The “Consumer” Insult & Its Costs

The word “consumer” is a rank capitalist bias. First used in the realm of early bourgeois economics, it debuted as a proffered substitute for the neutral term “product user” in a telling place — the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalog (see Oxford English Dictionary).

Since 1898, “consumer” has spread like wildfire through our mental world. The effects have been insidiously devastating to rationality.

A typical illustration appears today on the independent socialist website MR Zine, in the form of a poem:

The New Monastics
by Dennis Brutus

Tall black-shadowed cypresses
slender beside arcaded cloisters:
thus were monastic enterprises:
now with our new doctrines
secular-consumerist we bend
with similar devoutness in service
to our modern pantheon —
Bretton Woods, its cohort deities
— World Bank, IMF, WTO —
diligently we recite
We have loved, o lord, the beauty of your house
and the place where your glory dwells”
“Amen” we chorus in unison
as ordered by our Heads of State
obediently we traipse to our slaughterhouse
directed by our Judas-goats
Mbeki’s herds tricked out in shabby rags
discarded by imperialist gauleiters
who devised our Neepad subjugation

ActionAid Economic Justice course,
Kenyan School of Monetary Studies
Nairobi, November 26, 2007


This poem by Dennis Brutus was posted to Debate, a discussion list of the independent left in Southern Africa, today.

I replied at MR Zine as follows:

Here you see the logical effect of the word “consumer.” It turns the problem into “we,” to the complete delight of the overclass, who disappear in its generalizing, mis-directing wake. Every time somebody chalks corporate capitalism up to “consumerism” or “consumer culture” or “consumer society,” a Robber Baron laughs his/her ass off… “Consumer” is an insult, a capitalist bias run rampant and roughshod over our discourses. It blinds us. The correct term, if and when you need to denote the targets of corporate marketing as such, is “product user.”

If humanity survives the twenty-first century, the triumph of the word “consumer” in the twentieth century will be seen for what it was and is — a consequence and key indicator of market totalitarianism.