Deep or Shallow?

The Post Carbon Institute fancies itself a bearer of the last word on eco-social thought and organizing. Under its banner, it charges money for online courses that promise to “[d]eepen your understanding of the interactions between human and Earth systems” and to thereby teach you what it is that is to be done.

Alas, here is how the course frames the human core of the problem we face:

Society’s goals and mindsets could be thought of as the stories we tell ourselves.

Consumerism is a modern version of our biological drives for status-seeking and novelty-seeking, and makes use of how our brain chemistry develops addictions.

Stories? Stories we tell ourselves? Because of our biological drives?

In reality, “consumerism” is probably not a thing at all, certainly not a well-defined or seriously documented thing, and is also definitely not reducible to individual addiction.

Meanwhile, where are the institutions in all this? “Stories we tell ourselves?” Really?

Consuming Research?

monocle image Approaches to Social Research, by Royce A. Singleton and Bruce C. Straits, is a lovely, well-written book about what social scientists call “research methods,” i.e. the techniques for maximizing the relevance and minimizing the imprecision of the evidence against which honest social hypotheses and theories should be judged. I like the book, really.

One of the topics it covers is the “validity” of concepts and measures. In social science, a concept or measure is more valid when its “goodness of fit” to reality is higher. For concepts, the question of validity is answered by judging whether a particular definition “adequately represents all facets (the domain)” of the particular aspect of reality its purports to describe.

Quite so, and quite important. Is it childbirth or stork fly-overs we’re talking about here?

Funny, then, that Singleton and Straits, in explaining the reasons people ought to read their tome, say that “You may be a consumer of research.”

Really? How, pray tell, might I possibly consume research? Would putting Approaches to Social Research through a wood chipper do the job? Perhaps exposing it to a few bursts from a flame-thrower? Would refusing to read it at all count as a form of its destruction, which is, after all, what “consumption” has to mean in any sane universe?

What S & S mean to say, of course, is that, if you pay any credulous attention to today’s shared non-fictional world, you are by definition going to be a USER of social research, and therefore ought to have some knowledge of the basic rules and standards for conducting, evaluating, and reporting such research.

So, despite its inarguable and flagrant violation of one of the bedrock rules of social science, the “consumer” vocabulary is now so triumphant, so breezily familiar, that it sails right past even major experts on the importance of holding to robust, unbiased definitions.

Would that we could consume this confounding reality…

What “Consumerism” Denies

Almost all who favor taking conservative action to prevent existential catastrophe nevertheless accede to the allied ideas that “consumer” is a valid word for product-users and that we live in a “consumer culture” governed by “consumerism.”

This concession is itself pretty catastrophic, as we here at TCT have been trying to point out for fifteen years now.

Want an illustration?  Consider this graphic:

survey results image

Now, try to explain the reality shown there in terms of “consumerism” and “consumer culture.”  You can’t, because the facts in question utterly contradict those very concepts.

Still No Such Thing as “Consumer Culture”

house built on sandOrdinary people — not even “middle class” Americans — did not spontaneously demand the material infrastructure that is, as it continues to enrich its primary beneficiaries and true designers, presently killing the human biosphere.  They just did not.  Acceptance and adaptation are not the same thing as invention, design, and promotion.

Nonetheless, the harebrained concept of “consumer culture” still easily addles the minds of those who claim to want to demystify and rescue the world.  Consider, for instance, this august statement.  Every single work cited there is a positive offense to the cause of rational explication of pertinent relationships and processes.

To say it again, here’s why:  “Consumer culture,” as a concept, is irretrievably terrible at both ends.

Ordinary people are product-users, not consumers. The destruction of goods and services — “consumption” — is neither our intended purpose nor something that is in our interest.  Eliding this point is eliding a huge swath of reality.

Meanwhile, saying our problem is “culture” implies that pre-existing popular desire usually draws forth capitalist planning and investment, rather than the reverse.

Although it is anathema to say so, the simple fact is that, in the making of the modern material world, right from the start of the corporate epoch, capitalist planning has consistently, easily, and probably (given the stakes and we-should-know-better-now factor) increasingly dominated popular desire.

It has really been no contest, if you attend to the actual evidence.  And, despite American Exceptionalism’s continuing “bi-partisan” promotion, elite domination of product-usage has been most pronounced in the United States.  You could look it up (though doing so would take great effort, given the almost complete inattention to the issue even among our critics).

Ad Tolerance

Here’s what they’re working in the overclass, as the world faces multiple immanent threats to the material basis for continuing the project of human civilization:

With endless ways to consume content, consumers are developing preferences for live, streamed, online and ad-supported content. Understand watching behaviors and consumers’ tolerance for different ad characteristics.

The associated video shows that, to corporate capital’s main task force, the big question is how to keep tricking people into wasting their lives spectating the trivial and stupid “content” that exists to deliver advertising into passive brains.

The basis for the whole thing, as enunciated at the 28-minute mark by the woman in the video is “what consumers are willing to tolerate.” Not exactly the free-choice utopia of econ textbooks and political speeches, is it?

And need we comment — yeah, alas, we do — on the use of the words “consumer” and “consume” here? The bias is so massive and massively obvious, yet what passes for the progressive left continues to talk exactly like this.

Consumer Vocab Note

marx According to the quasi-official English version of Karl Marx’s essay, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” hosted at marxists.org, 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.