Having and Being Had is a fantastic book to read in your 30s, being both topical and refreshingly honest. Characteristically, Eula Biss rigourously weaves personal narrative with secondary research, in short chapters that make for an easy read, as she grapples with the purchase of her first home. An exemplary chapter below:
Today is Moral Monday, I hear on the radio. A priest and a rabbi are staging a protest downtown with a giant camel and a giant needle, a reference to Jesus saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” I pause over this, wondering if money can really be so corrupting that just having it is immoral. I have my doubts, but I also have money.
I was re-shelving returns during my first shift at the library, earlier in the year, when a particular dewey decimal code led me to the location of Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Feeling compelled, I duly swapped one book for another.
It’s been twenty years since this book was first published, so it doesn’t shock in the way I imagine it once did. Yet its basic tenets are still relevant – the rise of corporate branding since the 80s has seen the hijacking of the public domain, co-optation of culture and community, the duplicity of ‘choice’ as conglomerates dominate, and the outsourcing of employment and along with it risk, responsibility and rights – no space, no choice, no jobs.
In response to the book, The Economist titled its September 8th, 2001, issue ‘Pro Logo: Why brands are good for you’ and ran its lead story ‘Who’s wearing the trousers?’. As its title suggests, the article argues that in our increasingly competitive brandscape consumers hold the power, “Brands fall from grace and newer, nimbler ones replace them”.
While it is true that we ‘vote’ through our purchases, it can be difficult to align our ‘vote’ with our values, without the full picture. ‘Brand’ is always an edited narrative, which can be as much about concealment as it is about articulation. From the context of lockdown, it has been a relief to escape the noise. In the Brave New World we have the opportunity to rebuild when we emerge, I would hope for two things:
greater respect for physical spaces in the public domain, where educational institutions, parks, public transport and infrastructure would remain free of advertising or product placement
consumer demand for transparency ensures that only ethical brands survive