#FionReads: [Work, Consumerism and the New Poor]

For the past few months, I was so immersed in the world of fantasy Chinese novels. I had been reading a few back-to-back, and that’s when I realized I needed to read some non-fiction to balance things out. As I stumbled upon Zygmunt Bauman's "Work, Consumerism and the New Poor" on Xiao Hong Shu, I thought I'd give it a try since it reminded me of my Economics assignment back then.

Bauman dives into how consumerism has overshadowed the old-school work ethic, with his historical and philosophical take on it. This book is not an easy read because it can feel a bit dry and like you're reading someone’s lengthy thesis.

Bauman begins by discussing how the work ethic became significant during industrialization. In the past, people valued their "workmanship" and preferred leisure over unnecessary labour. But industrial times demanded a different attitude. Factory owners wanted to make workers dependent on them, and with a little help from the government, they pushed for a complete societal shift. Artisans were left out in the cold as factory work became the new norm.

Fast forward to today, and we've shifted from a society of producers to a society of consumers. Satisfaction isn't the goal anymore; it's all about the thrill of wanting more, sugar-coated as a motivation to hustle harder. In the past, your class determined your identity, but now, you build it yourself through the choices you make in the marketplace. More choices mean more freedom, right? Well, not exactly. This so-called freedom is just another illusion created by market forces.

Living in a consumer society means we detest having our choices limited, so we gravitate towards deregulation and neoliberalism. Work, devoid of any real joy, loses its value; and come payday, you’d simply spend your hard-earned money on unnecessary expenditures. Does that imply that the time and effort invested in work are all in vain? To fill the jobs nobody wants, we recreate a survival scenario, but this time, there's no noble work ethic to cling to. Instead, the poor are viewed as inadequate consumers. Society no longer feels the need to uplift them but rather blames them for their situation, branding them as an irredeemable "underclass."

Bauman’s empathy for the poor shines through. They're often labelled as lazy, but he shows they're actually victims of a broken system. Work ethics, Bauman argues, were invented to force people into factory jobs and now serve to blame the unemployed for their plight. With globalization, local governments can't do much to help since capital moves freely across borders. Modern society deals with the poor by marginalizing, criminalizing, and segregating them. They're not seen as potential workers anymore but as failures in the consumer game.

One of Bauman’s more optimistic ideas is universal basic income, something C. Offe also talks about. This would shift our focus from employment to basic rights and protections. But even Bauman knows this solution is a bit too optimistic, given the power of global capital.

Reading "Work, Consumerism and the New Poor" is quite a rollercoaster. Bauman sometimes suggests that work ethics were a grand conspiracy, which seems like a stretch without solid proof. Personally, I'd prefer to see it as a collective societal belief disguised as the norm, rather than a brainwashing tactic used by capitalists. Perhaps to some extent it is, but ultimately, it comes down to whether individuals would simply accept and believe in this belief.

Given that this book was written almost 20 years ago, some parts feel dated, but its message still resonates strongly. Consumerism has only sunk its claws deeper into our lives. Consider this: from housing to healthcare to our daily routines, systems are designed to extract every last penny from us. We're essentially primed to compete for the top, leveraging our education and careers, yet often find ourselves ensnared by rising costs. Consequently, our lives become a ceaseless pursuit of better homes, better cars, and so forth. It's a cycle of chasing bigger, better, and higher price tags, often with more debts piled on.

This book makes it clear that our societal structures are choices, even when they feel like inescapable traps. So it comes full circle: when it's all about choices, what are you choosing for yourself? Because nobody is pointing a gun at your head. There is no black or white, good or wrong within this equation. It’s about where one’s personal values lie. Having previously worked in the retail banking industry for two years has definitely taught me a valuable lesson on this— one’s bank accounts and transactions often speak volumes more about them than the words that come out of their mouths.

"Work, Consumerism and the New Poor" peels back the layers of consumer society, exposing the harsh realities beneath. Bauman's insights into consumerism and the marginalization of the poor are still relevant, pushing us to rethink what we value and how we define success. "Work, Consumerism and the New Poor" peels back the layers of consumer society, exposing the harsh realities beneath. Bauman's insights into consumerism and the marginalization of the poor remain relevant, urging us to reconsider what we value and how we define success.

I wouldn’t recommend this book as a must-read for everyone because, as mentioned, getting through the entire book consumed a lot of focused energy from my end due to its lengthy narrations. Unless you are truly interested in the history of economics, I think a practical takeaway I could share with anyone (even those who are not that financially savvy) is to be conscious of why and where you are spending your money. Remember, there is no right or wrong judgment here; it’s all about your choices and how aware you are of your true intentions behind them. Simple and straightforward.

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