the estate of small semis on which her family live had taken the bait in a major way, and she was forced to admit that if anyone did, then she would indeed be prepared to get into debt in order to compete.

In an attempt to explain this phenomenon 3-D wheeled out an obscure "social psychologist" from one of the educational factories. "A fair amount of competitiveness is inherent in the human condition" was his answer to this enigma of competitive consumption, precisely the type of comment we have become used to on TV, radio and in the press from those who are paid by the ruling class to tell lies for a living. We can assume, if his statement is correct, that rabid competition has been a feature of the human condition throughout history.

But, frankly, anyone who believes that there is something "natural" about the behaviour of such people as the two families featured is seriously misinformed, and that is putting it politely. Is it really being suggested that people behaved in such a way in primitive communist society, which existed for over forty thousand years before the advent of private property and class division? If this is so, then 3-D would have been better employing a social anthropologist to do the pontificating rather than a shrink—then we might have really learned something about the evolution of this behaviour.

Market madness 
The fact of the matter is that such competitive methods of behaviour are not "inherent" or part of our human nature as a species, but are generally socially conditioned and promoted. Humans are capable of behaving in all manner of ways given different circumstances and backgrounds—indeed, it is largely our ability to adapt that has made us such a successful species, by far the most successful on the planet Placed in an environment of private property, effective rationing of resources and opulence amid squalor, then humans are likely to develop competitive traits. In the case of the families featured on 3-D, a type of personality disorder known as compulsive behaviour can develop, in this case stemming from competition for "scarce" resources.

What these families had most in common was their status as typical members of the working class who wanted to be seen as anything but working class. Both had nice homes, but their efforts in this respect were futile—their real status in life was reflected in unemployment and indebtedness rather than in the commodities they were able to consume in front of the hopefully watchful eyes of the neighbours. Moreover—and this is the crucial bit— their lifestyles in no way reflect the lifestyles of the really rich in society they apparently wish to emulate. Their behaviour is a product of their poverty and subservience and makes no sense outside of the confines of a class-divided society based on (artificial) scarcity.

If it came to a real test of conspicuous consumption, the capitalists would be able to win every time because they have a disproportionate share of wealth and power. The competitive behaviour engaged in by these workers is the social equivalent of the little boy playing at war games with this Tonka toys and plastic figurines. Being faced with the real thing would be an entirely different story.

The lesson from 3-D is that consumption in capitalism is rationed for the vast bulk of the population, those who do not derive a privileged income from their ownership of capital. If an attempt is made to live even a fraction as well as the really rich, indebtedness—sooner or alter—will be the result. If not house repossession, social break-up and other calamities.

Socialist values, of course, stand opposed to the notion of conspicuous consumption merely as an expression of competition with other people—in a socialist society of free access without payment to available and generally abundant wealth, such behaviour would not only be anti-social, it would be meaningless. The values of capitalism— bitterness, mean-spiritedness, envy and jealousy as a way of life—would remain only as memories of a social system based on the brutalisation of the many in the interests of the few.
Dave Perrin

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