From ‘I’ to ‘We’

buynothing-ed02Deirdre Shaw, Iain Black and Katherine Trebeck report on Commonweal’s latest research. On any given day, the consumer citizens of Scotland can be found on homogeneous high streets, in hotels, pubs and gyms or on the web, shopping, buying, bargain hunting, seeking out real or imitation brands – consuming. Searching for the next pair of shoes, the next “fashion” sofa, the next “must have” electronic gadget even a better body all to be paid for, perhaps in cash, but often  in  “easy” monthly payments or via credit cards.

Our relationship with material goods, through the product and brands we buy and the services we consume, have invaded every relationship we have.  The ones we have with ourselves, the ones we have with our family, friends and even strangers. They now rely on us, repeatedly, consuming new stuff.

Strong evidence tells us how all this undermines our economic security, our sense of who we are, our relationships, our mental wellbeing and it is an iniquitous burden.  It is the engine that drives climate change and is destroying all of the Earth’s ecosystems.  If that’s the case, and the evidence is shouting loudly that it is, then shouldn’t we do something about it?  Here we set out briefly some of the main ideas to tackle this contained in the Common weal paper: From ‘I’ to ‘We’:  Changing the narrative in Scotland’s relationship with consumption released on the 3rd of December.  The ideas in this paper are not to pass judgement on what people buy or articulate particular choices of what we should do instead.   Rather its ideas aim to allow people more space to examine different ways of living, ways they might find more fulfilling, less harmful, more dignified and fairer for us all.

We argue that the choice to go shopping for consumer goods is an illusion, and that the choice not to shop is harder.  Governments, culture and ubiquitous marketing messages encourage and compel consumption in public and private spheres and therefore we think that the onus to change should not be placed on the consumer.  Instead, we focus on government and public policy as given a different national narrative, public infrastructure, price signals and symbols for identity development, we can consume to help us live rather than living to consume.

At the heart of the rise materialism and consumerism has been the establishment of a new political discourse within the UK. Supported by a range of economic, legislative and rhetorical factors this created, then maintained, an accepted narrative of post-modern existence, we call this the ‘Narrative of I’.  This national narrative, over the last 40 years has placed individual freedom over collective experience and responsibility.  It is a narrative of ‘I must have’ ‘I deserve’, ‘I’m worth it’.  ‘I’ is built on free market economics, privatisation, deregulated markets and the financial sector, globalisation and cheap debt by neo-liberal politicians promising it was the way to a better, more powerful, youthful life. Crucially, our form of material consumption is enabled through ever more freely debt.

But it’s more powerful creative force was and still is, the explicit, repeated expression of the doctrine through all the avenues open to the state – press releases, speeches, interviews and advertising, through the words it and its supporters use: Individualism not collectivism is how society progresses. Increased wealth is the key measure of success. Private ownership releases potential, public owners stifles it.

Marketing is a central manipulative tool in the ‘Narrative of I’.   Advertising, again with light touch self-regulation dominates our public spaces, we allow it to target our children, so they too can be socialised into good little consumers.  And whilst people still view themselves as mothers, fathers, workers, students, cyclists, artists etc., marketing has imbued these with a larger material and consumerist dimension.  Social interactions to a much greater required spending and status and group membership are defined by what, where, how and with whom we consume. At the core of the success of so much marketing is its very failure; it satisfies demands in a way that ensures they remain unsatisfied.

Our vision for change is based around establishing the precedence of the ‘Narrative of We’. This pro-social, pro-people, pro-planet narrative looks to establish the precedence of collective experience and responsibility, of shared experience and society, of equality and fairness and sustainability. It is a narrative of skills, mentorship, coaching, and apprenticeship.  It is a narrative of participation, membership, joining, and creativity. It is a narrative of repair, reuse, and re-appropriation.  It is a narrative of active citizenship, protest, and change.  It is a narrative where goods and services serve us:  ‘We’ does not exist to serve the market.

A key part of this change hinges on our use of language and the language of governance instilled in legislation, press releases, tenders or specific social marketing communications.  It relies on a different press, socially owned and funded.  To rebuild the narrative of ‘We’, us, the citizens, our government, our press and the marketers, should stop talking about ourselves as consumers, instead we are citizens.  Shared ownership should be lauded, we should talk about social and individual responsibility, local goods rather than global.  We should talk about what is enough rather than wanting more, slow rather than convenience, rental rather than individual ownership and we should be able to participate easily without consumption playing a central role.

As happened with the narrative of ‘I’ as the language and narrative changes it becomes easier to pass legislation bringing assets back under public and community control.  It makes it easier to restrict the availability and marketing of personally and socially damaging products. It makes it easier to promote and funds pro-social and pro-environmental activities public transport and access to community land.

Beyond language, we must make space for participation and different ideas of living: Participation needs to be made more desirable by creating spaces that are safe and do not gender roles. Participation must be easier, by reducing cost and increasing accessibility through better infrastructure and transport, increased leisure time and skill development.

Participation must be cheaper, entry for children to governments funded sporting, artistic and cultural facilities should be free. Equipment can be made available via kit libraries and community owned goods should not attract VAT.  We must do something about liability insurance.   No citizen of Scotland should be stuck at home because a club or group cannot find a room to rent or patch of green space. We call for a presumption of local ownership for all unused local government owned land.

To fund this subsidies paid to the petrochemical, car and other environmentally (and in some instances socially) damaging industries should be diverted. We support tax incentives, in the form of a self-identified increased tax free allowance for community volunteerism.   In this way we can help remove financial barriers to participation and say thank you to all those volunteers who run our clubs, societies, youth groups and charities etc.

We need to control marketing as currently practiced and encourage its use as a facilitator. Marketing is neither inherently manipulative nor dysfunctional and can be a vital set of tools for changing Scotland’s dysfunctional relationship with consumption. Kate Soper talks about ‘alternative hedonism’ and reconnecting humans with the pleasures of consuming more slowly, more mindful and focusing on the quality rather than quantity.  This links with a new materialism where we cherish, repair, reimagine what we have and focus on experiences rather than ownership.  This focusses Marketing tools on circulating value by sharing, giving and making things ourselves.

We call for a complete ban on the marketing and advertising of goods and services to children and other vulnerable groups.  Stricter control should be placed sponsorships by companies selling social or health damaging products. Further restrictions should be enacted over the amount and size of advertising allowed in civic and shared spaces.  Marketing need to be co-regulated not self-regulated.

Products should have full material input labelling including but not limited to energy, emissions, and waste used in producing it.  A producer pays model for litter should be introduced and we should enforce uniform bottle sizes. The sale of high sugar, high fat products in schools, libraries and other community owned spaces should be banned.

Finally, prices must include the full cost of producing, maintaining and disposing of goods throughout their life cycles. We need an international level greenhouse gas pollution cap and trading scheme.

Part of achieving a fairer and more just society is to re-evaluate our relationship with material goods and consumer practices. Currently we are consuming in ways that are damaging to just about every aspect of our lives as well as the environment. We would like to live in a society where people are free from the anxiety and stress caused by consumption practices, and are able to use goods in way that bond us together rather than drive us apart. To do this we must first change the narrative of life in Scotland, enable participation and control and redefine marketing.  We have to, because we’re worth it.

Comments (6)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Fran says:

    Wonderful article.

  2. Mike Fenwick says:

    We have become increasingly aware of and participants in crowdfunding.

    Somewhere on Bella is a post I made related to crowdfunding an energy producing house. Leaving aside for now the energy aspects, what also interested me were the questions it created. Here are some of those questions:

    If you had contributed £1.00 to crowdfunding a house

    – when completed would you wish to see it sold at a profit and receive your £1.00 back plus your share of the profit?

    – would you contribute your £1.00 only on the basis that the house was for rental?

    If rented, not sold – would you ever ask for your £1.00 back?

    Who would you choose as the occupiers of the house?

    What rental would you charge?

    Would you see any rental income as providing you with an investment return on your £1.00, or rather see it as an additional resource in building further houses?

    Would it re-establish the origins of the Building Society movement?

    The house that “Yes” built – is it just wishful thinking?

    Or could “We” do it?

  3. C Rober says:

    Mike with regard to the house that Yes built , I wouldnt ever trust the SNP with housebuilding , take the 3 billion for Affordable homes for example.

    Today in Scotland we are told by shelter there is an absolute need for over 30k new council homes , the lowest tier of housing , aka social housing.

    This housing prior to Thatchers attack on the unionised councils , mostly labour led at the time , and was the norm for housing , not a safety net for the unemployed and disabled , but for everyone bar the true middle classes , not the nulabour lie version of the middle classes.

    However the figure is a lot higher than that if you include private rented , that has now took up the slack , more likely double that 30k , and is an earner for private landlords , thus the banks . There is over 30k homes derelict or unused in Scotland today.

    Since the 1980s over a million rooms have been bulldozed by councils in Scotland , due to Westminster legislation , thus inflating and continuing the housing bubble of wealth creation for the banks. OF course with RTB it sped up the HPI , supply limiting means increased demand , and lets not forget that the councils never seen the money returned from sales – to create further housing , which was the argument on why the SNP have removed it….but in doing so have removed the first rung on the ladder.

    Yet the SNP want to supply 60k affordable houses with the 3 billion promised in October….. and here is where they fail , deliberately.

    If housing was such a socialist priority for the SNP , then why kill off RTB ata all ?

    Why earmark the money for affordable housing instead of Social?

    Lest we forget the reason why councils in Scotland were set up , rent strikes , bad housing etc , and when WORKERS actually rented.

    MR K Gibson , SNP MSP , in the local rag just a few weeks ago was found out , happy that it will take at current supply rate using SNP maths 117 years to remove the council waiting list in his constituency , but more ink showing how happy he was to advertise for the developers supply of unaffordable homes – that he called “affordable”.Will go into the affordable lie later.

    RTB was removed not to increase , or prevent the loss of , council housing.

    Instead of the lies spewed , it was to aid the wealth creation of home ownership of the masses for the few . To continue to enrich the developer , the lorded land owner , and the banks , those the SNP supposedly , in mandate theory anyway , are against with their faux socialism.

    Example community says no , SNP and Hollyrood rules say no , developer still granted via SNP legislation on LDP , hardly community empowerment, The SNP are in cahoots to supply unrealistic promises made on housing supply , even if that means ignoring their mandates and the legislation they promise.

    The affordable housing lie.

    SNP and Hollyrood own papers agree that 3.5 times home income of the main earner is the maximum for mortgage , without problems down the line , that could and would lead to repossession , thus homelessness.

    So here we have some maths to go on , 3.5 time take home pay , not including tax credits.

    In North Ayrshire the median , not average , take home pay means a home costing sub 65k , one of the lowest wage areas in Scotland. Yet the SNP are quoting housing as affordable , their own paperwork , at the Scottish average house price , of over 200k. ONS stats are available for both wages and average house price.

    So where will this 3 billion be used?

    Using their own figures it would never supply the 50 – 60 thousands homes , even in the lowest income areas , that is unless its purely a subsidized endeavor , something that has long been bemoaned about with social housing?

    So are we to believe then that the SNP are for subsidizing the worker for their housing ownership , therefore the developer and banks , but not the part time or zero hours worker , the unemployed , homeless and disabled for rented?

    Its time for the SNP voter to remove the blindfolds and find them all out on housing and their brand of socialism.Smells like tory to me.

    1. Mike Fenwick says:

      I want, as best I can, to follow the direction in which the article itself is taking us, the “We” concept. Can it be established? In how many ways can it be established?

      I have used housing as one, of many examples. of where we may need to rethink, re-model, how we establish the future.

      Perhaps the first step is to rethink how houses are built, more specifically how they are financed, which if we relate it to the current model, it embraces a mortgage/loan and it becomes and remains an “I” responsibility. Repay the capital, handle thevariable interest payments, and be re-possessed if you fail, re-possessed by the very Bank you helped bail out when it failed.

      Perhaps the second step is to re-consider whether “We” can rely on Governments, of whatever colour or persuasion, to ensure that there is ample and adequate housing, of whatever kind. I have my own opinion, however I leave others to reach their own conclusions on whether over the past (say the past 50 years) there is hard evidence that we have a supply of housing that meets the demand.

      Maybe it is wishful thinking on my part, but 1,617,989 individuals voted Yes, and it only takes a small percentage of that number, each contributing no more than £1.00 each, to start off a house building programme – the House that Yes built.

      Make it £1.00 per month – and its the Houses that Yes built.

      We also know that 2,001,926 voted No. Is it further wishful thinking on my part, that I believe there may also be a percentage of that number who might also see a move of this type to be a solution to a housing deficit? Maybe if Yes took the lead, we might be surprised who might follow?

      I may be wrong, but of one thing I am convinced, we all have opinions, often at odds with one another, but words are cheap, and the best way of expressing any opinion is through action.

      We are the richer, not the poorer, if that action definitively shows that there is a “We”, a communal coming together, to identify problems, to seek solutions, and to implement them.

      Then again, maybe £1.00 is too much to ask for?


      I left the energy aspect on one side in my earlier post, but I don’t want to omit it altogether, below are two links, both related to initiatives, one Welsh and new houses, and one originating from Holland, for existing housing stock:

      1. Mike Fenwick says:

        That second link may not work for everyone

        If you are interested just do a search on the word – Energiesprong

  4. Alan Gilchrist says:

    I think this aims in the right direction but cannot work. Why? Because it boils down to saying that what we think and believe is better than what others think and believe. Problem is that those others will say the same.

    It’s not in my view, a problem of what we should do with “I”. It’s about how we think about and perceive the very existence of this supposedly separate “I”.

    It’s not at all mystical to deconstruct this separate “I”. We think of the boundary as the skin but we breathe in and out. Our ego is constructed in interaction with others and the world. “I” supposedly achieve stuff, but what about my parents, teachers, colleagues, the lady who fills up the coffee machine, the bus driver who got me to work etc.

    It can be difficult to think of this inter-connected “I”, but only because the “separate”, I discourse utterly dominates – hence for example the popularity of Lee Child’s entertaining and utterly ridiculous books. A man rides into town on a bus, sorts it all out and rides out again.

    In summary, it’s the mythology of individualism that we need to challenge, not the ethics of what we do with “our””I”.

    Best wishes, Alan

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.