A few years ago, I went to New York with some friends for a wedding—and saw a sight which still gives me nightmares. Across Times Square from the Disney Store, where indulgent uncles like me buy their small fry presents, is “M&Ms World,” offering for sale every single colour of chocolatey “candy in bulk!” including the uber-scarce white M&Ms. I poked my head in the door, and was immediately pushed to the wall by what I can only describe as a sugar orgy.
“Give me the blue ones! I NEED THE BLUE ONES!” shrieked a large woman with hair of the same colour, the centre of a large jostling crowd of sugar-hungry tourists, baseball caps, and flying candy.
“White over here!” shouted another man, tossing paper bags and small children aside with a shoulder charge.
“Leave my kid alone!” said the child’s mother, her body heaving with independent gravity as she stashed orange M&Ms into her jumbo bag, and tried to stash her kid with an equally jumbo hand.
The babble, noise, heat, greed, burned sugar, and heaving sea of arms and legs came at me…and then I saw her. The cleaner, kneeling on the floor between arms, legs, and candy, trying to mop amid the din.
I have reflected often on the feeling of crazed panic I felt rising from the towers of candy, at the very idea that there might not be enough, that we might have to come home with yellow M&Ms instead of white, the genuine wickedness of a moment in which the human dignity of the cleaner was crushed in a manufactured sugar rush of flailing greed. It comes back to me every time I try to define what I mean by “consumerism.” The dictionary calls it “the increasing preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods,” but all I have to do is remember trying to get to The Warehouse on “Black Friday” surrounded by cheap appliances and people genuinely panicking lest their cut price kettle go home with someone else.
Less comfortably, though, the consumer mentality comes home from the Mall—and from Times Square, into my own life, and my own choices. Defining life in terms of what is convenient, consumable, buyable, obtainable, helps to grow the three habits of almost every consumer: short attention span, basic selfishness in life and relationship, and a reduction of everything to economic value. I see these things in wider society: alas, I also see them in myself.
Since the beginning of mass advertising in the 1930s, we have all got used to 30 second ads—and now, with hyperlinks and social media, there are ten or twenty places your eyes can leap to for every half minute—time has become a consumer commodity. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, we have lost wisdom in knowledge, knowledge in information, information in sloganeering. We can see this in politics (“Make America Great Again,” “Get Brexit Done,” “Team of 5 Million” repeated ad nauseam), in the basic decline in literacy and political debate, (2 minutes!) and the rise of infotainment. But I can see it also in my own inability to focus, to still the noise, the number of things I don’t read, or half absorb—and the inability we seem to have to move slowly, to listen carefully, to struggle through some- thing that might be dull or long or important but clunky. I am, we are, so frightened of being bored that we forget the graces on the other side of boredom: truth, patience, depth, and knowledge which leads to competence. Instead, we value emotional punch, communicative slickness, and things we already agree with—which is all in good fun until, suddenly, it isn’t.
Such a superficiality applies to relationships too. Defining oneself as a consumer puts oneself at the centre of the universe, one’s own desires and opinions as the most important thing—and the end of that is bloated ego, shallow relationship, and ultimate loneliness. I have 844 Facebook friends—but count the number I really know as less than 100, and the ones I really trust on my hands. If we view life, friendship, marriage, even business partnership, primarily through the lens of our own desires and emotional needs, we miss the things on the other side of sacrifice: stability, kindness, empathy, and ultimate peace. To paraphrase a stupid marketing poster, we make a life not by what we consume, but what we give up, what we give, to whom we are vulnerable, and by what we love.
Likewise, we cannot afford to reduce the entirety of human life simply to economics. In saying this, I don’t underrate the importance either of the economy, or of small scale, community minded capitalism. It has sent poverty rates through the floor in India and China, and small businesses run from cellphones help entrepreneurs in Uganda and Kenya make an honest living, provide security for their families, and a better quality of life for all. It isn’t that I mean. Likewise, I’m not a Byron Bay mother buying her daughter Socialist Worker Barbie dressed in organic hemp, or a deeply earnest Trade Aid-ista who launches jihads against palm oil, while wearing Fight the Power t-shirts made in China. What we need to articulate is not “our standard of living”, what NZ is good at, what we sell, or how our economy works, but, rather, the imponderables, what Ruskin calls “social affection”: the things we can’t and won’t sell. The things we’d sacrifice to keep. What I’m trying to pin down is the difference between M&Ms World, and my local butchery.
My local village butcher boasts that he makes the best bacon in the country. Having eaten it, I believe him. And he has an award to prove it. He weighs out sausages and small chickens and mince in a white apron with a gleaming butcher knife, swaps local chit chat, dishes out free saveloys to children, and works damn hard to earn an honest buck. When grocers and butchers were shut during the lockdown, he was kept open by our united panic lest we lose him—he jury-rigged a delivery service online on his bike. I found myself panic buying pork sausage: not because of a worry that I’d miss out, but a worry that we’d have to do without him. I’m biased, because he’s in my parish area, but that’s the point: my buying behaviour was driven (for once!) not by economic imperatives, but by local and by human ones. The original Greek word from which we derive “economy” is “οἰκονόμος” literally meaning “household”—which means that people are vital parts in it, not simply cogs, consumers, or consumed.
Lockdown was for many of us an object lesson in both the importance of local economies, and the other values which can and ought to determine what we buy: place, belief, sustainability, craftsmanship, duty, humanity. We can support what is local, what lasts, what is well crafted, what is human and good. I am writing this at my great-aunt’s oak desk, crafted in whole pieces in 1931. On the desk is my nephew’s wonky painting of me, a Crusaders Rugby card from 1996, a Harry Potter figurine, five HB pencils from my local stationer’s, the battered Bible of a slightly wild Church lady, photos of my friends and six daffodils. Of course, I eat Burger King, drive a car, and use an HP laptop. But a life is made of a hundred thousand strands above consumer choice: gifts we value, things we love. Family affection. Heritage passed down. Local loyalty. Faith. And saving humour. You can buy the things—but not the affections.
I freely admit that, not being, say, a beneficiary with six children, my choices are less constrained than hers. If it comes to a choice between children eating and, say, buying battery eggs, of course I’d choose the kid, just as she has to. I cannot by myself reform and remoralise the market economy, bring down the iniquitous Chinese regime, decide how the Anglican Church invests cash before it pays me from it, or choose to wear non-sweatshop clothes without more trouble than I’d like. But what I can do is try to articulate what I value: to say that not all things should be for sale, that not everything should be a matter of endless variety, consumer choice, or the cheapest and least permanent option. Instead of accepting the world and the system the way that it is, and shrugging, I can begin to build on social affection, to support those places, and salve those people at most risk from what some have called “the throw away culture.” I can delight, even on a budget, in quirky op-shop finds, well-crafted box pews, the joy of planting and making things, and the joy of people too. I can speak up to support the places that affection grows. In my own life, I have made resolutions: to put down my phone, to read more paper books, to be outside in a non-virtual reality—and to finish boring conversations, if only in compliment to the fact that the boringee is a person—a valuable one—even if I have heard about the Howick kindergarten in 1951 several times before. The future should not belong to the people with the strongest emotions, or the biggest power structures, but to those who understand value—the value of people, and place, and belief. I can’t change the whole world—but I can visit grandma, value my neighbours, bear with my friends, finish reading the Parish Council minutes and love my family. It will always be easier to be autonomous, to plunge into the rat race and turn up the volume—but we know, we know at the deepest part of us, that we need to do more than consume. We need to love. We need to stay. We need to give.
Likewise, I try to buy sustainable things, not because of some vague hipster guilt, because I love my place—the Canterbury sky stretched out to faded blue at the edges, the beach I plough up and down practicing my sermons, the wet grass and the good earth, and the idea that our grandchildren will still be able to eat whitebait, take over the farm, prune the tree I plant, land the fish like I did, make an honest living unafraid.
Something similar applies to our common institutions: family, community, and country. I do not love and try to serve my family because it’s some sort of sitcom perfect: every member of a family knows to an exquisite inch how to hurt all the others, and we pool skeletons and scars. But we stand by each other because of our commonality, our solidarity, our duty, our love. I do not vote because I trust politicians (dear God, have you seen this lot?) I vote because New Zealand is an enduring trust, and our dear country needs a future. And we turn up to the sports club or the church cake stall, or the residents association not out of some 1950’s martyr impulse, but because in miniature, in imperfect, infuriating technicolour, we see the things it is our calling to love. Those are the social affections we must recover, the loves we must hold hard and close. And you can’t buy any of them.
I admit, of course, that running off to India on the back of a motorbike (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), burying your pain in pasta (Eat Pray Love), or someone euthanising themselves so you can live your best life (Me Before You), is allegedly more fun. But autonomy without love, consumerism without producing, work without craft, individualism without community, life without sacrifice, these produce stunted people, damaged communities, moral pygmies. They’re easier in the short term. And to recover a vision of our shared connectedness, our common home, our united duty, takes risk. It means using a values scale which is out of fashion, finding language which expresses our common longing for home, our common desire to build, our common love, as well as our discontents. And risking the fact that it might not work—that our small efforts to recover humanity and affection might be frustrated. But in the grand scheme of things, connectedness to things above cash leads to other, lasting goods: family, solidarity, humanity, charity. These are not just the permanent things, but the only permanent things. After all, as Frank Capra used to say, You Can’t Take It With You.