Culture versus Consumerism – the new political reality


A consumer helping itself to my apples

A consumer helping itself to my apples

There is a sea-change happening in politics that is leaving many people bewildered. Why are people from the fringe like Trump, Sanders or even Corbyn, suddenly so attractive to people? The old centrist politics with Blairs, Browns, Clintons and Camerons no longer seems to cut the mustard. Is this just a moment of public boredom with the establishment politics or is it a reflection of something deeper regarding human culture? In this short essay I am going to explore the idea that we are currently responding to the culturally neutralising affect of treating all people, from every nation, as consumers. We do not like the bland high street. We do not like the impoverished language of our public life. We are longing for something richer, more in tune with our heritage and culture.

I want to begin with a shocking piece of research. Walter Bodmer and colleagues at Oxford concluded a ground breaking study[1] of the genetics of the UK last year. They looked at the genes of a set of rural people whose grandparents lived within 80 miles of each other. This selected out some of the most ‘settled’ people in the country. And they found something fascinating. These people showed clear genetic differences corresponding to the geographical ranges of the most ancient tribes of this land. Cornish people were still different from Devon people. The Welsh were clearly of Celtic type and those from North Wales different again. West Yorkshire people still showed a distinct genetic profile corresponding to the ancient tribe of ‘Elmet’ people in that area. The Southern Scots were similar, as expected, with Northern Ireland, while the people of the Orkneys were a race apart from anything on the mainland. They could even discern the genetic component of the so-called English part of Pembrokeshire. Most of the bulk of Central and Eastern England was of Saxon origin. These distinctions demonstrate scientifically that the cultural distinctions between different parts of the UK are written in our genes. Each of these areas at one time had their own language or dialect, their own established customs and laws and their own ways of thinking. And to some extent these differences were an expression of their genes.

There are many ideas that can be drawn from a study like this and not all of them are helpful. I am fascinated that the roots of our ancient cultures can still be traced to the areas in which the people originally settled. I am also interested in the possibility that some aspects of these cultures remain in our subconscious and contribute to our sense of feeling at home in the world. One key aspect of a culture in which we feel at home would be our ability to understand and trust the behaviour of those around us. Cultural breakdown is most fundamentally an issue of trust.

Now it is clear from the work of Bodmer’s team that the UK is multicultural at its heart. The recent migration of people is not special. We are pretty much all immigrants. It also obvious that this country has a long history of cultural assimilation. At first there were many bloody battles concerning the settlement of these lands. A shared faith helped to make peace, for example, as the various groups of Saxon invaders were converted under Augustine of Canterbury. This peace was formative in the very development of Englishness.[2] The world of minsters as centres of learning, agriculture and trade eventually gave way to towns and cities as the new cultural melting pot, where contact with diverse cultures from around the world brought new commodities and an enriched social experience. Such was the process of settlement in a nutshell.

So it is that throughout the history of this land we have managed to hold an implicit tension between a comforting sense of our cultural roots and the challenge and enrichment that comes from contact with other cultures. Yet it is also clear that these tensions can, under certain circumstances, lead to social unrest.

It should be no surprise that we are currently experiencing tensions around immigration. For years now we have acted as if local cultures did not exist. We have tried to treat human beings the same the world over by focusing on a new and degrading description of humanity as ‘consumers’. People have resisted that, of course, and the cultural meltdown that it promotes. Those in rural areas have demonstrated suspicion about ‘incomers’ who adversely affect their ‘way of life’, while immigrants moving into cities have tended to move into particular areas where they can protect and express at least some of their originating culture.

It is also true that the great promises of consumerism have failed us. The expected ‘trickle down’ of wealth from rich to poor has not occurred. Some areas, like London and the South East, are extraordinarily well off in comparison to other places and polarised societies are deeply unsettling[3]. Coupled with this, the lifestyle of the consumer is now widely recognised as meaningless with resultant negative effects on our mental health. These are the sort of conditions in which a cultural backlash might be expected to manifest itself, with a concomitant distrust of the establishment.  And this is precisely what our current crop of politicians seems to fail to understand.

The Brexiteers are a case in point. They are currently caught on the horns of a dilemma. Many of them are arguing for ‘free trade’ with Europe and the rest of the world. This is to play into the consumerist world view with all its problems. But, at the same time, they want to recognise the need to curb immigration, because the public want this. How can these two things be reconciled? The EU tells us that they can’t. You can have one or the other. Let’s watch to see how this tension plays out. One can only hope that our politicians become more able to express why people are forcing the issue about immigration. In the terms of this essay it has two prime causes:

  • The dominant and degrading paradigm of consumerism does not address our deepest needs and values.
  • We value culture, history and tradition as part of a complex system of trust that makes up our society.

In response to being treated as consumers, our people are now unwilling to accommodate the change and challenge of cultural integration. We are seeking comfort through recourse to an originating culture, even if this is romanticised.  As a result there is a tendency to identify and oppose recent incomers. Dangerous romanticists among us talk of ‘making Britain great again’ in an appeal to a mythical cultural solidarity and this resonates with our pervasive cultural unease. The process is dark and dangerous.

Many of us sense this danger, but we may not understand that it can be positively remedied only by recognising the positive role that culture plays in our lives, in our sense of identity and our sense of home. We should celebrate our histories in all their complexity, honour our ancestors, convey their wisdom and seek to live well. We will never be reduced to some economic formula. We are citizens, all of us, and must be treated with respect.


[1] Ewen Callaway Nature News 18 March 2015 UK mapped out by genetic ancestry

[2] Peter Ackroyd in the History of England Vol 1 Foundations comments on the world of Augustine saying, ‘England, as we understand it today was created by the Christian Church’.

[3] Wilkinson R and Pickett K The Spirit Level 2009

When the Rooted argue – The National Trust, Rewilding and the Lake District Farmers


A view from Wray Castle near Windermere

It is an argument that has been simmering for some time. And it is between people and organisations that all have a ‘Rooted’ spirituality in that they care about nature; They care about a place, in this case the Lake District; and they all think broadly and inclusively about people and communities.

The particular issue is focussed around Thorneythwaite Farm in Borrowdale, where the National Trust has taken the unusual step of purchasing most of the land belonging to the farm, but have not bought the farm buildings. Local sheep farmers foresee the end of sheep farming in this place as the buildings become holiday cottages, while the National Trust appear to be considering new ways of managing this piece of land in the interests of nature and the public.

The back story to this moment is profound, extending through centuries of farming tradition, supported by patrons like Beatrix Potter, who grew to love this area, moved there, learnt to farm sheep and bequeathed almost 4000 acres to the National Trust as a ways of preserving that way of life. It also features the local clergyman Hardwicke Rawnsley, who helped to set up the National Trust and campaigned all his life for the conservation of the Lake District. And it features countless sheep farmers, ably represented most recently by the writing of James Rebanks in The Shepherd’s Life. This book takes the reader deep into the soul of the sheep farming tradition and the rootedness of the farmers who see themselves as absolutely belonging to the landscape in which they live and work. You could say they are ‘hefted’ to their place in the world in the same way as their sheep are hefted to the fell on which they graze and do not wander. Yet James Rebanks writing is not a simple romantic attachment to the ways of the past. He sees the value of tourism to the area and realises that change of some sort is in the air.

herdwickshsmThe other side of the back story is the growing recognition that upland fells are not well treated by sheep. Sheep create a monoculture of grass. We may like this, because we of the fantastic, wide open views that we have become accustomed to, but in the absence of sheep a much more diverse ecology would develop. Much of the area would return to forest, with a proliferation of diverse species, which would be enormously attractive and beneficial both to humans and other creatures. Such a process of rewilding might also have serious benefits in terms of protecting valleys against the flash flooding that has become more and more frequent in this area.

So what is the resolution here? As I see it we need to learn to feel the different sides of argument. They are both important. Ultimately the questions may reduce to an assessment of values and priorities. Is it adequate to just preserve a way of life because it has been going on for centuries and is embedded in communities? Or is it appropriate to test the wisdom of a tradition against new insights that may be important for our future well-being? There can be little doubt that we need to learn to live in a better harmony with the natural world, but we are still learning exactly what that looks like. My sense is that there has to be a profound engagement with these questions. Simple preservation of ancient traditions may be inadequate. We need to test both the value and practicality of alternatives.

The Divide

On Thursday last week Bristol Pound hosted a showing  of the film ‘The Divide,  based on the widely acclaimed book ‘The Spirit Level- why equality is better for everyone’ – by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

In what aims to be a completely fact-based study, The Spirit Level authors purport to demonstrate that nations, states and regions, which are most divided between rich and poor also score lowest on a whole set of measures of well-being. Some of the particular statistical analyses they present have attracted some criticism, but the overall argument appears to have been vindicated over time. Kate Pickett has summarised their findings like this:

it became clear that, as well as health and violence, almost all the problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies – including mental illness, drug addiction, obesity, loss of community life, imprisonment, unequal opportunities and poorer wellbeing for children. The effects of inequality are not confined to the poor. A growing body of research shows that inequality damages the social fabric of the whole society.[i]

Their thesis is that living in a highly polarised society does something to people, making them less satisfied with their own lives and tends, especially among poorer people, to feelings of inadequacy or alienation. Their appeal is for a much stronger collective culture with the proliferation of co-operatives and other similar initiatives. Free marketeers hate such talk, seeing it all as an inhibition of ‘freedom’ – meaning the freedom of the individual to do as they like. Others might comment that such individualistic freedom should, indeed must, be checked in any just society and it is pandering to such ‘freedom’ that has allowed these polarities between rich and poor to arise with their ensuing dis- ease in society.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, said this in May 2014 to a conference in London:

Just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long term dynamism of capitalism itself…

Here he points to social capital, the value embedded in the very structure of relationships in a society, as something that must be protected for the good of all.

The big question then arises as to How this can be achieved? Making change is not so easy in a society built around the free market and working to its rules. This is what I said in my forthcoming book Rise up with Wings like Eagles.

I believe that the heart of a new approach to economics can be found in one simple idea. That is that wherever we are in the world, we should attempt to localize those parts of the economy that can be localized. This sort of shift has the potential to engender really positive social and political effects and provide a new resilience, especially to poorer economies. It is also an absolute necessity in terms of action on climate change.[ii]

This is the deep reason why we set out to deliver a city-wide currency in the Bristol region and why a team of us are now working to create a food co-operative, called Real Economy, based on sourcing from local producers. Creating our own systems locally, allows us to embed a set of social and environmental aims into our projects and then test and monitor their ‘success’ against progress on these aims. This creates a quite different feel to the culture, gathering participants who share the intrinsic values of the community and so building community life across the city. In terms of scale, of course, these projects are tiny in comparison to the global problems they set out to address, but they may have the potential to give people a taste of something different and so prove ‘There is an alternative’. Then people can respond.

[i] Kate Pickett (2014)


[ii] From Chapter Six ‘Short-Sighted Economics’ in Rise up with Wings like Eagles – discover inner strength and wisdom to transform our relationship with the earth by Chris Sunderland (to be published by Earth Books in December 2016)


1 2 3 9