These days, it remains a dominant hypothesis among people alarmed by current ecological trends that the real problem we face is “consumerism,” which, in this familiar formulation, is the individual-level mental disorder that adds up, at the collective level, to “consumer culture.”
If this “consumerism” hypothesis is the best one available, how, then, are we to interpret this “nationally representative sample of 2,003 U.S. residents interviewed between April 13-16, 2021”?:
The answer, of course, is that you can’t. This evidence is not compatible with the “consumer culture” hypothesis. Even here in the good ol’ US of A, people are not a pack of intractably stupid shopaholics who insist on preserving the status quo.
Will this basic point penetrate the environmentalist community? Almost certainly not. They themselves are pretty wasted on their own dangerous mix of social-scientific laziness and “I’m green” hubris.
But one can still say it: Physicians, heal thyselves. “Consumerism” and “consumer culture” are phantasms.
Dangerously lazy thinking pervades what passes for green politics. Consider the stunning fact that activists leaping straight from worry for their children to “doing something” are about to kill off Portland, Oregon’s lone glass recycling facility, thereby ensuring that whatever glass continues to get used there will be trucked or railroaded to far-off plants. All because the leaders in involved can’t be troubled to think beyond their first reactions.
As TCT readers will know, we here have long tried to convince people that one important taproot of such pratfalling is the continuing replication of stories about “consumerism” and “consumer culture.”
A recent major interation of this awful trope comes courtesy of no less august an entity than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In “A Brief History of Consumer Culture,” Kerryn Higgs advances the hypothesis that “[o]ver the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer with an unquenchable thirst for more stuff.”
There are many things to be said about the dense skein of errors in this little essay.
One point, however, seems most important: Higgs provides no empirical evidence to substantiate her interpretation.
Are ordinary people heedless greed monsters? That’s a rather gigantic claim. Higgs says it is true, and expects us to agree. But she provides not an iota of support for the assertion. No pertinent data of any kind.
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.”
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.
I mentioned that Billy Bragg has attributed the ongoing British riots in part to “exclusion from consumerist society.” As TCTer Justin points out, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman takes this ridiculous diagnosis much farther, attributing the riots to the “non-shopping” of “defective consumers.”
Here is Bauman’s underlying claim about the nature of contemporary social life and social structure:
It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops.
This confirms what I said in a comment on the prior Billy Bragg post: Those who swallow the “consumer” vocabulary have a license to make up the wildest bullshit. If you doubt that, consider the utter silliness of each of the bolded phrases from this supposedly emininent supposed sociologist. Not one of them is even a half-truth, yet Bauman presents them as if he were revealing the motor of history. Empirical evidence about what actually motivates people? No need for that! We have “consumerist society” incantations, which are true in and of themselves, by mere recitation.
The spread of such gibberish speaks volumes about the sorry state of what passes for a left/realist/progressive survivalist movement these days. As the mainstream media amplify the usual interpretation — verbalized by David Cameron, who attributes the events to “pockets of our society that are not just broken, but are frankly sick” [ed: Cameron is not thinking of capitalists here, despite the rather plain fit of his diagnosis to them] — Bauman simply papers over reality in the name of rote pseudo-explanation.
The fact is that these are not frustrated shoppers who have somehow had their Harrod’s charge plates retracted. These are young and poor and often non-white UK residents who are being forced to pay for the implosion of the Thatcherite supply-side capitalist orgy that is now meeting its own logical end in Britain and around the world, and which has always pissed on the poor and the average. The situation is well understood on the ground:
The welfare state is under a sustained assault. Each day brings news of ever more drastic government plans – privatisation of the health service, destruction of the benefit system, public services cut to pieces.
The politicians say it is because we’re in a financial mess. This is nonsense – public debt is no worse than at many times in the past. The rich are getting richer, the bankers once again paying themselves massive bonuses. Yet the rest of us are expected to give up our essential public services to pay their gambling debts.
The bankers’ crisis continues to cause mass job losses. But while numbers on welfare increase, the government is slashing benefits for the unemployed, sick and disabled, single parents and those on low wages. Anyone out of work is threatened with sanctions and workfare.
To justify this, the government paints benefit claimants as useless scroungers who have to be bullied to get a job.
The biggest losers, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said, are likely to be single people without children, those working more than 30 hours, those not in receipt of housing benefit, and households with savings of more than £16,000.
In other words: mostly young, working class people.
Meanwhile, the usual Tory mendacity has been gratuitously throwing salt into these wounds. PM Cameron’s depiction of the rioters as sick residents of mere social “pockets” is hardly a new phenomenon. As Britain’s economy has tanked and structural unemployment climbed, Cameron has all along portrayed the unemployed as shirkers. This, despite the well-known-in-Brixton fact that Cameron himself is about as thoroughly ensconced in inherited British upper class privilege as it is possible to be. As such, he has, of course, never himself done anything but “work” as a Conservative “researcher” and politician, with the usual in-between “gap years” and club outings.
Finally, a socio-political observer I trust deeply is actually in England at this very moment. His report:
I have probably less information than anybody else here about the exciting events elsewhere in Albion — haven’t been following the news reports closely at all. TV is as useless and mendacious here as it is in the States, and overheard conversations equally censorious, wrong-headed, and petty-bourgeois.
In other words, the stiff-lipped British overclass is roughly the same as our Yankee-Confederate one — just as deluded and ideologically high on its own fumes; just as powerful in the realm of communications; just as uninterested in, and thoroughly out of, answers.
Hence, it seems to me that the oppressed youth of Britain are merely taking the rather obvious next step. They are engaging in straightforward politics under the conditions they’ve been placed in.*
If only the youth of America could start making similar attempts to save themselves, and perhaps the rest of us in the bargain.
Speaking to Reuters late on Tuesday, looters and other local people in east London pointed to the wealth gap as the underlying cause, also blaming what they saw as police prejudice and a host of recent scandals.
Spending cuts were now hitting the poorest hardest, they said, and after tales of politicians claiming excessive expenses, alleged police corruption and bankers getting rich it was their turn to take what they wanted.
“They set the example,” said one youth after riots in the London district of Hackney. “It’s time to loot.”
So, guess what the geniuses over at the Worldwatch Institute have done for their annual report?
State of the World 2010: Tranforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability
The core problem we face, these would-be rebels say — without a single shred of evidence, by the way — is that “we continue to think of ourselves mostly as consumers.”
And where does “consumerism” come from, according to Worldwatch? From a viral illness:
As consumerism has taken root in culture upon culture over the past half-century, it has become a powerful driver of the inexorable increase in demand for resources and production of waste that marks our age. Of course, environmental impacts on this scale would not be possible without an unprecedented population explosion, rising affluence, and breakthroughs in science and technology. But consumer cultures support—and exaggerate—the other forces that have allowed human societies to outgrow their environmental support systems.
Yes, friends, our own stupidity has unleashed a runaway cultural rot, which in turn “allows” things to unfold as they are. We have met the enemy, and it is us, the “consumers.”
Capitalism? The word does not appear in any of the promotional material for this allegedly “subversive volume.”
And what is the cure prescribed by these self-described award-winners? If it weren’t entirely, comically, howlingly unrealistic, it would be damned frightening:
…Preventing the collapse of human civilization requires nothing less than a wholesale transformation of dominant cultural patterns. This transformation would reject consumerism—the cultural orientation that leads people to find meaning, contentment, and acceptance through what they consume—as taboo and establish in its place a new cultural framework centered on sustainability. In the process, a revamped understanding of “natural” would emerge: it would mean individual and societal choices that cause minimal ecological damage or, better yet, that restore Earth’s ecological systems to health. Such a shift—something more fundamental than the adoption of new technologies or government policies, which are often regarded as the key drivers of a shift to sustainable societies—would radically reshape the way people understand and act in the world.
Transforming cultures is of course no small task. It will require decades of effort in which cultural pioneers—those who can step out of their cultural realities enough to critically examine them—work tirelessly to redirect key culture-shaping institutions: education, business, government, and the media, as well as social movements and long-standing human traditions. Harnessing these drivers of cultural change will be critical if humanity is to survive and thrive for centuries and millennia to come and prove that we are, indeed, “worth saving.”
Alas, this kind of rote, thoughtless, misleading, dishonest, apolitical, and authoritarian drivel is what passes as “subversive” on the topic of corporate capitalism’s ongoing micro-management of off-the-job life/destruction of the planetary ecosphere. Such crapola causes über-poseur $99 sneaker pimps to ejaculate verbal turds about Worldwatch’s reactionary mental mush somehow being “a cultural mindbomb exploding with devastating force.” Hah and ROFLMFAO, times ten!
Talk about obstacles to change…How, pray tell, are we ever supposed to change the world if our gas-bagging award-winners continue to refuse to help us describe it?