Consumerist hegemony

Print edition : January 25, 2013

A typical scene during holiday shopping at a mall in the United States. “Shop till you drop” is the buzz slogan of over-consumption. Photo: JONATHAN ALCORN/Reuters

THERE are no two opinions about the fact that our age is one of consumerism. As Oswald Spengler has argued, life in the contemporary world is exclusively economic in structure and lacks any depth, a feature inherent in any society and at any time when the economic prosperity of a people is judged by the quantity of consumption. This has varied down through centuries, but has never been so rabidly in excess as it is currently. Undoubtedly, consumerism is the underlying characteristic, an enduring and systemic necessity of contemporary times.

The extraordinary creations of the past make one wonder what went wrong with the aesthetics of a civilisation like ours which now fashions the monstrous and brutal shopping arcades that litter our cities where you see very little human encounter or the sense of wonder that you experience in ancient cities. The politics of aesthetics is underpinned by the hegemony of consumerism and the overwhelming nature of the “super-scrapers” of today, where the super-affluent live, shop and vacation.

Kim Humphrey, an Associate Professor of History and Social Theory at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, in his engagingly relevant book Excess: Anti-consumerism in the West attempts to assert the upsurge of the anti-consumerist movement at a time when the idea of consumer excess within the context of global recession is taken to be an aberration that someday might usher in a world difficult to survive in. As Humphrey compellingly argues: “Consumerism is conventionally understood as referring not to the consumption of goods and services per se, but to the endless desire and routinely wasteful consumption of affluent economies. Scholars have unceasingly portrayed consumerism as paradigmatic of a capitalist modernity and a way of life.

By 2008, however, warnings of the consumer culture turned to lament, with many social critics laying blame for the pulverised global financial market.”

This timely and original book is a challenge to the ideology of consumerism, invoking its cultural politics through the idea of a “civic politics” of ethical consumption “whereby individuals are encouraged as responsible citizens to consume in ways that are mindful of the effects of their consumption on others and on the environment”. Such an inculcation of ethics addresses issues of waste economy, of unhappiness at the excessive availability of choice along with the stress and misery of declining wealth. “Shop till you drop” is the buzz slogan of over-consumption, an inescapable function of a society that is directly locked with the recent impact of recession, giving rise to a vigorous politics of anti-consumerism.

As an oppositional discourse, Humphrey looks beyond the world of glitzy commodity and dreams of a new consumer boom to an “ethos of ethical consumption” and a lifestyle change “embodied in movements for simple and slow living”. To him, anti-consumerism is an intellectual and political concern of justice, of right action and good judgment. Both the individual and the powers that drive the consumption systems are his targets, determined as he is to castigate the “affluenza” of boom-time economics: “The timeliness, importance and resonance of a critique of Western overconsumption can hardly be disputed at a moment when our world seems to be under so much of pressure environmentally, socio-politically and economically…. A renewed politics of consumption has repositioned the economic and social practices of Western populations in relation to a whole set of interrelated issues: our attitude towards nature, our sense and use of time, our understanding of life satisfaction, the exploitative labour practices of global commodity production, the imperative to consume in a sustainable manner, and our obligation to ensure a globally equitable level of access to and distribution of the world’s resources.”

These large-scale challenges of a consumerist society call for international collective action in a culture that is capable of not only imaginatively and wisely engineering a transformation in what we so mindlessly consume, but also working towards a simpler and healthier existence on this planet keeping in mind the necessity of ecological balance and an all-out concern for environmental degradation. Anti-consumerist activists “express concern over modern corporations or organisations that pursue solely economic goals at the expense of environmental, social, or ethical concerns; these concerns overlap with those of environmental activism, anti-globalisation, and animal-rights activism. One variation on this is the concept of postconsumers, who emphasise moving beyond addictive consumerism.”

The current condition of global capitalism brings up the polemics between the apologists of a free market economy and the passionate defence of a more natural living where human values are still respected and appreciated. Undeniably, the simplicity of a rural marketplace is more aesthetic than the urban shopping mall symbolic of the scourge of neoliberalism combined with an alienating architecture. I remember one cold sunny morning a few years ago when I walked down a bazaar in a remote village in the mountains. The shopkeepers sat in the sun chatting while we sauntered down the bazaar. A very warm feeling swept over me as I shopped, a moment of awakening to the synthetic monoculture of the urban mall where the artificial becomes “more real than the real”, where needs are produced and desires managed. There are no longer traditional values of truth or reality, but only the play of the outward show where more than contentment is the love of material acquisition, a need and a struggle for buying more and more “stuff”.

This craving for more than our basic needs is indeed a step towards the ruin of our planet and our health, notwithstanding the insurmountable debts that we are burdened with. As Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote in Truthout monthly: “We all still yearn for a world based on generosity, caring for each other, caring for the environment, respecting difference, and eliminating poverty and war.... The task for genuine liberals and progressives is to affirm this yearning for a better world.” Such a possibility is possible if some success can be achieved through countering the corporate ideology of predatory capitalism. Commodity fetishism and market seduction that go hand in hand are the villains of the contemporary hunger for hedonistic greed, a love of the material that determines and constitutes us and our “reality” in a more fundamental manner than we can imagine.

The book draws on interviews with activists across three continents, focussing on the debate surrounding consumerism and its rampant practice over the long march of history as well as the need to counter certain forms of consumption. Dismantling of public welfare in the name of private enterprise and the brutalisation of the inner city space only provoke a language of resistance—of land, poetry, art, ecology and dignity underpinned by the question: Do we let ourselves be claimed by this affliction or should we consider our existence, in the words of the philosopher-critic Giorgio Agamben, “a possibility or a potentiality” where the act of resistance remains the only human force to counter the decadence of an ugly world proliferating with objects which confer social prestige on consumers? This calamity of unbridled economics can be countered through a celebration of creativity by an act of imagination and a transgression of modern-day production that cater to unquenchable consumer fantasy with equal extravagance.

Humphrey provides a comprehensive overview and an analysis of what has come to be called the “new politics of consumption”, a politics visible in movements such as “culture jamming, simple living, slow food and fair trade”.

The purpose of the book is indeed to create a better vision and a hope for a better lifestyle and a collective action to retard this decline and fall into a crass obsession with the material at the cost of more human values.