Magazine

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

  • 15 August 2014
  • From the section Magazine
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.

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".


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."

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.

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?).

Image caption 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.


More from the Magazine

Why are sweets and chocolate always by the till in supermarkets? Why do they put the everyday essentials like bread and milk at the back of shop so you have to walk through as many aisles as possible to reach them?

Why is the perfume and jewellery section always at the front of a department store?

Denise Winterman on the new tactics to get you shopping (March 2013)


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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