Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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Two weeks ago the internet phenomenon TED Talks came to Glasgow in the form of a TEDX – an independently organised TED event – and the organisers asked me to give the opening talk. As their overarching theme was Enlightenment 2.0 I thought it appropriate to call my talk 'Enlightenment in the Age of Materialism' and to begin by talking about Adam Smith.
It is a while since I have read Smith's work so I reread some of it and looked at some commentaries on Smith's thinking. Commonly people see a discrepancy in Smith's work between the ethics and emphasis on sympathy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the free market ideology of The Wealth of Nations.
In reality there is less division than is often thought and there is at least one major thread running through both books – Smith's concern for the poor. Even in The Wealth of Nations he shows he cares passionately for the plight of the poor –arguing that they had most to gain from wealth creation. And what he was concerned about was not simply that people had their basic needs met but that they were able to live 'without shame'. One of the examples he gave is of a day labourer owning a 'linen shirt' so that he could appear in public without feeling 'ashamed'.
For all that Smith was in favour of wealth creation he was actually very judgemental in The Wealth of Nations about how people spend money - disparaging the rich who squandered their fortune on 'frivolous objects': 'ornaments of dress, trinkets, jewels, gew-gaws.' And he saw this use of money as indicating 'not only a trifling but a base and selfish disposition'.
After talking about Smith I went on to talk about materialist values - how they are coming to dominate in our lives, where they are coming from and the consequences for individual and collective well-being.
On Wednesday the Centre ran a joint event at Glasgow's Aye Write! book festival called 'Watching, Wanting and Well-being'. The main speaker was Professor Agnes Nairn who wrote the UNICEF report which came out last year comparing inequality and materialism in the UK, Spain and Sweden in an attempt to understand why British youngsters have the worst well-being out of 20 rich, OECD countries. (The USA would have been last but all the data wasn't available for them, but let's not nit pick over whether the UK was bottom or second bottom of this league table.)
As you can read Agnes's report for yourself I am not going to summarise her argument. All I plan to do here is explain how my thinking shifted or developed as a result of hearing her presentation.
When I grew up in a working class household in the 1950s in the UK I was incredibly aware of class differences. This wasn't simply amount money it was much more nuanced than that – refinement, culture, manners all seemed to come into it. Agnes Nairn's research suggests that the major cleavage for youngsters now is simply about money and that there is a terrible stigma attached to being poor. For youngsters' wealth is displayed through buying - particularly phones, gadgets, clothes, trainers etc. Brands play a huge part in this. UK parents are complicit in all of this because they believe their primary role is to provide materially for their children. They want to buy them all the right stuff so they won't feel excluded or be bullied at school. But to get the money to do this UK parents work long hours, and often commute considerable distances, thus hardly seeing their kids or feeling too tired to interact with them.
After the event, over a curry and a chat, Agnes Nairn told me about an internet phenomenon which had passed me by. It is called 'hauling' and basically involves girls sitting in their bedrooms in front of a camera as they go through all the items they have bought and giving a commentary on it and then putting it on youtube or facebook. Here's one you can check out if you are interested. Some of these videos have had a million hits.
I'm sure some of these girls are doing this as they think they are being genuinely helpful to their peers but I'm also convinced that a much big driver for them fits with the spirit of our materialistic age – the attraction of hauling is that it puts you in the spotlight, gets attention for yourself, makes you look 'hot' and makes others' envious of you.
I know it is not cool these days to judge others' behaviour but nonetheless I am happy to say that what these girls are doing is displaying not only 'a trifling but also a base and selfish disposition'. Have they not got better things to do in life? And have they no compassion for their contemporaries who don't have the smart bedrooms, cameras, or money to go on a haul?
However, I am also aware that they are not personally responsible for the creation of our trifling, base and selfish culture – they are only being the savvy, good consumers that they have been groomed to be since they could sit in front of a TV and watch adverts or programmes like Hannah Montana.
Comment Posted: 21/03/2012 23:26
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