The obsession with consumption

When discussing poverty, the emphasis is made by capitalists that we need to keep pushing prices down so that people can buy more products. During the heyday of the labour movement, it is wages that were emphasized: nowadays, prices are the center of attention. We can say that the attention has shifted from production to consumption as the focus of change. The rise of Wal-Mart and other discount megastores to economic dominance proves this drive.

The important concept in this regard is that of the “middle class.” The middle class is delimited by the ability to own material goods. The ideal middle class family, of course, is heavily in debt because they “own” (i.e. the bank owns) a house with fenced yard, 2.1 kids (with the tremendous costs this implies), a dog, and two cars. But this is all right, since their overconsumption fuels the economy, which according to the standard model is the ultimate goal of our every economic action. Contrarily to the concept of the working class, which defines people in their relation with the means of production, in their freedom to own their own labour, the concept of the middle class defines people in their relationship with consumer products.

So it’s a very pro-State, pro-growth kind of ideology, a very destructive concept. Because trying to attain “the American Dream” busies people so much, it’s such a glittering tower on the horizon, that it sets aside a lot of more important things in their lives. When being a “middle class family” is what every prole wants, they’re not likely to care about the freedoms they have to give up along the way. And of course all States know how powerful diversion and conceptual sleight-of-hand can be (just look at the war on terrorism for the latest version of this). All magicians know how to keep people’s eyes looking at their right hand while they effect a trick with their left, and so do politicians, whose tricks are of the “steal, enslave and kill” variety. This is just standard operating procedure and has been going on for centuries.

The effect of redefining class ideals as being based on consumption instead of labour rights has two main consequences. The first is that it makes success in life contingent to capitalist subordination. Your consumption fuels what everyone calls “the economy,” which is a measure of how much stuff is paid for (in short, if you are sick and have to pay for expensive medical care, you’re a good consumer: if you grow your own vegetables, you’re a bad consumer). The second is that it puts the blame on the individual when he fails to conform to the ideal of consumption. Unlike labour rights, which are part of the freedom of each and every individual, an ideal of consumption is predicated on the ability and desire of the individual to consume, which are highly variable. From that you get guilt and depression.

We can define two general views of the economic agent: the agent as consumer (with importance put on consumption and on attaining an ideal set of material goods), and the agent as worker (with importance put on freedom to own one’s labour).

The consumerist view of progress is that corporations exist to “serve the customer” by providing ever-expanding alternatives, advancements, by lowering the prices of the resulting products, and by providing more of them. This is possible due to the profit motive: the more they sell, the more they profit, and there are always more expensive novelties to introduce to compensate for lower prices elsewhere. In the labour view, economic organizations serve the needs of their workers and the community, not primarily profit. The organization exists to serve its members, not the reverse, and exists mainly as a cooperative tool.

As a consequence, both sides have very different views of how to solve the issue of poverty. From the consumeurist view, poverty can only be solved insofar as it can be a source of profit, by integrating the poor as consumers. There is therefore an absolute limitation on the possibilities of solving poverty. In the labour view, poverty can be eliminated if the poor self-organize and reclaim their own labour from the ruling elites, working solely for their own benefit and the benefit of their community.

It should become apparent now that the consumeurist view can be closely associated with capitalism, and the labour view with socialism. They are not exactly equivalents, although it’s true that capitalists uses consumerism as its “divide and conquer” strategy against the working class, while socialists tend to be more concerned with labour freedom. Looking at the problem from this angle, it’s interesting to look at the fact that capital-democracies need, and engineer, unemployment and poverty through their monetary manipulations, their plutocratic policies, their transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich, and of course wars and repressing populist movements in foreign lands.

Psychologically, the consumeurist view leads to mental passivity. As consumers, we watch ads (now, even down the aisles of the stores and at the checkstands) which appeals to his most primitive emotions, wanders around aisles of brightly packaged products which are geared towards the lowest common denominator, and just generally gets in the same mindset that leads to the acceptance of propaganda in general. Socialist workers, on the other hand, hold decision-making responsibilities and are an integral part of their organization, leading to a very active mindset. They not only work (which is in itself an active process) but also take responsibility for their actions and for the organization as a whole.

Does this mean that Anarchy is anti-consumer? No, not at all. Being against the consumeurist ideology is not equivalent to being against consumers: after all, virtually all of us are consumers to some degree (especially after the death blows dealt to the independent farming industry in most of the Western world through government regulations and concentration of wealth). On the contrary, Anarchists are involved in many consumer-related issues such as government-granted monopolies, profit margins, food quality, alternative energy, and so on. But most importantly, the Anarchist desire to eliminate concentrations of wealth (which exist at their current enormous scale only because of capitalism) can only be good news for the consumer, as the disproportionate balance of power between corporations and their consumers as a whole would be replaced by a more even distribution of power.

There is a good point to be made that a given person is generally both a consumer and a worker, and that there shouldn’t be so much difference between the two if one person can manage to be both just fine. But this point does not work if your values qua consumer and your values qua worker do not mesh. This would be a rather pessimistic view of human societies, and besides I personally believe that these two kinds of values are compatible.

In an Anarchist society, goods would still be plentiful and there would still be a pressure to push prices down through demand. Certainly the capitalist system does drive prices down through exporting production to poor countries with low wage pressures, but beyond that there should be no general reason for prices to be higher. In fact, without the strong incentive towards profits but with market pressure still in effect, workers would be less likely to charge prices higher than labour costs (leading eventually to an equilibrium of prices at the point of labour, according to mutualist theory).

As Anarchists, we also have a sense of moral and social responsibility which would be free to express itself in a socialist system, where the workers’ values, not profits, guide production. Moral objections to things as diverse as slaughterhouses, nuclear energy, logging, arms production, and others would be treated as serious issues, instead of the current ideology (spouted by politicians, corporate heads, union leaders, and thought leaders alike) which treats them as roadblocks on the highway to greater profits and a “better economy.”

There is really no reason for consumers to fear switching to a socialist economy, because after all the production of goods and services remain to the consumer as a black box of which only the outward manifestation (the display of the goods and the execution of the services) is seen. So the question “who cares about the workers?” is really “who cares about what is produced and how it’s produced?” From the consumeurist standpoint, there is really no reason to care one way or the other about these issues, only the end result “counts.” And I don’t think the end result of a socialist economy would be worse on the whole than that of a capitalist economy.

For a related entry, also see Consumeurism and Fascism, by World In Motion.

About these ads

12 thoughts on “The obsession with consumption

  1. Mike Gogulski December 12 2008 at 10:31

    the Anarchist desire to eliminate concentrations of wealth

    NB: not all “Anarchists” embrace this desire without adding the qualifier of “unjustly obtained”.

  2. Toban December 12 2008 at 13:36

    Certainly the capitalist system does drive prices down through exporting production to poor countries with low wage pressures

    But this is a good thing, it creates jobs in poor countries and bids up their wages.

    There is really no reason for consumers to fear switching to a socialist economy

    Not sure what your definition of socialist is… but isn’t a “socialist economy” a contradiction in terms (von Mises)?

  3. Francois Tremblay December 12 2008 at 17:10

    “NB: not all “Anarchists” embrace this desire without adding the qualifier of “unjustly obtained”.”

    Well, in one sense or another. It was a general statement.

    “But this is a good thing, it creates jobs in poor countries and bids up their wages.”

    Assuming that competition exists in that country, and that basic labour laws exist, which is very seldom the case (in China, for instance, many factories still use slave labour, so you can buy cheaper kids’ toys).

    “Not sure what your definition of socialist is… but isn’t a “socialist economy” a contradiction in terms (von Mises)?”

    Nope, at least not in the fundamental sense I am using it here. You are thinking of State Socialism.

  4. Toban December 13 2008 at 19:16

    Mises critique applied to socialism as collective ownership of the means of production. That could mean either state ownership or ownership by a voluntary collective. Essentially, the calculation problem applies to monopoly ownership. (That’s why it also applies to firms, as in diseconomies of scale.)

    But I don’t think you’re using ‘socialism’ in this sense either… Do you have a working definition?

  5. Francois Tremblay December 14 2008 at 6:30

    My definition of socialism is:
    An economic system where the means of production are collectively owned by the workers.

  6. David Z December 15 2008 at 11:51

    Toban – the calculation problem applies to the general absence of a functioning market economy, which characterized the “socialist” economies about which he wrote. The distinguishing characteristic between a socialist macroeconomy, and a socialist “firm” (i.e., the place where production occurs) is that the socialist macroeconomy necessarily ruins the price system with violent force (e.g., if you are commanded to produce wheat, there simply is no market price for wheat) and the firm does not necessarily do this.

    To the extent that the calculation problem permeates firms, it is due in large part to over-integration (vertical or horizontal) which divorces opportunity costs from market prices, things appear to be free which in-fact are not, or less costly than they actually are, etc.

    FWIW, I’m not at all sold on the notion of “collective ownership”, but I don’t think there’s any iron law for the calculation problem: it *can* affect proprietorships, it *can* affect collectives, but it doesn’t have to.

  7. Mike Gogulski December 15 2008 at 21:00

    collectively owned by the workers

    Which workers?

  8. Connelly Barnes December 16 2008 at 0:02

    Seems pretty ideological and political, which I try to avoid, because I never know what to do with ideological and political words.

    However one part struck me as interesting: “Unlike labour rights, which are part of the freedom of each and every individual, an ideal of consumption is predicated on the ability and desire of the individual to consume, which are highly variable. From that you get guilt and depression.”

    This I found interesting, because I’m often depressed, and have been for several years. This might be caused by bad relationships, divorce, etc, but it seems also to be partly caused by my complete lack of interest in consumption. (My lack of interest in consumption is probably partly also caused by the harm it did to my ex-wife, who went completely nuts with a sum of inherited money, spending all of it, sort of rabid consumerism, then in a very bad mental state committed a bunch of other bad decisions.)

    Social behavior in the U.S. (where I live) seems to be directed around consumption. It follows that if one isn’t interested in consumption, and sees it as a brain-dead, non-active state, then one might be thought of as anti-social or apathetic. (Or an asshole if one is confrontational about being anti-consumption.) But I don’t think I’m really anti-social per se. I just see things that are consumption as having zero signal. It seems to be a very primitive part of me that sees consumption as having little meaning, so I don’t think this is an intellectualized response. Anyway to do things that feel meaningful I exercise, do research, or do creative arts. And those things feel meaningful to me, but consumption doesn’t.

    It’s funny because I’m quite confident that this is who I am, and yet people often interpret it as me being confused or not “confident.” Confidence must be the mask, the raw marketing, the sexual appeal, that consumption hides behind. No surprise then I lack whatever people construe as being their own meaning, or their society’s meaning.

  9. Francois Tremblay December 16 2008 at 2:12

    “Which workers?”

    The ones that are part of the business to which the specific means of production are associated.

  10. Francois Tremblay December 16 2008 at 2:27

    Connelly Barnes: Why do you think they see it as a lack of confidence? That seems like a strange thing to me, even within the consumeurist mindset.

  11. Bacon French December 16 2008 at 6:03

    what the hell. the only people associating themselves with consumerism are criminals. who you guys hanging out with?

  12. Francois Tremblay December 16 2008 at 13:29

    “what the hell. the only people associating themselves with consumerism are criminals. who you guys hanging out with?”

    Huh?

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 162 other followers