Tuesday, June 01, 2010

C to the 3, part two

Crises of consumerism:

Consumerism, having discarded its conspicuous pose, is capital in its populist form. Subsequently, consumption became life, and work its sustenance. Everything that is real is realized through the market.

Consumerism is capital in its populist form. We have already discussed how capital is a process, so what does it mean to say that this process has taken a populist form?

Populism is a political approach which preferences the concerns of ordinary people. One of the notable features of early capitalism was the degree to which "the concerns of ordinary people" was not regarded as an object of interest to anyone other than ordinary people. People could think whatever they want -- and by and large they did; the church, for example, was an institution in decline. But what most people ended up thinking under these circumstances was that capitalism sucked.

Capitalists didn't care what ordinary people thought because they only needed their employees for one part of the capital process: production. And in that context you could treat people as horribly as you wanted: first because it was no trouble to replace one desperate person with another; and secondly because you weren't relying on them as consumers. In early capitalism, your business could grow strictly by selling to other businesses, or to other rich people. You could thoroughly ruin workers; it made no difference one way or the other.

What happens anytime the terrain of "hearts and minds" is left uncontested is that you get a strong reaction from people based on the reality of their situation. If the experience of being screwed over is predominant, and the people doing it don't even regard you as deserving of an explanation, you are likely to develop an ideology based around some alternative to what they are doing. And this is how socialism became a leading populist principle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- because capital left that ground unattended.

The term conspicuous consumption is a memorable one from this period, coined by economist Thorstein Veblen to describe the consumption of the upper classes as a unique claim to their social status. Big houses, mink coats, steak dinners, and so on, in a world where no one else could even pretend to the same. Part of my argument here is to say that consumption ultimately had to "abandon its conspicuous pose" as more people were recruited to the side of capital in its 20th century grudge match with socialism. And that's to a large extent because socialism was winning, thanks to its populist credentials.

When I say that "subsequently, consumption became life," I mean that capital, through its development, emerged with a populist ideology of its own called consumerism; and it was by this means that capital sought to penetrate the imagination of ordinary people. Consumption aspired to become a way of living, and in order to live that way, you would have to work. Reality would be redefined as what could be realized through commercial exchange in the market (rather than the relations that existed between people), and work -- now recast as "career" -- would become sustenance for, and an access point to, this reality.

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