“Consumerism”

snake If you’ve been around here before, you probably know that the word “consumer” and its conceptual offshoots are definitely one of the bats who live in my belfry. The explanation for that is here.

Lately, I have dabbled at trying to point out the problem to an Irish comrade over at Climate & Capitalism. Alas, without success, as you can see.

The exchange does, however, give a rather clear view of the (il)logic adopted by those many lefties and greens who contend that “consumerism” is at or near the heart of our age’s many dire troubles.

In replicating that familiar contention, the would-be social critic complains that people nowadays foolishly and/or greedily engage in “consumerism,” thereby wrecking the planet and the culture. “Consumerism,” in this usage, means to behave as if the acquisition and using up of commodities were the point and purpose of human existence. The would-be social critic intends his or her use of the word “consumerism” to itself serve as a scold. How could you do that? Why don’t you wake up and smell the real meaning of life?

The interesting part, at least to my eye, is the fact that such harangues are literally never accompanied by an underlying concern over the rank capitalist bias, rotten history, and Procrustean hacks that reside in the label “consumer.” Instead of explaining how the rise of the word “consumer” reflects the triumph of corporate capitalist priorities and projects, the would-be social critic ignores the root bias, then proceeds to scold his or her audience for their purported “consumerism.” In the process, the screamingly obvious point — that getting people to behave as if the acquisition and using up of commodities were the point and purpose of human existence is one of the main institutional priorities and managerial activities of modern capitalism — goes unmentioned.

As such rote thoughtlessness passes for serious social analysis, capitalists are laughing all the way to the hedge fund.

11 Replies to ““Consumerism””

  1. Michael, you are correct, but the confusion is understandable: when all of economic and social life is structured around commodities and consumption, the core causes remain hidden, and people only see consumption as some unexplained evil due to its apparently destructive effects., though it’s only a symptom. Hence, the few who actually grasp the absurdity but lack the opportunity or the knowledge and the discipline for in-depth analysis latch onto the symptoms – which is silly of course. It is like telling a diabetic to stop urgently craving something to eat when their blood sugar collapses.

    This also explains why many people actively seek and engage in consumerists behaviors (i.e. at a level beyond the direct stimuli of marketing, e.g. impatiently waiting for the next magasine to discover new cool stuff to buy…) – when the entirety of your life is terrifyingly regimented and there are no avenues for self-actualization, then what is there left to do other than expand your already fly shoe collection?

    (That’s what I’m doing right now… Hopefully I’ll stop before I do something to my apartment, ya know what’amsayin’?)

  2. Btw, as exiting is the intellectual journey to discover the nature and the implications of our society, I’m no longer sure rational exposition, no matter how crystal clear, will suffice. The pull of the status quo is so strong, that all the evidence in the world is not sufficient to cause sufficiently strong emotional emotional and focused reaction.

    Ed Norton’s character in FC (hence, my avatar) clearly describes this anguish. He thoroughly loathed himself and his possessions, yet the comfort and the pseudo fulfilment he derived from them were so strong, that the only way out was to simply create an entirely different personality.

    That’s why I am more and more inclined to believe that we simply need to truly begin to experience the life-threatening implications of resource depletion and ecological crisis. At this point, it will be a crapshoot – the chances are probably equal either an inspired communist mobilization, or a dive in a much worse version of the “Dark Ages” than anybody can conceive of.

    Perversely, if the deterioration of conditions is not sufficiently fast, the chances of ending up with a neo-fascist regime appears much higher – the noose will simply continue to tighten slowly until it is truly too late.

  3. TD, I agree in general, though it continues to irk me when people who think of themselves as radicals can’t be bothered to think about such basic things. But I suppose it’s a lesson in the power of ideology.

  4. I have many friends who consider themselves activists, and indeed spend a lot of time on causes, signing petitions etc. I think that deep down they know that they play on the safe margins of the status quo, but can’t find it in themselves to admit is and when I press them, the best response i get is “Well, it’s better than doing nothing”.

    Which is very hard to argue with, since who wouldn’t want to contribute to any improvement? But more troubling is that when you scratch the surface, a lot of this purportedly progressive activism is status seeking more palatable (organic food? war on any preservatives? having the already overworked and under-aid cafeteria workers in schools cook from scratch? drive their kids to school because school buses are not safe enough? [blatantly untrue] Please…)

    It just hit me how powerful and brilliant the “better do something little than nothing” meme is: our entire bi-party system is based on trying to keep the less insane and brutal elite fraction in power! And this is fascinating, because even the leftmost ideas allowed in the mainstream (e.g. Krugman, Reich), amount to nothing more than commonsense measures to maintain the status quo and stave off the meltdown.

  5. …Basically I trust that many people realize how superficial and inconsequential the present crop of Democratic “ideas” are, but once you remind them how crazy “the other guys” are, this usually suffices to mobilize support for another cycle.

    I just talked to a Filipino friend of mine, who, among other things, mentioned that in the Philippines, a country of approx 80 mln., most of the land and the capital property is controlled by about 10 families. I don’t know details, but this stuck with me, because the world is full of societies that are apparently willing to tolerate far greater injustices than the US will experience anytime soon.
    Heck, even the Roman empire, with an unimaginably greater inequality, took forever for the implications of inequality to weaken it substantially. (In the meantime, its “citizens”, properly nudged, happily killed politicians such as the Gracchi brothers that presented and pursued enormously clear and popular case for restoring some semblance of justice in the distribution of land. (Part of me likes to think that it is not inconceivable that Obama was point blank threatened upon arrival in office…)

    Nevertheless, people are probably far more decent and rational than what one would infer by looking at the TV and media. However, if they no longer relate as people, what good is this….

  6. Ty, fwiw, I again agree with what you’re saying, with one exception. I think Obama is a very intentional and skillful social climber who has never cared a whit for ordinary people, not to mention disadvantaged ones. He calculated, quite correctly, that the moment for a Black Reagan had arrived, and proceeded accordingly. And that was a rather old calculation, in my opinion, as evidenced by his leap straight to the Senate. Later, his very first act after out-Clintoning the Clintons was to throw his supposed spiritual mentor and solitary tie to blacks and lefties directly under the speeding bus.

    Personally, I do think people are substantially more decent than the system. Just look at opinion polling, which shows a population often to the left of almost everything “on the table,” and almost never worse. All without serious leadership, and after deep exposure to the corporate propaganda regime in all its guises.

  7. I believe you’re right, unfortunately (I don’t pretend that the above wasn’t mostly a romantic fantasy of mine).

    But the real problem is that the ONLY way to ascend to a meaningful leadership position is through “social climbing” – i.e. to be recruited by the elite. As I’m sure you know, C. Wright Mills described this process very well, and things now are even more hopeless than what he was describing.

    Where is true, inspired, popular leadership to come from if even for the most pathetic local positions of influence you have to climb through the local political machines?

    Ironically, at least at the middle levels, classical bureaucracy provides possible answers – i.e. people raising to prominence through merit. Maybe this is why we never had a true civil service system…

  8. You’re my kinda people, TD.

    The other thought I have is that, as the political system completes its absorption into the expanding sun of big business marketing, Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model offers very tight explanations of how it works. One factor is that only social climbers even bother to try any more. And, yes, it applies even at the local/municipal level.

  9. If I understand you Michael, one thing you are saying is that lefties complaining about consumerism see it as more a matter of individual responsibility than it is–they blame individuals, but ignore the social processes which encourage such choices, and how the processes arise– who controls them. Sounds right.

  10. Yes, exactly. Plus, the very word “consumer” does serious violence to a fair accounting of what’s actually happening in the area it supposedly describes. Haranguing people for “consumerism” now is analogous to trying to criticize feudalism by harping on peasants for their “vassalism” within their “vassal society.”

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