Consumer Culture: a diatribe

(How can I hope to explain everything on a blog? This requires a ten-volume textbook. Gramsci's words: Engels wrote that "many people think it very convenient to think that they can have the whole of history and all political and philosophical wisdom in their pockets at little cost and no trouble, concentrated into a few short formulae..." and "'Citical' activity is reduced to the exposure of swindles, to creating scandals, and to pying into the pockets of public figures." But here is another piece of the puzzle.)

This can't be just another rant about consumer culture. I mean, it is, but not the usual kind. Many on the left, especially the far left, take it as an article of faith that our soundbite-infested, ad-driven, revenue-focused, business-dominated, capitalism-loving society is fundamentally evil. This is a foolish--but understandable--thing to think. Here's why: societies can't be good or evil. Only people can. Just as a corporation (a fictive legal entity) can't do anything, and so cannot be responsible for its actions, except in a purely technical legal sense, a society is made up of people who carry out acts. They do so in its name, in some cases, but the responsibility for "its" actions, if it can be said to have any, rests on the shoulders of those who in fact carry out the "will" of, say, the government. A lot of people will immediately have a reaction to the following statement, though I hope they can see clearly enough that it is true: Nazi Germany was not an evil society. Again, it was an authoritarian regime, members of which were, indeed, evil, and in whose name evil acts were carried out by people who ought to have known better. So the comparison implies this: if you, contrariwise, assert that no, Nazi Germany was an evil society you are absolving members of that society of responsibility for their actions--you give them the "I was just following orders" defense. (At least to the extent that you allow factitious systems agency.)

You may, however, be right in thinking that, nonetheless, something is wrong with social systems (governmental, religious, traditional, business, etc.) that conduce to the murder of millions of people. You may even claim that autocratic government, as a form of rule, is itself conducive to human rights abuses, atrocities, etc. I think I would say rather that it is susceptible to these, and certainly contains fewer structural barriers to their occurring. Still, remember that Hitler came to power through democratic election... In any case, we're not talking directly about government, but something different, today.

Okay, a question to move forward from: who is responsible for the ad-saturation of our current culture? Look at all the cultural "space" we have: public squares, roads, views, broadcast media, the internet, magazines, newspapers... It's all chock full of advertisements for, well, everything. So the analogy, or parallel, to consider is whether our current culture is one that's amenable to, or even inherently conducive toward, the commodification of both material and psychic "things." Riddle me this--is western capitalism a system that reduces all to a vast sum of nothings?

Posing the questions this way will no doubt arouse in some folks a suspicion that the field under discussion is skewed already toward a particular viewpoint. I can't really argue that it isn't. But, on the other hand, any other way of addressing the topic will be similarly skewed. So that is not a reason to dismiss the question. I don't want to get bogged down in some sort of discussion about fundamental approaches to historical/cultural criticism. I will, however, disclaim that I'm not a historical materialist per se, even where I do find that some of the post-Hegelian theorizing is more insightful, in some way more accurate, somehow gives a better picture than, say, the more limited approach that followers of Kissenger and Adam Smith will attempt to push. Looking at how I approach the issue and thinking it through along with me should allow you to see that I do not apply theory directly--I don't have the training for it in any case.

Advertisements, of course, as we now know them, developed through a confluence of technological developments (especially the industrialization of everything from breakfast cereal production to newspaper printing) and the ingenuity that capitalism breeds. Yes: although I consider myself a severe critic of laissez faire economics/politics, I do recognize that the crypto-Darwinian account of the innovative drive capitalist competition engenders is in some respects useful or helpful. But the compliments I pay are such to the extent only that they in fact benefit human beings collectively and I reject any celebration of the J.P. Morgans so lauded as exemplars by some "conservatives." (We'll set aside discussion of the sort of Randian foolishness this implies, perhaps to address it another day.)

What is the purpose of the ad? To increase profit (restricting the present discussion only to the economic, specifically business, side of things). For this is the ultimate end of business enterprise, obviously. The abbreviated account of the development of modern adspace is simply that most businesses find advertising a solid strategy for success, and so as the number of businesses increases, as the number of ads needing to be placed increases, etc. there are more and more opportunities for "surfaces" to be plastered with good-looking models hawking whatever. The present situation is that, unlikely as it seems, we are not yet nearing the point of saturation with advertisements. The saturation point would be that state of affairs in which, whatever you do, one or more products (which includes services) are being marketed to you, and where no more ads can be placed without their mutually interfering and lessening the efficacy of each individual ad. (Is it possible to place ads in sex?)

What drives the ever-expanding commodification of life; that is, what processes are involved in everything, from religion to community to arts to science to health to government, becoming something to be bought and sold? Politics is perhaps the exception, since power-brokering is a natural outgrowth of social organization (likewise anything or anyone that gets caught up in the business of governance--an example would be the selling of indulgences by the papacy). But notice that money and business and success and happiness itself--if that can even mean anything distinctive anymore--are all though to be linked inextricably together. By whom? Well, watch television on any station at any time of the day...

Industrialized (or, as they now like to say, post-industrial) capitalism coincides with the weakening of traditional forms of rule. Perhaps this is merely empirical, but the fact then indicates that our present mode of social organization carries within is the seeds of, basically, cronyism. Think of the "robber barons" of the "golden age" within thirty years either side of the turn of the 20th century. Think of the collapse of the (corrupt) Soviet system into true laissez faire capitalism. Look to the transformation of Maoist china into a gangster syndicate of unbelievable power. Look at the Bush family.

Now of course we can point a finger at a bit of jurisprudence that's bedeviled both entrepreneurs and civil society for quite a while. That is the set of legal precedents by which corporations are considered legal persons. (Yes, some people are now shaking their heads. Go eat a Whopper.) The fiction of the corporation as "person" allows what Noam Chomsky (I bet you'd like some fries with that, too, and a shake) unfortunately accurately calls "unaccountable tyrannies" to get away with murder. Literally: premeditated actions intended to end a life or in any case knowingly abstaining from actions which could easily prevent forseeable loss of life. Their mention here is not the usual complaining, but just adding another piece to the puzzle: huge egoistic entities with vast power and resources (not to mention their owners, a relatively small group also of vast power whose interests coincide) which, through their "right" (purely legal) to "free speech" (purely ridiculous) are able to influence politics to allow them to push their agenda. Which is, of course, essentially deregulation and detaxation. [We are fairly certain 'detaxation' is not a real word, yet. --f.]

Now let's look at the mythology of America for a moment. Yes, mythology. Because every country, nation, ethnic group, and so forth has its own story about itself. It tells itself (I mean, the members tell each other) this story repeatedly--ad nauseam, on occasion. This is a major part of how we form our identity: identifying oneself as part of the ongoing epic of a group full of "people like me." What do we tell each other about ourselves? This is sometimes difficult to figure out, because it's so pervasive as to become invisible and silent--like the hum of a ventilation fan, always affecting us unnoticed.

The topic has, actually, been expounded upon at length in various places. The pessimistic version perhaps best done by Daniel Quinn (though really, some of his archeological anthropology is off; that however is a different issue). But I'll try to summarize a bit, with some familiar ideas you may recognize.
1. America is the promised land of (insert whoever)
1a. America is the "land of promise"
2. Americans are more resourceful than anyone else
3. Americans are independent thinkers; they march to their own drums
4. America is a democracy
5. Americans are blessed with opportunities
6. America is the embodiment of all the progress humanity has made since (insert era)
7. Americans are superior to people from other countries
7a. Americans deserve their superiority because (insert justification)
8. Americans work hard
9. America is the "best/greatest country in the world"
10. The American system brings benefits to everyone
11. God blesses America because (insert justification)
12. Nobody's perfect
12a. The current incarnation of the Homeland can hardly be held accountable for the mistakes of old
12b. Not that we admit there were any
13. Constant progress makes all prior history irrelevant
14. Image is substance
15. Individualism is the right way to live
16. Everyone wants to be just like us
17. Humans are imperfect, but we're doing as well as it's possible to do
17a. We've already solved all/most/the important ones of our problems
We're sober and deep thinkers; we're innovators; we're committed to helping others; we cooperate with each other/anyone who is our friend; etc. Right? You should be able to get the picture now.

Seriously, think about how many people you know who think one or more of these things (I occasionally meet people who believe that racism is no longer a problem/issue in this country). Chances are, you hear a lot of things like what's on the list, or that implies something on the list. Now, buying into the myth isn't itself bad. As I mentioned, every group uses stories and mythology to create an identity for the members.

The problem is that our economic structure conduces to selling everything; a buck is a buck, however you make it. And since we're the greatest group of people ever who deserve everything we get in this, the best of all possible worlds, whatever we actually end up doing must be all right. Now of course almost nobody explicitly thinks like that. But the toned-down version is nearly as bad. What you get is a bunch of people who are socialized (trained; brainwashed) into egoism. These people are committed to the capitalism-friendly idea that things and success and personal fulfillment are one and the same. "Go make a success of yourself, young person," says the elder. What do you hear? Many, many people hear "Get a good job and a nice house and an SUV and and and..."

Hold on, let's backtrack. Max Weber and the (Protestant) Work Ethic. Have you heard of this? The idea is that working hard demonstrates your piousness. And those who work hard and are successful are favored in the eyes of God (you can't spend your money on ostentation because it's the sin of pride, so you can only reinvest). Because you must be one of the elect. (The elect are those predestined to go to heaven, blah blah theology of an omniscient omnipotent creator-deity.) But, sadly, capitalism and the liberalization of government (i.e. the democratization of it), among other cultural changes, boot the religious aspect. So success is just the demonstration that someone is a good person. Worth as a person is equated with material holdings. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and what do we see? Everything is something that has to do with demonstrating your worth.

Now of course, advertising itself has a synergistic interaction with the understandable and innate need of human beings to belong to a social group. So in the ads we see there's always someone slightly more attractive than we socialize with or are, someone a bit more successful who one could become friends with/screw/be if only you had this or that to demonstrate your participation in their group... Playing on people's insecurity about their social standing is just good business.

Well, everyone now wants to make a buck, right? Everything costs money. Farmers lease bits of land for billboards, because there are all those unused eyes on the highway. Building owners can turn their vertical acreage into cash crops. Urinals offer friendly reminders of things much more pleasant than the task in hand. Taxis favor us with in-flight offers. We're supposed to ask the gynecologist about XYZ-iol. What people wear is a mobile reminder of how you don't have something that is so cool. The internet is, sadly, 75% marketing gimmick. Television is a service for advertisers, not a product you should pay for, but you do. You are constantly paying your (hard-earned?) money to have people with toothy, oily grins try to peddle something at you.

So what does all this finally add up to? (Having said that, let me admit I've neglected the "brand as personal identity" tribalism you find even in ad-creation literature, and I don't have much to say about it just now, but it feeds off of and into some of the remarks above.)

We can tie all the threads together, I think. The economic development of capitalism coincided with the rise of an "Enlightenment" liberalism that celebrates the individual. The material component of religion dropped out of the culture, so that accumulation of objects became acceptable. Those who succeed are good people (anyone can succeed, remember, if they just take advantage of the opportunities afforded them--but bad people won't), and they show this by the things that they own. Material holdings are also a way of demonstrating participation in a social group. Advertising, having finished with merely extolling the virtues of a product, now acts as a creator of demand: it creates a feeling of inadequacy in the audience, or, better, plays on the feelings of inadequacy our society brings about in people whose lives are otherwise fine. The media which relies on ads, of course, feeds the feeling of inadequacy. And since anyone allowing an ad to be put up anywhere is just an honest businessperson trying to eke out another margin of profit, the expansion of advertising into all aspects of cultural space goes on unchecked.

No particular person(s) are responsible for all that has gone on, but certainly many people contribute. I contribute each time I buy something because off an ad. Anyone working in advertising probably contributes a lot. So do lifestyle magazines, politicians who like (big) business, Hollywood producers, automobile manufacturers, your neighbors. A good question: "How much have I bought into the commodification of my personal worth?" For if I buy, say, a Rolex, what am I doing? I probably don't need the thing, not to keep time. I'm trading my work for money for a status symbol that demonstrates how awesome I am. I haven't necessarily done anything worthwhile; I've only obtained something that symbolizes worthwhileness--image becomes "substance."

Do I hold advertising executives responsible for encroaching on my mind space and attempting to control my thoughts (which is what media saturation amounts to)? Yes. But this is hardly a capital offense. It is more useful, I think, to recognize the structural features of the culture that allow, condone, and even encourage our transformation toward the compulsive-buying lifestyle of Huxley's "Brave New World." All extreme analogies and alarmism aside, consider this: how much better off you believe you will be if you obtain some material object. I'm sure you can think of something you may someday (be able to) buy that will improve your happiness. Right?


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