Consumerism as a Social Act

A Left-wing Defense of Consumerism

In recent years, many segments of the Left have adopted the politics of anti-consumerism. It perhaps becomes even more pronounced around this time of the year, firstly with the advent of what is known as ‘black Friday’ and then with the run up to Christmas. The Left however, should be celebrating the mass abundance of consumerism, and recognise that attacks on consumerism are elitist, and that consumerism itself is often a social act.

The Anti-consumerist generally views the purchase of consumer goods with thinly veiled contempt for the consumerist passions of the proles, who are supposedly tricked into buying stuff they don’t need. Or more sophisticatedly, consumerism is viewed as creating an anatomized society, breaking down relations between humans, leading us to all becoming atomized consumers.

Anti-consumerist politics is little more than patronizing liberalism. The anti-consumerist views the consumer as an idiot, a zombie devoid of ability to think beyond the simple desire to buy. According to the critic of consumerism, the worker does not really need or particularly want the latest iPod or clothing item, he or she has been duped into thinking so. The anti-consumerist by thinking like this reveals his elitism. He has elevated himself above the crowd, above the great mass of people and believes he has identified the real everyday wants, needs and desires of everyone. He assumes he knows what really will bring you joy or happiness, and he has concluded it isn’t a new pair of trainers.

The mass act of buying goods, we are told, is inherently individualistic. Consumerism supposedly atomizes society. It turns us all into beings alienated from each other, only concerned with owning or buying the latest trinkets.

Consumerism, however, is an entirely social act. The benefits a person gains from consuming something cannot be determined or calculated by market forces. When someone purchases a new item of clothing, the value from wearing it cannot be seen anymore in terms of exchange value; the use cannot be quantified. The value lies in feelings your new purchase creates between you and others, between yourself and your friends, lover, or family. The act of consumption creates for you no gain in monetary profit, only ‘social profit’. The gain of a new item of clothing is the social bonds it creates. The consumerist act of buying new clothes is to portray oneself as ‘good’ or ‘nice’ and such for a close one, or even just strangers on the street. To the cold rational and calculating economist of capitalism such considerations are futile and irrational. Of course most consumerists do not only buy clothes to meet the approval of their current or prospective boss. Consumers purchase clothes in order to present themselves towards others, be they friends, family, or stranger, for no identifiable monetary gain. Consumerism is an act to create or recreate social relationships.

In Against Thrift, James Livingston argues that consumerism ‘turns you inside out’. Shopping is not a solitary experience where only the individual is taken into account. When buying new clothes, you try them on in anticipation of how they will be viewed by others, so according to Livingstone ‘you are already seeing yourself from the outside in, as if you were another person’. By trying on clothes to purchase the consumer is anticipating how those around them (society) will view them. The anti-consumerist attempts to portray consumerism as an individualistic act does not make sense here. For an individualistic act is not, as consumerism is, something that requires you to position yourself in different social settings and from the viewpoint of others – the exact thing that consumerism, in regards to clothing, requires. The real individualism would be a shunning of consumerist clothing habit, without a care for how your clothes appear to others.

Left wing politics should aim for and celebrate mass abundance. The anti-consumerist starts from an elitist and patronizing position. Capitalism should be criticized for its method of production, not for allowing the social act of consumption. Capitalism should be challenged for not producing enough, not for producing too much. Any post-capitalist world must be one of mass abundance.

Tom Bailey is a graduate student and a writer from London, UK. Follow him on Twitter @tbaileybailey. Read other articles by Tom.