Why Do We Love Consumerism?

De-linking from the dominant ideological themes of capitalist society is a difficult task. The globalization of capital under the regime of neoliberal deregulation has allowed consumerism to establish a pervasive presence throughout the world. Even if we get to know harrowing information about the inequalities and injustices of the reining consumption model, we don’t enact a radical transformation of our personality. The response to anti-capitalist information remains confined to a momentary reaction of repulsion. Even as new mental data enters our consciousness, the latter continues to remain in a passive state. The inflow of enlightened knowledge settles into a tiny corner of our mind, failing to penetrate the structure of our comportment. Though we know that humanity is headed towards extinction due to the imperative of profit-maximization, we still can’t shake off the gravitational pull exercised by the latest expensive commodity on the market. There is a divide between what we know and what we do. In fact, this divide is systematically taught to people from the very moment they enter into the education system: the importance of knowing (in the form of reading, writing, discussing etc.) is limited by the extent to which it contributes to what can be done in the exam hall. Thus, knowledge is never autonomous; it is already circumscribed by the specific questions that will be printed on the exam paper. Ideology under capitalism operates in a similar way: the consumer can think whatever they want, they can acquaint themselves with knowledge that is critical of the bourgeoisie, but they always follow the rule of commodity consumption.

The general form of intellectual subjectivity can be defined by the framework of capitalist consumption. Consumers are faced with whatever lies in front of them, in the atmosphere that surrounds them. The thing is a fixed object that is to be taken and used up. What is important to note here is the social setting that this implies: interactions happen in such a way that I can actively see the commodity and then buy it for my use. When I am walking on the street, I am repeatedly confronted with shops and advertisements that prominently display different commodities. So, capitalist consumption is a practical arrangement of human bodies and commodities in such a way that they are materially joined to each other in an all-encompassing spatio-temporal landscape. That’s why intellectual enlightenment fails to have any actual effect on the consumer: no matter how aware I am of the depravity of the capitalist system, my own life is organized in such a way that it is completely dependent upon bourgeois standards of excellence. The feeling of comfort and happiness derived from the consumption of a commodity is not a mere illusion: in the capitalist system, those who have socially desired commodities do command reverence from others. The body of the rich person is a confident one, as they are sure that others will envy them and talk to them in an ingratiating manner. Subaltern masses will always be there to dutifully obey their orders. This is the physical substratum of politics: the historical arrangement of bodies determines whose words and actions will have the capacity to influence those of others.

In a capitalist society, the private ownership of the means of production signifies that the bourgeoisie has the access to the socio-cultural infrastructure that determines the level of social recognition. When I don’t have access to this class-based resource, I am excluded from the dominant form of recognition: no one will pay attention to me, no one will listen to my words or respond to my actions. Consider this phenomenological scenario. The rich person who steps out from their luxurious car, who walks arrogantly towards the five-star hotel, is the center of the local social relations. Buildings, roads, clothes, food, vehicles etc. – all these elements of the social landscape, modalities of interacting with other people and things, are in the hands of the rich person. The structure of interaction – the arrangement of objects and bodies – is such that they will always be able to assertively undertake their various actions of driving, eating, walking, talking etc. Those who are not rich will be situated at the peripheries of the social landscape; their bodies don’t possess any capacity to meld with the five-star hotel, with the absurdly priced car, with the exorbitant food. For them, there is no synchrony. They live in constant chaos and dissonance: their very existence is in contradiction with the hegemonic way of living. The poor are a menace to be avoided and eliminated. Rich people, on the other hand, exist in a tight interlinkage with their social environment. The built environments, the historically accumulating ecosystems of opulence, have special slots for the bourgeoisie. Card access elevator systems, wherein authorized individuals use a key card or access card to activate and operate elevators, is a prime example of the social slotting that operates in bourgeois circles. The smoothness of the card stands for the untarnished security of the rich person, their perfect integration into the metallic exclusivism of the elevator. Far from the masses, the capitalist stands cocooned in the silence of the elevator, in the undisturbed aura of monetarily secured mobility.

The organization of social atmospheres around the needs and desires of the bourgeoisie means that the allure of consumerism is structurally rooted in material structures of interaction, in the physicality of bodies and objects in contact with each other. Seeing an affluent person, we feel attracted towards them because their harmonious intermeshing with social ecosystems contrasts with our own sense of discomfort in a world made for the rich. Even if we are aware how unsustainable and destructive the bourgeois lifestyle is, we nonetheless crave the comportment of synchrony that is contained in the existence of the capitalist. Engrained in the regularized rhythms of consumerist fantasy, of the security embodied in the commodity, we remain unconsciously attached to capitalist society. How to break this attachment? For this, we require revolutionary practice instead of theoretical knowledge. We need to construct alternative spaces of resistance, actually existing communities of association in which, no matter how fleetingly, one can touch the sensibilities of a different way of relating with others and the world. These spaces are opposed to the exclusivism of class divisions, wherein bodily comportments desire elitist power, the power to be the sole nucleus of social settings, to make the world revolve around oneself.

Revolutionary desire doesn’t want the social ecosystem to be carved for itself. Instead, it realizes how a de-centered world allows a dynamic interdependency and inter-structuration of the existing elements, wherein the identity of the self is transformed by the continuously evolving totality of others. When I talk to someone not for the purpose of careerist social networking but for the conviction-laden, passionate words we both share, I thread together a non-monetary economy of free labor, where conversations keep revealing something new to us. There is no bourgeois synchrony here. There is only the revolutionary mutation of everything that exists. Through these restructured associations, we will experience how humanity can enjoy new capacities based on multifarious ways of socio-natural metabolism. This is qualitatively different from bourgeois synchronization: instead of aping the practices of the bourgeoisie, we explore different ways of living that are experientially richer than the one-dimensional consumptive model of capitalism. No matter how small, revolutionary politics should always strive towards the creation of micro-communist zones, where we can see the world in terms of the vast human potentialities that it contains. There are infinite ways in which we can relate to each other not for the sake of money but for the sake of what the other stands for, for the ways in which their independent actions can enhance our own independence. In these dark times of neoliberal fascism, it is essential that we start building liberated zones of communism.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India. Read other articles by Yanis.