The Moral Critique of Consumerism
The world is fallen; depravity reigns. What was once whole falls apart — nations, families, consumer electronics. They don’t make them like they used to, back in the old days. Planned obsolescence drives a frenzy of waste and overconsumption — a shameful, degrading spectacle (behold Black Friday!) The primitives — the ones who want our civilization reduced to ashes — are correct. We are wicked, sinful; we have forgotten want and hardship, and the values of things, and the moral law of Nature. Let there be a crash and a downfall, to awaken us from this torpor!
So the story goes, anyway.
The moral critique of consumerism is a tremendously popular narrative; yet it presents itself as subversive and oppositional. In this it follows many discourses of hegemony: American individualism, Evangelical Christianity, “politically incorrect” casual racism and misogyny, and so on. In fantasizing its own oppositionality, it invents dreadful and overwhelming foes, usually of two sorts: either satanic megacorporations or the overwhelming weight of human ignorance.
I’m trying to describe this moral critique in detail, and demonstrate its inadequacy, because it has somehow become a given that everyone subscribing to it must perforce be a “leftist”. If so, then “the Left” is a politically vacuous term, nothing more than one subculture among many — which may well be true. There are other, better words to describe emancipatory political engagements, though most of them — “Marxist”, “communist”, and the like — are not supposed to be brought up in polite company.
The major failings of the moral critique are fourfold.
We are told that “we” consume too much, and waste too much; but the “we” used here is blind to its own nature. By “we”, this discourse means “first-worlders”: the targets of this critique and its intended audience. It is an analysis developed in first-world conditions, and speaks of first-world phenomena in the language of first-world ideology. It does not, however, see itself as such — its proponents would readily assert that “we” means “humanity”, all of us.
The universalizing gesture is thoughtless and almost automatic, as these things tend to be. Following it to its conclusions, we encounter crudities, absurdities, atrocities. “We” consume too much; therefore, we must all make equal sacrifices, regardless of our share in the actual consumption. And even if the share is tiny? Well then, it’s still split among too many mouths to feed. The grim spectre of “overpopulation” emerges from the argument here, followed by a ghastly entourage of half-imagined, half-implied eugenic horrors.
The little, innocuous “we” does a lot of work here. In bringing humanity together in harmony, in levelling difference and antagonism, in sweeping away history and context, it enables — encourages — making the exploited pay for the excesses of the exploiters, whom they outnumber by orders of magnitude. And if they have nothing left to pay with, well then, they must give their lives. Their sacrifice will be remembered.
Perhaps you think I’m squeezing too much genocidal intent from the innocent tiny “we”. In fact I do not see this intent in it at all; I am trying to follow the course of thought it outlines to its final possible conclusions. It is enough to say that this universalism of levelling (Russian has a beautiful word for it, “uravnilovka”) could plausibly lend itself to justifications of genocide. We do not need to prove that empires are predisposed to pursue their social and economic needs through the eradication of troublesome populations; the last 200 years of history alone provide ample evidence. It has happened, it is happening and it can happen many times over, and the “universal” “humanity” of the beneficiaries of empire has been a justification time and again.
Very well then, but what if the critique is aware of this? What if it carefully avoids the universalizing “we”? Three counterpoints remain.
While the critique of consumerism proceeds from observations of material reality, its underlying structure is not actually materialist. This is blatant if we take a look at the language it uses: words like waste, greed, excess, lack of self-control, the imagery of orgies or lavish feasts, of fat as a signifier of immorality, of spiritual decadence all feature prominently in its repertoire. Disgust at certain kinds of bodies, which are taken as visible signs of this Gothic excess, is a pervasive theme. The intersections of anti-consumerist moralism and discipline of the body are extremely complex and I doubt I can do them justice here. What’s significant for us is to note that such strategies are typically unthinking extensions of the ways in which control and surveillance of bodies is performed by the dominant ideology. Thus, for some decades now, we find an unstoppable profusion of vulgar pieces of “theory” and “social critique” decrying the insatiable appetites of undisciplined consumers: teenage girls, children, poor people of colour with flatscreen TVs, homeless people with cellphones and so on.
If only these wasteful and self-centered consumers could be reined in, the argument goes (and the further we move from the prototypical image of a good white “middle class” “hardworking” citizen of the US empire, the more forcefully selfishness is attacked as the origin of sin) — and simultaneously, if the excesses of immoral CEOs, bankers and so on contained, and checks put on their greed, or the most criminal ones tried and jailed, the world might be restored to a state of balance and prosperity. Again we see how social antagonism, this time the fact of class, is obscured, and all are made equal in the anti-consumerist imagination. This has the effect of strengthening ideologies which rely on similar stories of cross-class cooperation and unity in hard times; that is to say, nationalist ones. We’re not talking about the nationalism of anticolonial liberation here, either — you’ll recall we’ve restricted ourselves to the first world.
Let us look at the flipside for a second. What of these awful, bloodsucking executives, these billionaire thieves? The contention of anticonsumerism is: they are greedy, and have been encouraged by a system that promotes and rewards their greed. Note again the primacy of an ethical flaw; presumably for every Bernie Sanders there is a nice, cuddly Steve Jobs, the philanthropist and champion of the downtrodden (please disregard their own abuses of workers — the other guys are so much worse!)
What is lacking, according to the moral argument, is integrity and principles. But if you listen closely, it’s possible to discern a subtle note of conspiracism with regard to these “banksters”, these “parasites”, this contagion upon the otherwise healthy social body. Is it too bold to suggest that this is where Adbusters starts reading like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? I don’t think it is.
The moral critique may be interested in material effects, but it shows little concern with material causes. Malicious and evil economists are responsible; laws of political economy are not. Ethical actions of individuals are paramount; political involvements of classes barely register. The world is wounded grievously by our sins — but it can be healed through principled acts. This is quite literally the stuff of fantasy literature.
3. Production vs consumption
The critique of consumerism, insofar as it acknowledges processes of production, relegates them to a secondary role. Abhorrent working conditions, neo-enclosures, the dissolution of communities, impoverishment, inequality — all this is ultimately the fault of excessive consumption. What a monumental sense of their own importance these first worlders have! Every time an American buys a bag of chips, a rustic and charming fishing village is obliterated.
This may be a bit of a cheap shot, but it’s not innacurate. Anticonsumerist critics, even as they affirm their own “guilt” and “complicity” in exploitation, ascribe to themselves a special leading role in the fight against it. Thus it becomes important to avoid the evil companies and support the moral ones, to practice ascetic living and raise awareness. This is also where concepts of a return to nature take center stage — if the world is corrupt, we must withdraw from it, growing our own food and not taking part in the exploitation of others. The bitter irony is that the only people able to drop out and go off the grid on a whim are those who have already benefitted from the spoils of empire in vastly disproportionate ways. Removing oneself from the fallen world is also another idealist gesture, a search for a site of calm and purity, untainted by worldly filth and suffering. Sites like those can only exist within the larger context of an advanced empire; the labour and active participation of all its citizens are not required, and room is made for dropping out, so long as it does not constitute a material threat.
It’s time to state the obvious. I’m a Marxist. I accept the labour theory of value and its descriptive potential with regard to a capitalist economy. I believe that society is driven by various class antagonisms, and in capitalist society the primary antagonism is between the owners of the means of production and those who are forced to sell their labour — or give it away for free, as the case may be.
It should be fairly clear, therefore, why I reject the primacy of consumption. The fundamental, formative social forces arise from the mode of production dominant in that society. The mode of consumption is certainly of interest as a symptom, but its causes are to be sought in definite and traceable movements of people, labour, capital, state power and so forth, not in the intemperance and poor moral character of imperial citizens.
4. Racist bullshit
Recall my nasty mention of “the primitives” at the beginning. These phantasmatic noble savages are enlisted in support of anticonsumerism, as the models to which we should aspire. They value — well, insert whatever the particular critic’s hobby horse is here; family, community, nature, sexuality, spirituality, or all of the above. Actual peoples, or rather the distilled ethnographies and anthropologies of these peoples, are paraded in support of the anticonsumerist arguments: behold the pure primal society, before the advent of moral corruption.
This is racist garbage in the first degree. Typically we think of racism as vicious and hateful, but this variety — exotifying and belittling — is probably more insidious and more pervasive. “Real” noble savages as well as invented ones in works of fiction take turns performing this function. When employed in this manner, they are people no longer; they are rhetorical props. Even when the stories about them are not complete and utter fabrications, misinterpretations and appropriations, they seek to elevate decontextualized pre-industrial norms and societies to a pedestal of moral purity. The desire to turn back history, to escape its grinding gears and live in contented simplicity, is undeniable. It is also racist as fuck — by positing a state of childlike innocence and blessed harmony with nature, it is rather a chain of beings, on which the white Euro-Americans are highly evolved angels, and the “savages” — one step removed from animals.
So. Summing up.
I reject the moral critique of anticonsumerism in favour of the materialist critique of political economy.
Anticonsumerism turns Marxism on its head, and in doing so, it also discards its anti-capitalism. In rejecting the best available materialist critique of the system, it seeks refuge either in visions of “capitalism with a human face”, or of a spiritual reformation, or perhaps technological advancement that will make our assumptions about the material world obsolete. Very dizzying and exciting, to be sure; while anticonsumerism blazes off into a future of silvery crystal spires and human moral perfection, we stodgy communists are left behind in the dirt and the muck of what actually exists. Not a nice place to be, but at least we can meet each other here, face to face, and agree on what we see, instead of dreaming up a shimmeringly white community that never comes, nor should.