Plastic bags: like a cancer at the heart of our society

Some meditations on plastic bags and the existential agony of the chicken. Something very interesting is happening with our political culture. Periodically now, there are these efflorescences in the media of a prim, self-congratulatory moral indignation. Last year the measure of guilt was one’s carbon footprint insofar as it was a function of flights with budget airlines. A few months ago the cause celebre was battery chicken, complete this time with a catalytic documentary that allowed us all a clear-cut collective epiphany. Now it’s plastic bags. Ubiquitous, versatile, cheap: taboo. Like a cancer at the heart of our society, they can no longer be tolerated.

It would have been very difficult to have missed the moral crusades, the collective awakenings, the redrawing of social conventions on these, but I think it is very easy to miss their true significance. Essentially they all strike me as epiphenomenal. I don’t think that we’re witnessing genuine moral revolutions, triumphs of conscience, the genius of a free society of ethical agents working itself out. At least that’s not what’s happening at the most fundamental level. I think that these petits outrages (as I think I’ll call them from now on) are about policing identity. Middle-class and working-class are tired and unhelpful categories, but I think that what we’re dealing with here is a binary system of group identity, one that draws on that most fundamental and self-justifying of distinctions: ‘us’ and ‘them.’

The dominant group is numerically preponderant, more economically powerful, better educated, institutionally privileged and more culturally powerful. It is a bloated, distended bourgeoisie: everyone who is a ‘decent’ member of the community, who pays their taxes, and obeys the laws, and aspires for social advancement for their children, who have some sort of stake in the political system and a place in some part of the country which is there, who have some pretensions to understanding their world and living in harmony with that understanding, who see themselves as living good lives in which they attempt to adhere to the conventions – ethical and social – of the community. The other group, as conceived here, isn’t positively defined; it has no unity of its own and exists only as a negation of the first group. It is everyone else: the outsiders, the rejects, the chavs; it encompasses criminals, drug addicts, child abusers, Muslim fundamentalists, bohemians – anyone who in some sense sets themselves against, or refuses to allow themselves to be subordinated to, the community. I don’t want to make them out to be heroic: this isn’t supposed to be a distinction between those who’ve been configured by the community and those who haven’t; between dupes and freedom fighters. They are whoever the first group will not admit, everyone and everything that the first group happens to fear.

The petits outrages are a mechanism of social definition. They are a means of determining this division, of communicating identity and policing the borders. Each one of them acts as a sort of moral or religious test which one has to pass. It is not respectable to eat battery chicken; it is not the decent or civilized thing to do. Increasingly it is met with mild, sanctimonious outrage. To act in such a way is improper and it marks you out as in some way beyond the pail. I think that one will see the same thing developing with plastic bags. Soon enough whether or not you bring canvas bags with you to the supermarket will be a test of whether or not you are a conscientious member of the community, someone who could with complacency be interviewed about their habits on The Today Programme.

In some senses this strikes me as a sort of travesty of the sort of religious observances that one used to see in the past. I’m thinking specifically of religious rules and interdictions which have been vitiated into social obligations, for example the diluted sabbatarianism and sexual mores that one saw a generation or two ago. The observance of these rules was important, but it was heavily compromised by hypocrisy: in breaking such rules one would provoke social rather than moral outrage. It was more important not to be caught than not to do them.

Exactly the same thing can be seen now. There haven’t been real moral awakenings on these issues: people knew that cheap flights caused global warming; they knew that chickens lived in awful conditions; they knew that plastic bags were bad for the environment. That sense of discovery and of a powerful, animating moral motive just can’t be sustained. The social context changed; individual feeling didn’t. These issues were appropriated by a group that needs a way of validating and defining itself. So, just as with sexual morality previously, it isn’t so much important that you believe strongly in what you’re doing – in fact, that you are even genuinely doing it – just so long as you are seen to act conscientiously in accordance with the will of the community.

It seems that we need an insider group and an outsider group, and that we need periodically to invent things that are taboo. Strange the ingenuity of man.

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