Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Occupy Xmas? Consumerism or Struggle?

SW.org has an (in general) excellent article (see here) on why this is a bad idea. The bottom line is this: "focusing hostility against consumers instead of the 1 percent only serves to mystify the circumstances that create such [Black Friday shopping] frenzies." Moreover, the article makes the important point that:

...#OccupyXmas accepts the very logic of consumerism that it decries at a time when millions of people are open to looking at the world in a new way. After all, it's the 1 percent that relentlessly encourages us to think of ourselves only in terms of what we consume, to measure ourselves by what we can buy, and to define our identities in terms of the products we possess.

What the Occupy movement has succeeded in doing was taking the discussion beyond a focus on the consumption choices that we as individuals make, and creating a new focus on how those decisions are embedded in a larger social framework--one that benefits the 1 percent at every turn, from individual and corporate tax policy, to the drive to privatize public institutions, to the outsized political influence that the 1 percent wields.

This is the key problem with "Occupy Xmas". It works 100% within the framework of consumerism that it purports to criticize. That is, it reinforces the capitalist principle that "you are what you buy/possess" and merely encourages us to buy different stuff (or make it or whatever). It also reinforces the capitalist myth that our only power is to be found as atomized consumers floating around alone in market forces. Adbusters is, in effect, encouraging us to give up on collective struggle and to think of our primary power in terms of what we have in our pocketbook. That is reactionary, as far as I'm concerned. Particularly after a year like 2011 when collective struggle--the world over--has been steadily increasing in a way that it hasn't done in a generation. To tell us to go home, put down our placards, and look to our pocketbook for salvation is to stand against everything progressive that the Occupy movement has achieved thus far.

To illustrate the bankruptcy of the "progressive consumerist" argument, let's examine one incarnation of it in the environmental movement. It has been pointed out time and again that brow-beating everyone into buying all organic food is not just ineffective, it's also racist and pro-capitalist if you push it to its logical conclusion. It often evinces a "personal responsibility" paternalism that focuses more criticism on individual consumer choices than on the structural conditions that lead to poverty, unemployment, that produce food without nutrients, neighborhoods without grocery stores, etc. That's pro-capitalist insofar as it both papers over the role capitalism plays in these social problems and emphasizes that the solution is a capitalist one that the "free market" will fix for us if we just "vote with our dollars" for the right goods. Never mind whether you actually have the dollars--the middle class liberals who typically push this argument certainly have enough to prop up their consumerist fantasy world. The racist version of this argument might, for instance, take the form of scolding working-class black people for not purchasing organic alfalfa sprouts from Whole Foods. This sentiment surely lies behind those well-intentioned (if paternalistic and, ultimately, racist) white folks who sometimes come into the neighborhoods of these "ignorant" people in order to lead them to the "light" of "progressive consumerism". But, of course, the problem with "food deserts" isn't one of poor individual choices. Neither is it basically a lack of education about what nutritious food is. Nor is it an effect of a so-called "culture of poverty". The problem is economic and political. Blaming individual black people for structural forces that work against them is, perhaps, the most common form of contemporary racism (notice that "colorblindness" does exactly that).

Now, notice what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that people who shop at Whole Foods, or who buy organic milk (like me, incidentally) are the problem. To interpret me in this way is to reiterate the consumerist model I've been attacking. I'm not hating on a particular consumer group or milieu for making choices I disagree with. I'm not siding with some other consumerist bloc against the Whole Foods shoppers. On the contrary, I'm criticizing this whole conservative framework of thinking of oneself (and one's political power) solely in terms of consumption choices. You miss the whole point if you take me to be saying that problem is just a group of consumers that makes "snobbish" choices or something.

In fact, the basic problem lies in thinking that buying organic milk is going to change the world. The problem lies in discouraging collective struggle and replacing it with individualized capitalist consumption patterns. The problem lies with seeing the primary locus of struggle as existing solely in the sphere of consumption, rather than production.

Still, there will probably be at least one person who reads this post convinced that I just have it in for those who drink organic milk, buy fair trade coffee and buy free-range cage-free eggs. In fact, I don't. I do all of those things myself. But I don't think that I'm doing anything political when I do. I don't substitute my atomized actions as a consumer for my political power as a person who has the capacity to link arms with others in struggle. Nor do I scold those who may not have the luxury of choosing to buy this or that at the grocery store.

Is consumerism a capitalist disease? Yes, it is. Has capitalism colonized a large amount of leisure activities and culture? Yes it has. Does capitalism manufacture certain "needs" ("beauty" products come to mind) in order to create new markets and maximize profit? Of course it does.

So, how do you fight the ideology of consumerism and the commodification of leisure? Not by accepting it 100% and operating entirely within its logic. You fight it by fighting the system that produces it. You fight it by linking arms with other people in struggle against that very system. Consumerism, after all, is hardly the sole problem--it is merely one feature of a global political-economic system: capitalism. It is but one ideology (and an accompanying set of practices and norms) that serves to stabilize and reproduce the system. It also serves to discourage the true weapon in our arsenal--collective struggle. To single it out as the sole problem is to misunderstand what it is (and what function it plays in the system). Moreover, to single it out misses the crucial fact that in capitalism choice is only an illusion. Even if you have the money to acquire whatever you want from what's on offer--the majority of us don't--you still lack the power to determine what the possible objects of choice are. A choice between A or B in capitalism is still a prescribed choice: we have no democratic say in what's produced, so we have no say in the qualitative features of A or B (nor, for that matter, do we have a say in whether or not there should also be a C and a D, etc.). The range of choices before us is out of our control as consumers. Our only power, as consumers, is to walk out of the store and not buy anything. We lack a democratic voice in the conditions of production. Buying different things from the capitalist's shelves will never change that.


Hank said...

"Before the twentieth century, the word “consumption” meant tuberculosis, and “consumer” was a non-entry in the lexicon of democracy. Now, parroting capitalists, even purportedly left-wing pundits label us “consumers,” treat all our off-the-job product-related activities as “consumption,”and tell us we live in a “consumer society” with a “consumer culture.”

But do we roll our cars off cliffs to see them explode? Do we scramble to pour our just-bought beverages out in the grocer’s parking lot? Do we rush home to smash our appliances with sledgehammers, then burn the sledgehammers in our fireplaces, then allow fire to burn down our houses, all to maximize our destruction — our consumption — of goods?

Of course we don’t. We gas and fix our cars, cap and refrigerate our undrunk beverages, and care for our homes and appliances until upgrade becomes possible or further repair becomes irrational or impossible. In general, we work hard to maintain the products we acquire and use. Whenever possible, we strive to counteract product wear and tear, which is ordinarily an unintended, costly, and regretted consequence of our product usage, not its goal. Usefulness, pleasure, longevity, and cost minimization are our normal goals as product users. Consumption, the final using up of a product, is almost never our intention.

Of course, it makes sense for corporate moguls and executives to ignore all this. In big business planning, off-the-job human beings count only as mere money-spending garbage disposals, mere programmable units for buying and using up the firm’s wares-i.e., as mere “consumers.” For corporate capitalists and managers, the plain fact that product destruction is neither an aim of nor a benefit to us “consumers” is both a point to be suppressed (at least in public) and a business problem to be managerially overcome.

Meanwhile, ordinary citizens needing to comprehend big business marketing and its impact on their personal lives can ill afford to swallow corporate capitalists’ “consumer” vocabulary. To do so is to let capitalist bias mask our real intentions and interests as product users, and, thereby, to stymie clear thinking about the political economy of these vital realities."


That's an excerpt from Michael Dawson's "The Consumer Trap" that he posted on his blog, and I think what he has to say about 'consumerism' (namely, that it isn't) is very perceptive.

t said...

you make a lot of interesting points about the ideology of "consumption" that is so ubiquitous in contemporary capitalism. Mostly, by "consumer" I just meant to refer to our capacity as isolated, self-regarding buyers in a market. But "consumerism", which is an ideology promulgated from above in the way you describe, is another beast. Thanks for the link, as well. I hadn't seen that before.

In general, I'm open to the view that talk of "consumers", "consumer sovereignty", "consumerism" is thoroughly ideological. "Consumer society" and "consumer culture" (not to speak of the horrendous phrase "consumer goods") are even worse. I myself think we could do without such vocabulary entirely--but as long as it has currency, it is the job of leftists to use it insofar as they are criticizing it and laying bare its function in the system (in much the way you have above).

Hank said...

I can't take credit for any of that (except maybe finding it, ha), as I just posted an excerpt from the guy's website/book.

Sheldon said...

Good post. I think Mike Dawson of the Consumer Trap blog was a grad student of John Bellamy-Foster of Monthly Review, I could be wrong, and I forget how I know this.

Unknown said...

I think you've got this one right. While those of us who are 'careful consumers' should certainly try to consume less and better, our 'outreach' to other should aim at exposing their lack of choice and freedom, and the problems with the producers holding all the power. It seems to me that we're in an ideological war for the concept of freedom. The 1% only care about the freedom of the predator, but that is in direct opposition to the freedom of the prey. For the last 30 odd years the freedom of the predator has increased, resulting in the freedom of the 99% being systematically and constantly reduced. Careful consumerism hasn't reversed that trend, but it needs reversing. Let's make spring 2012 the time of reversal!


Binh said...

Ruder's article is exactly what is wrong with most of what S.W. writes about Occupy. Why not take Occupy Christmas in a progressive direction, occupy Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue? Marxism is supposed to be a guide to action, not a guide to what not to do.

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