Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Monday, 2 March 2009

A Marxist writes


Emeritus professor of Government at Manchester University, Norman Geras, author of Marx and Human Nature and 'The Controversy about Marx and Justice' refutes in a new post on his blog the notion alluded to in The Thoughtful Dresser that shopping is often dismissed byt critics from the left as a form of false consciousness. Refutes, that is, their accusation.

He writes:

So, the first step in my defence is just to say that, in the way that the world is now organized, shopping is a straightforward means towards taking care of one's appearance; it's the instrumentality of a basic human good. But, it might be said, this is just shopping of the kind anyone can do - even me, even people who take no special joy from the activity but treat it in a matter of fact way, as the mere means to a necessary end. A deep interest in shopping such as Linda describes and commends is not necessarily part of taking care of one's appearance. We can shop instrumentally without developing any deep interest in shopping, shop without passion.

However - the second step in the defence - one can do anything without developing a deep interest in that particular thing, without its becoming a passion. All the same, people do - they develop passions of one kind and another. They become passionate collectors of this or that - books, stamps, art - passionate about literature or music or movies or sport (or just about their team), become bird-watchers, train-spotters, students of many different kinds of subject. Each of us has a life to dole out as we see fit, subject to meeting our various obligations to others. An interest in shopping is as legitimate a pursuit within the range of human interests as any other. Save for those who urge upon us an ethic of devoting all our disposable time and resources to helping people in need, no one is well placed to condemn the interest someone else may have in shopping. And the ethic of comprehensive self-sacrifice may be good for saints, but applied to the generality of humankind it is mean and unbearable.

But what about shopping as an obsession? What when it becomes pathological? The problem, then, is with the obsession, the pathology, not with the shopping. Any pursuit can be taken too far. And what about the fact that not everyone is in a position to enjoy shopping, because some don't have the means for it? This is a critique of systemic inequality and poverty and their effects and it is a valid one. But deployed by anyone who has disposable income which they use for (non-shopping) enjoyments of their own rather than directing it towards people living closer to the margins, it is a hypocrisy. Unless you believe that those living above the level of the bare necessities - whatever these are taken to be - should part with all their surplus income, you allow that each of us has a right to some enjoyments. It is not then for you to say what mine should be or vice versa. I won't be going round with Linda spending time looking at scarves. I doubt she'd want to join me in following all five days of a Test match. You plays it as you feels it. But there is a right to that for everyone.

10 comments:

Deja Pseu said...

Very timely, and I agree completely.

phyllis said...

So true. Even though I make most of my clothes I still shop plenty, locating fine fabric requires dective work equal to locating good fashion.

StyleSpy said...

I'm torn between a chorus of amen and a feeling that this guy has way too much time on his hands...

lagatta à montréal said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece, though I do think shopping (and not just for clothing; electronics is far worse) can be bad for the environment, if not done with restraint and care. (A lot of that is the ultracheap throwaway clothing trend, and the vast distances between factories and buyers).

The problem is how to be conscious of the environment, and of the conditions of the people who produce fibres and sew clothing, without falling into life-denying austerity.

Of course Jenny did not go shopping for the frock she is wearing in the picture; a dressmaker would have fitted it. Their daughter Eleanor certainly enjoyed the shops of London though, and cut quite a Victorian bohemian figure with her long black curly hair falling past her shoulder and her Spanish shawl.

Professor Geras has written extensively on Rosa Luxemburg, who certainly liked her frocks and accessories, as well as other beautiful things, manmade and natural alike. She seemed in sharp contrast with her friend Clara Zetkin, who always looks so much more austere and uninterested in how she is turned out.

Phyllis, my mum always made her clothes and quite a few of mine, and was always haunting the fabric and notions departments and shops.

sheila said...

I was brought up in a working class marxist family. My parents were always well dressed and instilled in me the importance of being the same. For them it was about self respect and also respect for those you met. They also had admiration and respect for good workmanship, be it a beautiful piece of furniture or a well made dress or jacket. Shopping was about making sure you bought the best you could afford and that made you feel good because that was life enhancing and confirmed your own self worth .Their politics was not dogmatic or exclusive and certainly did not deny enjoyment of good things. My father is now 94, widowed and living independently on his own. Last week he decided he wanted a new jacket and I took him shopping. He took his time and ended up buying a beautiful jacket which was the best he could afford. He looks great in it and loves wearing it. He once said to me that he couldn't understand women who did not care about their appearance. This was definitely not a sexist remark - he just didn't understand why they undervalued themselves. I love clothes shopping and, like Legatta, try and do this as ethically as I can. One reason I don't buy cheap clothes is that, apart from not looking great or lasting long, they had to have been made by some child or woman earning less than a living wage and in appalling conditions. But, like my parents, I see no contradiction between loving shopping and left politics.

debra said...

All true. Though unfortunately this won't stop colleagues asking how one can expect to be taken seriously as a socialist/feminist/delete-as-applicable-ist 'when you dress the way you do'. It might be an idea to laminate copies of this post and hand them out at conferences...

lagatta à montréal said...

Shiela, my graduate research was on a topic pertaining to the history of the workers' movement in Italy (yes, very lucrative, I know) so that cured me of any such miserabilism, though did not greatly contribute to buying power.

The women of the German Social Democracy presented Rosa Luxemburg with a beautiful green dress (a dress was still a considerable investment for skilled workers' wives and lower-middle-class women in 1918) upon her release from prison for her opposition to the Great War. They knew how unhappy she was about feeling aged and ravaged by years in jail.

Duchesse said...

Shopping may result in buying, or merely, as Linda decsribes, reveling in what's before you, building your eye or comparing options. "Obsessive shopping" is out-of-control spending, and usually seeks to fill a void that is not material.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

"I won't be going round with Linda spending time looking at scarves. I doubt she'd want to join me in following all five days of a Test match. You plays it as you feels it. But there is a right to that for everyone."

Yep. I wanted to dedicate a post to the above, but as it was clear to all what I would say (and what I would say would have involved alcohol, tobacco and food), I've decided to hold my breath.

Anonymous said...

"debra said...
All true. Though unfortunately this won't stop colleagues asking how one can expect to be taken seriously as a socialist/feminist/delete-as-applicable-ist 'when you dress the way you do'. It might be an idea to laminate copies of this post and hand them out at conferences...

02 March 2009 19:08"

--Well, it depends on how you're dressed, doesn't it? Stiletto heels, blouses down to here and skirts up to there don't signal authority and they're distracting. Being attired in the latest trend to the last detail even if it doesn't flatter you doesn't either (unless you're in fashion history, maybe).