“Consumer” History

Google has been digitizing books by the million.

One result is a new tool allowing us to see how often words or phrases have appeared in books across the decades.

Naturally, your humble TCT editor ran the corporate capitalist slave-word “consumer” through the machine.

The results (click the image for a large, readable view):

consumer ngram small

Observations?  A few that strike my eye:

1. Not surprisingly, the high water mark for use of “consumer” rather precisely overlapped the self-confident, more functional-looking phase of post-democratic market totalitarianism in the USA, i.e. the years from 1980 through 2000.

2. “Consumer” is now used roughly 3 times more often than it was in the 1920s.

3. “Consumer” made major upward leaps in both the 1930s and the late 1960s.  This speaks volumes about the confusion and failure of the American left, which contributed to the tragedy via Pyrrhic gestures like Consumers Union and dead-ends like Herbert Marcuse and his progeny of tail-chasing “consumer culture” and “consumer society” theorists.

4. Most recently, “consumer” has experienced its first drop since it entered the public lexicon.  A hopeful sign?  Are some people starting to sense the slander and smell the rat?

5. Note the spike that happened shortly after “consumer” received its first use outside capitalism’s doctrinal priesthood, a.k.a. professional economics.  This happened, as I’ve said before, in 1898, in none other than that year’s Sears and  Roebuck Catalog.  Is this more evidence for the TCT claim that “consumer” is nothing more than a biased capitalist neologism for people using products, an unrecognized (until now?) linguistic symptom of the greedy, heedless, wildly unrealistic delusions of our overclass and its market totalitarian epoch?

Same as it Ever Was: Post-Carbon Reader Craps Itself

If you’ve been looking at TCT for a while, you may recall my disgust with the Worldwatch Institute’s annual report for 2010. That report, which described itself as “subversive,” was full of flatulent attempts to squeeze something sharp and liberating out of the thought-killing “consumer” vocabulary. As always with such efforts, the noises were all about “culture” (an amorphous, sophomorically handled concept by which the assembled babblers seem to mean “a whole shared way of life, shorn of actual institutions and power formations”), and none about capitalism.

But of course. As James Keye observes, it is extremely hard if not impossible to describe oppressive institutions if one starts by adopting the biased terminology of the oppressors. Slavery becomes a house of mirrors, if one agrees that “slave” (or, worse, “nigger” or other racial slurs) is a proper descriptive category for the human beings held in bondage. Likewise, “consumer” is the capitalist’s reduction of human beings to mere appendages of the profit-making process. Issues of product-usage, product-promotion, and product-selection — and all the ecological issues attaching thereto — are difficult or impossible to describe, if one starts by presuming that commoners are somehow (though we won’t say how) asking for everything that happens, that people really are “consumers” in any but a very narrow and controversial sense.

I mention all this because yet another “green” operation has just tripped and ruinously vomited on this very issue. The Post-Carbon Reader includes a chapter by one William Rees, who blames “human nature” and “consumers” for existing ecocidal trends, and omits all mention of capitalists and capitalism.

As I say in the DbC Hall of Mirrors, where I collect important examples of such damaging thoughtlessness:  With friends like these, who needs enemies?

James Keye Rings the Bell

For anybody who’s been trying to follow my long-running attempt to get people, and especially those on the left, to stop using the biased and biasing “consumer” vocabulary, James Keye has just explained the point with greater clarity and generality than I’ve been able to muster:

One cannot discuss slavery with clarity using only the word slave for those in bondage; the word assumes a subservient position or worse…(click through to read Keye’s post)

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.

Use-Value: A Critique of Capitalist Bias

marx 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.

People are product users, seekers of use-values. Only a capitalist has any business calling product users “consumers.”

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…

“Analytical” Marxism

roflmfao 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!”

Next, “consumerism.”  Adopting that word is simply a form of self-sabotage, for the elementary historical and logical reasons I always mention.  Devoting an entire book chapter to it?  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?

“Confronting Consumption,” Indeed

homer brain What passes for a political and intellectual left is stone-cold stupid when it comes to matters of personal life and corporate capitalism.

The anchor of this stupidity is the continuing inability of would-be radical thinkers and activists to get past the discombobulating slave-words “consumer” and “consumption.”

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.