The Story of Fluff

story of stuff 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.”

“Consumption” Politics is Annoying and Wrong

quixote 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:

You see, when it comes to our economy, most Americans also believe that more is always better.

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.

Let Them Eat Funnel

moneyfunnel Corporate marketers have a problem. Tracking people’s behaviors is easier and richer when the targets reveal themselves on their home computers than when they are using their “mobile devices.” There are, of course, plenty of dollars and labor being thrown at solving this problem, and a solution will undoubtedly be found.

All quite predictable and normal.

While brushing up on this topic, I did, however, find this lovely little passage from the “Results” page at the Tapad agency, which is one of the vendors groping toward making “mobile devices” equal to desktop appliances in their surveillance capacities.

Drive new customers into the purchase funnel by delivering efficient app installations
Retarget both site visitors and app installers to progress users through the funnel ultimately generating sales

Leverage Tapad’s unique cross-platform audience targeting solutions to focus impression delivery on consumer profiles most likely to engage with campaign messaging.

More evidence that “consumers,” despite the supposed liberation inherent in that insult, are merely so many “profiles” to be reorganized for overclass benefit.

When I hear the word “consumer” — from anybody — I reach for my revolver.

Tax Consumers!

cat-laugh In yet another proof of the late Alexander Cockburn’s thesis that one of the main roles of the major commercial media outlets is to turn plain and simple facts into harebrained nonsense, on Sunday, The New York Times ran this piece of fumbling jabberwocky from Thomas B Edsall. In it, while conveying some useful information about the un-represented views and preferences of the U.S. public (and avoiding the topic of how the Democratic Party simultaneously both exploits and carefully ignores those views and preferences), Edsall not only promulgates the notion of “tax consumers,” but does so in a way so uncritical and uninformed, it would embarrass a seventh grader.

Edsall accepts the core premise of this uber-preposterous piece of statistical propaganda from the Heritage Foundation. That thesis is, of course, the hugely braindead and radically dishonest claim that it is only those who receive direct government aid from long-standing programs who are “tax consumers,” i.e. people whose lives are boosted by public handouts.

If you know anything at all about economics or actual government spending in the United States, you will be joining me in this, the only possible reaction: ROFLMFAO!

Not only does this framing of the issue bypass topics such as who benefits from things like Quantitivate Easing and “one-time” government bail-out waves, but take a look at the elementary facts.

Federal spending on transportation, the military, military pensions, and interest on the debt (money borrowed from capitalists) is roughly equal to spending on medical insurance and what remains of welfare. (Including Social Security is, of course, bogus, since it is its own, self-funded system.) Where, pray tell, would our 1 percenters be without those outlays for fancy corporate weaponry, roadways for the core corporate capitalist product (the private automobile), wars in oil regions, and free money from treasury notes?

And, at the level of economics, where would the private sector of the U.S. economy be without all of those government outlays, including the medical and welfare payments? It would be up Shit Creek, that’s where. John Maynard Keynes explained that 76 years ago. You might think an Ivy League/NYT intellectual superstar would be able to at least make mention of what Keynes elucidated: the profound (and always growing) dependency of our “job creators” (who are actually, left to their own devices, job destroyers) on “consuming” taxes.

Postscript: In a further proof of his (real or feigned) ignorance of the Keynesian nature of reality, Edsall also suggests that “raising capital gains taxes or cutting food stamps” is an example of a zero-sum choice! The truth, of course, is that raising capital gains taxes would, by employing presently unproductive capital, allow a painless hike in food stamp spending. It is, in other words, the exact definition of an extremely non-zero-sum choice. The reason it appears as the opposite is not because of the economy, but because of the calculated unwillingness of the cash-grubbing Democratic Party to explain basic reality to its victims constituents.

More Pablum from Nader

pablum Over at CounterPunch, Ralph Nader, he of the macabre number-fudge, turns his attention to advertising. His findings?

1) Advertising really doesn’t work:

Ask yourself when was the last time you saw any of those tiny ads on Google and Facebook and rushed to buy the products or services. For that matter, ask yourself whether any radio or television advertisements prompted you to go out and buy the product. Sure the newspaper ads announcing short-term sales for clothes or household goods may get you to the market, along with the supermarket specials for foodstuffs. But generally speaking, you must wonder what the business community gets for its tens of billions of dollars annually pouring out of their advertising budgets. I can almost hear the chuckles from Madison Avenue reacting to this skepticism about whether ads are worth their price. Such doubts are almost never publically [sic] discussed.

2) Consumer Reports is a rational form of resistance to marketing:

There is one organization that doesn’t lose any sleep over the question: “do advertising dollars work or are they largely wasted?” Consumers Union, through its monthly magazine Consumer Reports and its website services, gives you just the facts derived from its wide ranging honest testing programs. With over five million magazine print subscribers and three million online subscribers, more and more Americans are getting it the rational way. By the way, Consumer Reports has never carried advertising in its seventy-five year history.

That first argument is simply lazy and uninformed.

As for Consumer Reports, however useful it may be in a narrow sense, it is what it is — a magazine that blithely, if not gleefully, recommends corporate products, with zero criticism of whether we ought to be shopping for things like automobiles at this point in human history and zero coverage of political and macro-economic alternatives to corporate commodification.

We TCTers might also note the typical swallowing and normalizing of the “consumer” insult. Both “Consumers Union” and Mr. Nader continue to use “consumer” as a natural and even empowering label for product-users, again without the smallest hint that such a choice might be doing a piece of Big Business’s work for it.


snake If you’ve been around here before, you probably know that the word “consumer” and its conceptual offshoots are definitely one of the bats who live in my belfry. The explanation for that is here.

Lately, I have dabbled at trying to point out the problem to an Irish comrade over at Climate & Capitalism. Alas, without success, as you can see.

The exchange does, however, give a rather clear view of the (il)logic adopted by those many lefties and greens who contend that “consumerism” is at or near the heart of our age’s many dire troubles.

In replicating that familiar contention, the would-be social critic complains that people nowadays foolishly and/or greedily engage in “consumerism,” thereby wrecking the planet and the culture. “Consumerism,” in this usage, means to behave as if the acquisition and using up of commodities were the point and purpose of human existence. The would-be social critic intends his or her use of the word “consumerism” to itself serve as a scold. How could you do that? Why don’t you wake up and smell the real meaning of life?

The interesting part, at least to my eye, is the fact that such harangues are literally never accompanied by an underlying concern over the rank capitalist bias, rotten history, and Procrustean hacks that reside in the label “consumer.” Instead of explaining how the rise of the word “consumer” reflects the triumph of corporate capitalist priorities and projects, the would-be social critic ignores the root bias, then proceeds to scold his or her audience for their purported “consumerism.” In the process, the screamingly obvious point — that getting people to behave as if the acquisition and using up of commodities were the point and purpose of human existence is one of the main institutional priorities and managerial activities of modern capitalism — goes unmentioned.

As such rote thoughtlessness passes for serious social analysis, capitalists are laughing all the way to the hedge fund.