Consumer Vocab Note

marx According to the quasi-official English version of Karl Marx’s essay, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” hosted at, Marx is supposed to have written this sentence:

“Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society.”

Here, however, is what Marx actually wrote, auf Deutsch:

“Jede einzelne Bauernfamilie genügt beinahe sich selbst, produziert unmittelbar selbst den größten Teil ihres Konsums und gewinnt so ihr Lebensmaterial mehr im Austausche mit der Natur als im Verkehr mit der Gesellschaft.”

Properly translated, “ihres Konsums” means “its consumption,” not “its consumer needs.”

If TCT is right that “consumer” is a capitalist bias that ruins clear thinking about reality, then this little over- and mis-translation is of some importance, despite its obscurity.

The translator responsible was Saul K. Padover, by the way.

The “18th Brumaire,” by the way, is the source of one of the most classic (and itself poorly translated) statements of sociology’s hard-won first insight:

People make their own history, but they make it not however they want, not under self-selected circumstances, but out of the actual given and transmitted situation.

How Marketers See Humans

eyeball Over at Advertising Age, Glenn Engler, CEO of Digital Influence Group, is discussing what’s wrong with the vanity-exploiting data scraper known as “Foursquare.” Foursquare is an app by which users “check in” at restaurants and other destinations. As they post their humble brags, of course, Foursquare’s proprietors and clients gain the ability to track these users’ movements, then correlate them with the continent of other marketing data in their possession.

In the course of his exegesis of how he would like to see Foursquare improve its value to the marketing class, Mr. Engler pens this line:

Retailers want a more targeted advertising base, but the customers are not immersed enough to be a highly valued “eyeball.”

Yes, “consumers,” that’s what you are to the overclass — an eyeball (or an eardrum) for the absorption of marketing stimuli. TCT is not making this stuff up. Merely reporting.

TCT’s Purpose

gallo_quote TCT reader Nick asked me to explain our basic views. I thought I’d repost my answer, in case any other readers want to add their thoughts.

Here’s what I said, with a few additions and amendments:

Hi, Nick, and welcome to TCT. You ask excellent questions.

The immediate purpose of this blog is to show people how corporate planners (on behalf of the overclass of wealthy shareholders who remain the primary beneficiaries of big business) manipulate “free time” experiences and choices, and to demonstrate that corporate capitalism requires this manipulation, on an always-expanding basis.

The secondary purpose of this blog is to get people to think about how radically unsustainable this arrangement is, and to encourage movement toward a decent alternative. The work you are doing sounds vital. My only complaint about local solutions is that many of their architects tend to forget about the larger levels of reality. But that is certainly not a necessary part of making new local arrangements. And any adequate macro-level changes are certainly going to require radical reconstruction of our towns.

As for my objection to the way people talk about culture, those are of two kinds.

First, a great many supposedly radical thinkers begin from a sophomoric and unscientific definition of the word. Culture, properly defined, if the set of learned habits and behaviors prevailing among a population. As such, it is a very large-bore concept, close in scope to “society.” Meanwhile, many “cultural” theorists use it as a stand-in for one part of life only — free time, or personal life. Often, they shrink it even further to mean merely entertainment. In making that move, they build their attempts at explanation of reality on quicksand.

My more specific complaint about culture is that it is so often twinned with the bias-word “consumer,” to make the doubly stupid concept “consumer culture.” Social science (and the humanity and democracy it exists to serve) demands that its practitioners take care to make their concepts and data as free from bias and as descriptively valid and neutral as possible. To accept the word “consumer” as a valid equivalent for product-using human beings is to forgo the possibility of powerfully and accurately describing people’s product-related activities.

“Consumer” is a capitalist’s narrow view; nothing more, nothing less. It is a rank and destructive bias, poison to objective description of reality and its determinant institutions and processes. It is an ongoing tragedy that social science has swallowed it, without so much as a hiccup.

We live in a capitalist society and a capitalist culture. To choose to call it a consumer society and a consumer culture is to deny the cardinal facts and to confuse and insult the potential audience.

Jettisoning the word “consumer” is a first necessary step toward getting serious about describing humanity’s extremely dire crisis of economic waste and injustice.

The second step is to stop yammering hot air about culture, and to start examining and explaining the details of existing institutions and processes.

Alas, these both remain micro-ghetto endeavors, for a host of reasons.

Use-Value: A Critique of Capitalist Bias

marx Chuck Marx opened his magnum opus, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by delving into commodities, by which he meant products produced in order to generate monetary profits for those spending the money to have them produced. In his painstaking dissection, Marx hoped to make it clear that, in order to make good democratic sense of capitalism, one has to be careful to maintain a distinction between the capitalist’s and the ordinary citizen’s way of looking, thinking, and talking.

As Marx explained, commodities come into existence in order to enrich capitalists, but, in the process, they must also retain some degree of “use-value,” or usefulness to the end purchaser. Despite capitalists’ ability to create and exploit irrational assessments of usefulness among prospective product purchasers, pure “exchange-value” was not enough to turn the trick. Capitalist products have to be at least somewhat useful to those who would buy them.

Why start with this seemingly arcane and even trite point? I’ve always thought it was Marx’s way of underscoring the importance of seeing just how partial and peculiar the capitalist’s perspective is. Just as capitalists must deliver some kind of use-value in order to get back the exchange-value they crave, so must every citizen trying to fathom the impact of capitalists and capitalism remain conscious of the peculiar motives and biases of those who proffer commodities.

Strange, then, I think, that, despite his discussion of “use-value” and its differing meaning to workers and capitalists, Marx never offered a critique of the word “consumer.”

Perhaps this was because, in Marx’s day, “consumer” was still a specialized term within the equally specialized and (at least before Marx) thoroughly pro-capitalist discipline of political economy. As The Oxford English Dictionary explains, at least among English speakers, the first known use of “consumer” outside economics came only in 1898, in a telling source — The Sears and Roebuck Catalog.

Nevertheless, to consent to calling those whose interest in commodities lies only in their qualities as use-values “consumers” is to replicate rank capitalist bias, to allow an unexamined concept to bury the all-important dual consciousness needed to realistically track the operations and effects of capitalism, to see and label the world through profit-seekers’ self-serving, humanity-shrinking eyes.

People are product users, seekers of use-values. Only a capitalist has any business calling product users “consumers.”

Nevertheless, exactly that practice rages on, with all kinds of compounding addenda, including such hopelessly discombobulating mash-ups as “consumer culture” and “consumer society,” not least among what passes for the political left…

“Confronting Consumption,” Indeed

homer brain What passes for a political and intellectual left is stone-cold stupid when it comes to matters of personal life and corporate capitalism.

The anchor of this stupidity is the continuing inability of would-be radical thinkers and activists to get past the discombobulating slave-words “consumer” and “consumption.”

Unable to see that calling product users and citizens “consumers” and lumping all their activities and intentions into the category of “consumption” does irreparable damage to any chance at coherent social criticism or democratic movement-building, the “consumer” haranguers plow blithely on, tilting at the windmill of “consumer culture” or “consumer society,” while saying next to nothing about the basic realities of corporate capitalism and its ever-growing big business marketing juggernaut.

This endless pursuit of a dead-end has recently been redoubled by the “scholars” associated with this smugly confused book. In it, the various assembled academic career-builders profess to be attacking “the consumption problem,” without ever stopping to ask whether part of that alleged problem might be the continuing reign of the massively biased concept of “consumption.”

Worse, in the name of an attack on waste they can never quite explain, they actually dare to say that “economistic thinking” is part of the problem, rather than a vital part of the solution. The fact that mainstream economics ignores capitalist waste and qualitative outcomes is no reason to toss out “economistic thinking” altogether. In fact, a true economics would be a devastating expose of the present system and the overclass it exists to enrich.

The March of Marketing Surveillance

trojan horse Neither recession nor depression shall slow the spread of corporate marketing’s Census-dwarfing surveillance on American households.

For those tracking this inexorable totalitarian phenomenon, The Wall Street Journal has been running a useful series. For those who know the institutional reasons, the main pattern is entirely unsurprising:

The [WSJ] conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

Unauthorized placement of spyware is large:

The study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred.

It is also increasingly powerful:

Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them. These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

“It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.”

Interestingly, it is also another very powerful argument in favor of public enterprise and nationalization of our communications infrastructure. Wikipedia, a non-profit, somehow manages to thrive without planting any spy code.