Harvard Sells “Consumerism”

Louis Menand‘s new book is, despite having its moments, deeply strange. For one thing, despite being about the meaning of freedom in America, it lacks a central hypothesis.

Along its weird, almost pointless way, it also promotes this claim, with very close to no shading:

This period I’m writing about is the great triumph of consumerism. And consumerism means consumer choice, what they used to call consumer sovereignty. So when I go online to buy a pair of headphones for this interview, I can immediately comparison shop every available headphone on whatever company I’m buying it from. And there’s all kinds of ratings and so forth to enable me to make the best choice.

And that’s something that you see starting in mid 20th century and these economies is consumer choice. People experience that as a good thing. They experience that as freedom. I get to decide what kind of car I want and what kind of a washing machine I want, what kind of headphones I want. And the economy is giving me more and more choices.

Louis Menand interviewed by Ezra Klein, The New York Times, June 15, 2021

The book contains not one word about either the institution of marketing or the corporate power it serves. Not one word.

Neither does it come close to questioning the word “consumer.”

The great triumph of consumerism!

With Harvards like this, who needs ITT Tech?

Consumerism?

These days, it remains a dominant hypothesis among people alarmed by current ecological trends that the real problem we face is “consumerism,” which, in this familiar formulation, is the individual-level mental disorder that adds up, at the collective level, to “consumer culture.”

If this “consumerism” hypothesis is the best one available, how, then, are we to interpret this “nationally representative sample of 2,003 U.S. residents interviewed between April 13-16, 2021”?:

graph from CBS News
Source: CBS News, April 2021

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. This evidence is not compatible with the “consumer culture” hypothesis. Even here in the good ol’ US of A, people are not a pack of intractably stupid shopaholics who insist on preserving the status quo.

Will this basic point penetrate the environmentalist community? Almost certainly not. They themselves are pretty wasted on their own dangerous mix of social-scientific laziness and “I’m green” hubris.

But one can still say it: Physicians, heal thyselves. “Consumerism” and “consumer culture” are phantasms.

Junk Sociology from MIT

image of junk on conveyor belt

Dangerously lazy thinking pervades what passes for green politics. Consider the stunning fact that activists leaping straight from worry for their children to “doing something” are about to kill off Portland, Oregon’s lone glass recycling facility, thereby ensuring that whatever glass continues to get used there will be trucked or railroaded to far-off plants. All because the leaders in involved can’t be troubled to think beyond their first reactions.

As TCT readers will know, we here have long tried to convince people that one important taproot of such pratfalling is the continuing replication of stories about “consumerism” and “consumer culture.”

A recent major interation of this awful trope comes courtesy of no less august an entity than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In “A Brief History of Consumer Culture,” Kerryn Higgs advances the hypothesis that “[o]ver the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer with an unquenchable thirst for more stuff.”

There are many things to be said about the dense skein of errors in this little essay.

One point, however, seems most important: Higgs provides no empirical evidence to substantiate her interpretation.

Are ordinary people heedless greed monsters? That’s a rather gigantic claim. Higgs says it is true, and expects us to agree. But she provides not an iota of support for the assertion. No pertinent data of any kind.

And what of capitalism, the force Higgs says unleashed our inner greed monster. How did/does that happen? Higgs refers to various tertiary speculations, yet fails to a single word about the multi-trillion-dollar-a-year branch of big business behavior-management known as “marketing.” Literally, she doesn’t so much as mention it.

This, in a book from MIT, printed in the year 2016.

The upshot of the whole familiar mess is, as always, the rather conventional message that, marketing and corporate power notwithstanding, we have met the enemy is it is us, all of us, co-equally.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

A Consumer Economy?

Richard Heinberg is a very important scholar and an apparently lovely human being. His books are always penetrating, and both his contribution to and his review of Michael Moore’s corporate-green-censored movie, Planet of the Humans, demonstrate his continuing efforts to speak crucially unheard truths.

self censored image

So, here at TCT, we have to ask: Mr. Heinberg, what’s up with this?:

We have built our national and global economic systems on the expectation of always using more. A successful energy transition will necessarily entail moving away from a growth-based consumer economy to an entirely different way of organizing investment, production, consumption, and employment.

A “consumer economy”? Really? Your analysis is that “consumers,” the aggregated acquirers and users of goods and services, are in charge of “our” economy?

This, of course, is a hypothesis, not an indisputable fact. Its natural and obvious rival is the assertion that we actually live in a “capitalist economy,” i.e., a productive-and-distributional order in which money-investors, not product-users, tend to dominate the course of events.

It remains fascinating (and disheartening) to see even courageous and insightful figures like Richard Heinberg continue to opt for the “consumer economy” framing of reality.

Anybody who does this does, ipso facto, two rather remarkable things:

  1. They radically de-emphasize capitalists and capitalism as causal factors. Indeed, it isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that “consumer culture/economy/society” theorists more or less adopt the quasi-official capitalist view of reality. Capitalists, after all, have always claimed that, notwithstanding both their own command of strategic assets and their multi-trillion-dollar-a-year marketing endeavors, they are mere servants of pre-existing, independently-arising “consumer demand.” Talking about a “consumer culture/economy/society” all but concedes this extremely self-serving and debatable claim.
  2. They ignore the long, if not very well-known, body of thought on the various ways in which “our” capitalist economy does not, in fact, embody and serve the basic interests of product users. Names like Thorstein Veblen (whose most-read [only-read?] work is his first and by far worst one), Vance Packard, Baran and Sweezy, Marvin Harris, and Giles Slade? In the “consumer culture/economy/society” frame, such seminal iconoclastic thinkers are all flushed away, as is the crucial question of how their works might be extended and refined.

My own guess is that, by choosing “consumer” over “capitalist,” well-meaning and important thinkers like Richard Heinberg somehow imagine they are making their ideas more palatable to a wider audience, on the thesis that talking about capitalism is just too radical.

But reality is reality, no matter how fearful of describing it we’ve all been trained to be. And we aren’t likely to sweet-talk our way around human history’s richest and most deniable power structure. Either we start talking about the Emperor and His Old/New Clothes, or we don’t.

“Consumer economy” is a way of doing the latter.

“Our Crisis of Consumerism”

The New York Times will sometimes let writers come pretty close to realism, but only to a certain depth. When it comes to talking about causes, the paper’s standards of coherence and apt evidence disappear. The job, after all, is to make nonsense out of what might otherwise make deep and dangerous sense.

To wit, consider the wildly irrational op-ed by Bianca Vivion Brooks on “the cycle of waste and consumerism” in today’s paper-of-record.

According to Ms. Brooks, the world is in deep trouble from booming material waste because of defects in “our collective desire for goods and services.” And these defects, Ms. Brooks asserts, arise from us ourselves:

[T]he accumulation of things is still at the essence of what it means to be American. Ownership of property and the gospel of prosperity are so deeply tied to our ideas of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that few seem willing to renounce the materialism that lies at the core of our national identity.

That, of course, is at least highly debatable.

Brooks certainly provides no reference(s) to support the claim, nor does the NYT require such things, apparently.

Meanwhile, Brooks, who says she’s still in her twenties, seems unacqainted with any careful, classic criticisms of capitalism, so perhaps we can excuse her sloppy speculation. But, as her piece shows, this “consumer culture” stuff is damned toxic to realistic thought.

Brooks concludes that it is high time for us to “reassess our relationship to things.” The problem, of course, is our relationship to one another.

At this late date, in our corporate media ecology, it remains all but forbidden to describe these pertinent relationships.