Consumerism and its morality: 3 examples and 4 consequences

12 January, 2022


Consumerism is the ideology which claims that consumption is the center and driving force of social life and that the individual’s consumption choices are what define his or her position in the world. The backbone of the ideology of capitalism during its decadence, consumerism strongly permeates the morality that the system and its propaganda exude, aggravating the mercantile degradation of human relations and… neutering any frustration expressed through it.

Table of Contents

Scenes of today’s consumerism

HBO’s unproductive utopias

HBO’s Station Eleven, consumerism taken to the extreme: It envisions a society of consumers without producers.

“Station Eleven” was HBO’s flagship premiere during December. The slow-moving, pretentious series has not made enough of an impact to merit a review. It does, however, represent a certain novelty in the post-apocalyptic theme regularly cultivated by the major repositories: for once it is not the umpteenth version of the “Lord of the Flies”. This time, following a pandemic that has led to societal collapse, the state has disappeared and small groups, “communities”, try to preserve the inherited culture and rebuild their lives as best they can.

The most striking thing about these communities around the Great Lakes 20 years after the catastrophe: nobody produces anything. There is no need. The food is just there – apparently it doesn’t expire – their clothes don’t deteriorate with use, and the main characters can devote themselves to performing Shakespeare, drinking whiskey from who knows where, and forming musical bands, theater groups, cults and identity groups. In other words, the core of the fantasy of consumerism has been pushed to the limit.

The absence of work, the mere idea that a society, however small it may be, can be based solely and for years on “keeping each other company” without producing anything, shatters the minimal plausibility necessary to be hooked into the story. And yet, it does not even appear in the critics’ comments. How could they overlook something so obvious? How is it possible to get into a world where there exist only consumers, where nobody produces anything?

The students who did not want to read

The place that consumerism reserves for the student is that of a consumer whose goal is to reduce intellectual effort as much as possible.

“Orcam Read” has been one of the novelty gifts this holiday season. It is a portable scanner which, connected via the Internet to an AI specialized in character recognition, delivers text spoken by a voice synthesizer. And it has been a sales success.

Advertising, as seen above, targets the product toward high school and vocational students. But this is not because the U.S. education system has degraded so much that the average student has serious reading difficulties. Rather, he wants to be told about it, not read it for himself. And teachers just accept it, arguing that it’s okay if it “motivates” them to get closer to the content and that the virtualization of classes during the pandemic has created a new situation.

It’s not just in the US. A colleague, a technical training teacher in Argentina shared his experience during the pandemic.

The problem is not to catch them through videos but to bring them back to reading and writing… I don’t know how other colleagues have fared with virtuality but I personally believe that the failure of the modality is largely due to the rejection of reading that they bring along with them. That leaves them on the sidelines – it’s endlessly frustrating!

And yet, video-teaching “is the future”, according to the hundreds of virtual universities that try to entice workers with the promise that it will help them to achieve better paid and less precarious jobs. Quite a few of them have already replaced virtually all texts and lectures with online videos as a supposed “pedagogical innovation”.

Nor is this phenomenon exclusive to the United States, nor is it only found in humanities or management degrees. The rejection of reading among students seems universal. A colleague, who works in an international university research center, lamented:

At university it’s the same, even if it’s a requirement to read something before class. I’m talking about reading the outline of an experimental lecture, for instance. You can’t start doing something without knowing what it’s about beforehand… In the end, professors got angry and were forced to set up tests before each class to force students to read the lecture outline in advance.

The source of the problem, the students claimed, was a “lack of motivation”. But when we ask them for examples of “motivation” they just list everything a teacher can do to reduce the intellectual effort of the student. We have come full circle: they want to be told about it, to reduce the effort needed to get ahead.

And the fact is that students see themselves as “consumers” of a service that is little short of compulsory, so what “motivates” them is to have it made easy for them..

Abuse of front-line workers

One of the most striking phenomena of 2021 in the US was the proliferation of abuse of waiters by patrons.

But, predictably, it didn’t stop there and doesn’t look like it will go away.

“Have you ever seen a 60-year-old man have a tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants?” said the employee, Anna Luna, who described the mood in the store, in Minnesota, as “angry, confused and fearful.”

“You’re looking at someone and you think, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese.'” […] When people are required to meet each other in transactional settings (in stores, on airplanes, on the phone on customer service calls), “they’re becoming children” in Ms. Luna’s words. […]

The meanness of the public has forced many public-facing industries to rethink what used to be an article of faith: that the customer is always right. If employees now have to take on many unexpected roles (therapist, cop, conflict resolution negotiator), workplace managers are acting as security guards and bouncers to protect their employees.

A nation in waiting wants to talk to a manager, New York Times.

The newspaper calls it “pandemic rage” and presents it as the result of social frustrations when people express themselves as “consumers.”

Part of the problem is the disconnect between expectation and reality, said Melissa Swift, U.S. transformation leader at consulting firm Mercer. Before the pandemic, she said, consumers had been seduced by the idea of the “frictionless economy,” the notion that you could get whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it. That’s not happening.

“There’s a lack of outlets for people’s anger,” Swift said. “That waiter, that flight attendant, they become a stand-in for everything that stands between what we experience and what we think we’re entitled to.”

A nation in waiting wants to talk to a manager, New York Times.

It is a good image of what happens when frustration in the face of a society driven by a system increasingly antagonistic to human development is channeled through the imaginary position of “consumers” into which, as the same article comments, the ideology of consumerism wants to cloister us: the fellow worker becomes an “obstacle” and we become the victimizers of our equals, further aggravating the conditions of an exploitation we share.

Consumerism: The rentier’s vision of the world.

Chinese automated supermarket
Chinese automated supermarket

When Bukharin finally published in 1919 his critique of marginalist economic theory, originally written in 1914, he titled it “The Political Economy of the Rentier.” The reason: to show what particular interest could be served by something as absurd as trying to understand the economic system from the point of view of consumption and the psychology of the abstract individual consumer, himself a passive product of the system, instead of its dynamic and active components.

The rentier’s whole life is based on consumption, and the psychology of “consumption in its pure state” constitutes his particular “lifestyle”. […] Production, the work necessary to obtain material goods, is something fortuitous insofar as it remains outside his field of vision. For him there is no real activity; his whole mentality has passive overtones; the philosophy and aesthetics of these rentiers are of a purely contemplative nature, devoid of the active elements proper to proletarian ideology.

The proletariat lives in the sphere of production, in direct contact with “matter”, which is transformed for it into “material”, into the object of its labor. It witnesses the gigantic growth of the productive forces of capitalist society, the development of new mechanical techniques which make it possible to throw into the market ever greater amounts of commodities whose prices decrease as the process of technical improvement progresses and deepens.

For these reasons the proletariat has the psychology of the producer. The rentier, on the other hand, has that of the consumer.

The Political Economy of the rentier. Nicolai Bukharin, 1914. (Bolded by us)

Bukharin was absolutely right when he pointed out that the particular point of view of the rentier, the centrality of consumption in his life, would form the backbone of capitalist ideology in its decadence.

The exaltation of consumption, its presumed centrality in life and as an explanation of the system, i.e., consumerism, meant going a step beyond individualism in order to reduce human experience to a series of choices among the offers that the market (products) or the state (identities) offered at any given moment.

Consumerism with diminishing material consumption. This is all that state capitalism and its totalitarian development can offer at this historical stage as human “freedom”, a rickety and jibarizing satisfaction of human needs increasingly antagonistic to human development in all its dimensions.

Since then and especially since the last post-war period, capitalism in all its expressions has promoted consumerism, the idea of the centrality of consumption, as a way of blurring collective material interests in the noise of interclass identities and the supposed sovereignty of the individual consumer.

Always twisted, the official ideology could blame workers by cynically confusing the affirmation of universal human needs with “selfishness” and “consumerism” itself. Consumption is the social form assumed by access to the resources necessary to satisfy human needs under capitalism. Consumerism is the ideology which claims capitalism exists in order to satisfy the concrete needs of the abstract and atomized individual.

Of course, workers have not been the ones who have championed the consumerism which atomized them and blamed them for the inability of the system to satisfy their needs. The ideological pressure of individualizing consumerism has been so great that it has transcended even the very use of language. The latest statistical studies on written language state that:

During the last few decades, there has been a marked shift in public interest from the collective to the individual, and from rationality to emotion.

Rise and fall of rationality in language. Marten Scheffer et al.

On the other hand, the consumerist-individualist hammering makes the overdimension of “emotion” inevitable. Identitarian emotion as a substitute for real freedom. Negative emotion as self-punishment for not living up to a system that gave us a choice and made us responsible for the outcome. At the end of the day, if we are sovereign consumers, if all we can see are individual choices and decisions, when things go wrong we have no other explanation than to accept a self-blame which the very evolution of the system tends to make constant.

The morality of consumerism

'Fridays for the Future' rally in Berlin, organized in Germany under the brand name 'Youth for the Future' by the public school system. Ideological consumerism in full indoctrinating expression.
‘Fridays for the Future’ rally in Berlin, organized in Germany under the brand name ‘Youth for the Future’ by the public school system. Ideological consumerism in full indoctrinating expression.

According to consumerism, the driving force of the system, as in marginalist economics, would be the “insatiable desire” of the abstract individual. The entire capitalist economic apparatus would be set in motion to optimize the production and distribution of goods and services according to this desire.

For consumerism, capitalism would be the guarantor of the idea that individual desire generates social reality. In its extreme subjectivism, it tells us that consumption is the way to materialize desires, supposedly individual and unique. Through consumption -therefore through the market and the state- we would discover “who we truly are”, we would acquire “identities” by defining “lifestyles” that are nothing but purchasing patterns and aesthetic-ideological choices.

The passivity highlighted by Bukharin in the rentier stands out. The individual, isolated and detached from production and the society around him, like the characters in the HBO series mentioned above, only needs to wait for the offers coming from the market and the state and make his choices in order to define his life accordingly, as if he were “customizing” a product.

That is why the morality of consumerism is necessarily infantilizing. The believer in the centrality of consumption oscillates between two frustrations. Not being able to pay enough to be able to “fulfill himself”, that is to say to realize the vital fantasy he has been told that his desire can create, like the angry customer in the stores and restaurants we described above. And the demand to be “seduced” by an offer that is imposed on him and that he never desired, like the students who did not want to read.

No wonder the petty bourgeoisie made consumerism its own. It allows it to objectify in terms of access to consumption that intermediate position which it defends and which frustrates it at the same time, unloading on the workers it sees, those who attend to it when it goes shopping, the constant affirmation of its status. And, above all, affirming its permanent reactionary subjectivism.

Much less surprising is the success of identitarian campaigns and of the ideology of consumerism in general among university students and young people who have not been incorporated into the labor market. Their social position, especially in the university, is very similar to that of the rentier: separated from social production, passively receiving ideology and seeking an impossible fulfillment through identity consumption. The frustrations and consequent violence, especially when at the same time they are part of a working family, are also visible.

The consumerism of the youth who wanted to be communists

Presenting theoretical discussions as silly "fights", "leftcom" memes express well how ideological consumerism produces both trivialization and sectarianism at the same time.
Presenting theoretical discussions as silly “fights”, “leftcom” memes express well how ideological consumerism produces both trivialization and sectarianism at the same time.

Predictably, consumerism also hits young people who realize that the system is the problem to overcome.

Some, in the absence of great mass struggles in their direct environment, unconsciously approach communist ideas as if they were an aisle in the “supermarket of ideas”. A stroll through social networks is enough to realize it: they are buying an exclusive identity and using it to affirm themselves, in the way that consumerism proposes, in order to generate an empty “belonging” based on aesthetic choices disguised as “theory”. The consumerist approach is clear through the absence of real commitment.

They are not part of any organized militant activity involving workers as a class. At most, they “come” to be “taught”. Visible as a cloud of individuals sharing memes and poses. The trap of consumerism works once again as a perfect snare: dancing in the nothingness of individual affirmation, they can only foster an atmosphere of banality and sectarianism in their wake. They are at the opposite end of communist militancy because they are at the opposite end of communist morality.

The “leftcom” snipers of the social networks are an extreme, albeit ultra-minoritarian, case of “ideological consumerism”. However, the effect of consumerist ideology among young people who “want to be communists” does not end with them by a long shot.

As we have seen, the consumerist morality that has shaped most young people and defined their relationship with the family, the educational system and even their romantic life, has placed them at all times as “consumers”. So they repeat learned patterns of behavior. The comrades of the Antorcha, for example, tell us that the main difficulty they encounter when they hold open seminars is that there are few non-militants who arrive with the discussion materials read and therefore can contribute as equals.

How can we overcome the passivity created by consumerism?

red corner library collectivity "Red Corner" (library and propaganda center) of a collectivity of young students and workers during the 1920s in Russia.
red corner library collectivity “Red Corner” (library and propaganda center) of a collectivity of young students and workers during the 1920s in Russia.

There is only one way to overcome the individualistic and demoralizing dynamics that the dominant ideology sows and crushes with consumerism: collective work and the logic of belonging through contribution.

Since the first political expressions of the workers, both aspects defined class militancy and founded the morality of the movement on a future, communism, whose logics should already be present in the way of living and relating to the militants.

Today we have ahead of us a long and patient work to be done in the service of the organization and political affirmation of our class. We have to take both things even further. And for that we need those of you who read us to take a step forward and join the collective work as far as time and resources allow.


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