Steve Howard, a manager at Ikea, says: “In the west, we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff... peak home furnishings”.
Other people studying retail markets have come up with similar ideas. Kevin Jenkins, a manager at the Visa credit-card company, says: “We increasingly see a trend for consumers to spend more on experiences rather than on products”.
Lorna Hall, a market researcher, says: “People are interested in servicing a lifestyle rather than buying stuff”.
Dan Nixon of the Bank of England comments that orthodox “economic theory generally assumes that more consumption means greater happiness. [In fact] we may achieve greater happiness by seeking to simplify our desires, rather than satisfy them... The result is less consumption yet more utility”.
On one level, this is babble. Even in relatively-rich Britain, many people lack the “stuff” of a decent place to live, and rely on food banks for “stuff” to eat. According to official research published on 17 May, 6.5% of people in Britain are in long-term poverty, but as many as a third are likely to be in poverty at least for a spell during a three-year period. On another level, the “babble” tells us something profound.
Leon Trotsky wrote that the precondition for a socialist society was that “the steady growth of social wealth has made us bipeds forget our miserly attitude toward every excess minute of labour, and our humiliating fear about the size of our ration”. For the middle-class, and a swathe of better-off workers too — the people these market researchers focus on — we’re getting there. And it would take only the first steps of socialist economic reorganisation to bring the whole population up to that level.
In a capitalist society, a huge advertising industry — £20 billion a year in the UK, £300 a year for every child, woman, and man — bombards us continuously and cleverly with messages that consuming more, more, more is the way to happiness. You need a new smartphone! New clothes! A new car! Things would be different with even the beginnings of socialist reorganisation. Yet even now, even under capitalist bombardment, a lot of people recognise a better life comes more through shared experiences, which can’t be bought, than through competitively consuming more “stuff”.
With food, the transition happened a while back. For a long epoch of human history, the rich were fat and tall, and the poor were thin and short. Now, a rich person does not necessarily eat more than even a modestly-getting-by worker. For a long epoch, too, access to music other than your own sing-song with the simplest instruments was limited to the rich. Now everyone can get music free or cheap from the internet.
Anti-socialists have long argued that it is irrepressible human nature always to want more “stuff”. There will never be enough to go round. The capitalist market system may have its faults, they say, but it is a more efficient and robust system of allocation than the only alternative: rationing from above by authorities who will always take the best for themselves first. Now there is enough to go round. The problem is that it doesn’t go “round”, and that the capitalist structure of society systematically blights and makes difficult, for many, the social experiences that go beyond “stuff”.