The cultural contradictions of consumerism

Once, society celebrated money-making chancers and lauded prudent hard workers. Today, says a new book, it is plying us with dumbed-down ‘stuff’ in order to keep us infantilised.

Josie Appleton

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As capitalism has transformed throughout the ages, so too have its virtues. In the early stages of modernity, where bucks could be made only outside the stifling constraints of feudal society, the money-maker was a roamer and a chancer: he travelled in search of his fortune, swindling and pursuing madcap schemes.

With the development of capitalist societies, money was better made at home. The ideal money-maker was now a prudent bookkeeper, who wasted nothing and ploughed his profits back into the business, renouncing his own consumption and frowning on sensual pleasure. The model bookkeeper was the eighteenth-century American, Benjamin Franklin, with his celebration of austere and productive virtues, and recommendations for getting up early, saving one’s pennies and not eating too much at lunch.

The capitalist bookkeepers’ theoretician was German sociologist Max Weber, whose 1910 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argued that the key feature of capitalism was that making money becomes ‘a calling’, an end in itself. The bourgeois worked for the sake of work, denying himself the fruits of his labour. The pre-modern man would have been flummoxed by this, says Weber: what is the point of this, ‘to sink into the grave weighed down with a great material load of money and goods’?

The protestant ethic didn’t hold sway for long, though; even in Weber’s time, it was on the wane. With the growth of mass consumerism and radical politics in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the new generation damned the traditional bourgeois work ethic as stuffy and restrictive. Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms – time is money; the light purse means a heavy heart – were by now ringing hollow. While Franklin’s prime concern was to be ‘useful’, the French poet Charles Baudelaire judged that: ‘To be a useful man has always appeared to me as something quite hideous.’

A new ethic was replacing Franklin’s religion of work, and this was analysed in Daniel Bell’s 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Bell identified a new countercultural ethic, based not on production but on consumption: the virtue was not public duty but the celebration of sensual enjoyment, the exploration and liberation of the self. Rather than saving every penny and denying oneself, there was now a revelling in abundance and in sensation. Not working to work, but enjoying to enjoy. In the 1920s, and then again in the 1960s, this countercultural wave rose up with particular force, shaking the work ethic to its foundations.

The question of what is the contemporary, twenty-first century ethic of capitalism is one of the most pressing of our times. US political theorist Benjamin Barber’s new book, Consumed, is an interesting contribution to this question.

Infantilisation and the new ethic of capitalism

Barber argues that the new ethic of capitalism is one of ‘infantilisation’: money today is to be made in maintaining adults as needy children, who stuff down dumbed-down films, saccharine food and video games. While in the early stages of capitalism it benefited the capitalist system for everybody to save their pennies, now it benefits the system for us to splurge every penny and borrow more. While in the time of Franklin people were encouraged to restrain themselves and reinvest, now, says Barber, we are encouraged to act on every immediate whim, to be the grasping child in a sweet shop unable to say no.

Barber is very worried about infantilisation. He uses the word ‘puerile’ a lot, not just in one chapter title but at times every few pages or so (p171 discusses the ‘puerile ways in which we think about who we are in terms of what we buy’; p174 mentions the ‘puerile [beer] ads featuring hot girls’). He contrasts our infantile consumption with the responsible and upright bourgeois gent, and finds us wanting. He says that while early capitalism encouraged the virtues, with the working man’s ‘robust notion of agency and a spirited grittiness’, now capitalism encourages the vices. One of the solutions he broaches is a rejuvenation of the work ethic, ‘a revolution that is more like a restoration of the situation under which capitalism has historically been most successful’.

The book captures well the grotesque features of contemporary capitalism, in which genuine needs go unmet and false needs are splurged and indulged. Barber’s formulation of this paradox – ‘the needy are without income and the well-heeled are without needs’ – is a neat one, and he portrays the decadent and senseless ends to which human time and resources are put. More on advertising than on aid; more on plastic surgery than on cancer surgery; more on Viagra than on tackling AIDS.

Yet Barber is wrong to call consumerism an ethic, or to present the current culture as an all-out celebration of stuff. There is no contemporary Benjamin Franklin singing the praises of video games and junk food; there are no respected books urging you to splurge all your pennies. All the respectable books say the same thing as Barber about consumerism, with their titles such as Enough, Affluenza or The Paradox of Choice. (Indeed, authors like the sound of ‘Affluenza’ so much that there are two books and one film by the same name.)

The sources Barber quotes as evidence of what he calls the ‘religion of selfishness’ include: a Porsche advert, a book subtitled ‘the capitalist pig guide to investing’, and the 1987 film Wall Street (which had the clear moral lesson that greed is not good). In actual fact, the celebration of consumerism that Bell identified – the 1960s revelling in personal liberation and sensation – is long gone. In the 2000s, man is uptight and anxious, consuming plenty but often guiltily, searching out the low-carbon, low-calorie, organic, fair-trade option from the supermarket shelves.

What happened to work?

If consumerism is emphasised more in our culture than production, play more than work, this is not only because consumption is what Western capitalism needs now – it is also because the production side of life is so lacking in ideological justification. Contrary to what Barber suggests, modern life is not just one long video game. Consumers work, do they not, before they can consume? And other people work much harder than us in the West, to provide such a vast market of iPods and designer trainers. It is just that the work part of life is done silently, lacking not only an ethic but also much tangible satisfaction.

It is not so much that we have an ethic of consumption, but that – by default – it remains as one of the few meaningful experiences in our lives. There is a tangibility and satisfaction to buying – to picking out a new shirt or a new album and taking it home – that means that shopping remains for individuals a confirmation of their power to make things happen in the world.

The power of consumption has been usefully theorised by the Marxist sociologist Georg Simmel. In The Philosophy of Money, he looks at how buying an object is an act of individual subjectivity, the person stamping himself on a thing and claiming his right to its exclusive enjoyment. Simmel cited the example of a friend he knew who would buy beautiful things, not to use them, but to ‘give an active expression to his liking of the things, to let them pass through his hands and, in so doing, to set the stamp of his personality upon them’.

Shopping remains a way in which our choices have a tangible effect, in which we can make something in our lives new and different. It also becomes the primary way in which people can enjoy the creativity and efforts of others, even if this is done unconsciously, without knowing who made something or how.

The enthusiasm with which people shop contrasts with the lack of enthusiasm with which they work. The work part of the day, which was Franklin’s primary concern, is too often experienced as just a drag. In many Western cities, people start to live for Friday nights and the weekends: they live not for their work, but for the time after when they can have fun and let loose. They work not to work, but to make money to enjoy life and forget about work.

A childish critique of consumer culture

If we compare Consumed with Daniel Bell’s 1976 Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, it tells us something interesting about the way consumerism is experienced and theorised today. Barber’s book, in comparison with Bell’s, reads as dumbed-down, superficial – childish, even. Although the contradictions of capitalism appear to have extended and deepened, theorists’ consciousness of them has become shallower.

Bell traced the hollowing-out of the work ethic: ‘Western society lacks both civitas, the spontaneous willingness to make sacrifices for some public good, and a political philosophy that justifies the normative rules of priorities and allocations in the society’; he explored how society’s culture of consumption conflicted with the mindset required for production, and how this presented a problem. By contrast, Barber dwells on goofy beer ads and ‘inane video games’. He looks at consumerist culture as it is immediately experienced, in the supermarket and on TV, rather than in relationship to the other parts of society, or to structural conditions that lie under the surface of everyday life.

At base, Consumed seems to be motivated by the experience of repulsion. Consumerism is just so tacky! Barber finds ‘consumer puerility’ in everything he sees, from the growing length of baseball timeouts to the growing number of camera-angle changes in Hollywood films. He gives us models of the consumer and the capitalist that are cartoon caricatures, not real, nuanced sociological categories. In his book, consumers are the guys who want the biggest hummer on the road, or the people addicted to shopping; capitalists are largely depicted as pornographers, the makers of violent video games, or tobacco marketers. Barber’s personal revulsion at the mall becomes immediately a sociological theory.

This is a shame because, as a result, Barber elides many of the nuances in today’s consumerist culture. He elides the contradiction between work and play; and the way people often consume and then apologise for it; and the gap between anti-consumerist books and people’s satisfaction at shopping… In short, he elides all the twists and turns, the lures and the loathings of modern consumerist culture, which would altogether be a rich subject to investigate.

Anti-consumerism’s limited imagination

Proposed anti-consumerist solutions are often similarly kneejerk, less political theory than gut reflex. The main reaction to consumerism is simply its opposite: to buy less. This is the main lesson of Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, in which he advises that people control their urge to shop by wearing blinkers in the supermarket. If you get worked up about which shirt to buy, ‘you could make it a rule to visit no more than two stores when shopping for clothing or to consider no more than two locations when planning a vacation’. Look at only two products, he counsels; choose one, and never return purchases.

The reaction to the limitations of consumption is simply to rein it in – not to emphasise work, or the bigger things in life, but merely to deny individuals consumption choices. Not to expand life, but to restrict shopping.

Similarly, Barber says that we need to become civic ‘gatekeepers’, protecting children from the video games and junk food that would corrupt them. For him, a civic mission lies primarily in controlling people’s access to the unwholesome aspects of the market. This is a public ethic that is not the transcendence of individual self-interest and desire, but merely its negation. In justification, Barber says that 200 TV channels is not freedom. That is true, but it is 100 times more freedom than two TV channels, if TV channels are all you have in your life. Merely restricting consumer options doesn’t make life more meaningful.

The old protestant ethic isn’t going to help us much, either. Weber in 1910 said that the ethic was going (‘the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport’); Bell in 1976 said that it was gone (‘The protestant ethic and the puritan temper, as social facts, were eroded long ago, and they linger on as pale ideologies, used more by moralists to admonish and by sociologists to mythologise than as behavioural realities’). Now, 30 years later, Barber sings Franklin’s praises. At another point in the book he gets misty-eyed about the welfare state, saying that the privatisation of the UK rail network by Margaret Thatcher was a big mistake and, apparently, ‘devastating to national morale’.

The attempt to bring back doomed past figures and theories seems to be a peculiar feature of our times. It is part of the postmodern condition, perhaps, that all the ideas of the past can be conjured up again, to sit alongside one another. Ideas that were dealt a deathblow 100 years ago or more now return as ghosts, called back not by their own virtues but by the ideological lack in the present. In medicine, for example, alternative medicine now haunts; and in the ideological sphere Franklin and Clement Atlee alike make their presence felt. But these guys are just hanging around: if Franklin’s work ethic was a ‘pale ideology’ 30 years ago, there is little hope for it now.

Beyond consumption?

So how, then, might we try to go beyond the culture of consumption? Barber suggests that citizens should choose to guide the market, and that there should be a new public-minded ethic. That might be a good idea – if only that public ethic were the transcendence of the market, and not a kneejerk reaction to it.

That is, if we could try to make more conscious decisions about how resources are used, on the basis of human needs and desires. Rather than saying fewer ice lollies, we could propose better ways to spend time and money: ways that would be more productive, more elevating, more sincerely enjoyable. If – in sum – we responded to the decadence and disruption of today’s market capitalism, not merely by saying shop less, but by suggesting a new discipline, a new value system, based on a standard of human value.

That could mean not only Barber’s admirable suggestions about meeting the needs of the very poor of the world: it could also mean to expand the realm of freedom, beyond basic biological needs, for as many people as possible. Not only anti-malnutrition bars but violin lessons and libraries; and beyond that public monuments and projects that would be in themselves concrete embodiments of Barber’s longed-for ‘civic spirit’.

Perhaps the biggest trouble with consumption is that we really are consumed by it – we can’t see beyond it, but can only push it away in disgust. Which is a shame, because today’s capitalist culture presents ample possibilities for new kinds of political theory and practice, for those curious enough to explore it. If political theorists do not want to be consumed by consumption, they should start thinking not from their guts but from their heads. And let Franklin bury Franklin.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a humanist campaigning network. Email her at

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin Barber is published by W W Norton & Co. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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