A Point of view: Are we all suffering from consumption?

People carrying shopping bags in Oxford Street

Consumption has become all-consuming in the modern world, says writer Will Self.

I'm suffering from a paradoxical condition. Unlike the wilting heroines and tissue-white heroes of Victorian literature, I'm not dying of consumption, but, on the contrary, if all the authorities are to be believed, it's the only thing keeping me alive. Tuberculosis - or consumption as it was colloquially known - was the great killer infectious disease of the middle and late 19th Century. In an era ignorant of the bacillus, it was believed to be caused by, among other things, an excess of sexual passion. And, echoing this lusty aetiology, consumption was always perceived as "galloping" through its victims as if in a dreadful hurry to get to a meeting with other successful infectious diseases.

The kind of consumption that afflicts me is rather different - or at least so I'm told. For a start, it isn't something that consumes me. On the contrary, it's I who am the consumer, and consumption is what I do. I consume goods - perishable ones like food, drink and energy; more durable ones, such as electronic gadgets and clothing. I consume services as well - transportation and tourism spring to mind, while banking and insurance I don't like to think about quite so much. Even the business of government itself, from its health services to its military interventions are something that I, by virtue of my taxes, can be said to be paying to consume.

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Will Self
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on BBC Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT
  • Will Self is a novelist and journalist

When I began to take an interest in these things, in the late 1970s, the lead economic indicator, and the one that appeared at the top of any news item about the economy, was the balance of payments. For those somewhat younger this will seem arcane, or even mysterious, because it's barely spoken of nowadays. The balance of payments measures the disparity between what the British economy imports and the value of its exports. The attention formerly lavished on it reflected Britain's self-perception at that time. Whatever Napoleon may have said, we were a nation of producers, who dug and delved and husbanded and harvested and fitted and turned. Both our prosperity and our self-respect depended on selling rather more of the goods we fashioned to Johnny Foreigner than he managed to foist on us.

But with deindustrialisation, the rise of the service economy (in particular the City's financial services) and the rapid extension of credit to households and individuals, being a producer began to seem like a mug's game. One thing interventionist Keynesians and privatising monetarists could agree on was that an economy without consumer demand was dead in the water, whence it followed that greed - in the immortal words of Gordon Gekko - was good. In fact, what the fictional Wall Street financier actually said in the film was, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." The better word hovering around the tip of Gekko's saurian tongue was "consumption".

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Wall Street
  • From 1987, a film starring Charlie Sheen as ambitious young broker, and Michael Douglas as ruthless financier Gordon Gekko
  • Gekko reportedly based on real-life Wall Street figures - including convicted insider trader Ivan Boesky
  • Infamous "Greed is good" speech is similar to 1986 speech given by Boesky, in which he said, "Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."
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We're a nation of shoppers now - good little consumers who understand the vital role we play in the wealth of all nations, but especially our own. We pay close attention to offers and deals, we know where to go for a discount, and we're acutely aware of the degree of choice available to us whenever some formerly public utility - water, gas, education, or housing - is carved up, repackaged and set out on the market stall. Of course, to be a consumer is by no means the same thing as being a bargain-hunter - the latter ascription suggests someone who has to make sure every little bit helps, someone who has to pay attention to the income side of the equation before she even considers the outgoings. Such thriftiness is regarded as terribly infra dig by us consumers, while maxims such as "Never a borrower or a lender be" have to us the homespun, decorative air of a pokerwork plaque we might buy for a joke in a gift shop attached to a museum of country life.

shopping basket icon on desktop

I sit of an evening in the inner city being gently goaded by the advertisements on the television. I eat chocolate greedily and slurp my tea. Should I have another square of chocolate, or should I smoke a cigarette in the hope it will suppress my ravening appetite, thereby using one form of consumption to regulate another? In the break between one exhortation to consume and the next I can hear the night time house gently but inexorably consuming - the ticking of electricity and gas meters, the cellular death of food passing its sell-by date in the fridge and pantry, the soft munching of the clothes moths' mandibles as they consume the family's woollens, ensuring that come the autumn we will have to buy more. Outside in the street caterwauling drunks tumble home from the pub, consuming carry-outs as they go. Sometimes I fantasise that if I could only concentrate enough, I might be able to hear the faint electronic whine of money pulsing out of my bank account and into the bank account of the bank my account is with - a bank that has itself already consumed a fair amount of my taxes (and yours).

I consume sitting down, I consume standing up, I consume when walking. I consume when I'm asleep, I even consume when I'm at work. When I was writing this I clicked and clacked a few times and bought a book entitled How to Write Excellent Short Talks for Broadcast, but sadly it hadn't arrived before I had to finish this one. Online consumption is surely the purest form yet of this deadly and infectious disease - sorry, I mean "pleasurable and economically essential activity". At times, especially when ordering computer stuff online, then limping downstairs to pick it up off the mat, limping back up and plugging whatever peripheral it is into my own system, so that I can sit there clickety-clacking more efficiently, it occurs to me that it won't be long before the middleman can be eliminated altogether. Simply link my bank account directly to that of the online retailer. Instead of the stuff being delivered to me, it can be packaged up at the fulfilment centre, then unpackaged and discarded directly into a large container ship bound for China and recycling (incidentally, isn't "fulfilment centre" one of the finest euphemisms known to consumptive, ever-hungry, ever unfulfilled 21st Century humankind?).

Conveyor belt at Amazon fulfilment center in California The fulfilment centre

Of course, I'm of a generation uncomfortable with consumption. Just as the Victorians viewed their consumptives as having overly emotional, even hysterical natures, so I find something febrile about all this wrapping and unwrapping, between which - to paraphrase Byron - all that's left is the summer of a dormouse. When I get together with my friends we all start out trying to discuss our productions, but soon enough we're forced to acknowledge that our working lives are, for the most part, dull, while what we make is - for the most part - useless, and if not useless, highly ephemeral, the sort of shoddy goods that break right out of the box. But what we consume on the other hand - a-ha! Now we're talking! Talking about American television series and German hatchbacks, Spanish lagers and Spain itself - for nowadays we consume entire countries with gusto, choking down their cuisine, buying up their housing stock, laying waste to their culture, and wearing out their patience.

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As our avid chatter increases in volume red spots begin to appear on our pale cheeks. And as we cough and splutter the news of our latest acquisitions, so it occurs to me that unless we can find a cure for this malady soon it will have eaten us all up, just as we will have consumed all of Mother Earth's bountiful resources. All that will be left is a gigantic stomach, floating in space, its visceral manifold gleaming weirdly in the cold, indifferent light of the stars - stars that are quite unable to feel any sadness for our demise, because they're too busy consuming themselves. The great French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine entitled one of his novels Mort a credit. This is sometimes translated into English as Death on the Instalment Plan, but a better rendition might be simply Consumption.

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer

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Here is a selection of your comments.

Consumption is not a word that was around in bye gone days of the nostalgic past. Yet, in the days of import and export duties, plenty of consumption was going on as it was in Edwardian and Georgian times too, and before, albeit at much lower rates. After all, people always need 'things'. Nowadays, after the stupid disposal of national duties and restrictions, consumption has become global and has exponentially exploded into mania. Now our fear of death and the sinister passing of time seems to be only to assuaged by the continually purchasing of stuff that we do not need; shopping really has become therapy. Globalism, the free passage of workers and money, impossible debt, and the multinational and corporate control of everything is completely wrecking our world. The baby boomers (especially) should have taken to heart the wise sayings of the great books of history about prudence and restraint.

Michael Skywood Clifford, Hinckley Leicestershire

We are hamsters on a spinning wheel of consumption that is destroying the planet, people and relationships in the drive to have more. Our value sets have been completely manipulated and distorted. To make matters worse there are now increasing barriers to getting off the wheel and even ief you wish to go and live a simpler life you will still need to find cash to pay ever increasing council tax etc. Even if you never use the services.

Jan, Bedfordshire

I believe that we have become a time poor society and that as a result our creativity /pleasure/leisure has had to adapt. I am aware that it is a complete lack of personal creativity to buy beautiful stuff the craft of which I admire. At the same time any gorgeous food, item, desirable trinket takes time to create and funds. When one does the maths time wise and money wise you are often better off buying something off the shelf than make it yourself. This is my fate as an urbanite, I accept it. There are good sides and bad sides. I will go down as a woman of my time!

Dominique Mortimer-Ryan, London, UK

Could consumption or the rate of increase of consumption be a side effect of the metabolism of a consumer driven society increasing? Traders call this a high gamma state. The rate of change of the rate of change is increasing. Let us not be punctilious about where or what the source of the voraciousness may be, but more the general effect, driving ever increasing levels of serotonin seeking pleasure. Like a drug addict we seek pleasure from each and every hit, only to seek larger hits as our bodies become immune, books on Amazon, small consumer gadgets, once sufficient, after a while we need that richer, bigger hit. So what is the cure, introspect, recognise the biological effect of what drives consumption and the rate of increase of consumption, perhaps. Recognising and stopping, filling the void left by he serotonin release in the brain is part of the cure. Not to stop consuming, but reducing the purchase based rate of increase. Seek pleasures from simpler pass t!

Alex Baker, Salisbury

Nothing I have ever bought has any lasting meaning for me, including the iPad I am writing this on. Once the novelty has worn off and I have got over the buyers guilt, material goods don't fulfil me. I wonder what will?

John, Scunthorpe

This is something I've pondered on too. I've looked back at our culture over the centuries and considered what we as a society felt to be important by raising important and sophisticated buildings. To be begin with it was simple, shelter. Then the status building of a culture became defensive, the castle was de rigueur. "look at us our castle is better than yours". Then religion became more important and the churches and cathedrals sprang up with their spires and fancy carvings, even fancier windows. In Elizabethan time times the buildings of the state began to show off in the same way as the churches, big impressive buildings to demonstrate power over the "oicks". The Victorians on the other hand thought that important buildings were public ones. Utilities, Libraries and Train stations and even sewerage buildings had great detail lavished upon them. What great structures are springing up all over the land to define our age ? Shopping Malls is how we shall be remembered.

Rob H, Derby

I think this is only part of the story - we do not consume, we use and discard, without thinking what happens to our discards. I work in a charity shop and it makes me sad to see how much stuff we throw away, kidding ourselves that we are doing good by donating it to a good cause. Much of these donations are "recycled" - sold to third world consumers, who can't afford to buy new goods. What will happen to this planet when their economies have grown and they can afford to buy new?

Linda Mitchell, London

Consumption? Pyramid selling maybe? For how long can this be sustained. I'm a 'Balance of Payments' person, but the fat cats wont like that as it would mean lean times for them! Good one Will, but we are the same generation - past it!?

Ruth McGrath, Kelso, Scotland

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