The politics of consumption
December 15, 2002 12:51 PM   Subscribe

The New Politics of Consumption, an excellent article by the author of The Overspent American, examines why so many want so much more than they need, and offers a rough sketch of an alternative consumer ethos. The responses to the article are also quite interesting. Via Sassafrass.
posted by homunculus (12 comments total)

 
Actually, all of the books/collections put out by the New Democracy Forum look really interesting. My favorite is on proportional representation.
posted by claxton6 at 1:17 PM on December 15, 2002


Yes, conspicuous consumption is about competitive status. You can find this idea in Veblen or Galbraith, which makes the term "New Consumerism" extremely disingenuous.

The only difference between now and 1958, when The Affluent Society was written, is that the environment is less polluted and today's poor have the living standard of the middle class of that time.

And as this responseinsightfully points out, "spiritual development" is as much a source of competitive consumerism as material greed these days. Academia is another excellent example of how you don't need consumerism to create brutal competition for status and power.

I'm very sympathetic to people who don't like consumerism and try to live their lives differently. I've never owned a television or a car. But I'm extremely skeptical of people who think "society" (i.e., whoever holds government power) should intervene to dictate the proper choices for people. Generally this argument hides a fundamentalist moralism that believes that people are not smart enough to do the right thing ("right" being defined by the author's personal preferences).

It's actually very easy to opt out of consumer society. Just don't consume. But if you want all your neighbors to stop consuming as well, so you don't have to feel bad about it, then you are actually playing the competitive status game just as much as they are. Establishing a basic safety net for the truly poor is a necessary thing. Legislating equality among the middle and upper classes essentially declares invalid the choice of those who do want to work and acquire.
posted by fuzz at 3:12 PM on December 15, 2002


fuzz, did you read Frank's response? It is not just about opting out of consumer society, or dictating choices to people. It is about limiting the negative externalities inherent in a society that is overly driven by nothing more than consumption.
posted by sp dinsmoor at 3:37 PM on December 15, 2002


examines why so many want so much more than they need ...

What we'll probably never see is a study of why such a large number of academics frame questions like this ... why it is even alleged that some sort of goal in life ought to be wanting only what one "needs", and that anyone that wants more is creating a "problem" that must be addressed.
posted by MidasMulligan at 4:28 PM on December 15, 2002


MM, maybe it is because we are all on the same spaceship and that, in and of itself, creates some problems.
posted by sp dinsmoor at 4:42 PM on December 15, 2002


I once heard it phrased in a novel way to an academic with those opinions, that most likely he was the beneficiary of unnecessary education, needing far less than he had consumed as a student to develop such a flawed thesis.
posted by kablam at 4:43 PM on December 15, 2002


I once heard it phrased in a novel way to an academic with those opinions, that most likely he was the beneficiary of unnecessary education, needing far less than he had consumed as a student to develop such a flawed thesis.

Yes. And visiting the houses of the averge academic that writes rubbish like this is usually itself a refutation of the argument. I'd love to see even one of them live with only what they "need".
posted by MidasMulligan at 6:56 PM on December 15, 2002


MM, I don't get your tremendous negativity about this article: the point was not that we ought to only consume what we need, but that we ought not to have only the choice of consumption because other choices (free time, leisure, environmentally sound products) are not available to us. The article in effect argues for an extension of the consumer mindset into other, more abstract 'markets.' (In a world where people pay a premium for that little alligator on their shirts this makes perfect sense).

The article doesn't presume anything: it claims that people are dissatisfied based on surveys which show that they are, in fact, dissatisfied.
posted by josh at 8:57 PM on December 15, 2002


I assume MM is not an admirer of the Epicurean theory of desire. (Scroll down to read a letter by Thomas Jefferson discussing Epicurus and Epictetus.)
posted by homunculus at 10:29 PM on December 15, 2002


Good question, Midas. Maybe some of the authors are Buddhists. We tend to focus on renouncing desire much the same way that Christians focus on the question of evil and sin.

Thanks the link to my Sassafrass Log! I'm delighted to know that someone else can find things worth reading on it.
posted by sheauga at 5:24 AM on December 16, 2002


Obviously, MM, anyone with access to pen and paper to write "rubbish like this" has more than they need, so why bother paying any attention to what they say? After all, nobody guilty of even the tiniest amount of hypocrisy has ever contributed anything useful to human thought or well-being.
posted by rory at 8:11 AM on December 16, 2002


"Just having the desire to renounce desires is a desire!" keke :D

"Many people looked at Bodhisattva Kenny and saw only limits." ho ho ho! :b
posted by kliuless at 9:00 AM on December 16, 2002


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