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The critique of the consumer society

by Ana Bazac

At least from three decades we always hear critiques of the consumer society when the thinkers try either to show themselves as “modern”, dynamical, reformists or as “modern”, dynamical, defenders of the conservative values. Especially nowadays, a personage has no prestige if he/she does not tackle the problems in a critical manner[1]. But, as we all know, everything depends of the type of critique and, certainly, of its wanted and unwanted consequences. Clearer and drier: not every critique is worth to be taken into account.

However, we must stop some paragraphs on the use of the critique of the consumer society. The upstream of this critique is the reference to the big world problems: the ecological crisis, the climate imbalance, the destruction of biodiversity and the disappearance of our old natural milieu, the too much artificial, the too much population – and its “normal” reverse, the hunger of millions, the depletion of resources – and its “normal” result, the more savage struggle for them, the formidable scientific-technological revolution with cloned lambs, devilish intelligence of robots and cohorts of unemployed, all of these calling open or hidden technophobia.

Traditionally, the recognition of crises, contradictions and problems has belonged to progressive, lucid and critical theories and ideologies. As a result – and especially after the constitution of the Marxist paradigm as self-consciousness of the modern labour force in its irreconcilable opposition to class domination and exploitation – the mainstream ideologies of the status quo were forced to recognise too the problems, though not always equated with crises.

Accordingly, the present mainstream reference to the big world problems has not in view the critique of wars and world warfare, or it does it rapidly, with half the mouth. No mainstream voice relates them with the ecological and economic problems, i.e. no one has an integrated view, and especially not rooted in the structural relations of the capitalist system. Anyway, within this fragmentary reference all of these phenomena are “natural”, hence inevitable. The only thing one can do towards them is to recognise them. And this reference is as naïve poetry – it describes, eventually showing a near cause, but only for some aspects as the present and future starvation because of the excess of population – and not as a scientific outlook compulsorily demonstrating a system of causes, interdependences and consequences.

Therefore, though this type of “critical” reference is only a present rhetorical requirement, it may well be characterised from an epistemological standpoint as a weak manner of thinking, in fact as a false discourse.

The present anathema on the consumer society illustrates this characterisation. But before mentioning some means of this anathema, it is important to know that, if for Nietzsche the privileged situation of the upper and middle classes has led to their pharisaic behaviour,  from the end of the 19th century some researchers (as Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, New York, MacMillan, 1899) have observed the correlation between the expansion of industrial/mass production for profit – then developing the institution of fashion and education of the rather well-off/upper middle and middle strata for a prestige and cutting-edge consume – and the necessary increase of mass consume. Veblen’s analysis was not poetry, but scientific disclosing of facts and their systemic causes.

The development of capitalism in the Western countries has driven to the generalisation of mass consume (though polarised), and thus to the rise of a new civilisation: no longer agricultural, but industrial. This civilisation was linked to a higher level of mass culture and brought more substantiated claims towards society: the more so a main element of the legitimisation of the Western capitalism was the bunch of ideas of freedom, rights and opportunities.

Nevertheless, the historical facts of the 20th century have more complex causes than the above ideas lying upon the mass industrial consume. The Great War of 1914-1918 has brought a higher social conscience: the definitive desacralisation of the traditional dominant institutions, the awareness of the necessity of social rights and of the possibilities to arrive to them. This change in the general mood has led traditionalist thinkers as Nicolas Berdiaev (Le Destin de l’Homme dans le monde actuel, Paris, Stock, 1934) to deplore the high level of democracy given to the masses whose look might well resemble to that of the rooted educated strata. So, Berdiaev considered, too much mass education is not necessarily a good thing.

Heidegger was interested only about the causes of the general mood of both privileged strata and newcomers to the table of capitalist Western civilisation: these causes would have been the common fear in front of the inevitable death, the distortion of the human feature in front of technology, and the ugly social conformism that transforms most of people in puppets moved by the impersonal Das Man.

Well, after the WWII, the welfare state put in function by all the Western countries seemed to put the broad masses – now having free access to the higher education (after the model of the Soviet Russia) and becoming a middle class according to the access to consume (the criterion of Veblen) – and who sometimes erupted as players, in the posture of the arbitrator of the policies made by the ruling stratum so as to resemble to and surpass the social rights from the socialist countries. This posture of arbitrator has upset not only the rulers but also many thinkers serving them.

However, the liberal thinkers were optimistic: the reason of their optimism was just the development of consume – with all means of advertising and induction of addiction of more and more, and transient wares – as the means not only of the soaring of the private profit but also to definitively tame even the grumblers. And as liberals, they did never think to the expense of the bulk of transient goods glutting the Western buyers who thus have lost the habit to repair and clean because the new goods became cheaper. Toffler in Future Shock, 1970, has described this phenomenon with a triumphant tone. He was a laudator tempori acti, a singer of the expansion of production for profit, was he? And, go figure, this contempt for repair was contemporary with the warning of the Club of Rome concerning the limits, even exhaustion of resources.

In that time, the pessimistic dominant thinkers were few: they considered that not even the escalading consume would appease the rebel tendencies of what they apprehended as “the people”. Actually, both the optimists and the pessimists thought that not only the material panem but also/even rather the spiritual circenses must overwhelm the population, together with the huge political propaganda. We ought to not forget that the whole Cold War period meant aggressive disinformation, lies (and half truths are lies, too), and attacks on the social rights, the social ideals, and the spirit of commonality. Selfishness, the quest for pleasure and entertainment, the ignorance of the others’, the more so they were far away, became the most praised virtues. And when these ones began to show their “fruits” – the fact that the humans became “unbalanced” (Michele Frederico Sciacca, L’uomo, questo « squilibrato » : saggio sulla condizione umana, 1956) – the indignation of conservative thinkers against consumerism and their urging to religion, as the only means to raise the human spirit, took place.

 

We have to not forget: the excessive consume – including the substitution of things with new ones, instead of their repair and cleaning – is not a natural phenomenon, nor the inevitable result of the increase of modern productivity so as the price of new goods may be much lower than to repair them. It is only the perversion made by the capitalist logic of quest for private profit at all costs. Neither the destruction of nature, nor the reduction of humans to stultified animals (as the consequence of programmed “stultification”, Jacques Rancière, ”The Emancipaed Spectator” (2004), Artforum, March 2007, pp. 271-280), i.e. reduced only to the knowledge of appearances and the artfulness of carpe diem (Bernard Stiegler, De la misère symbolique 1. L’époque hyperindustrielle, Paris, Galilée, 2004) is important for the capitalist “elite”.

The need to be instead of to have (Fromm), or the need of measure and balance in the material needs in order to deploy much more effort for the spiritual (this means including relational) fulfilment is seen by consumerism as a dangerous idea. The full stomach of the many is the recipient of tones of products of industrialised agriculture, gathering profit from the destruction of the whole nature and generating obesity and many illnesses and premature death; the full stomach is also a political means of keeping sleepy the crowd otherwise unforeseeable. The fever of always buying, when one is happy and when one is unhappy, when one travels and when one is stand still, instead of questioning and instead of answering, is the dominant means to give (circumscribed) objects to the imagination of the ruled who have no value except for the full assumption of the universe of consumerism.

However, the full stomach and the consumerist imagination are valuable means for capitalism only if the bearers of the stomach and consumerist mind are solvable; not the objective need, but the solvable demand is that which counts for the capitalist supply and demand economy. This is one important reason of West’s wars and savage exploitation of resources far away, in Africa etc. where the solvability is much lower than in Western Europe and North America, and where the resistance of local habits o the Western model of consume is relatively high. Consequently, to much unsolvable poor are not good for business.

Some ones observe that it’s easy to criticise consumerism when one is full: in other words, the capitalist development and consumerism would be necessary and inevitable for the under-developed countries to become developed.

In this respect, the liberal theory that criticises the conservative critique of consumerism asserts that this conservative point of view ignores the masses of poor who become more satiated when they are flooded with the dynamism of the consumer society. And though there are also losers, this society alone would allow the transformation of some poor into a more or less prosperous middle-class.

However, the analysis of this liberal standpoint shows its shortcomings: 1) since he capitalist consumerism means ascension of production and consume by hook and by crook, it consciously externalises its environmental and social costs, leading to the amplification of environmental, social and psychological crises, and 2) it considers that “there is no alternative” to the rise of capitalist  production and consumerism, as if the human beings would not be able to imagine different ways of economic development.

Or, they are able and there are alternatives. There is no here the place to elaborate on them, but many theories and practical initiatives and experiments worldwide show that there are alternatives and that these ones cannot be developed because of the obstruction of the mainstream dominant set of ideologies and power policies. But the urgency is just to think about the solving of the above-mentioned problems: because, in fact, the human spring on the basis of the newest science and technology/culture and civilisation cannot take place on the expense of the destruction of nature and countless human unique and unrepeatable human individuals. The modern development requires just alternative ways to the capitalist consumerism, since this one means waste of energy, resources, creativity and human uniqueness.

Therefore, there are two mainstream attitudes towards the capitalist consumerism: the liberal one, which considers it as necessary, inevitable and positive for the human society, and the conservative one, which criticises it as unnecessary, stoppable and negative for the humans whose better and only destiny is circumscribed by the traditional aspects of pre-modern society (scarcity/frugality, religion and religious submission, and economic and political submission in front of the domination/power structural relations). It’s easy to see that both attitudes represent the domination-submission structural relations, and that both are in tandem with all the institutions – as the different Churches – which keep the social conformism of the population. Actually, the liberal and conservative attitudes towards the capitalist consumerism are the two versants of the same ideological block: the versant of optimistic urge to hoping a better future, and the pessimistic versant impotently criticising a developmental process that cannot be stopped by religious faith and thus, that promises only a disaster.

And we can observe something more: that these two versants not only coexist, but complete each other. Since the parts of the world are “are tied up closer than ever before”, the only manners to solve the (geopolitical) problems are the civilised ones and the responsible reformist ones (concerning a competitive economy, with all that that means), together with the  respect of “traditional” values, as the institutions (states, religion) (Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, 25/10/2017,  http://www.defenddemocracy.press/putin-on-nuclear-arms-october-revolution-trump-catalonia-brics-west-and-russia/. Thus, there is rather a convergence between the liberal view of capitalist economy and the conservative view that does no refuse and does not offer an alternative to the capitalist economy, but only criticises its consumerist aspect: because it has not an alternative to the capitalist economy, and think to both legitimate it with the help of its “critique” and to divert the masses from the political quest for alternatives to the religious tranquillity of the acceptance.

The last aspect here is the attitude of many people towards the obviously conservative critique of the capitalist consumerism. Since there is an obvious crisis of the real/left type concrete alternatives to capitalism, many people think that any critique towards capitalism would be valuable, and even left-wing, thus considering the conservative critique as tantamount to the left position. Actually, this situation corresponds to the weakness of the left to offer its own specific critique. If the level of the left would be consistent, this would translate into a dialectical critique of the capitalist consumerism, showing also its potentiality toward emancipation (Mathias Zick Varul, “Towards .a consumerist critique of capitalism: A socialist defence of consumer culture”, Ephemera, 13 (2), 2013, pp. 293-315)

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[1] ”The intellectuals became physicians who do not cure. They are here only for saying and repeating that society is sick”; and ”the « critical » art becoming official”,  Le philosophe Jacques Rancière : “La parole n’est pas plus morale que les images”, le 15 décembre 2008, http://www.telerama.fr/idees/le-philosophe-jacques-ranciere-la-parole-n-est-pas-plus-morale-que-les-images,36909.php

 

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