Ordinary 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.
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.
“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.
Balderdash. The word is certainly rampant in the sphere of what remains of the left, but we all know, or at least ought to know, how isolated and ignored we are. In the wider world, to use the term “neoliberalism” is to speak a foreign tongue, as well as to suggest that one’s ideas and claims are so confusing as to need their own special introductions.
Everybody drawing breath knows what capitalism is. “Neoliberalism,” meanwhile, always requires at least a long, convoluted paragraph of explanation as a preface to its further usage.
So, one has to ask: Are we trying to stay moribund?
And while we’re at it, pray tell: When was it that capitalists ever favored or pursued anything but the package of things that supposedly define “neoliberalism”? There remains the powerful, long-running liberal myth of the post-WWII Golden Age of caipitalist acceptance of equality and welfare state programs. That, however, is simply false history. At the level of overclass motives and policy prescriptions, there was then and is now nothing “neo” going in the boardrooms and the private jets.
The Reagan Restoration was — and remains — a real thing (even though it started under Carter), but redoubling is not invention, and laissez faire/free trade (the liberalism of the concept, as distinct from the newer, wider modern meaning as a tag for those who think capitalism isn’t perfect and needs some public correction) has never been the only, or even the main, practical essence of capitalism. The state, despite the ideology and the fake history, has always been right in there, and massively so.
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.”
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 socio-economic system. “Shop your way to a decent society!” “Join/start a co-op!”
I mention all this because the profoundly annoying figure Annie Leonard is redoubling her deeply silly efforts.
TCT could expound on the fit between Ms. Leonard’s flimsy analyses and the cartoon format of their presentation, but will for now confine itself to remarking on this core Leonardian thesis:
Rubbish. Pure and complete rubbish. When has anybody anywhere ever asked a representative sample of Americans “Do you believe that more is always better?” The plain and simple answer is that nobody ever has. And, if they ever did, the question would undoubtedly draw a massive “No” answer, because very few people, even in this hugely indoctrinated nation-state, are banal enough to think quality doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary: Everybody but capitalists knows this very, very well.
And yet here we have Annie Leonard school-marming us on this totally fake (and insulting) point. To what end? Liberal university students eager to acquire an easy way of being “political,” perhaps? Certainly not Joe or Jane Sixpack, who would be rightly insulted by such pointless pandering, if they were ever to see it.
Our real problem is that popular desires for better, saner ways of living are simply ignored in our market totalitarian society. And, as Barry Commoner argued, “the only rational answer [to so-called “consumer” issues] is to change the way in which we do transportation, energy production, agriculture and a good deal of manufacturing. The problem originates in human activity in the form of the production of goods.” Politics, in other words, is about demanding and gaining control over macro-choices, not special-pleading over micro ones.