One of the main promises of modern capitalism – of modern life, really – is that you will always be able to buy more and better stuff. It’s not true, of course. Capitalism takes away as well as provides. And for poorer people, or those who are just financially stretched, the constantly advertised pleasures of consumer life often lie tantalizingly out of reach.
But for more than half a century, enough people have been able to afford them – or been able to borrow the necessary money – for society to be largely shaped around consumer habits in Britain and other rich countries. City centres, suburban retail parks, huge stretches of the internet and the inside of our heads: all are alive with, and constantly remade by, our acquisitive desires.
The social and environmental costs of this – for the low-paid workers needed to produce and sell cheap goods, for the non-consumerist parts of our lives that get neglected, for the climate – increasingly worry many people. Yet there is little sign that consumerism is receding as a social or political priority. Most British shops may have been made to close, some of the time, during the early phases of the pandemic, but since last spring they have been allowed to stay open regardless of its resurgence. Going to the shops has been seen by government and many citizens as almost as important as public health.
So the onset of the cost-of-living crisis, which looks likely to last many months and quite possibly years, is a direct challenge to how many of us live. Already squeezed by a dozen years of falling or stagnant wages, Britain now faces its worst inflation and fuel prices for decades, rising taxes and interest rates, more expensive loans for students and extra import duties thanks to Brexit. To an extent that has yet to be fully appreciated, many people will become significantly poorer: on its own, the recent increase in the household energy price cap of £693, which is expected to be followed by others, represents more than 2% of the average full-time salary.
And unlike the last time we faced such a significant threat to our standard of living, in the 1970s and early 1980s, most Britons will not be protected from inflation to some extent by the negotiating leverage on pay of strong trade unions. Instead, we are about to learn what it’s like to live in an inflationary economy dominated by corporate interests, such as the fossil fuel companies, which can profit from the crisis without being required by the government to pay windfall taxes that might soften it for their customers.
Some of the consequences of this new economic reality are already with us. Instead of choice, bargains, instant gratification and easy access to European goods – all the modern British shopper’s customary privileges – we are encountering empty shelves, suddenly marked-up prices and shipping delays.
The change is all the more difficult to adjust to because it comes after what for many consumers was a golden age. Between the mid-1950s and mid-2000s, despite periodic recessions and government cuts, the average disposable income grew consistently faster than inflation, according to the Resolution Foundation. During the 1990s, the steady improvement in living standards accelerated as a whole new world of cheap consumption opened up in Britain: low-cost supermarkets, budget airlines, factory outlets, bargain fashion and furniture chains. Some of these businesses had traded here before, but never previously on such a scale. Their expansion was partly made possible by moving manufacturing to countries with lower wages.
Even shrewd business commentators expected this highly convenient arrangement for western consumers to last a long time. In 2006, the veteran retail analyst Richard Hyman told me: “Our forecasts do not anticipate any major increase in retail price inflation ever again.”
Instead, the golden age gradually ended. Wages stopped rising in Britain, and then the Conservatives disempowered poorer consumers further through their austerity policies. For a time, the new pressures on British consumerism were partly hidden by low inflation and more borrowing. Between 1990 and 2019, the amount of unsecured (non-mortgage) debt held by the average household more than trebled. But by the mid-2010s the increasingly tense and angry quality of British politics and everyday life suggested a country where many people were barely coping financially. Last year, the Resolution Foundation said that 2007 to 2022 was expected to be “the worst [period] on record for household income growth”.
What sort of society might the cost-of-living crisis produce? One where millions don’t eat or heat their homes as often as they should, according to reports published last week by the Food Foundation and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
For many less vulnerable Britons, the crisis will be less awful. Essentials will still be paid for, but they will absorb more and more of people’s incomes. Even during the golden era for consumers, Britain still had high housing and travel costs – trying to offset those which were partly what made us such bargain-hunters. Now the personal financial trade-offs between escapism and realism will be even harder.
But probably not for the rich. A week ago, after walking along Oxford Street in London with its abandoned department stores and thinned-out shopping crowds, I went to Harrods in Knightsbridge. Its narrow marble corridors were as clogged as ever with expensively groomed customers. As shopping for pleasure becomes less affordable, it may revert to what it was in past centuries: the elite competing for luxuries.
Some people won’t be sad if that happens. Plenty of Britons hate shopping. And the planet needs us to do less of it – or at least, to do it in a more sustainable way, for example by buying secondhand. It’s even possible that the internet, through its constant flood of novel facts and images, is making us less interested in acquiring new material possessions. But digital commodities, from artworks to fashion, are increasingly being offered instead. And the internet also keeps us window shopping and wanting physical goods in ways that did not exist before.
Under capitalism, for there to be social and political stability, common expectations about living standards need to be satisfied. It’s no coincidence that British consumerism’s best years were also years of relative political calm – or that populism began to take off here, in the late 2000s, when the rise in wages started to stall. Once people feel life is getting too expensive, they often believe everything is getting worse. If enough people feel like that, governments don’t last long.