Ruth Potts - It's time for a ‘New Materialism’ a world of better, not more
With Christmas fast approaching, and the economy still far from recovery, now is the perfect time to re-examine our relationship with 'stuff'. Writing in the New Statesman on Buy Nothing Day, Neal Lawson asked why the left have been silent on consumerism. The left may be silent but the greens, oddly for a movement whose entire purpose is protecting life in a material world, have a decidedly dislocated relationship with stuff. They seem to spurn it altogether, or try to replace one kind of passive consumerism with another, albeit of a ‘greener’ hue. As we show in our new pamphlet ‘New Materialism', both the left and the greens are missing a trick. Developing a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the world of ‘stuff’ could the key to a better life for all of us, and for the planet.
Its not hard to see why mainstream progressives have shied away from tackling consumerism. It has become synonymous with a strange perversion of freedom, our worth defined by our ability to purchase to such a degree that even tentative attempts to question it are attacked as hair-shirt miserabilism, with greens out to deny us the stuff we deserve.
But such attacks are knee-jerk, and often stem from an elite who may never have experienced, nor understand what it is to make things for a living. This lack of understanding of what working people actually do (or rather once did) smoothed the way to the destruction of manufacturing in the UK. According to the Guardian's Economics Leader Writer, Aditya Chakrabortty, in 1979 manufacturing accounted for almost 30 per cent of Britain’s national income employing 6.8 million people. By the time Gordon Brown left Downing Street in May 2010, it was just over 11 per cent of the economy and a workforce of 2.5 million. The jobs that were lost were, in the main, quality, high-skilled jobs, not the hollowed out apology for work of the modern economy.
Making things matters, not least because it creates a different relationship to the material world and a different kind of community. The greatness of craft, wrote Antoine de St Expury, “lies firstly in how it brings comradeship to men [sic].” Think-tanker turned motor-mechanic, Matthew Crawford agrees. Having swapped policy-wonkery for oil-soaked overalls, he finds intrinsic, personal satisfaction from his work, and his mechanical craft gives him membership of an appreciative community: "I try to be a good motorcycle mechanic. This effort connects me to others, in particular to those who exemplify good motorcycling, because it is they who can best judge how well I have realized the functional goods I am aiming at."
By engaging in making we learn something fundamental about how the world works: about give and take, limits, and the dangerous weaknesses that can build up in a system. The Stonemason, Lida Kindersley whose working life is absorbed in understanding materials through working with them, describes how much can be learned from something as simple as using a pencil: ”If you want to define a letter the moment that you push on the pencil, or use it aggressively, it breaks. You learn to keep the point by not using force.” The secret to the stonemasons’ craft lies in understanding and working with the material, not dominating it. It leads to an acute understanding of both the limits and potential of the material world.
This is not about craft as a return to some bucolic fantasy. It is about the potential for a richer more engaged life for all, now. And, at the grassroots it is already spreading. Cultivate London takes over abandoned land, setting up urban farms that provide training for, and will eventually be run by, local young people aged 16-24 who are not in employment or education. The project has two farms in London, in Isleworth and at Brentford Lock and trains up to 30 young people each year. These are skills that can’t be taken away, and there will be plenty of need for them as high oil prices make imported food ever more expensive.
An economy that needs to boost demand without raising consumption is one that calls for practical people and artists in equal measure – menders, makers and entertainers. It requires a huge growth in practical services that will boost the numbers of plumbers, electricians, builders, carpenters, farmers and engineers, as much as upholsterers, seamstresses, painters, potters, sports coaches and storytellers. Culturally, embracing the full lifecycle of the things we have and share becomes creative, imaginative and thoughtful. It is not a denial, but rather constant reinvention of the stuff we have as lifelong companions rather than cheap, disposable dates.
There is much that could be done to accelerate the emergence of a New Materialism and we propose a mini-manifesto for guidance and debate in the pamphlet, but there are also things that we can all do now. For example, making December a ‘Make, Mend and Share’ month might mean that many more of us reach the Christmas period happier and considerably less in debt. It may even transform our relationship with stuff, for good.
Ruth Potts and Andrew Simms
Read the manifesto and download the pamphlet here
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