What’s so bad about consumption?
Everyone needs to eat to survive. In my own experience, everyone seems to like having nice things. Yet it is increasingly accepted as a kind of millennial folk-wisdom that we live in a “consumer-society,” that we consume to much. We believe, in the words of Fight Club‘s Tyler Durden, that in the end the things you own end up owning you.
There is a linguistic problem with this: what exactly is it to be a “consumer?”
We think of someone buying an expensive pair of shoes. She does this because she derives some sense of identity from wearing high-quality footwear. But then Summer ends and Fall arrives, and a new fashion trend with it. Out with the old, and back to the store for more (also expensive) shoes. Perhaps the identity is not even with the shoes themselves, as with this cycle of purchasing, and the wealth and power that this cycle conveys.
This is the stereotype. But let us imagine an antithesis. Picture a man who has a pick-up truck. It is a 1978 Ford Bronco, one that he bought from his dad. He maintains it himself, in a manner which is both liberal in care and frugal in costs — there are no glamorous lift jobs, no light bars, no snorkels, but the exterior is clean, the tire pressure is always precise, and the oil ritualistically changed every three months. The vehicle is a commuter, built and used for function, not for looks; the maintenance is purely a matter of function.
Is this man a “consumer?”
In the technical sense, he is (he purchased the vehicle, and purchases the tools and materials necessary for its maintenance), but we do not think of him as a “consumer” in the spiritual, late-capitalist sense of the term. Yet why shouldn’t we? He is deriving (or expressing) just as much identity in his vehicle as is the stereotype above with shoes. His identity is this: he is a hard-working, manually-competent, frugal, and careful man. He is manly in the spirit of the values of his country, and is considered as such by them.
We could describe the identity of the stereotypical consumer in a similar fashion: she is a wealthy and powerful woman. She is conscious of her appearance, of the shifting culture around her and her relationship with it. She knows how to leverage this power of appearance within this culture, and has the means to do it, expressing herself with authenticity and creativity, but tastefully within the boundaries of acceptability established by her society.
Among fashionistas, perhaps this woman would not be thought of as a “consumer,” but as a connoisseur, perhaps even an artist. The man with the 1978 Bronco, however, would be anathema to them. Why would anyone need a pick-up? Why would anyone want an older vehicle? Is it some weird hang-up, compensation or filling some void? One thing is for certain: the Bronco man is a “consumer,” attempting to buy a ‘look’ with an old truck.
In both cases, whether or not the individual is considered to be a “consumer” has nothing to do with how much they are “consuming” things, and everything to do with what meaning is attached to that consumption, and whether that meaning is readily understood by others.
History is replete with civilizations that spent extravagant sums on (what we today would consider to be) trifles, that sacrificed hundreds of animals to invisible gods, that decorated their buildings and bodies with fantastically expensive adornments, but none of these are today considered “consumer societies” because these patterns of consumption were already endowed with cultural significance. It would be silly to say that they are trying to find an identity through consumption because the identity of their society already exists, and they are already a part of that identity. They are not participating in their culture and buying things because they are trying to fill some void. To use some philosophical language, they are not “becoming,” but simply “being.”
If we consider today’s society to be a “consumer culture,” it is not because we are buying lots of things. We are buying lots of things, but that by itself is not what makes us feel like we are living in a consumer culture. The feeling of being in a consumer culture comes from our inability to comprehend the meaning of other people’s purchases.
We live in a diverse and globalized world. This may be good or bad, but it’s true. We are more interconnected, which permits us to connect with people all over and form niche sub-cultures and specialized communities that we invest in. Thanks to this inter-connectivity and the various safety-nets available to the modern person, we have the privilege today of being able to live almost completely oblivious to the people around us, ensconced completely in our own social bubble. These bubbles often come complete with their own value systems, inside jokes, jargon, history, perhaps even their own religion or political aspirations.
But these webs of interconnected micro-societies are distributed, not geographically isolated. As we move about in our day-to-day lives — buying groceries, listening to the news, sitting in traffic, going to the movies — we observe other people in different micro-communities. They in turn observe us. Since we live in parallel worlds, our patterns of consumption are mutually incomprehensible, or at least may appear this way. Thus, not only do the patterns of consumption in others appear like “consumerism,” like they are trying to be a part of something they are not actually a part of by buying things… but we may feel like we ourselves are in a similar position because the meaning of our own consumption goes unacknowledged.
Among fashionistas, the Bronco-guy may wonder if perhaps he’s the one just maintaining an old truck to “find himself.” Among country-folk, the shoe-shopper may question her own motives, maybe even feeling like the she’s buying stuff she doesn’t need to satisfy people she doesn’t like. But this feeling is only the byproduct of the mismatch between consumption and interpretation. It isn’t something objective about consumption generally. It only looks that way because the why behind the consuming is opaque to outsiders.
If this is true, then the way out from a “consumer society” is not deep-diving into anarcho-primitivism or Marxism or any of these other 20th-century proposed alternatives to capitalism, because “capitalism” isn’t the problem. Free trade is still constrained by the moral and legal opinions of right and wrong: there is no legal market for murder, and while there is a market for sex (prostitution), it is heavily frowned upon by the culture at large. The dispersion of families, the ease with which we make strong-ties with non-familial, non-local, even non-national others, and the proliferation of internet sub-cultures all create the feeling of living in a consumer culture, whereas if we were to choose — of our own free will — to stay put, to invest our time and attention and care in our surroundings, and to understand the culture around us, then the experience of living in a “consumer culture” will evaporate, without any less consumption. Even full-body roll-cages and Louis Vuitton shoes and other exorbitant sacrifices of money “consuming” unnecessary products will not look like “consumer culture” gone astray because the meaning of that consumption will be comprehensible within their respective community.
In such a world, we could still speak neutrally of “consumer cultures,” differing societies characterized by different consumption patterns, each vested with their own internal values and meanings. Such talk would be neutral and non-judgmental; none would be considered a “consumer culture,” characterized by purchasing in vain pursuit of an elusive, perhaps non-existent identity in a fragmented and scattered world.