Stagnating wages, polarisation of city and countryside, economic crisis as the new normal and empty promises made by visibly insecure politicians. All of this and more, has given rise to distrust in the neoliberal economic project.
It might be too easy to blame neoliberalism for all that is wrong in society. After all, the industrial revolution and mass production supported by marketing and liberal politics did play an instrumental role in rebuilding USA and Europe after the World Wars. Affordable low interest mortgages, public spendings and political encouragements to spend money did an immense job to improve the lives for millions of families and businesses and helped establish the broad middle class we take for granted today. The notion that one was helping the nation grow by spending money was soon adopted by all major economies in the western world.
In a historical context this narrative is true, to a great extent. However the same argumentation that was used then cannot be used today as we are facing a different set of challenges. The liberal market economy was put in place to rebuild countries, today the neo-liberal project is benefiting the already wealthy and social mobility is decreasing. Working your way up through hard work is not as straight forward as it used to be. Increased connectivity has led to a monopoly economy; the already big get bigger and the gap to the working class increases. This has led to a number of economists including Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth (Dec 2016), suggesting that we look for new economic models.
The Hipster Movement
Much has be said about hipsters over the last decade. The caricature is someone with skinny jeans, oversized glasses, full beard and often found working on their laptop in an independent coffee shop. Like anything cool and progressive, the hipster lifestyle has been commercialised and watered out to reach a broader audience. However, beyond the caricature and the commercial hipsterism, there is a lot more to this movement.
A notion popularised by the generation of hipsters is the importance of knowing where any given product has its origin, and a willingness to pay for well-crafted items or tailored experiences. Another trait is the interest in the people and process attached to the product or service. Part of this is a wish ensure that neither people nor the environment have been exploited in the process of creation. Subsequently, hipsters are being accused for fetishising rarity, for wanting things that are hard to track down and get hold of just for the sake of it. However, that is not the real reasons behind all of this.
To understand the underlying mechanisms driving the now global movement one has to look at the cultural and economic context from which it arose. Commercial industries have become perversely obsessed by creating demand for the sole sake of producing and selling more and more stuff. The invention of trends and low quality products, which are designed with the intention of being replaced by the next model, are now creating stuffocation as James Wallman labels it in his book with the same name (2015). In the western world we now have too much stuff. This overabundance has created anxiety, stress, environmental pollution, clutter and inhumane work conditions for factory workers. Bad factory conditions is nothing new of course, but they have been outsourced to poor countries somewhere far away from the pretty facades of the western world. Some workers producing apparel for the world renown retailer Zara have hidden messages calling for help in Zara garments.
Examining the hipster movement in this context will show that there is a lot more to it than skinny jeans and big glasses. The urge to declutter, obtain high quality items, both vintage and new, to learn about process and origin is a direct reaction to the superficial and wasteful society presented to us by commercially oriented political institutions. Although there are many obvious negatives with commercialism, politicians are reluctant to encourage alternative ways of manufacturing and distribution because the more people buy, consume and throw away only to buy more stuff again, the more they contribute to the general economy. So much so that Number 10 hushed down the economic study which Tim Jacksons book is based on.
The Hipster Economy
Hipsters have been instrumental in changing people's attitude towards quality and subsequently what we are willing to pay for quality products. Key aspects of this are an interest in being ethical and to value the creation process and craftsmanship. It does not take a genius to work out that if a pair of trousers cost £10 parts of the production chain is being severely exploited. As a result more and more people are now reluctant to support large commercial retailers. Examining the viability of the hipster economy further, shows that it makes sense even from an economic, dear I say commercial, point of view. If you buy a pair of quality shoes for £200 made locally by a skilled craftsman, you will in fact contribute more to the general economy compared to buying four pairs for £40, and your shoes will not have to travel halfway around the world thus reducing their carbon footprint dramatically. If you opt for the former you might even be able to visit the workshop and understand that making quality shoes is time consuming and that the price tag is fair.
A Healthier Lifestyle
As that one quality pair of shoes is likely to outlast the four £40 pairs, pursuing this path will help declutter one's surroundings as one will need less objects. In turn, this mentality will free up time and resources as the need to maintain an hectic lifestyle governed by ephemeral trends and consumerism diminishes.
The hipster economy is willing to pay more for a product in exchange for durability, design, an ethical production chain and the story behind the product/service. To find such products and services can be quite hard, therefore rather than cracking jokes about hipsters and their hunger for quality products, it should be applauded and encouraged.