Accidental activism: three mainstreaming consumer trends that subvert capitalism

With the oft-reported decline of the middle classes and the last Labour party conference it would seem that Marxism is making a bit of a comeback.  While Marxist theory is not at the heart of many consumer trends, there appear to be lots of examples of trends in which consumers subvert or circumvent capitalism, intentionally or otherwise, and probably not radically.

There are some fairly extreme examples of this.  The very boring, minimalism phenomena is mostly about owning less and consuming less, although admittedly it also seems to be about fetishising really cool gadgets.   Related is the Buy no Clothes for a Year blog gimmick.  A quick Google search shows any fashion blogger worth their salt have given a go.  It would seem that this is partly driven by wanting to have something interesting to write about, partly driven by a flaneur’s malaise

At the all-singing end of the spectrum it seems that people really are going off-grid.   True, full-on off-gridding is still the preserve of paranoid conspiracy-theory adherents and apocalyptic worriers, but nods to off-gridding in airbnb listings, articles about glamping and good life fantasies show how it has become something the chattering classes care about.

Extreme examples are, as ever, at the margins. Below are three examples of mainstream consumer trends which bring with them a curious element of anti-consumerism, or which can be seen on some level (however tenuous) to subvert consumerism.

The bake off take off

Mary Berry is fairly far from being an activist.  in fact you don’t get much less activist than comments like; “I would always stand up for women but I don’t want women’s rights and all that sort of thing.”  Oh yes, that sort of thing.

However, the reactionary, conservative baker seems to be at the heart of a phenomenon reminiscent of the Punk DIY of the 1970s on.  While punks deliberately tried to circumvent the capitalist, consumerist system, producing their own zines and recording their own tapes to avoid the music and publishing industries, playing freeparties in squats to avoid corporate sponsored venues, Mary Berry’s acolytes limit themselves to casting off the shackles of Mr Kipling and his exceedingly good cakes: crafting and producing confections in their own homes, reverting to the ways of a pre-captialist society where people would make their own goodies rather than running for a pot of millionaire’s shortbread bites from Tesco.

This spirit seems to exist behind a lot of food trends, and often the link to activism is far more explicit.  The recent penchant for curing and smoking bacon is a good example of this, with the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall fan likely to express their hobby in the form of: “I just want to avoid factory processed meat and make something more natural.”

A slightly more intentionally extreme example of baking as a DIY punk statement would be Sandor Katz wonderful but not especially reliable sour dough recipe.  This guy is nuts.  In his book, Wild Fermentation, he talks about how Radish saved his life.  It’s worth reading as a piece of fiction, if not a recipe book.  His Sourdough bread recipe, which kind of works, specifically requires the addition of leftovers (pasta, stale bread, cooked rice) to get the perfect loaf.  No to factory processed flour, make do, upcycle, crush the processed yeast industry etc.

Virtual consumerism

The idea of buying without buying, of enjoying the sensation of consumption without coming to own something isn’t new.  The time-honoured manifestation of this is window shopping:  dreaming and curating, consuming but not buying.  In the same way that so many other activities have been shoved online and given the gentle steroidal boost of digitization, window shopping has gone virtual.  Browsing Asos is one thing, but sites like Pinterest take it to another level.  You click a JPEG, it goes onto your Pinboard and it becomes part of your curated online persona.  Pinetrest users in some way come to own the objects they collect digitally.

Pinterest feels like it could have been started by Adbusters.    Users somehow acquire products, but without any of the associated manufacture, and so without the environmental degradation, waste, sweatshops and so on.   It is easy to see how real life shopping could lose out to Pinterest amongst time-poor, cash-strapped consumers around the world.

The UK Bike Boom

According to the Cycle Touring Club (the closest thing the UK has to a cycle lobby) the mileage cycled in the UK is up 20% over the last 12 years from 4 billion kms in 1998 to 5 billion kms in 2011.

In truth this is most attributable to the fixed gear fashionistas of Brick Lane, the Lycra Clad bankers whizzing round Richmond Park and the armies of people realizing that cycling is a far nicer way to get around than public transport or bored of sitting in traffic jams.  Still, whatever the reason, a life without oil is green activism: keep fossils in the ground, reduce oil dependency. Pedal power for a brighter future.

There is a slightly paradoxical element to the bicycle boom: while cycling means less dependency on oil, it also often comes with an obsession with kit.  The more serious the cyclist, the more bikes they put through the bike to work scheme, the more clumps of carbon and steel collect in their garages, the more money  they spend on upgrades and gadgets.

The less obsessed commuter cyclist, the one who rides a five year old hybrid bike held together with cable ties and chewing gum becomes more of an accidental activist.  Cycling into work with worn brake pads, bare tyres and defunct deraileurs is the epitome of making do, not consuming and sticking a finger up at the Man.