Archive for the ‘manipulation’ category

A nice thing to do in April

April 14, 2015

Last week I bought a bottle of salad dressing. That might not seem like a big deal to you, but it was the second bottle of salad dressing I’ve ever bought in my life. Normally I don’t buy it, because it seems silly to buy a bottle of ready-made dressing when you can “simply” make your own from olive oil, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, salt, herbs and spices, mustard, honey… But last week I suddenly got tired of walking past the bottles of ready-made dressing and wondering what it’s like to be the kind of person who buys them. So I bought one. (For extra “not me” points, I chose the low-fat version.)

That’s a nice thing you might want to do in April: pick a shortcut that “other people” take and try it. That shortcut is probably less ethical and less wholesome than your usual route. Maybe it involves more packaging, more saturated fat, fewer “parent/employee/partner of the year” brownie points, more environmental pollution…whatever. If “other people” are doing it every day of their damn lives, you can try it once.

You need examples? Basically, take a tip you’ve read recently in a magazine or a lifestyle blog or piece of government-sponsored advertising and flip it on its head. Take the lift instead of the stairs. Heat up a ready meal instead of cooking something simple yet nutritious from fresh ingredients. Buy a takeaway coffee instead of making your own and un-save up to £3 a day!

I know some of this blog’s readers personally, and I know that some of you share my rage-reaction to lifestyle advice. Skip my daily latte and save enough money for a house deposit? Sounds good, but I guess first you have to start drinking lattes. Get off the bus a quarter of a mile away from the office and walk the rest of the way? OK, but doing the whole commute on foot was actually quite fun. Say no to plastic bags at the supermarket? Right…so now I have to start shopping at supermarkets?

That rage is because many of us are overachievers who set very high standards for ourselves. So we KNOW that the implied promise is a lie: if doing that tiny thing resulted in big life improvements, where is my reward for always doing that thing? Is everybody else cheating, playing the game of life on a lower difficulty setting? Why are other able-bodied people being told to feel smug about parking their damn cars a bit further away from the supermarket entrance? Why can’t I feel that smug about doing all my grocery shopping on a bike? If I’m doing all the right things, why am I not more productive, richer, thinner, calmer, healthier? Where is my reward?

But as well as being overachievers, my blog readers are very intelligent. (You people are the best!) So we understand that the link between lifestyle choices and outcomes is not a simple cause and effect thing. “Insert weekly yoga class. Simmer for five minutes. Your lasting sense of inner peace is ready to consume.” We understand that structural factors both shape our choices and shape the outcomes of those choices. And I would argue that there’s a grey area where lifestyle advice shades into victim-blaming and becomes actively unhelpful.

But I’m getting off the point here. The point is? You’re in Overachiever Club. And the first rule of Overachiever Club is that you’ve decided shortcuts are for “other people”.

You know when supermarkets do that thing of planning a meal for you? “Here are the prawn crackers, here is the rice, here is the Tsingtao beer; have a Chinese evening!” “Here is some meat that’s already been cut up, here is a Mexican sauce in a jar, here is a tortilla…do Mexican!” These meal suggestions have been firmly in the “other people” category for me. I can’t let a supermarket shape my meal planning in this blatant way! I can’t just use the idea they’re giving me and buy the things they’re trying to sell me! If I start down the slippery slope of assembling pre-chosen components while believing I’m doing something creative, next thing you know I’ll be shopping at Hobbycraft! And from Hobbycraft there is no escape but the tomb.

Well, that mindset was fine until I found myself actually crying on my way back from the shops because I wanted so badly to be the person who goes with the pre-chosen meal idea and doesn’t feel bad about it. Don’t we all sometimes want a little holiday from being Overthinky Man or Overthinky Lady or Overthinky Person Who Hasn’t Finished Overthinking Their Gender Yet? And my partner was all “well, we can just get the stupid pre-prepared Mexican thing if you want” and I was all “that’s not the POINT” before realising literally years later that it kind of is the point.

You can just buy the stupid pre-prepared Mexican meal thing. You can go to Hobbycraft and then do a cross-stitch project that has been designed by someone else. You can sit your kid down in front of Frozen again. You can take the lift. This is your nice thing to do in April: pick a shortcut that’s for “other people” and take it.

The insecurity of repetition

November 12, 2012

You shouldn’t use the same password for more than one thing, you know. OK, so the number of organisations demanding a password from you has increased hugely in the past few years. OK, so you need to “register” and think of a password every time you buy a pair of jeans or a jar of vitamin pills online. OK, so we’re constantly bombarded with new social networky things to try, all of which require passwords. But don’t ever reuse a password! If you do, the hackers, high on smacky-crack, will steal your money! And your identity! And you’ll only have yourself to blame!

I have an alternative take on this, which may just be one of the most boring conspiracy theories ever. If weak-ass conspiracy theories annoy you, please stop reading now.

What happens when you have to think up a new password for every one-off purchase or one-off interaction? Either…

  1. You have a l33t failsafe system enabling you to generate lots of one-off passwords and somehow not forget any of them. Perhaps this involves a nice weighty electronic “key chain” which is not a substitute for genitals at ALL, oh dear me no.
  2. You generate a new password, then realise next time you visit the site that you’ve forgotten it, so you go through the rigmarole of generating a new one, then you forget it again.
  3. You cheat and reuse the same password for a few unimportant things, e.g. sites which force you to “register” before you can buy anything, trying new social media, etc.
  4. You write down your passwords.

If you’re in the second category, you can feel quite frustrated because you were sure you knew your password, but you keep typing it in and it’s not working. Maybe you spelt it slightly differently? Maybe there was a 1 instead of an I? Aaargh, still not working. Better reset it.

But if you’re in the third or fourth category, things get weird. You feel sure you know what your password is, because you’ve written it down, or because you always use the same one for this kind of thing. And it still doesn’t work. Either you’re so stupid that you wrote it down wrong, or somehow managed to forget it even though you always use it… or something else is going on.

I am absolutely certain of my Verified by Visa password, security theatre bollocks though the whole thing may be. I didn’t need to write it down because it’s a phrase that means a lot to me. The first time I used it after setting it, it didn’t work. So I re-set it, to exactly the same as before. Next time I used it, it still didn’t work. I think I re-set my password about five times, to exactly the same thing, before it “took” and finally worked.

Here’s my conspiracy theory. Maybe when you set a password, for whatever reason, it doesn’t always work. But the proliferation of password demands, and the constant warnings not to reuse passwords or write them down, confuse the human brain to the point where we blame ourselves. If you’re trying to keep twenty or more passwords in your head, it’s understandable that you’ll make a mistake. It’s only when you ignore the security guidance that you realise “Hang on. My version of reality does not match yours.”

Perhaps the institutions who demand and then reject our passwords are gaslighting us.

George Osborne and the cult of early

October 10, 2012

George Osborne has been talking about blinds. He seems to have made the same point both during his speech at party conference and during a Today programme interview, which suggests he’s proud of it.

“Where is the fairness for the shift worker, leaving home in the morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of the next-door neighbour, sleeping off a life on benefits?”

Yes, Osborne is a paid-up member of the cult of early. His speech makes a lazy equivalence between opening your blinds, getting up early and doing valid work. Or rather, a lazy equivalence between not opening your blinds, lying in bed all day and receiving benefits paid for by the sweat and toil of others.

I’m delighted to see that there’s already been a backlash against his bullshit on social media with the “#myblindsaredownbecause” hashtag. (The Guardian did something similar too.) If you’ve ever read this blog before, you won’t need me to explain why Osborne’s rhetoric is dangerous, lazy rubbish. There might be a thousand reasons to leave your blinds down – and none of them are the Chancellor’s business.

I’ve written in the past about how the cult of early preserves the sumptuary laws. What I meant by that is that the cult of early is inextricably linked with a culture that says you have to be seen to be working, to go through certain rituals that have no value in themselves if you want the value of your work to be accepted. When we talk about “getting your hands dirty” we are talking about producing a visual sign for the approval of others, a sign that says our work is “real”.

Of course Osborne is of the social class that wears a suit rather than a fluorescent tabard, a class that stays up late in the House of Commons rather than getting up early to take up somebody’s floorboards. But his commitment to the modern-day sumptuary laws is total. The Conservatives want – have always wanted – people to look like what they are. That’s what’s behind the Conservative obsession with keeping school uniform despite no evidence that it improves academic performance or children’s behaviour.

Conservatives want the little people to look and behave like little people. They’d love it if social pressure controlled our appearance even more than it already does. If you work in a blue-collar job, you probably already get up early, drive a white or branded van and wear suitable clothes for the job. Maybe you drive badly and park on double-yellow lines to make the point still further that you are a Real Worker. Perhaps your appearance is visibly dirty or dusty. But for the Conservatives, that’s not enough. Open your blinds before you leave the house, for God’s sake, or all this theatre will have been for nothing!

The party that preaches rolling back the state and social mobility wants nothing of the sort. They want grubby little tradesmen to be thinking about their low social status before they’re fully awake in the morning. And they’re encouraging our neighbours to judge us even more than they already do. Leave your blinds closed and you invite judgment; open them and people get to look inside your house and draw more detailed conclusions about how you’re failing at something.

I used the word “theatre” when I described the rituals we go through to prove we’re workers, and I used it advisedly. Osborne is using the misdirection techniques of a stage magician. Leaving the house painfully early? Sick of your job that doesn’t pay enough, your boss who treats you like crap, the fact that you can’t leave because you won’t find another job? Don’t look at what might be causing those problems. Don’t think about the failure of coalition policy and contemplate joining Labour or the Greens. Don’t think about getting some real protection in your workplace by joining a trade union. Just look up! Look up at your neighbours’ windows and occupy yourself in observing, policing, judging. What lazy scroungers they must be.

It’s not the not arriving, it’s the coming back

February 16, 2012

If you’ve ever been a tenant, you’ll probably know that landlords in this country are obliged by law to give 24 hours’ notice of a visit. But you’ll also know that this doesn’t eliminate the stress-inducing uncertainty around visits to the property. Why? Because they’re not obliged by law to actually turn up for the arranged visit. Or to tell you that they’re not turning up. Which means they can and often will fail to turn up, leaving you waiting in your unnaturally tidy flat, unable to make other plans or relax in your own home.

It’s a similar thing with repair and maintenance work. The landlord or letting agency says “We’ll send someone round as soon as possible” and then you often have a whole week of knowing that a stranger will be given keys to your home and could turn up and let themselves in at any time, with no further warning. You can’t complain, because they’re turning up at your request to fix something that needs fixing, but the “24 hours’ notice” thing doesn’t stop you feeling jumpy for a week or more.

The problem with someone not turning up is not that they haven’t turned up; it’s that they will now turn up at a different time. This applies whether they were supposed to come to your house or meet you elsewhere. If a no-show meant a cut-and-dried cancellation, it would be fine and dandy. But most of the time, a no-show means that you have to go through the whole thing again. Unless you’re in a position of power over the person who hasn’t turned up, they get to take double the time and mental energy from you. Quadruple or more if they keep things uncertain.

And, of course, if that person is in a position of power over you, the no-show matters. It means Hoovering and plumping the cushions twice, or maybe getting dressed up and travelling somewhere twice. It means worry and uncertainty and not knowing how much anger to show.

You see, almost every “yes” is conditional, but the conditions often go unsaid. “Yes, you can borrow my camera” doesn’t mean “Yes, you can come round at any time, day or night, to borrow my camera.” “Want to meet up for lunch on Thursday?” doesn’t mean “Feel free to ignore my calls until noon on Thursday; I’ll keep lunch free and travel to your end of town just in case.”

So when your no-show pulls the classic trick of reappearing after you’d forgotten about them, demanding the thing you originally offered but with different conditions attached, it’s hard to say no because you’ve already said yes. Your “yes” was conditional, but you didn’t make that explicit. “We agreed I could pop round with that stuff from work, so why are you suddenly being weird about it? I know I was supposed to be there yesterday – sorry about that – but I’m in the area now, so why can’t I just come round?”

It’s the same reason why you can’t yell at the letting agency for sending round a plumber. “You rang us yesterday asking when we were going to send a plumber round! OK, so we didn’t ring you back, but we did something better – we actually sorted out a plumber! I’m sorry you felt awkward having a stranger let themselves into your house while you were in the shower, but you’re the one who keeps nagging us for a plumber.” The accepted view appears to be that if you’ve let someone down on one occasion, you get a free pass to turn up unannounced or at short notice on any subsequent occasion of your choice. Needless to say, I don’t see it that way. But I try to understand the people who do, because understanding is key to dealing with them.

My guess is that usually, a person who fails to turn up doesn’t understand how much stress they’re causing. In situations where the power balance is on their side, they often genuinely don’t recognise that. It’s easy to let friendly relations mask a power differential. “Yeah, I know I’m his landlord/boss, but we have a really good relationship.”

But there is, no doubt about it, a lot of unexamined privilege underlying no-show behaviour. It’s time-stealing, but it’s based on entitlement rather than insecurity. People who don’t turn up are using other people’s willingness to commit in order to keep their own options open, without ever dreaming that failing to turn up could jeopardise what’s planned.

And, of course, it’s a long-winded way of refusing to give you a no. If someone keeps saying “yes” but keeps failing to deliver on it, it’s another way of refusing to give you the closure that a “no” would bring.

So what can you do? Just recognising the behaviour is a good start. Realising that they’re likely to suddenly reappear, probably without apology, is helpful too. (The reappearance is more annoying if you thought you were off the hook.) But recognising it doesn’t mean putting up with it silently. Get in touch, ask where they were, explain they haven’t met your expectations and push them to make proper arrangements for the highly likely reappearance.

If you didn’t want to see them in the first place, it’s tricky because you’re tempted to let it slide and hope they forget completely. But if you have something they want, they probably won’t. And “something they want” could well include your time and energy. So I would still suggest chasing, continuing to try to pin them down. And if the power differential allows it, you’re well within your rights to be openly angry and cancel the whole thing. That way you get out of it but keep the moral high ground.

A word of warning: don’t try to enforce time limits with a lie, e.g. “We’re going out at 7pm, so you’ll have to come round before then.” It is entirely possible that they’ll ignore your lie, like they ignored your previous arrangement(s), like they ignored basic etiquette, and come round anyway when you’re supposed to be out. Then you have to tell another lie to explain why you’re in. Yes. Lying to explain why you’re in your own home, to someone who doesn’t respect you enough to stick to a simple arrangement. What was that about a power differential?

Also: try to avoid basing initial arrangements on self-stories. By that I mean the stories people tell themselves about themselves. Sometimes they’re so invested in those stories that they’ll make arrangements with other people based on them.  “I’m always in the office by 8am. Talk then?” “I’m stuck at home with the baby, so come round literally any time.” “I practically live in the Starbucks on the High Street. Come and grab me there.”

Basing an arrangement on a self-story sets up a bad power differential: you are trying to fit in with something they claim to be doing anyway. That means they don’t have to plan anything different in order to meet you, which means that they won’t have to make an effort to remember to meet you, which means that if their self-story isn’t completely true, they’ll let you down.

So how do you deal with that? For a start, don’t challenge the self-story, because they’ll get defensive. My personal technique is to take the self-story at face value but then charmingly contrive to arrange something else. “Must be a nightmare being stuck at home all day! How about we meet in the park round the corner, just to get you out of the house?” “I bet they’ve put up a plaque to you in that Starbucks! But you’ve got to try the coffee at this new place…”

None of this works all the time. But just being aware of the dynamics of the situation can really help with how you feel about no-shows.

Swatting butterflies

January 24, 2012

I used to have a boyfriend who, like many of the people I deal with, had what I call “a hole in the head”. Things that were obvious to others were not obvious to him. Most attempts to point these things out went through his ears and straight out of the hole in the head, leaving his eyes blank and his brain untouched. (Of course, we split up, not because he had a hole in the head but because his hole in the head didn’t match mine.)

He was once stopped in the street by a woman doing a survey about something like satellite telly. As he explained to me afterwards, he stopped to give her a long rant about the survey topic “because she had big tits”.

Now, I have plenty to say about badly-designed surveys that don’t let you get across your real opinions, and about people who stop you in the street when you’re just trying to daydream, and maybe she did ask a lot of stupid questions, but this still bothered me.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re saying that BECAUSE she had big tits, BECAUSE you found her attractive, you decided to stop and give her a big angry rant about satellite telly?” My boyfriend looked confused, but I could tell this was one of the times where I’d got through to him. I think he was confused because the woman, in his mind, was very much secondary to his killer arguments about satellite telly or whatever the hell it was. I followed up with some predictable comments about how she certainly wasn’t going to fancy him back after that display of aggression, and I really think it got through. At least, he’d remembered she was a person, rather than a pair of breasts attached to a clipboard, and that was progress.

I’ve said before, in passing, that wolf-whistling is not about attracting women; it’s about reinforcing dominance of public space. It’s about reminding other people: I am the looker here, I get to judge stuff. Reacting to attractive women by trying to make them listen to your boring opinions is part of the same set of behaviours. You’re using their social conditioning against them, for a start, but you’re also reminding them that drawing any attention is dangerous because it sets up more social traps to avoid. You’re putting yourself in the comfortable role of “inevitable consequence” and them in the uncomfortable role of “person who needs to be careful”. Effectively, you’re punishing them in some small way for their attractiveness.

It’s a similar thing on social media. I don’t get much street harassment these days, and for that I am unambiguously grateful. But on social media, every day, I get micropunishments for being too interesting.

I’m on Twitter. I’ve built up a few hundred followers by being reasonably interesting, and I get retweeted when I say interesting things. But the more followers and RTs  I get, the more attention I attract – and lots of that attention comes in a form that makes my heart sink a tiny bit every time. I can guarantee that if something I say gets retweeted more than ten times, I will get a reply I don’t want. It might be outright aggressive and/or insulting and/or weird, e.g. “Your not only boring but your ugly [sic]” or “Christians like you think you’re helping charity but you’re actually supporting jihad”. But more often than not, it’s just a little “correction”. I’ve done my sums wrong, you see, or I’ve made a general statement that – shock horror! – isn’t true of that particular individual, or I’ve made a spelling mistake, or I’ve shown too much sympathy for a group in society when that group has placed itself beyond sympathy by behaving in an irrational way.

The commenters are saying to me “You’re wrong, you know” but the subtext is “You’re wrong, and I have a right to correct you and have you listen to that correction”, and the deeper subtext is “You’re wrong, but if you weren’t interesting with it then you wouldn’t have to put up with being told so.

Mostly, I think “OK, this person is boring and humourless, they lack both empathy and reading comprehension skills, and they make me tired, but they mean well.” But when it happens over and over again, it has an effect and it does force me to change my behaviour. I think twice, three times, before posting a funny remark even if I know my friends will find it funny, because I can’t bear to see the flurry of humourless responses – and feel my social conditioning tugging on me to deal with them politely. “I think you’ll find the story about the chicken crossing the road is a hoax. Check Snopes.

We’ve heard a lot about the abuse meted out to women for the crime of being visibly female on the internet. I’m not saying that I have it anywhere near as tough as some of the high-profile women who’ve spoken out about this.

What I am saying is that every day, the drip-drip-drip of “corrections” and of drive-by nastiness starts to get to me. Not a day goes by when I don’t get “corrected” about something. And I don’t think a week goes by in which a complete stranger doesn’t seek me out online to tell me exactly why they’re not following me, or to tell me how they think I should change what I say to be more pleasing to them. I don’t know if they think I’ll welcome the criticism; maybe they’ve forgotten that I’ll have any reaction to it at all. Either way, their conviction that their own opinion is too important to suppress overrides any consideration of how I’ll feel. (Needless to say, these are very rarely people who have any interesting, original content of their own.)

I don’t know what to do to stop it. I already know that “I was joking” and “Yes, thanks, already Googled that, see my next tweet” and “I wasn’t asking for your opinion” have very little effect in terms of stopping the flow of micropunishments. And when I don’t know what to do to stop it, that’s usually a big clue that it’s not my behaviour that should be changing.

Chuggers and the power of “no”

January 18, 2012

Street fundraisers – “chuggers” – are in the news again. Why do we hate them?

Partly because they’re in our public space. If you work in town, your lunchtime shopping trip is a chance not just to eat but to get away from colleagues, to let your social face relax and daydream your way down the street, passively enticed by shiny shop windows. That’s why so many of us wear headphones; we’re really not expecting or looking for any interaction. The chugger changes that. Suddenly the street is a place where we have to dodge packs of identically tabarded people asking us awkward questions or starting fake conversations. And so we hate them because they force us to work when we are not supposed to be working.

Why else do we hate them? I think it’s also because they force us to say no. I’ve written before that a “no” is worth something, but the flipside of that is that it costs you something to say it. You have to make a decision, you have to work out how to express it, you have to actually come out and say it and you have to either justify your decision or fight the urge to justify it. No wonder we resent the people who put us in that position when we just wanted to grab a Boots Meal Deal and look in some shop windows.

With a chugger, it’s a tougher “no” than most, because your no is a refusal to give to charity. And what kind of terrible person has the nerve to actually say they don’t want to give to charity? But when you’re put on the spot like that, you have to come right out and say it. You have to be that terrible person. And we tend not to like the people who make us think less of ourselves.

The trouble is, the “no” we’re giving is not the “no” that comes out. We’re saying: “No, on this occasion I am not going to hand over my direct debit details to a complete stranger, in the street, in order to support this particular charity.” But the “no” that comes out is “I don’t care about starving children/leukaemia/the rainforest.

If saying “no” actively makes you feel bad about yourself, if your “no” is twisted into something it’s not, something is wrong with the situation. The person asking probably still deserves a no, but you have the right to look at what’s weird and upsetting, and call them out on it if you still have the emotional energy.

However, when chuggers approach me, I never try to explain why I have a problem with them, any more than I would try to explain why I’m refusing to give. Why not? Because they don’t care. The agencies who hire them have trained them to respond to every possible objection I might raise in a way that superficially addresses them, keeps me talking and keeps the hard sell going. They are not trained to listen or take my feedback; they are trained to use everything I say as a way of manipulating me into handing over my direct debit details. And boy are they trained. (I know two people who quit their chugger jobs after the first day because the round-the-clock drilling was just too much.).

So when chuggers approach me, I say: “I don’t talk to chuggers.” That very briefly explains I object to their presence, but still manages to say “no” (though not in so many words). And, most importantly, it nips the conversation in the bud.

What am I trying to say here? People who take your “no” as a sign of engagement and encouragement to keep asking are dangerous. They do not see the true value of your “no” and they do not respect your boundaries. The types of people who behave like this include stalkers, rapists and sociopaths.

The tragedy of chuggers is that they’re otherwise normal human beings who have been trained so well that during working hours they might as well not be human. I’ve heard from a few different sources that they’re trained to accept a straight “no” with good grace; but I know from my own experience that they fail to recognise other clear no-signals like “I give to charity, but there’s no way I’ll give to you.”

If you know in advance that someone is the type to ignore a “no”, the best thing is to withhold that “no” along with any kind of response or acknowledgement. That’s why victims of stalkers are always told to ignore all contact. But it’s hard to do that; sociopaths prey on our social instinct to give a response. And anyway, you often don’t know in advance. So what should you do?

I think the only way to deal with this situation is to accept and internalise the fact that you owe these people nothing, not even basic politeness. Once they’ve ignored your “no”, you don’t owe them a “sorry” or a “goodbye” or anything else that your training as a social being prompts you to give. And you don’t owe the charity anything more than you owed it before the chugger approached you. (Why is a charity that spends its money on paying people to harass you in the street more deserving than one that doesn’t?)

On the contrary, they owe you for taking your time and energy without your consent. If you want to take the encounter as a reminder to think about how much you give to charity and whether you should give more, great: that little reminder is some compensation for the chugger’s bad behaviour. So go ahead and re-evaluate your giving. It goes without saying that the charity who hired the chugger will be excluded from your benevolence.

Woolworths and the myth of consumer power

November 26, 2008

This blog is partly here to unravel the seemingly inexplicable elements of human behaviour and communication.

Many posts so far have skirted around one of the biggest causes of seemingly inexplicable behaviour, without mentioning it outright: power.

I believe that a large proportion of behaviour which otherwise makes no sense whatsoever can be explained with reference to power. Men who wolf-whistle at women in the street despite the fact that this method has never been known to attract a woman; toddlers who take your hand to lead you into a different room before immediately turning round and leaving you there; the colleague who takes more time asking you to do something than it would take her to do it herself. They’re all ways of reinforcing, testing, demonstrating power relations.

Power is the elephant in the room, so we joke about inexplicable behaviour instead. In reality, it’s quite straightforward. The goal of the wolf-whistler is not to attract a woman; it’s to reinforce his status as dominant by reminding women not to get too comfortable in “his” space. The toddler who wants to take you on a pointless journey is testing the limits of what he or she can get an adult to do. And the colleague who makes a fuss over simple things is using demands to reinforce the power relations between you. It’s all ritual and it’s all about power.

Capitalism is the ultimate outlet for the cultural narrative that ignores power and brushes off its manifestations as inexplicable, confusing or boring. The rhetoric in favour of a free market makes it sound as if capitalism is a vehicle for natural justice; good companies make money, good workers get jobs. We carefully maintain the myth that capitalism is about rewarding hard work, climbing the ladder, being competitive, making good. We pretend that it’s a system where customer feedback, in the form of increased or decreased spend, helps businesses adjust what they provide to better suit the needs of the customer.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Capitalism is about power. That’s why so many elements of it are inexplicable. It is not, and has never been, about rewarding hard work. It’s about using a system that pretends to reward hard work in order to reinforce power relations between employer and employee. It is also not, and has never been, about giving the customer what he or she wants. It’s about seeing how you can manipulate the customer into wanting whatever you’ve got. Advanced capitalism is about seeing how miserable you can make the customer and still make money out of him or her. Because being able to make someone miserable and take their money at the same time means that you have a lot of power.

The phrase “consumer confidence” plays into the myth that consumers have power, that there is some link between how a company treats its customers and how likely it is to survive the “credit crunch”. The reality is that consumers continue to take huge amounts of crap in return for handing over their hard-earned cash.

I went into a branch of Woolworths a couple of weeks ago. They were offering various deals on boxes of chocolates: two for one, three for two, £2.50 off, etc. Signs listed the types of chocolates included in each deal. It sounds simple, but it was made fiendishly complicated by the fact that most of the brands of chocolates listed as part of each deal were not on sale anywhere in the shop. The chocolates that were part of a deal and available in the shop were scattered all over the shop rather than together on the shelves. Some chocolates were part of two separate deals which were not to be used in conjunction with each other.

In order to take advantage of any of the deals, the customer had to be able to memorise several separate lists, search the shop for items on the lists, mentally eliminate items that were on the lists but not available in the shop and perform other demanding feats of memory and mental arithmetic.

You might ask why this branch of Woolworths was putting certain brands of chocolate into three-for-two deals when it didn’t stock those brands. Some people might suggest that it’s because they made a mistake. Others might say that it’s because the signs listing the deals were created centrally and didn’t take individual shop stock into account. I think the answer is simpler than that: power. Advertising unavailable items is one of the oldest capitalist tricks in the book. Even better if you can offer a juicy deal on the unavailable item. You manage to attract people and make them miserable at the same time. And once they’re in the shop, they’ll probably sate the desire you created by buying something else. You have a miserable, frustrated, paying customer. That’s power. The wild-goose chase is a classic manifestation of capitalist power.

Moving from aisle to aisle on my own wild goose chase, I was slowed by the sheer volume of other customers trying to buy chocolates. We were all confused and stressed, getting in each other’s way, blocking each other’s view of the chocolates and the offer signs.

Woolworths has been in trouble for quite some time, but it’s nothing to do with consumer spending or the lack of it. It’s in trouble because the parent company Kingfisher has made millions of pounds by selling off Woolworths properties and overloading the subsidiary business with debt.

I found out shortly after my trip to Woolworths that it’s now in big trouble, on the verge of being sold off for £1. This conversation on the Money Saving Expert forum is an unintentionally hilarious take on the whole thing. The posters have reacted to the news that Woolworths is in trouble by sharing tips as to how they can continue to buy from Woolworths, circumventing the stock problems in the shops and the website’s usability failures. Bear in mind that this conversation is taking place on a money-saving forum where people are supposed to be helping each other buy less unnecessary crap.

And yet the media keeps bringing up the myth that “consumer confidence” is a factor in Woolworths’ failure, that this hundred-year-old chain could have been saved if only we’d bought more. The thing is, it will be saved. It will be bought up (probably by Hilco) and it will continue to make us jump through hoops in order to buy things we don’t really need or even want.

On my last trip to Woolworths, I had a lab-rat’s pride in negotiating the maze that had been set for me. By combing the shop I managed to find two items that were part of the same deal. I bundled them into my arms, joined the queue… and waited. I waited with a line of people ahead of me and a crush of people surging forward behind me. Checkout assistants blipped purchases through and mumbled totals before sitting, arms folded, waiting and watching without lifting a finger while customers packed their own shopping. They would start blipping the next customer’s purchases through while the previous customer was still standing there, struggling with plastic bags and stuffing change into their purse. Each customer was set up to fail in their task of promptly packing their bags, because almost all their purchases would be blipped through before the previous customer had got out of the way.

After ten minutes I was bored of watching this display of contempt and I was no closer to the front of the queue, so I put my boxes of chocolates back and left the shop without buying anything. But most people in the shop had already invested too much time and mental energy in their purchases to give up at this stage. So they remained, waiting patiently to hand over their cash.