Category Archives: consumerism

Dalrymple at the supermarket

The doctor-writer enters, and is immediately highly irritated. There is

horrible compulsory music, pumped in like poison gas; one feels as if one were an experimental laboratory rat trapped in a cage, manipulated by psychologists trying to determine precisely what kind of music makes people buy more of what they don’t need.

Then there are

fatuously jolly announcements, informing customers of the good news that there is a reduction this week in the price of nougat.

Supermarkets, Dalrymple points out,

destroy the small commerce of towns, which is essential to their social life.

They have

severed the population from an awareness of the seasonal rhythms of nature, at least where food is concerned, until they scarcely exist for us. Everything is available all the time, imported from the far ends of the earth.

Why young Muslims hate

Dalrymple explains that Muslims growing up in the West

see a society in which the summum bonum is consumerism, but whose members, through lack of money or lack of discrimination, are not even very good at that.

Young Muslims see a white society in which people do not know how to

  • dress with dignity or self-respect
  • eat well
  • enjoy themselves in a sociable fashion without an undercurrent of violence

The whites of the slums, Dalrymple points out, are

uncouth and uncultured, living in the eternal present moment of popular culture, wearing a deracinated uniform: shell suit, trainers, baseball cap. A way of life has emerged that is utterly charmless and that no sensible person would wish to emulate.

Young Muslims hear passionate disquisitions from their fathers and uncles about

  • the degeneracy of the white culture around them
  • the disastrous anarchy of family relationships among the whites
  • how superior to all this moral squalor their own traditions are

When they receive the racist taunts of their white contemporaries, they harbour a sense of their superiority. Yet, says Dalrymple, they cannot simply reproduce their fathers’ mental world. They are part modern Westerners too, with many of the same debased tastes as their white contemporaries. They

  • listen to the same music
  • eat the same fast food
  • play the same games
  • are attracted by the same baubles, such as mobile phones and designer trainers
  • adopt the same disgusting body-piercing and tattooing practices

The young Muslims

feel guilty about their lack of cultural purity. From guilty desire and surreptitious identification it is a short step to insensate hatred and rage.

The mixture of material inferiority and a feeling of spiritual or cultural superiority is a combustible one, found also at moments in their history in Russian Slavophils, the Japanese, and Latin Americans. The Muslim world, Dalrymple notes, is

acutely aware of its technical weakness and impotence: to catch up economically with the West it must adopt the West’s methods, and a large part of its culture. Even armed resistance to the encroachment of Western culture has to be carried out with Western weapons — scimitars won’t do. It is a humiliating thought for members of a proud culture that if that culture had ceased to exist three centuries ago, the world would not have had to go without any of the inventions that have shaped modern life.

Speaking power to truth

Political correctness is not a neurodegenerative disease, the doctor explains,

but it might as well be, so devastating is its effect on intellection. It appears to be infective, spreading from brain to brain. It is more like a form of chronic mass hysteria.

A little like our economic system, it must be forever expanding to survive.

The capitalist system, Dalrymple reminds us, must

stimulate new desires in consumers and make those desires as quickly as possible seem like needs, without the satisfaction of which life is rendered impossible.

Similarly, political correctness,

to extend its soft-totalitarian hold over the population, must discover new injustices to set right — by a mixture of censorship, language reform, and legal privileges for minorities. The meaning of life for the politically correct is political agitation.

Dalrymple points out that the greater the violation of common sense, the better.

It is like communist propaganda of old: the greater the disparity between the claims of that propaganda and the everyday experience of those at whom it is directed, the greater the humiliation suffered by the latter — especially when they were obliged to repeat it, thus destroying their ability to resist, even in the secret corners of their heart.

That is why the politically correct

insist that everyone use their language: unlike what the Press is supposed to do, the politically correct speak power to truth.

All that is necessary for humbug to triumph is for honest men to say nothing

The politically correct, Dalrymple notes,

never seem to become bored with their thoughts. This leads to a dilemma for those who oppose political correctness, for to be constantly arguing against bores is to become a bore oneself. On the other hand, not to argue against them is to let them win by default. To argue against rubbish is to immerse oneself in rubbish; not to argue against rubbish is to allow it to triumph.

Houellebecq’s protest against nihilism and cynicism

A salutary though uncomfortable writer

A salutary though uncomfortable writer

Michel Houellebecq, writes Dalrymple, draws our attention to our own weaknesses. His theme is

the emptiness of modern life in consumer society, an emptiness which he describes with an unparalleled acuteness. He puts his finger precisely on the sore points of our existence, or at least on those points that seem merely anæsthetised until someone like him presses on them.

In Houellebecq’s world, Dalrymple explains, people

  • buy without need
  • want without real desire
  • distract themselves without enjoyment

Their shallow personal relations reflect this.

No one is prepared to sacrifice his or her freedom, which is conceived of as the ability to seek the next distraction without let or hindrance from obligation to others. They are committed to nothing, and in such a world even art or cultural activity is distraction on a marginally higher plane – though it is a natural law in this kind of society that the planes grow ever more compressed.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 21.49.28For Houellebecq, the institution that best captures the nature of modern existence is the supermarket, in which

people wander between stacked shelves making choices without discrimination or any real consequences, to the sound of banal but inescapable music. This music is like the leprous distilment that Claudius pours into the ear of Hamlet père as he sleeps in his garden once of an afternoon. The shoppers in the supermarket are sleepwalking, or behaving as quasi-automata. Most of them don’t even have a list of what they need, or think they need. The drivelling music makes sure that they do not awake from their semi-slumber.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 22.00.34The whole of modern life is an existential supermarket,

in which everyone makes life choices as if the choices were between very similar products, between Bonne Maman jam, say, and the supermarket’s own brand (probably made by the same manufacturer), in the belief that if they make the wrong choice it can simply be righted tomorrow by another choice. Life is but a series of moments and people are elementary particles (the title of a book by Houellebecq).

One knows what Houellebecq means, says Dalrymple, who observes that

  • children are now adults and adults children
  • once-serious newspapers review cartoon strips with the same solemnity as works of scholarship
  • rock music is reviewed far more than any other, even though the average age of the population has risen and there are as many geriatrics as infants
  • relationships between human beings are analysed for their ingredients as if they were ready-made salad dressings

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 21.52.23If, says Dalrymple, you watch crowds shopping in any consumer society,

you cannot help but think that they represent the sated in search of the superfluous. I once spent an afternoon watching shoppers – mainly women – in Beverly Hills, who almost certainly had all the possessions anyone could reasonably desire, and who exuded a kind of bored dissatisfaction with everything that they no doubt mistook for sophistication. They had not that connoisseurship that is the only justification for searching for yet more possessions when one is already overloaded with them, for connoisseurship requires discipline and knowledge and not just the exercise of whim to ward off boredom.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 21.56.12The decline of the West into narcissistic consumerist nihilism

is, according to Houellebecq, not of recent date, if by recent date one means a decade or two. For example, the novel Plateforme begins with the narrator and protagonist in the flat of his recently dead father who was in his seventies when he died:

In the kitchen cupboards I found mainly Weight Watchers’ individual packet meals, tins of flavoured protein, and energy bars.

This disgusting diet was, of course, in pursuit of fitness and longevity, futile in the event, and a very undignified way of dealing with Man’s mortality.

Finding in another room his deceased father’s exercise and bodybuilding machine, the narrator says:

I rapidly saw in my mind’s eye a cretin in shorts – with a wrinkled face, in other respects very like mine – swelling his pectorals with a hopeless energy.

This, writes Dalrymple,

is a succinct and painfully exact delineation of a generation that refused to believe that it would ever age, which believed in nothing but sensual pleasure and laughed at religious consolation. In a few very painful lines, the author portrays the dénouement of such a life.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 22.05.25

‘Voor bralnationalisme voel ik niets’

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 23.02.48De conservatieve cultuurcriticus Theodore Dalrymple over nationalisme, zelfbeheersing en fatsoen. ‘Wij zijn beter dan jullie, en als jullie dat niet bevalt, hoepel dan vooral een end op’, daar voel ik niets voor.

Door het boekje dat u samen met Bart De Wever hebt gepubliceerd (Vrijheid en oprechtheid, 2011), wordt u in Vlaanderen sterk met de N-VA vereenzelvigd. Maar wat vindt u eigenlijk van nationalistische partijen?

Laat me eerst zeggen dat ik De Wever een van die zeldzame politici vind die althans gevoel voor humor hebben. Hij is ook erudieter dan ik van politici gewend ben, spreekt vier talen – dat verdient respect. Maar wat het nationalisme betreft: het hangt er helemaal van af wat men er precies onder verstaat. Het soort uitsluitende bralnationalisme à la ‘Wij hebben de bliksemafleider en de eierkoker en de sokophouder uitgevonden (lacht), wij zijn dus beter dan jullie, en als jullie dat niet bevalt, hoepel dan vooral een end op’, daar voel ik niets voor. Maar met patriottisme lijkt me niets mis.

Bart De Wever is een bewonderaar van de achttiende-eeuwse Ierse conservatief Edmund Burke. Schept dat een band?

Dat doet het inderdaad. Ik vind bij Burke met name het volgende zeer waardevol: het inzicht dat er niet zoiets bestaat als een bepaalde blauwdruk voor problemen die van tevoren kant en klaar gereedligt en die je maar hoeft toe te passen. En verder het besef dat wij onderdeel zijn van een stroom die het verleden met de toekomst verbindt, en dat we dus verantwoordelijkheden hebben tegenover zowel onze voorgangers als de mensen die na ons zullen komen. Dat besef van culturele continuïteit, en van het feit dat je als individu daar maar een heel klein deeltje van bent, dat je het meeste geërfd hebt, betekent anderzijds natuurlijk ook weer niet dat je het verleden slaafs moet navolgen. Burke was niet de soort conservatief die zei: alle verandering is uit den boze. Dat zou evident belachelijk zijn – en hoe zou ik, als arts, kunnen ontkennen dat er vooruitgang is, ik hoef alleen maar terug te denken aan de tijd dat we nog geen behoorlijke anesthetica hadden. Maar dat er ook zoiets bestaat als verandering ten kwade, of op zijn allerminst dat verandering behalve goede ook nadelige gevolgen kan hebben – ik vraag me weleens af of al die eeuwig enthousiaste hervormers van alles daar ooit bij stilstaan.

Grenzen trekken, en dan specifiek voor jezelf, met andere woorden zelfbeheersing, en zowel de noodzaak als het toenemend verdwijnen ervan in onze samenleving, is misschien wel hét grote thema van uw werk.

Dat zou je misschien zo kunnen zeggen, ja. Op de een of andere manier is het volgende idee overheersend geworden, en dan zeker in Groot-Brittannië: ‘Wie zijn impulsen moet bedwingen, gaat die verdringen, en verdringing is heel slecht, daar word je ziek van. Dus is het beter om je impulsen uit te leven, bij voorkeur onmiddellijk.’ Dat is, uiteraard, pertinent onwaar – het is bijvoorbeeld aangetoond dat mensen die bij relatief kleine ergernissen zichzelf al niet meer in de hand kunnen houden, juist méér last ondervinden van wat hen ergert dan mensen die zich gedragen en niet voor het minste of geringste in woede uitbarsten – wat sowieso ook een stuk prettiger is voor hun omgeving en dus voor de samenleving als geheel. Onmiddellijke driftbevrediging, althans het onvermogen om daar als de omstandigheden dat vereisen van af te zien, is slecht voor een mens. Het hedendaagse losgeslagen consumentisme is daar maar één voorbeeld van, maar ook de verruwing van de omgangsvormen, het verdwijnen van werkelijke empathie ten voordele van sentimentaliteit: het komt allemaal op hetzelfde neer. Ik pleit voor grotere weerbaarheid, en dus – dat vloeit er automatisch uit voort – meer fatsoen.

Dalrymple’s twin laws of political economy

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 08.54.52The existential problem of indebtedness

To restate the Dalrympian laws of public and private finance, they are:

Memories are short and lessons are never learned.


Sufficient unto the day is the credit thereof.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 08.23.03Dalrymple writes that

a profound change in culture and character has taken place in my lifetime. People not very much older than myself prided themselves that, poor as they were, at least they were not in debt; not to be indebted was for them a matter of pride and self-respect. What they could not buy outright, they were content to do without. Whether or not this was a good thing for the economy as a whole I cannot say; but I think it was good for the character. It encouraged self-control and also a probity that is now uncommon.


Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 09.15.54are under political pressure to indebt themselves

while ordinary people

are under some other type of pressure or compulsion that is internal to them and resistible but not resisted. They judge themselves and others by their modes and quantities of consumption, which give meaning to life in the absence of any other meaning. Spending, whether or not they can afford it, is affirmation that their life has a purpose.


is an existential problem. Spendthrifts hope, if they give any thought to the matter at all, that the economics will take care of themselves. Sufficient unto the day is the credit thereof. At least until the next credit crunch.



Existential predicament of the modern middle classes

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 23.47.14Man’s absurdity, pretensions and nastiness

Crash (1973), Dalrymple writes, is a

visionary reductio ad absurdum of what J.G. Ballard sees as the lack of meaning in modern material abundance.

In the novel, erotic and violent sensationalism

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 23.51.32replace transcendent purpose: the book’s characters speed to the sites of car accidents to seek sexual congress with the dying bodies and torn metal.

Ballard’s method

is Swift’s, though with a less general target.

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 23.45.42Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 23.46.11


‘A man is killed; a phone is advertised’

It is all one to us, writes Dalrymple.

It is all one to us, says Dalrymple.

Mirror-image Marxism

Dalrymple writes:

Margaret Thatcher believed, in a mirror-image Marxist way, that the market automatically made men virtuous. Unfortunately, she did not so much restore a market economy as promote a consumer society in which most of the difficult aspects of existence in the modern world — education, healthcare, social security and many others — remained in the hands of the state. This meant consumer choice was largely limited to matters of pocket money. The combination of consumer choice and deep irresponsibility was not attractive. A large part of the population became selfish, egotistical, childish, petulant, demanding and whimsical.

The holy places

Shopping centres are, writes Dalrymple,

with the possible exception of nightclubs and the various establishments of the NHS, the nearest to holy places than modern Britons recognise.

These materialist Meccas ought to shut on Sunday, because

surely our people need a break once a week from the arduous task of choosing without discrimination between goods that they don’t need but go into debt to buy.