“Community Consumerism” is a term I heard for the first time this week, in a BBC documentary on social trends. It jolted me immediately as it felt like such an oxymoron, but I recognised what it was getting at, as it is a familiar enough phenomenon in my part of London.
The programme focused on a group of young mothers getting together for their weekly push chair exercise class in a Chiswick park. All were in London on account of their jobs, none had family locally, and all had chosen to move to Chiswick to have their babies in a more village-like environment; to have their babies among “people like me”. People like them being other young, slim, white, middle class professional, Bugaboo pushing women. In Chiswick, like in Stoke Newington across the park from me, people are buying into these communities as places they want to bring up their children. Places with schools that will be full of the children of people like them. This comfort and homogeneity costs money, of course, and that is what community consumerism is all about – community becoming another positional good.
As Michael Ignatieff has written, the language of community is hard to dissociate from nostalgia and utopianism, and when comparing the inherited homgeneity and trust of my grandparents’ era to the puchased version the programme showed it is hard not to fall into that trap. There is something about the latter that feels deliberately exclusive but again that is perhaps unfair when compared to and era where geographical and technological barriers provided all the exclusivity and homogeneity that was required. It’s nostalgia.
But a nostalgia which is perhaps to an extent still alive in Denmark as journalist Toger Seidenfelden’s pointed out on Radio 4 this week. He implied that behind the Danish belief in equality lay an implicit assumption about solidarity and similarity. In his view, the deal has always been that the recipient of the generous solidarity provided by the Danish welfare system would be “a Dane like me”.
While Seidenfelden looks out onto the river in Copenhagen the view from my window here in Finsbury Park makes plain the challenges we face in imagining that solidarity here. A Londoner like me? There are more of us than there are of the Danes. A Hackney resident like me? I think of the boys from the estate setting the bins on fire and wonder how we might do that - a discussion for another time.
One thing on my mind this week though is the solidarity between me and my fellow MS sufferers. Look at us in a room and we are a bunch of very different people. We divide across a wide spectrum of experience, while sharing a desire to make things better. But is the future shape of public services going to fuse or fracture that solidarity? Personal budgets promise people like us the ability to go our own way, buy the services we want and shape our lives our way. Will we want MS specific yoga classes subsidised at the local centre or will we want to be out in gyms, pools, classes and as far from the MS community as we can get?
It is a strange community perhaps, which puts consumerism and individual freedom first. Perhaps to its own cost. It is something the MS community might have to embrace, though, if it is to be a place of belonging for people like me.