On why consumerism is not a conspiracy

In comments of this post at Nathan Colquhoun’s blog, positive mention was made of The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed.

One of the things I learned from that book (written by more politically minded left-wing thinkers against left-wing “counterculture” exemplified by people like AdBusters) is what consumerism really is, and why it continues despite attempts by people like AdBusters to make consumerism “uncool” (through adding new products to the market to be consumed…). Here is an extensive quote from that book, hopefully enough to give everyone a taste. (Another thing they made obvious to me is that the story of The Matrix is really an attempted parable of Jean Baudrillard’s thought, though apparently Baudrillard doesn’t think it was successful.):

Part of the attraction of the consumerism-as-conformity thesis [argued by thinkers like Baudrillard–AF] is that it helps to explain why consumer goods fail to generate any lasting satisfaction. If we don’t really need any of these things in the first place, then it’s a bit easier to understand why we find ourselves unhappy at the end of the day. Yet there are other, more plausible explanations available. First, it is worth noting that in developing countries, economic growth does an enormous amount to promote overall happiness. It is only once a society has become quite wealthy that growth no longer delivers increased happiness. Second, there is a still a fairly strong correlation between relative wealth and happiness, even in very rich societies. While money doesn’t buy happiness, having more money than your neighbours does significantly improve your prospects.

This observation is at the heart of the critique of consumer society developed by Thorstein Veblen in the late 19th century. In many respects, Veblen’s analysis is far more penetrating than any of the theories developed in the 20th century. In Veblen’s view, the fundamental problem with the consumer society is not that our needs are artificial, but that the goods produced are valued less for their intrinsic properties than for their role as markers of relative success. When a society is very poor, an increase in productive capacity is almost entirely directed toward producing “staple” goods: clean water, nutritious food, decent shelter, and so on. The economic growth initially produces tangible, permanent gains in individual satisfaction. However, once these more elementary needs are satisfied, goods become valued increasingly for their “honorific” properties. Clothing becomes more ornately decorated, houses become larger, food preparation becomes more elaborate and jewelry begins to make its appearance. All of these goods serve as markers of social status.

The problem is that while an increase in “material” goods can generate increased happiness for everyone, status is an intrinsically zero-sum game. In order for one person to win, someone else must lose. Moving up necessarily involves bumping someone else—or everyone else—down. So the time and effort invested in the production of prestige goods is, according to Veblen, “wasteful.” Veblen is careful to point out, however, that to call such expenditures wasteful “implies no such deprecation of the motives or ends sought by the consumer.” The reason it is wasteful is that when everyone does it, everyone winds up right back where they started. Thus the expenditure of time and energy does not generate any improvements in “human well-being on the whole.”

This is not Puritanism. In Veblen’s view, consumerism is essentially a collective action problem—a prisoner’s dilemma. To see how this argument works, consider the case of two doctors, each of whom drives to work in a modest Honda sedan. Suppose they both believe the… thesis that in order to succeed, “one must project an image of success at all times.” They also know that patients are likely to be suspicious of a doctor who doesn’t drive at least a BMW. Of course, they also know that they should be saving some of their income for retirement. But that seems a long way away. Furthermore, buying the new car now should improve business, making it easier to save that much more later.

In this way, it is easy for either doctor to talk himself into buying the BMW. But does this improve business? The strategy only works if not all the doctors do it. If every doctor runs out and buys a BMW, then patients still have no basis for choosing one doctor over another. The situation is the same as it was when they were all driving Hondas, except that now everyone is saving less and spending more on their car payments. Soon enough, the BMW comes to be seen as merely an entry-level car. Of course, in this situation, the only way to improve one’s position is to go out and buy a Mercedes or a Jaguar. Yet this just forces the others to make the same expenditure in order to keep up. Again, everyone winds up back where they started, and there is no overall increase in happiness.

Thus, as society as a whole grows wealthier, consumer behaviour increasingly acquires the structure of an arms race. It’s like turning up your stereo in order to drown out the neighbor’s music. At first, this produces a genuine improvement in welfare—you no longer have to listen to the noise coming from next door. The problem arises only when the neighbor, in response, turns her stereo up even higher. The same principle applies to consumers. Their consumption decisions generate no lasting increase in happiness, but this does not mean consumers are stupid, irrational or brainwashed. It simply means that they are stuck in a collective action problem.

Yet the competition is not limited to status seekers and social climbers. People who are not particularly interested in outdoing their neighbours, but who want to maintain a “respectable” living standard, wind up having to spend more year after year. Their consumption takes the form of “defensive consumption,” since they are for the most part just trying to avoid humiliation. In other words, they are trying to keep up with the Joneses. But as the example of the arms race illustrates, it doesn’t matter whether armaments are acquired for defensive or for offensive purposes—the consequences are the same. One person’s attempt to retain a decent living standard merely forces the others to spend more in order to acquire superior status. Consumption habits therefore tend to be propagated downward through the social hierarchy, as they become increasingly emulated by those in the lower ranks.” 113-115

If anyone thinks this is all intellectual head-games, they need to read the authors’ explanation of some of the logic behind Kurt Cobain’s suicide. What one believes about consumerism can alter one’s life in real ways, especially if one has made one’s life on trying to combat consumerism.