The Grim Democracy of Consumer Choice
Modern society gives us limitless freedom to consume, and no freedom to create.
My partner and I recently purchased our first flat which, as you might expect, necessitated multiple trips to the iconically Swedish, but actually globally ubiquitous furniture superstore, Ikea. As a private renter, Ikea is synonymous with the tastes of your landlord, and their faceless contempt of you as an individual human being. As a freshly minted member of the propertied classes, it becomes a palace of wonders — replete with endless, dazzling options for furnishing your new home. Tragic as this sounds, my first trips to Ikea after confirming the purchase of the flat were breathtakingly exciting.
However, rapidly, I began to dread them.
The more intimate with Ikea’s catalogue one becomes, the more one gets the sense that its just endless permutations of the same basic ingredients, like an elemental isotope or the kind of recipe book your mum buys you when you leave home. Your vision becomes fuzzy, your eyes never land on the same object twice but never see anything new. At the end of the shop, before you’ve even completed your purchase, you are plagued with the nagging feeling there was probably something better you could have had, if only you’d just spent more time looking. This, I feel, is as good a metaphor as any for the totalising ideology of consumer choice. A bland nightmare of options.
The degraded character of this infinite but repetitive world of choices is apparent in the film and television industries. The last few decades have witnessed the rise of the franchise, or “cinematic universe”. The word franchise originally detonated the ability of a private entrepreneur to purchase the right to open an outlet of an already well established brand, typically a McDonalds or similar. This allowed the intrepid businessmen to get down to the serious work of making money without all the messy nonsense of innovation and competition. In their turn, the originator of the franchise was able to expand their market share with relatively little effort or risk. Apt, then, that the term has come to explain the rise of film studios which, instead of developing new characters, settings and plots for each successive movie, take the same set of characters out for a new adventure more or less every week. Although this has long been one possible approach to making films (James Bond!) it has been elevated into an industry standard by the entry of comic book studios into business of blockbuster film making. 2020 notwithstanding, in which a global pandemic shut down both film studios and cinemas alike, the last time a non-franchise, sequel or remake entered the top ten highest grossing films was 2015’s The Martian.
The competition between the cartel of semi-monopolies which dominate the culture industry has not produced innovation, but risk averse repetition. The speed of production, consumption and reproduction of commodities means that success or failure is defined by opening week sales. The incentive to make rich, complex, or difficult productions — which may take an audience weeks or even years to fully unpack — is almost nil. This wasn’t always the case, as the example of public service broadcasting in the mid 20th century demonstrates.
There are a lot of complaints we could level at the British Broadcasting Corporation, from its stuffy paternalism to its persistent deference to established authority. We could even allude to the worrisome aspects of the very idea of state monopoly broadcasting. However, I would like to point to the unique value of the BBC’s “Reithian” mission to inform, educate and entertain. Despite now existing in a media environment of hyper-competition, the BBC is still, to a certain extent, shielded from naked market forces. Like any body underwritten by public funds, it can afford a level of adventurism denied to private enterprise. While this public guarantee of solvency has had disastrous effects on the financial sector, turning it into a veritable casino, in the cultural field it has been an overwhelming positive. The BBC did not gain its world class reputation for news programming because of some mysterious English integrity — it is able (more or less) to tell you the truth because its does not need to retain you as a customer. It doesn’t matter if the truth disgusts you, offends you or compels you to change channel. The BBC does not have to sell you a version of the truth it thinks you might like. The fact that we are all forced to pay for the BBC regardless or whether or not we consume it means that that product can afford speak to our highest, rather than our most base instincts. Whether its Kenneth Clarke’s grandiose 1969 Civilisation, David Attenborough’s lifetime of nature programming, BBC Radio 4’s cerebral In Our Time, or the literally countless hours of delicate, exploratory and even downright avant-garde programming, there is something fundamental about the BBC that you wouldn’t — couldn’t — get from a commercial broadcaster. But as the BBC loses it’s monopoly on our attention it has been forced to sell some of the family silver (remember when televised football and cricket used to be freely available) and divert more of its resources away from information and education and towards entertainment.
Whenever we apprehend a great cinematic masterpiece, a bizarre radio play or a classic album, we far too often say to ourselves “you just wouldn’t get that today”. Why? Because too much choice, too much competition for our attention, has forced every aspect of our culture to become engineered for instant gratification. Our culture no longer trusts us to think about anything before changing channel or skipping track.
Nowhere has the falsity of consumer choice been more pernicious than in our public infrastructure.
The only difference between a large, inefficient public utility and a large inefficient private utility is that in the latter case, someone is profiting from our misery (and any service which must provide evenly to both rich and poor, young and old, town and country will always be a tad inefficient, as efficiency always involves an element of ‘devil take the hindmost’). This is without getting into the Thatcherite mythology which has compelled us to pretend that substandard private enterprise is — for some reason — preferable to world class public services.
Not only do I personally not wish to be forced to choose which electricity supplier, water company or railway company I have to bribe in order to give me access to state subsidised infrastructure, I don’t want anyone else to have a choice either. Institutions like British Rail have become the subject of an intense nostalgia, the focus of our longing for the collective social experience that we have lost — even those aspects which were clearly inadequate. The love/hate relationship which united people into a national community has been replaced with a pure, unsentimental disgust. We all still hate railway companies, but we do so without passion and without collective spirit. Someone is having a laugh at our expense, and we now have no way of kicking back. We’re on our own.
But, I hear you say, if I’m so high brow I can always choose to limit myself to the BBC, or spending my afternoons in some public museum. No one is forcing me to get my kicks in the market place of cheap thrills. The problem here is that even opting out of consumer culture forces you into an inverted conservative counter culture of your own. Buying vintage, watching classic films at art house cinemas or even attending local football matches are not arenas where we mix and mingle and get to know each other in all our diversity — where we become citizens — these are the places where we meet fellow enthusiasts and nostalgists. To a certain extent civil society has always been maintained by the loving efforts of voluntarist individuals: they were (and still are) the treasurer of a band’s fan club; the association of friends of a historical site of interest; or the kind of people that engage with local politics. The difference is that these people no longer provide a service to anyone but each other. They have been reduced from pillars of the community to misfits, while everyone else does their own thing in their own way, far away from the madding crowd. What a shame.
Society, I argue, is defined by the things we don’t choose. Those things which we all share by virtue of having no other option. Society is defined by what was once called the Commons. The destruction of the Commons is, by definition, the destruction of a way of life. Britain has repeatedly and savagely destroyed its common spaces and common institutions, often in the name of consumer choice. We are now all free to choose which personalised, atomised version of society we want to exist in, but we are denied the choice to live in society together. Even if we choose to indulge in the rituals of a more democratic age, we do so as individuals.
Structurally, the choice is a mirage. The vast ocean of consumer delights are all provided to you by a tiny pool of massive corporate monopolies, themselves often owned by an even tinier clique of financial institutions. If capitalism’s self image promotes a picture of innovation through competition, its reality is a monopolising engine that sucks wealth upwards and hordes it. More and more, the real innovations are the ones which discover new ways to monetise previously uncommodified aspects of our personal and social lives. When they are not inventing ways to sell us things we already have, these great accumulations of wealth are spent by institutions buying up assets which can be leveraged for rent extraction. These are often assets created at public expense, from life saving drugs to public transport systems. Even the few celebrity billionaires who style themselves in the mould of Victorian pioneer capitalists earn most of their wealth from their ability to control great swathes of social infrastructure. If meaningful citizenship, democracy and community is what we’ve had to trade away in exchange for the freedom to choose which of two or three giant tech monopolies get to farm our data, the price has been too high. I don’t want to choose, I want us all to work together to make the best of what we have, whether we like it or not.