Consuming distaste

October 27, 2004 at 9:44 pm | In yulelogStories | 3 Comments

If you live in Canada, you can buy a recently published book, The Rebel Sell, by Torontonians Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. In the US, it will be published under a different title: Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. I like the original title better — it makes me feel cleverer, and that’s what marketing is all about, isn’t it? Me-me-me, the consumer? Seriously, though, this book seems worth a read. Heath and Potter did spill most of the thesis in This Magazine earlier this year. Their guiding question is, How can we all denounce consumerism, and yet still find ourselves living in a consumer society? They suggest that we aren’t critiquing consumerism at all: instead, we are critiquing mass society while telling ourselves that this critique equates somehow with a critique of consumerism. It doesn’t, according to the authors:

In fact, the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years.

That last sentence is worth reading again. The idea is so foreign, so completely the opposite of what we are used to being told, that many people simply can’t get their head around it. It is a position that Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler [hint: current issue (nr.16) has an essay by Dubravka Ugresic, yea!], has been trying to communicate for years. Strangely, all the authors of anti-consumerism books have read Frank—most even cite him approvingly—and yet not one of them seems to get the point. So here is Frank’s claim, simply put: books like No Logo, magazines like Adbusters, and movies like American Beauty do not undermine consumerism; they reinforce it.
This theory [of mass society] acquired such a powerful grip on the imagination of the left during the 1960s that many people still have difficulty seeing it for what it is—a theory. Here are a few of its central postulates:

1. Capitalism requires conformity in the workers. Capitalism is one big machine; the workers are just parts. These parts need to be as simple, predictable, and interchangeable as possible. One need only look at an assembly line to see why. Like bees or ants, capitalist workers need to be organized into a limited number of homogeneous castes.

2. Capitalism requires conformity of education. Training these corporate drones begins in the schools, where their independence and creativity is beaten out of them—literally and figuratively. Call this the Pink Floyd theory of education.

3. Capitalism requires sexual repression. In its drive to stamp out individuality, capitalism denies the full range of human expression, which includes sexual freedom. Because sexuality is erratic and unpredictable, it is a threat to the established order. This is why some people thought the sexual revolution would undermine capitalism.

4. Capitalism requires conformity of consumption. The overriding goal of capitalism is to achieve ever-increasing profits through economies of scale. These are best achieved by having everyone consume the same limited range of standardized goods. Enter advertising, which tries to inculcate false or inauthentic desires. Consumerism is what emerges when we are duped into having desires that we would not normally have.>

Heath and Potter continue to dissect the film American Beauty, dismantling its hero’s supposed rebel stance and showing that it is, instead, simply a more competitively savvy stance:

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. (…)

They proceed to skewer No Logo‘s Naomi Klein; she had written disparagingly of the condo-fication of her factory-loft neighbourhood, a movement that threatened her directly: “Her complaints about [real estate] commercialization [in downtown Toronto] are nothing but an expression of this loss of distinction.” (Here I was reminded of John Lennon’s murder, which Cathy, one of my really hard political friends dismissed, literally within hours of its occurence, as a media event designed to manipulate the masses emotionally. Ouch, I remember thinking, I liked John Lennon. But I saw Cathy’s point, and Heath and Potter’s point holds just as well.)
Their distinction (ahem) between conformism and distinction is useful, sharp:

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. (It is also why, when they do consume “mass society” products, they must do so “ironically”—so as to preserve their distinction.)

And don’t we all know a bunch of people exactly like that: countercultural types, drop-outs, people who sneer at people who shop at big box stores, listen to commercial radio, or feel sad when John Lennon gets murdered. How can anyone, these “aware” people contend, think that mass-produced and mediated products or events can have any authenticity?

As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, taste is first and foremost distaste—disgust and “visceral intolerance” of the taste of others. This makes it easy to see how the critique of mass society could help drive consumerism.
We find ourselves in an untenable situation. 0n 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.

Meanwhile, don’t start thinking that you as an individual can drive lasting or meaningful change all by your lonesome, however. You’re not John Lennon (or Princess Di), after all. Read Heath and Potter’s take on SUVs, for example, and read, especially, this bit:

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.

Of course, tweaking the tax code is not quite as exciting as dropping a “meme bomb” into the world of advertising or heading off to the latest riot in all that cool mec gear. It may, however, prove to be a lot more useful. 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. [More… ]

Somehow, I think this prescription (and critique) dovetails nicely with George Lakoff‘s analyses of reactionary-conservative agendas to hijack moral issues and policy. On the left, we’re so busy arguing about individual piety (giving up this or that, making our footprint tinier, being [competitively] more radically chic than the next guy, etc.), eschewing consumerism (evil, evil) and mass society (bad, bad) that we’ve left the terrain of political action — legislation, small acts of democratic intervention (when was the last time you called your Member of the Legislative Assembly or your Congressman?), and all sorts of other systems-work to the rightwingers. Yeah, so we’ve got our “meme bombs,” but the problem is that they’ve got the tax code. Time to restrategise. Incidentally, I was sad when John Lennon was shot, and I did resent being told by my Leninist (not Lennonist) girlfriend that my sadness was merely reified bourgeois sentimentalism. That’s the other problem with being cool beyond brands, including drop-out drop-dead politically radically cool: you’re not supposed to allow yourself to feel anything, unless it’s been approved by the party line. In that sense, individuality is a conundrum: maybe you can’t buy it, but don’t try to deny it..

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