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Are our leading ‘consumption critics’ simply ‘cultural snobs’?

April 28th, 2005 · No Comments

americanbeauty.jpgTHIS magazine in Canada has a great story about consumerism – how it works and why rebellious consumption won’t fix it… Essentially, the essay demonstrates that the protagonists of films such as Fight Club and American Beauty rebel by making dramatic shifts in their consumption choices, but continue to consume. The essay discusses how “rebelling” through consumption choices is what keeps economies rolling over. The article was written, ironically, to sell a book on the anti consumption movement.

It’s a long article, so I’ve lifted some of the main paragraphs and presented them as key points below.

The Rebel Sell – If we all hate consumerism, how come we can’t stop shopping?
BY JOSEPH HEATH AND ANDREW POTTER – Edited notes. Full essay available here. [editor’s note: unfortunately this resource is no longer available online and we have therefore removed the link]

Thomas Frank’s take on consumerism: books like No Logo, magazines like Adbusters, and movies like American Beauty do not undermine consumerism; they reinforce it. This isn’t because the authors, directors or editors are hypocrites, it’s because they’ve failed to understand the true nature of consumer society.

…What matters is the competitive structure of the consumption. Once too many people get on the bandwagon, it forces the early adopters to get off, in order to preserve their distinction. This is what generates the cycles of obsolescence and waste that we condemn as “consumerism.”

What we need to see is that consumption is not about conformity, it’s about distinction. People consume in order to set themselves apart from others. To show that they are cooler (Nike shoes), better connected (the latest nightclub), better informed (single-malt Scotch), morally superior (Guatemalan handcrafts), or just plain richer (bmws).

The problem is that all of these comparative preferences generate competitive consumption. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” in today’s world, does not always mean buying a tract home in the suburbs. It means buying
a loft downtown, eating at the right restaurants, listening to obscure bands, having a pile of Mountain Equipment Co-op gear and vacationing in Thailand. It doesn’t matter how much people spend on these things, what matters is the
competitive structure of the consumption. Once too many people get on the bandwagon, it forces the early adopters to get off, in order to preserve their distinction. This is what generates the cycles of obsolescence and waste that we condemn as “consumerism.”

[Naomi Klein in No Logo] complains about the commercialisation of her neighbourhood – these complaints nothing but an expression of this loss of distinction. What she fails to observe is that this distinction is precisely what drives the real estate market, what creates the value in these dwellings. People buy these lofts because they want a piece of Klein’s social status. Naturally, she is not amused. They are, after all, her inferiors—an inferiority that they demonstrate through their willingness to accept mass-produced, commercialized facsimiles of the “genuine” article… Emma Goldman, we are told, “the famed anarchist and labour organizer,” lived on [Klein’s] street! How exciting for Klein! What a tremendous source of distinction that must be.

Once we acknowledge the role that distinction plays in structuring consumption, it’s easy to see why people care about brands so much. Brands don’t bring us together, they set us apart. Of course, most
sophisticated people claim that they don’t care about brands—a transparent falsehood. Most people who consider themselves “anti-consumerist” are extremely brand-conscious. They are able to fool themselves into believing that they don’t care because their preferences are primarily negative. They would never be caught dead driving a Chrysler or listening to Celine Dion. It is precisely by not buying these uncool items that they establish their social
superiority.

We find ourselves in an untenable situation. On the one hand, we criticize conformity and encourage individuality and rebellion. On the other hand, we lament the fact that our ever-increasing standard of material consumption is failing to generate any lasting increase in happiness. This is because it is rebellion, not conformity, that generates the competitive structure that drives the wedge between consumption and happiness. As long as we continue to prize individuality, and as long as we express that individuality through what we own and where we live, we can expect to live in a consumerist society.

In many cases, competition is an intrinsic feature of the goods that we consume. Economists call these “positional goods”—goods that one person can have only if many others do not. Examples include not only penthouse apartments, but also wilderness hikes and underground music. It is often claimed that a growing economy is like
the rising tide that lifts all boats. But a growing economy does not create more antiques, more rare art, or more downtown real estate, it just makes them more expensive. Many of us fail to recognize how much of our
consumption is devoted to these positional goods.

Furthermore, we are often forced into competitive consumption, just to defend ourselves against the nuisances generated by other people’s consumption. It is unreasonable, for example, for anyone living in a Canadian city to own anything other than a small, fuel-efficient car. At the same time, in many parts of the North
America, the number of big SUVs on the road has reached the point where people are forced to think twice before buying a small car. The SUVs make the roads so dangerous for other drivers that everyone has to consider buying a larger car just to protect themselves.

Because so much of our competitive consumption is defensive in nature, people feel justified in their choices. Unfortunately, everyone who participates contributes just as much to the problem, regardless of his or her intentions. It doesn’t matter that you bought the SUV to protect yourself and your children, you still bought it, and you still made it harder for other drivers to opt out of the automotive arms race. When it comes to consumerism,
intentions are irrelevant. It is only consequences that count.

This is why a society-wide solution to the problem of consumerism is not going to occur through personal or cultural politics. At this stage of late consumerism, our best bet is legislative action. If we were really worried about advertising, for example, it would be easy to strike a devastating blow against the “brand bullies” with a simple change in the tax code. The government could stop treating advertising expenditures as a fully
tax-deductible business expense
(much as it did with entertainment expenses several years ago). Advertising is already a separately itemized expense category, so the change wouldn’t even generate any additional paperwork. But this little tweak to the tax code would have a greater impact than all of the culture jamming in the world.

What we need to realize is that consumerism is not an ideology. It is not something that people get tricked into. Consumerism is something that we actively do to one another, and that we will continue to do as long as we have no incentive to stop. Rather than just posturing, we should start thinking a bit more carefully about how we’re going to provide those incentives.

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Category: culture jamming


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