No Logo Lite
By Max Dunbar.
I have seen all these things being used, and I have seen the things they replaced. I will not listen with any patience to any acid listing of them – you know the sneer you can get into with plumbing, baby Austins, aspirin, contraceptives, canned food. But I say to these Pharisees: dirty water, an earth bucket, a four-mile walk each way to work, headaches, broken women, hunger and monotony of diet. The working people, in town and country alike, will not listen (and I support them) to any account of our society which supposes that these things are not progress: not just mechanical, external progress either, but a real service of life.
‘Culture is Ordinary,’ Raymond Williams, 1958
Neal Lawson, All Consuming, Penguin, 2009
This story really begins in 1998. Labour was in the early stages of its power and almost universally admired. The Lobbygate scandal did little damage. In that year the reporter Greg Palast, posing as a businessman, approached the political consultancy Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn and offered a monthly payment in return for serious political lobbying on his fictitious company’s behalf. One of LLM’s founder-directors, Neal Lawson, promised to ‘reach anyone. We can go to Gordon Brown if we have to.’
What would companies get for their standing order? Palast continued:
On behalf of Tesco, LLM were about to derail the chancellor’s plan for a tax on car parks. LLM was holding secret negotiations that very week with Policy Unit advisers to Blair, the ones who told Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, nominally in charge of the issue, when to jump and how high. The tax, pushed by environmentalists to discourage excessive auto use, would have cost the supermarket giant more than E20 million annually. Lawson also took credit for taking the regulatory heat off Anglian Water. The utility had failed to live up to its promises to invest in reducing water leakage, and had run into trouble in mishandling sewer sludge. And LLM successfully lobbied against trade union pleas for easier recognition. When complimented for avoiding less reputable clients such as GTech, Lawson countered that he had in fact lobbied for the scandal-plagued lottery operator. LLM used Labour’s trust in them to ‘assure the government how [GTech will behave’. GTech does not appear on the LLM’s published client list. Lawson and [LLM partner Ben] Lucas were quick to point out that lobbying is not all about calls to the Treasury. Sometimes LLM recommends the indirect route, ‘placing things with columnists we know the chancellor reads’. They called this ‘creating an environment’. In addition, LLM operates a captive think tank, Nexus, to give their views (or their clients’ views) the imprimatur of academic legitimacy. Sometimes they make use of the Socialist Environmental Research Foundation, which, Lucas assured me, is a purchased front for retailers. Lawson explained how LLM plays on what they call politics without leadership. In a milieu in which a lack of conviction is deemed an asset, with no fixed star of principles by which to steer, policy is susceptible to the last pitch heard over cocktails. ‘The Labour government is always of two minds, it operates in a kind of schizophrenia. On big issues especially, they don’t know what they are thinking. Blair himself doesn’t always know what he is thinking.’
Eleven years on, Neal Lawson is back with a book, All Consuming, which attacks the UK’s consumer culture and corporate domination of public life. He doesn’t mention Lobbygate in the book, but still, a man can change, and it could be argued: who better to ask?
Indeed, Lawson’s book is full of wise observations and ideas. The era of freemarket fundamentalism unleashed by Thatcher and the Chicago Boys in 1979 has meant rising inequality, a fucked-up environment, disintegrating public services and a breakdown of the links between people. A ‘customer is king’ mentality has led to paramedics being assaulted on the streets by those whose lives they are trying to save. Men and women are judged not by the content of their characters but by the cars they drive or the trainers they wear. Private companies swallow up more and more public space, creating a uniformity of landscape; marketing techniques are so pervasive and sophisticated as to actually enroach on the private mental sphere, implanting false memories and false desires. All this has resulted in a global crash and the worst recession since the 1930s.
I recall reading Naomi Klein’s No Logo in 2000, and being absolutely blown away by it. It was like reading Marx for the first time. But Klein, and later Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, placed massive emphasis on working conditions. They toured sweatshops and meatpacking plants and their writing brought home exactly what kind of price was being paid for your Nike Airs and SuperSize meals.
While Lawson does touch briefly on the exploitation of labour, he’s coming more from the Affluenza angle: the impact of material wealth upon the purity of our souls. ‘Our pockets are deep but our lives are shallow.’ ‘The IPod is significant as we retreat from society into our own private world.’ ‘The car is an extension of us… we are what we drive.’ Isn’t there a timing issue here? Post-crash, the big problem for most people will not be the abundance of credit, iPhones and Ferrari Testerossas, but the absence of these and other goods: not materialism but a scarcity of materials.
Still, Lawson is obsessed with the decadence of modern society. ‘Going to a restaurant is just as much an act of consumption as buying a shirt from Gap.’ No it isn’t: the one can be a great experience with good friends, food and drink, the other is ugly and disorientating. But then it’s pleasure, not consumption, that is Lawson’s problem. He notes that ‘[p]eople in their forties and fifties are dressing like people half their age.’ Why is this? Could it be something to do with increased life expectancy, better overall health, standard of living? Nope: it’s because ‘the market exploits our anxieties and sells us solutions.’ Lawson goes on to take us through the Daily Mail litany of social breakdown: increased gambling, fat children, computer games, and binge drinking – especially female binge drinking.
One thing Lawson doesn’t understand – well, one of many – is the negative impact of work. He has the stats, he knows Britons work the longest hours in Europe and for the lowest pay. But he fails to realise that it is labour, not consumption, that creates physical and mental harm. He talks about the rise in anxiety disorders and other mental health problems. I have some experience of this subject and I can tell you that a major factor is too much work and not enough sleep. Lawson instead blames… Prozac. ‘But the fact is that depression has never been so prevalent since the introduction of antidepressants.’
I’d like to talk about the tone. Many satirical writers like to ‘sugar the pill’; providing jokes to ease the absorption of a serious message. For this Lawson employs the pun, or ‘play on words’. Brace yourself, gentle reader, for a Swiftean, nay Wildean experience. ‘There is no generation gap, just Gap – where we all look the same.’ ‘Road rage has become, well, all the rage.’ ‘So, no matter how much we reduce carbon emissions the earth will get warmer. Some like it hot!’ I have barely exhausted Lawson’s rich comic seam. Never has the humble phonetic coincidence been put to greater artistic use. I especially liked the passages where Lawson combines a pun with a moral message: ‘Shoe repairers report less well-heeled people getting new soles, not new shoes. Perhaps in the process they are getting new souls.’ Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Despite all this sugar, the overall impression is one of condescension. The recession wasn’t caused by irresponsible lending and failure of regulation but the public as a whole: ‘But we bought the stuff. We wanted it.’ The plural predominates. ‘Now we buy things that take up more of our spare time, like iPods and DVDs.’ ‘But today it is what we buy, no longer what we do, that tells people who we are.’ ‘Can we use the recession to break our shopping addiction? To do it, like all addicts, we must first admit we have a problem…’ Except that Lawson’s we means you. ‘I have news for you – Coca-Cola is not the real thing; it is an expensive sugary and sickly drink that uses up precious resources in the developing world.’ My God. I had no idea.
The fact is that people are getting sick of brand culture and most of us can see through it. This is borne out by consumer trends: Fairtrade went from an obscure leftwing concern to a mainstream purchase in less than ten years and there is significant grassroots opposition to the supermarket oligopolies. We don’t need Lawson to reveal the secrets of how capitalism works.
Having identified the problems, what are Lawson’s solutions? Some are reasonable enough, like advertising restrictions and a tax on luxury cars. Others are prescriptive, to the point of joylessness. Lawson advocates a return to rationing: ‘to include food, and also to restrict other kinds of consumption that are damaging both society and the planet.’ After all, ‘[d]uring the Second World War we gave up some freedoms, in particular the freedom to consume, to enjoy others deemed more important.’ Something tells me that the rich would find ways around this, as they did during the war, with the brunt of the sacrifice borne by the middle and working classes. This is backlash politics in the making.
‘We stand at yet another moment of huge potential change: the choice is whether to go back or to go forward in a different way.’ For someone so chronocentric Lawson is fond of the glorious past. He paints a sepia portrait of feudalism: ‘Before the sixteenth-century Reformation, life in England was a series of festivals, carnivals and holidays.’ There are similar references to pre-industrialisation (rural peasants had ‘a great work-life balance’) and even ancient Rome. This is why Raymond Williams’s words remain important, because Lawson is one of the great dispiriting class who has the courage to reject the present system but not the imagination to think of positive alternatives. Post-crunch, we desperately need a new and better way. But the past isn’t it and Lawson’s opportunist, didactic book provides no real counsel for the interesting times ahead.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 9th, 2009.