Wednesday, June 09, 2010


Resistance to the culture of consumerism should be understood to take several forms. Depending on the country, these forms are managed by the political process, and lend to the state its ideological content.

To the extent that consumerism has assumed the mantle of a popular culture, it has done so only by displacing its rivals: the culture it succeeds, and whatever culture it precedes.

In Europe this phenomenon is more readily apparent in such parliamentary programs as those claimed by the "Christian Democrat" and "Socialist Labor" parties, but the United States observes its own way of "looking forward" and "harking back" within an oppositional arrangement meant to smooth over elite disputes.

As religion moves to the political periphery, its primacy dissolves into a duality which both challenges and complements its successor. Religion cannot compete at the level of exchange, but from the corner into which it is backed, it is not easily dislodged. Commercial secularism may command our short-term attention, but it can't inform our judgment long-term: for the commodity, there is no long-term. Consumerism thrives in the bright light of the short-term, but withers in the shadow of mortality: It cedes this ground to the priest.

That the biological process of living intrudes on the limitless conceit of consumption can be seen at play in religion's dual roles. It complements the commodity by placing capital in the pulpit, where there is preached a "gospel of prosperity"; but it undermines the commodity by referencing a life cycle whose terminus conspires to transcend it. This is where consumerism inevitably breaks its stride against insurgent traditionalism, both at home and abroad.

The other side of what has been is always anticipation for what might become! Consumerism produces an analogous contradiction in its intrinsic progressive character -- something which should give liberal and leftist-types pause. When yesterday you could fit 200 songs in your pocket, and today 1000, and tomorrow every song known to humankind, this creates a positive sense of change as it is experienced through commodity exchange.

The paradox is that people accustomed to the accelerated pace of technology will either be distracted from or incapacitated by the profound contrast in human life as it persists outside the market. Taken together, this often amounts to a "distracted outrage" amongst liberal and leftist-types, who cannot reconcile the "progress" between forms as part of a unitary process in which they participate.

Challenging consumerism from within consumerism is a particular problem not borne by the FDR-era socialists who drafted significant portions of the New Deal, so the constant overtures to Obama to "lead the way" on this point are absurd: not only is there no movement, its participants are already participating in the opposite direction -- which is to say, in every direction, their movements dictated by commodities. Why do the antiglobalization summits look like everyone shopped at the same store?

My hunch is that the upending of consumerism will have to come from some synthesis traditionalism and "modern life." Science and romanticism, as they prove useful to human needs. But this presupposes that people can come together around strategies that increase their autonomy, rather than merely advertise it. This will mean drawing on what is insurgent about tradition, while exploiting consumerism's natural bias for "progress" by pushing it into areas it does not want to go, like those which bear on the capital process itself.


Brian M said...

I think this is one problem/struggle I have: I am not sure I value "traditionalism" that much, Most traditional societies offer their own kinds of injustices, the teen girl raped by the entire village because her brother was seen with a girl of an inappropriate caste, the witch trials, etc. So...I have no answer, even as acknowldge your insights on the nature of consumerism.

JRB said...

I don't think we can find "justice" in any one place, but rather as a trend which happens across social experiences. So we have to be able to identify what we want to endorse in any given situation, in order to promote it, because it is always likely to be in conflict with some competing tendency. It's not like there is some a priori situation in which you are less likely to have to confront injustice -- like if we all "believe" in justice or something.

I hope this makes sense.

Anonymous said...

This might be diagonal to this post, but I recently read this blog post that posits a strike against media commodities as one method to short-circuit consumer capitalism.