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The Cultural Logic of the 'Money Saving Expert'

ECOLOGIES | Culture Is Ordinary  }

Holly Firmin / October 16, 2021
Martin Lewis offers sometimes useful advice—but his interpellation of viewers as consumers, vulnerable to exploitation through a lack of knowledge, dissipates potential for collective action. 2200 words / 9 min read

Image: Martin Lewis by Emir Uslu


An episode of The Martin Lewis Money Saving Show Live from last year begins with a skit. Set to the Game of Thrones theme tune and draped in Jon Snow furs, Martin tells us ‘winter is coming’. He is not referring to the coming of the Night King, but the return of fuel poverty. With the virus spreading with increased velocity and unemployment continuing to rise, more people were stuck indoors unable to heat their homes adequately this winter. Choosing between heating and eating, Martin argues, shouldn’t be happening in a ‘civilised country’.

Consumer-watchdog television like this identifies a genuine problem. A lack of financial literacy for working class people makes managing a paltry income and keeping a roof over your head even harder, and many of the tips offered by such shows are genuinely useful. The ‘financial education’ provided by The Money Saving Expert, however, keeps us locked in a relationship of dependency — waiting for Martin to bestow us with dribs and drabs of financial wisdom, whilst never actually being given the tools to see the wood from the trees.

This form of ‘financial education’, keeps us locked in dependency — waiting for Martin to bestow us with dribs and drabs of financial wisdom, whilst never actually being given the tools to see the wood from the trees.

Martin Lewis has become the most successful iteration of consumer entertainment on British television. Through his website, newsletter and prime time ITV slot, Martin has been sharing the latest personal finance tips and tricks with the nation since the early noughties. Whilst this might have earned him the title of ‘the most trusted man in Britain’, his unique brand of financial education leaves little space for structural critique. Instead, capitalism is reduced to a game that can be won if individual consumers are well informed and willing to put in the hard graft. The way to ‘beat’ the system is to deprive one’s life of joy; only treat yourself to a coffee when you’ve got a discount voucher, or switch bank accounts every two weeks to maximise interest on your non-existent savings. In short, it is one’s individual responsibility to avoid exploitation at the hands of the complex financial systems and corporations out to ‘screw us’. Martin offers a critique of fuel poverty, but it is not a structural one. No explanation for its existence in a ‘civilised country’ is offered, nor a collective solution. Instead, he encourages his viewers to shop around for the cheapest energy bills using price comparison websites.

The success of The Martin Lewis Money Saving Show builds on the legacy of an older genre of consumer entertainment on British television. Watchdog was first aired on the BBC in 1985, and its latest iteration is presented as a segment of The One Show by Matt Allwright, veteran of consumer-watchdog programme Rogue Traders, which aired between 2001 and 2009. These shows are concerned with investigating consumer complaints against tradespeople and (primarily) small businesses, trying to catch scammers and rogues in the act for maximum entertainment value. The first of the Watchdog segments featured on The One Show started with a message for scammers, delivered directly to camera by Allwright: ‘if you’re up to no good/ you’re in our neighbourhood / and now we’re gonna be chasing you down/ all year round.’ Rogue Traders, with its penchant for undercover sting operations and hidden cameras, foreshadowed the theatrical flair of Martin Lewis and his Money Saving Show. This combative attitude is therefore nothing new for Allwright, who has years of experience ambushing tradespeople and company directors with cameramen and allegations of wrongdoing. His confrontational monologue speaks to the wider psychic effect of such programmes, the presumption of which is that everyone is out to get each other. A deeply atomised capitalist attitude is ontologised over all human life, and all one can do is learn to protect oneself from the scammers lurking behind every corner.

The presumption is that everyone is out to get each other. A deeply atomised capitalist attitude is ontologised over all human life, all one can do is learn to protect oneself from the scammers lurking behind every corner.

Rip Off Britain, a day time consumer rights programme presented by a cast of rich elderly white women, illustrates the ideological underpinnings of this genre of consumer television. The show claims to help viewers sort ‘legitimate companies’ from the ‘fraudsters’. The way to avoid exploitation is presented as simple: to inform oneself about as many scams as possible. Such a framing is designed to elicit an affective response in the viewer, namely a collective outrage at the audacity of scammers — particularly when so many of the victims are vulnerable and elderly — followed by relief at their exposure. Through this affective response, the potential for meaningful collective action is dissipated, viewers instead left feeling like they have rallied together against those malignant elements who won’t play by the rules of the ‘system’. If these genteel, elderly women can club together to beat the scammers, surely you’ve got no excuse! The result of such a framing is to delimit the scope for class consciousness, overlooking the fact that ‘legitimate’ companies are also in the business of exploitation — through wage labour. Exploitation is constructed as an aberration from the system, rather than endemic to its very existence, and the site of this exploitation is understood to be the market — through its distortion and outright cheating — as opposed to production.

Martin Lewis’ brand of financial education is a natural outgrowth of this older genre of television. The emphasis is again on the empowerment of individual consumers, but this time in the management of one’s personal finances. Whilst programmes like Rogue Traders and Rip Off Britain identify a bogeyman for viewers to pin the ills of a global system of exploitation on, The Money Saving Expert encourages the collective action of ‘Money Savers’ (the nickname Martin gives to his viewers). The homepage of The Money Saving Expert website claims that ‘companies try to screw us for profits. Money-saving shows you how to screw them back.’ You — the working class and oppressed viewer — are apparently in it together with Martin, the same Martin who sold his website for £87 million in 2012. Again, any residual notions of class consciousness are scrubbed clean to be replaced by a nebulous feeling of collective belonging as ‘consumers’. The consciousness produced by subordinate forms of exploitation crowds out that produced by the primary form of exploitation in capitalist society — wage labour. Here there is a suggestive parallel with some of Marx’s analyses of France in The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Class Struggles in France. On the one hand, Martin Lewis’ viewership represents a collective — but a collective as an agglomeration of atomised individuals, in which each one “imagines they are elevated above class antagonisms generally.” On the other, this kind of class positionality, with its resentments and its common interests, is derived from the experience of meaningful, but secondary or subordinate, forms of exploitation.

Any residual notions of class consciousness are scrubbed clean to be replaced by a nebulous feeling of collective belonging as ‘consumers’.

An extensive profile of Martin Lewis’ career attributes his success to living in a time where people ‘think of themselves as consumers rather than citizens’. However, this distinction between ‘citizens’ of liberal democracy and ‘consumers’ hides a more sinister shift in subjectivity elicited by consumer entertainment programmes. According to their logic, exploitation happens only at the point of consumption, and only by a few ‘rogue traders’. There is no room, or need, for an understanding of the exploitation of the working class through the extraction of surplus value, terrible pay and poor working conditions. Not only is there no mention of work as a form of exploitation, but Martin Lewis encourages even more (unpaid) work: after you get home from a back breaking day of labour, you should spend a few more hours on price comparison websites. Despite the facade of collective action — immortalised in this song produced to celebrate the victory of Money Savers against bank charges — the solution to exploitation is, in the final analysis, an individualised one. It is your responsibility to follow the ‘Money Mantras’ and manage your own finances, and implicitly, your fault if you choose not to. TV programmes such as this therefore reflect and reinforce an atomised sort of collectivity, a contradiction arising from their inevitable emphasis on subordinate forms of exploitation. The fight against exploitation doesn’t begin on the factory floor, but once you return home to settle in for an evening of price comparisons.

This belief in the power of personal financial education saw Martin Lewis lead a successful campaign to have Financial Education included in the national Citizenship curriculum. In a recent special episode of the show aimed at kids, he even encouraged teachers to set his programme as homework for their students. Here, the same individualised solution to financial exploitation is applied to the education system; if kids are taught how to manage their own money at school, they won’t have financial problems in their adult lives. However, Martin himself admits that the impact of this reform has been limited when academisation allows most schools to opt out of this part of the curriculum. Regardless of whether schools adopt Martin’s model of financial education or not, this solution to exploitation at the hands of global finance is unlikely to extend to a structural critique, particularly in a context where the expression of ‘anti-capitalist’ views in schools is under attack.

During the pandemic, Martin Lewis implored his viewers to practice ‘forbearance’. If you were due a refund for a cancelled holiday, for example, Martin suggested that you allow the travel company to keep your money — supposedly helping to forestall their collapse. Crucially, the relationship between the individual consumer, big banks and corporations is constructed as one of equals. If the bank is willing to give you a mortgage holiday, you should similarly practice ‘forbearance’ towards capitalists during a global pandemic. At first glance, this appears to represent a contradiction; how can you be saving money whilst letting corporations keep what’s rightfully yours? Such logic, however, makes sense in the context of Martin’s evocation of a collectivity of atomised equals. The philosophy of The Money Saving Expert aligned perfectly with the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme; consumer entertainment helped create the cultural conditions in which the saving of ‘British business’ could be framed as the collective responsibility of the nation’s consumers. The nation was asked to pull together to save restaurants and pubs from bankruptcy, but the horizon for this “collective” action stopped short at acts of individual consumption intended to prop up the ailing profits of business owners.

Inevitably, no solidarity was encouraged with hospitality workers forced to work in unsafe conditions during ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, scared to complain when they were ‘lucky enough’ to have a job after the majority of staff had been made redundant. In the same way that watching ‘rogue traders’ get caught red-handed dissipates energy that might otherwise be directed towards collective action, helping out by eating out functioned as a release valve for the alienation and anger of working class people — anger that might otherwise have been directed towards a government that allowed disabled and elderly people to bear the brunt of a deadly virus. Between Mutual Aid Incorporated and encouragements to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, capital has moved in to try and foreclose the possibilities for collective liberation opened up during the pandemic.

This is in contrast with the genuine forms of mutual aid and collective action that have emerged, pre and post-pandemic, to help working class people navigate complex financial and welfare systems. Unions like IWGB, for example, have built networks of member support to help recently unemployed workers successfully navigate the Universal Credit system. Community Unions like ACORN often start by targeting the explicitly roguish landlords — the low hanging fruits — but unlike Martin Lewis and friends, these ‘rogues’ are not presented as aberrations of the system, but examples that help to make it legible. Both Martin Lewis and groups like ACORN are concerned with forms of subordinate exploitation; one offers a structural critique and organising model capable of empowering working class people, the other does not.

In the absence of substantial left-wing projects delivering material consequences for people, these forms of atomised collectivity will continue to prevail.

Martin Lewis’ huge popularity amongst working class people, however, cannot be ignored. Whilst the growth of tenant and community unions across the country is to be celebrated, we must grapple with the cultural hegemony of prime time shows like this. In the absence of substantial left-wing projects delivering material consequences for people, these forms of atomised collectivity will continue to prevail. The task, then, is to build an understanding of collective power that pushes back against the dominant culture of ‘consumer empowerment’ perpetuated and normalised by consumer-watchdog television. Martin Lewis might be surprised that fuel poverty exists in a ‘civilised’ (read: imperial core) country, but for the working class and oppressed this is no surprise.


Author:

Holly Firmin (@farlmengels)

Holly Firmin writes on the history of New Towns, Essex, class and culture.