The Bias of the Consumer Vocabulary
Before the twentieth century, the word “consumption” meant tuberculosis, and, outside the still-small realm of business and economics, “consumer” was a non-entry in the lexicon. Now, parroting capitalists and their “economists,” even purportedly left-wing pundits label us “consumers,” treat all our off-the-job product-related activities as “consumption,” and tell us we live in a “consumer society” with a “consumer culture.”
But do we roll our cars off cliffs to see them explode? Do we scramble to pour our just-bought beverages out in the grocer’s parking lot? Do we rush home to smash our appliances with sledgehammers, then burn the sledgehammers in our fireplaces, then allow fire to burn down our houses, all to maximize our destruction — our consumption — of goods?
Of course we don’t. We gas and fix our cars, cap and refrigerate our un-drunk beverages, and care for our homes and appliances until upgrade becomes possible or further repair becomes irrational or impossible. In general, we work hard to maintain the products we acquire and use. Whenever possible, we strive to counteract product wear and tear, which is ordinarily an unintended, costly, and regretted consequence of our product usage, not its goal. Usefulness, pleasure, longevity, and cost minimization are our normal goals as product users. Consumption, the final using up of a product, is almost never our intention.
Consumption as a Business Word
Of course, it makes sense for corporate moguls and executives to ignore all this. In big business planning, off-the-job human beings count only as mere money-spending garbage disposals, mere programmable units for buying and using up the firm’s wares-i.e., as mere “consumers.” For corporate capitalists and managers, the plain fact that product destruction is neither an aim of nor a benefit to us “consumers” is both a point to be suppressed (at least in public) and a business problem to be managerially overcome.
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens needing to comprehend big business marketing and its impact on their personal lives can ill afford to swallow corporate capitalists’ “consumer” vocabulary. To do so is to let capitalist bias mask our real intentions and interests as product users, and, thereby, to stymie clear thinking about the political economy of these vital realities.
Tellingly, big business marketers themselves know that the kind of lazy, sloppy “consumption” talk that is now the standard coin of the public realm is not conducive to making sense of product users’ activities. If you read marketing textbooks and articles, you find very little of it.
In fact, as every busy corporate marketer knows, the stuff we’ve been trained to slur as consumption is actually an interlocking set of social processes:
From the perspective of ordinary individuals actually living the social processes portrayed in Figure 1, the main motive for action is to acquire and use products for the sustenance and enjoyment of life. Whatever its importance to capitalists, to non-capitalists the word “consumption” ought to have no meaning beyond denoting “the using up or destruction of a good or service.” For ordinary product users, consumption proper is merely an unfortunate costly by-product of living life. Consumption happens, but it is neither coveted nor even intended by so-called consumers.
To fathom how perverse it is for us and our advocates to ignore all this and adopt our rulers’ consumer vocabulary, consider Figure 2:
Aside, perhaps, from an undertaker, what sane person would think of this process as “death” and call its participants “die-ers”?
So, why, then, do we talk about all the things we do to acquire and use goods and services as consumption?
The only rational answer is that the consumer vocabulary is a particularly apt proof of an old sociological hypothesis: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class that is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
Ordinary people are product users who generally rue and work to minimize the consumption of goods and services. By desensitizing us to this massively crucial fact, all the “consumer” talk that rules public discourse keeps us from making good sense of our personal lives and the powers endeavoring to manipulate them.
For more on this topic, see The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Society, by Michael Dawson.
Further Thoughts on the Consumer Vocabulary
Even as a narrow term for the analysis of the flow of human-made wastes into ecosystems, “consumption” is hardly more than a rough concept. In nature, as every high school science student knows, nothing truly gets “consumed.” Matter merely gets transformed, through wear, combustion, etc., from one qualitative state to others. To understand such transformations, saying that “consumption” happened is merely a beginning. Nobody sane would leave the analysis of change at that level.
Not to be indelicate, but trying to make good sense of capitalism and issues of product-use by means of the word “consumer” is closely analogous to trying to discuss slavery while swallowing and repeating the words “slave” and/or “nigger” as legitimate bases for fair-minded analysis.
James Keye explains this crucial linguistic point here.
And just as the words “slave” and “nigger” were one-sided, humanity-denying by-products of rotten elite practices, so is the word “consumer” a direct and predictable bias emanating from the self-interested perception of an illegitimate overclass. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known public, non-specialist use of the word “consumer” in its modern sense — i.e., as a substitute for the concept of a product-user — occurred in 1898, in the Sears and Roebuck Catalog! Despite this blatantly capitalist point of origin, finding a social scientist or social critic who exhibits any caution in adopting the concept is nigh on impossible. Indeed, many make careers by riffing on (and legitimizing) the bias.
Language is both tool and trap. The whole “consumer” vocabulary has been a subtle but crucial means of disarming the public by indoctrinating it into accepting the idea that people are by nature just as greedy, insatiable, and stupid with resources as are capitalists, that capitalists do no more than answer to “consumers.” It’s an insidious lie, and you help perpetuate it every time you use this rotten label. Product-users and citizens of the world, unite! Cast off the dogmas and make a progressive and sustainable world, before it’s too late!
TCT exists to publicize the true methods and consequences of big business marketing, which is corporate capitalism’s use of scientific management to control off-the-job behavior. Despite the importance of knowing how the overclass dictates the conditions and evolution of personal life, it does not follow that the proper answer to such dictatorship is an effort to politicize product-use in itself. In fact, such efforts always quickly reduce themselves to naive and paternalistic harangues for individuals to somehow use their “consumer” choices to alter the socioeconomic system. “Shop your way to a decent society!” “Join/start a co-op!” Meanwhile, power and macro-choices get tossed away as topics of resistance. The answer to the status quo is to change investment and production policies at the highest level. Green shopping and co-ops are irrelevant if not diversionary to that effort.