The Story of Fluff

story of stuff Among greens and what passes for a left, Annie Leonard is much praised as a serious and liberating guide to the would-be politics of product use, i.e. our topic here at TCT. As has now been definitively proved by this interview with Transition Towns frontman Rob Hopkins, she is no such thing. Leonard blithely steps onto all three of the conceptual banana peels that have long stymied left/green progress in this crucial area:

    1) Perpetuation of the “consumer” vocabulary

“Consumer” is a rank capitalist bias, logically akin to the word “nigger” amongst American slave-owners. The neutral, appropriate-to-democracy term is “product-user.” Any politics that misses and/or buries this point is off to a terrible start at best.

Leonard is utterly unaware of this rather simple politico-linguistic history and logic. “What I do,” she says, “is I work to change the way that we make and use and throw away stuff, or in fancy lingo I say I’m transforming systems of production and consumption.”

Consumption, not product use. It’s like Frederick Douglass saying, “What I do is I work to free the niggers.”

The error, of course, compounds itself. What is the nature of our society and our product-use problem, in Leonard’s terms? “We’re in this crazy situation in our hyper consumerised society.”

Which leads to the next problem:

2) Avoidance of the c-word

Hyper-consumerised society? Not just that, but OUR hyper-consumerised society?

“Capitalism,” meanwhile appears zero times in this lengthy interview. “Capitalist” appears once, and does so with Leornard explaining why she’s upset that Glenn Beck hates her:

Glen [sic] Beck went crazy, and every day for weeks on his show, he would show a clip from The Story of Stuff and he said that I was spreading communism in schools under the guise of recycling. The thing he was particularly upset about in the film, he said it was anti-capitalist because I said we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet, and he also didn’t like the part where I said “it’s the government’s job to take care of us”.

I have clarified so many times, I didn’t mean to remind us to brush our teeth and tuck us into bed at night, I meant it’s the government’s job to make sure rules are fair and products are healthy. I believe there’s a very crucially important role in government to make sure that our economy is fair and healthy.

Leonard, in other words, is a practical liberal, in C. Wright Mills’ terms. She is not willing to say capitalism is the problem, because she presumes that is something to which nobody will listen, and because she is an intellectual and political wimp. She’s quite clearly not willing to herself use the word “capitalism” in her analysis. That’s rather like Frederick Douglass steering clear of the word “slavery,” isn’t it?

Which brings us to the third problem:

3) Patrician pandering

Look again at Leonard’s head angle in the image at right above. The tilted mommy-head is a giveaway. Leonard thinks ordinary people are uninformed dolts who could only be liberated by cleverly engineered baby-talk.

In her analysis, words like “production and consumption” (which she is forced by her own liberal practicality to use as euphemisms for “capitalism”) are too hard for the masses:

What I do is I work to change the way that we make and use and throw away stuff, or in fancy lingo I say I’m transforming systems of production and consumption. But making, using and throwing away stuff is a lot more accessible.

The end result? The usual. The problem, Leonard would have us see, is us, all of us, our whole culture:

Hopkins Q: What do you think this relentless treadmill of accumulation and pressure to consume and debt accumulation, what does it tell us about the deeper underlying psyche, do you think?

Leonard A: I think it tells us that something is hurting inside us as individuals, and as a society. We are tribal animals and we want to have a sense of belonging and a sense of community and a tribe. If we don’t have that through strong family ties and healthy social relations and participation in different civic activities, then we go buy that sense of belonging through a shirt that has a particular logo on it. To me, when I see people spending 50 or 100 dollars on a t-shirt that has a particular logo on it, I feel sorry for them that they feel the need to purchase that social proof or social access.

The proper answer to Hopkins’ typically ruinous question is this:

“Mr. Hopkins, you seem to be laboring under the assumption that the products we end up getting under present arrangements are called forth by the wishes and pathologies of ‘consumers,’ which you describe as ‘underlying.’ You seem to have spent rather too little time pondering the nature and logic of the multi-trillion-dollar-a-year reality of big business marketing and the underlying pattern of socio-economic inequality it exists to perpetuate. You also seem quite insensitive to the very substantial and probably growing gulf between existing public preferences and the operation of our dominant institutions and political processes. Have you considered the degree to which the corporate overclass dictates ordinary people’s product-use options and choices? Have you asked yourself what would have to change in your own thinking and efforts at movement building if you were willing to talk directly and appropriately about corporate capitalism? Obviously, you have not. Why don’t you get back to us after you have made such efforts?

“Glenn Beck is quite right: We oppose capitalism, as any sane, genuinely conservative person must. Capitalism is institutionally addicted to producing — yes, I said producing — more and more waste, which means inevitable ecological and social catastrophe. If we want decent survival on this planet, we need to overhaul our dominant social relationships and economic decision-making arrangements, and we need to start very soon. Green shopping and half-hearted consciousness-raising is not nearly enough.”

14 Replies to “The Story of Fluff”

  1. It is so, so nefariously brilliant how Glenn Beck (and other products like him) know to respond only to bad jokes like Leonard, rather than to actual coherent criticisms. There are so many millions of people who look at that kind of “disagreement” as real, and who draw comfort from the fact that if something noxious like Glenn Beck is disagreeing, the opponent must be saying something good.

  2. Consider her dismissed by this takedown.
    I am still trying to absorb her claim that she was placed down on this cool, gentle orb by divine arms so that she could

    “work to change the way that we make and use and throw away stuff, or in fancy lingo I say I’m transforming systems of production and consumption.”

    Sweet. capitalism has found its pious Savior. Quick, change all the knobs on the machines of production to Annie Leonard No. 1. That’ll save all of us! Move over, greenwashing charlatan Amory Lovins, there’s a new World Lecturer-Transformer in town, and she’s packing animation heat this time, not just the hydrogen car specs!

  3. Yeah, Martin. She congratulates herself for working to “transform” a system she isn’t willing to even name, let alone discuss coherently. Cats are laughing.

    And note that, to the extent she has any practical suggestions beyond watching her corporate training movies, it’s to “restrict” advertising, hopefully by starting with cutbacks on ads directed at kids. So, not only goodbye First Amendment, but rotsa ruck, Rooby Roo. Even assuming that meaningful restrictions on advertising would ever be possible within the present order, how many decades would it take to make meaningful reductions in kids’ ads? How many more decades or centuries to then move on to adult ads? And what about the rest of corporate marketing? Maybe we might cut it all in half by, say, 2178? Cue the cats…

    And amen, Arkie! The talk radio phalanx does rely on attacking only liberals, knowing that liberals will always jump for cover at the first syllable of the old red baiting routine. In the process, the liberals confirm the thesis that they are indeed the far, far unthinkable left.

  4. LOL @ “the mommy head tilt”.

    As is evident from my record in the halls of TCT, I would be quite pleased if soccer moms like her all go into especially miserable place in hell for being such annoying condescending, under-educated assholes. Sadly, she is not the worst specimen of an irrational, scared bourgeois appealing to the powerful on sentimental grounds and out of concern that the continuation of the present trends will hamper her own and her offsrping’s shot at accumulation and security. Tough luck, b***h. It will get worse, and you won’t be able to plead your way out of this.

    I wish I knew why am I so addicted to being annoyed by people like her. It’s not healthy for sure…

  5. ”We oppose capitalism, as any sane, genuinely conservative person must.”

    Sorry, you lost me there. Why are we interested in being ”genuinely conservative”?

  6. I look at capitalism as one of the tools among the many (others are sharing economy models, cooperatives etc) that people should decide if, when and where to use to achieve society’s goals of wellbeing. How much and when it will be used depends on the times and the need. In its most basic form it is nothing fancy, it can be used in a sustainable/non-exploitative manner and there is nothing intrinsic in it that requires endless growth, it seems that much of the early capitalism was this sort, even not too long ago companies used to have vision statements of achieving non monetary goals (and many startups are still like this, their goals are not monetary because they don’t even know if what they are doing will have any usefulness in the end and most of them fail, they are basically like old big labs in a new form) but now most of them, in particular the big ones traded at wall street are simply drones with no vision but quarterly revenue and profit growth targets and many of us are left with no option but to work for them to merely survive. Currently capitalism in the form of rampant wall street/finance dominance has become an end in itself or some people call it “crony capitalism”. It needs to be put where it belongs – in the sack of tools that can be used based on the need by thinking individuals and groups and democracy needs to assert the operating limits of capitalism or anything else in terms of fair wages, environmental limits and preservation of commons.

    Capitalism currently is like a headless torso, a beast basically that everyone is feeding to grow in order to meet their needs but in the process becoming a slave to it, but most of this is not ordinary people’s choice, it is through immense racketeering and buying of democracy and economists who have made it a religion of endless growth.

  7. ^^^
    You are confounding markets and capitalism – we have (almost) always had markets, but capitalism is a very new phenomenon, and it does indeed require endless growth. If it does not have it, then it is no longer capitalism. Precisely the need for incessant growth is the reason we started from small bourgeois and ended up with the huge mega-corporations.

    You are correct in a sense that it is in principle possible to severely curtail the activities of capitalists and let them go in a narrow publicly controlled niche (something like what the ancient chinese did with their merchants), but even in this scenario the capitalist logic is not the core of the system.

  8. I’ve never been convinced by your harping on the word “consumption”. It seems that you ignore the fact that words change meaning. To be sure, in its original use, it works as you suppose. Now, on the other hand, it is also true that you are objecting to a certain habitual thoughtlessness, and there you will get no argument from me. But the argument that [ “t” used to mean M, ergo it will always mean that] seems to me questionable at best. Perhaps, I am myself attending to a mere artifact of your presentation, and you present deep and substantial thought as if it were a linguistic/semantic one, when it is not.

  9. And, while I am not a linguist, I recognize that there are subtle questions here. So, for example, it is, I think, like the question whether the literal meaning of a word is activated even in a metaphorical use. And if so, that might support your harping. But none of this is obvious, and I do feel that it distracts from your substantive critique. ( could a naive and dogmatic fan of capitalism cease to use the word “consumer” and its cognates, yet continue to think naively and dogmatically?)

  10. As usual, your analysis is spot on. And I particularly appreciate it because I am less in the thick of contemporary USA trends than you are.

  11. Mark, the original sources of things–words; theories; peoples–tend to have a lasting bearing on their design and expression. In this age, we tend to believe that everything is discrete, disconnected, and operates only as we see it, bearing no connection to its own past.

    The threads of fate bind the future deeper than that, though. Policies, babies, terms, relationships, cuisine, trips to the store: the end results of all of these things are influenced by the original purpose and mindset of the designer(s). It isn’t a comprehensive influence, which is why most people now can innocently say “consumer” and really just mean “purchaser” or “end-user.” Systematically, though, the large-scale use of the term indicates how far the infection has spread from its original design. Its inherent literal contradictions wouldn’t be tolerated in a good society, which would have the time and resources to devote to things as seemingly “minor” as fostering a reasonable language.

    It’s no coincidence that “consumer” was spawned by the robber barons who built our current tyrannies, and that it grew in power alongside the systems that now thrive on the memes Michael laments.

  12. I know the emphasis I place on the “consumer” vocabulary is not necessarily a smooth aspect of the work. But not only is the history of the word rotten, but just consider how remarkable it is that we ever became known as such things. It means “destroyer”, after all. But we don’t aim for destruction, and a genuine “product-user society” would be extremely different from the one we now have. Yet the greens and lefties continue to talk about “our consumer culture,” etc. It may be a blow to the ease of absorption, but I just can’t walk past all this without complaining. It’s a sponsored bias and an insult to ordinary people and their motives.

    In the end, the main point is quite simple: It is easy as pie to talk about marketing and product-use issues without using the “consumer” vocabulary. Why speak the devil’s tongue?

    But the supposedly critical “consumption studies” thing is an industry unto itself. It is supremely uninterested in being questioned from the left, as it fancies (and sells) itself as the leftmost edge of possibility, like all endeavors peopled by good, practical liberals do. It trades in playing the academic game by spinning silly little tropes off the “consumer” vocabulary, trying to coin new meanings and take high credit for fruitless and wild exaggerations, such as the contention that corporate products are “nothings,” having no content.

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