Likewise, one cannot rationally discuss the corporate capitalist marketing juggernaut using only the word “consumer” for those on its receiving end; the word assumes a subservient position, and thereby goes far toward desensitizing its users to the very processes and conflicts and human relationships they seek to explain and redress.
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.
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…
Here is what the towering minds of “analytical Marxism” have to say about our topic here at TCT:
“Capitalist markets generate a culture of consumerism.”
This string of careless, thoughtless, conceptual violence comes from not just A sociologist, but perhaps THE sociologist in the United States, a person supposedly not just trained to detect and avoid bias and slippage, but a self-described scholar of analytic rigor above and beyond the ordinary.
“Markets,” of course, are not only a stratospheric abstraction, but a particularly dangerous one. As a genuinely analytical sociologist has observed, “the market” is actually a conceptual black box. Markets do nothing. Capitalists and traders and buyers and others merely do things that end up getting called “the market.” To start at the end and treat that start as an explanation is to skip actual sociological description and analysis of outcomes — to remove from view things like the trillion-plus-dollars-a-year big business marketing juggernaut. Thanks for that, “analytical Marxist!”
Finally, trying to inflate “consumerism” into a general culture (whatever that is) is to remain defiantly unwilling to think carefully, all in the name of familiar obscurantist slogans. Thanks for that, “analytical Marxist!”
With analysts and Marxists like these, who needs ideologues and liberals?
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.
Given that they haven’t yet bothered to think through the basic labels and human relationships involved, it’s no surprise that “consumer” activists have a positive talent for hatching profoundly silly attempts at combating the big business marketing juggernaut.
The latest such windmill-tilt is the effort to support new regulations on advertising food to children. The New York Times reports:
Lucky Charms. Froot Loops. Cocoa Pebbles. A ConAgra frozen dinner with corn dog and fries. McDonald’s Happy Meals.
These foods might make a nutritionist cringe, but all of them have been identified by food companies as healthy choices they can advertise to children under a three-year-old initiative by the food industry to fight childhood obesity.
Now a hard-nosed effort by the federal government to forge tougher advertising standards that favor more healthful products has become stalled amid industry opposition and deep divisions among regulators.
Of course, the new rules are being written by the U.S. Congress, so their arrival is long overdue, as the assembled representatives perform their duty and let their major donors nibble away at the proposed rules.
Meanwhile, always the naivest crowd in the room, “Some advocates fear the delay could result in the measure being stripped of its toughest provisions,” observes The Times.
How long have you been asleep, Activist Van Winkle? This is what Congress does. It represents money.
At the same time, the whole thing is a blatant play-acting farce in the first place. Advertising junk food to kids, which the new regulations might possibly mildly impede but certainly not stop, explains at most 10 percent of the modern obesity epidemic. A far larger chunk (pun intended) results from rampant addiction to television and televisual “new media,” all massively and aggressively sponsored by corporate capitalist marketing. Another, also much bigger cause of obesity is cars-first transportation, without which corporate capitalism would implode.
There’s also something slippery about the gambit of trying to respond to fight all this by limiting what advertisers can say. The First Amendment is not a toy.
A real response to corporate capitalist lying and killing would involve advocating aggressively competitive public media and public enterprise. Quadruple the budgets of PBS and the NEA, and charge them with voicing the public interest, free from the need to keep private sponsors happy. Launch public, non-profit enterprises that make and sell products designed to be cheaper and better and healthier than the most harmful corporate wares. Fight for a program of radical reconstruction of the nation’s town and cities, to de-emphasize televisual addictions and cars-first travel.
These are serious, potentially meaningful answers. Hoping that Congress will stop one particular advertising claim about junk food is a tempest in a very, very small teapot. Given our moment in human history, it is simply a joke, coverage in The New York Times notwithstanding (or perhaps confirming).
I’m sorry I missed this piece back in 1989. Seeing it would have saved me a fair amount of mental labor in trying to come up with a careful yet powerful way to penetrate the veil of “consumer” talk that prevails to this day not just in mainstream commercial communications, but also in purportedly social-scientific and radical analyses.
In any event, if you change the word “market” to “capitalist” and change “advertising” to “marketing” (and realize that that the latter is not just a matter of spin doctors in post-production agencies but of thoroughgoing corporate management), then Bookchin, contrary to flubby, obscurantist, privatizing flatulence like the Worldwatch Institute’s latest “State of the World,” hits this nail squarely on the head:
In this hidden world of cause-and-effect, the environmental movement and the public stand at a crossroads. Is growth a product of “consumerism” — the most socially acceptable and socially neutral explanation that we usually encounter in discussions of environmental deterioration? Or does growth occur because of the nature of production for a market economy? To a certain extent, we can say: both. But the overall reality of a market economy is that consumer demand for a new product rarely occurs spontaneously, nor is its consumption guided purely by personal considerations.
Today, demand is created not by consumers but by producers — specifically, by enterprises called advertising agencies that use a host of techniques to manipulate public taste. American washing and drying machines, for example, are all but constructed to be used communally-and they are communally used in many apartment buildings. Their privatization in homes, where they stand idle most of the time[*], is a result of advertising ingenuity.
To take growth out of its proper social context is to distort and privatize the problem. It is inaccurate and unfair to coerce people into believing that they are personally responsible for present-day ecological dangers because they consume too much or proliferate too readily.
This privatization of the environmental crisis, like New Age cults that focus on personal problems rather than on social dislocations, has reduced many environmental movements to utter ineffectiveness and threatens to diminish their credibility with the public. If “simple living” and militant recycling are the main solutions to the environmental casts, the crisis will certainly continue and intensify.
Ironically, many ordinary people and their families cannot afford to live “simply.” It is a demanding enterprise when one considers the costliness of “simple” hand-crafted artifacts and the exorbitant price of organic and “recycled” goods. Moreover, what the “production end” of the environmental crisis cannot sell to the “consumption end,” it will certainly sell to the military. General Electric enjoys considerable eminence not only for its refrigerators but also for its Gatling guns. This shadowy side of the environmental problem — military production — can only be ignored by attaining an ecological airheadedness so vacuous as to defy description.
Public concern for the environment cannot be addressed by placing the blame on growth without spelling out the causes of growth. Nor can an explanation be exhausted by citing “consumerism” while ignoring the sinister role played by rival producers in shaping public taste and guiding public purchasing power.
The social roots of our environmental problems cannot remain hidden without trivializing the crisis itself and thwarting its resolution.
* Getting people to buy products that remain mostly unused has been a key to perpetuating corporate capitalism. In the case of the automobile, UCLA Urban Planning Professor Donald Shoup reports that, in the United States, one of the system’s two anchor commodities, the private automobile, is, on average, sitting parked and unused 95 percent of the time.