August 21, 2011

Democracy vs. Consumerism, Movement vs. Movement


It’s dubious that kleptocracy can muster large-scale physical support on anything other than a mercenary basis. This is one of the structural weaknesses of aggressively destroying all forms of social cohesion while propounding a viciously materialistic and mercenary ideology. Even those subjectively sympathetic to the system, the indelibly authoritarian dregs among any populace, will likely remain a rabble under any circumstances, even if someone tried to organize them along classically fascist lines. That’s part of why I don’t think the kleptocracy will be able to muster the affirmative idealism of a mass movement on its behalf, but will just have to rely on physical strength and divide and conquer, for as long as it can.
But I wonder if consumerism itself by now comprises the passive equivalent of a movement consciousness? If we look at the traits of a movement Eric Hoffer describes, in The True Believer, we can see how many of them apply.
Consumerism uses many forms of propaganda, from “home ownership” to the mythology of capitalism itself, to try to generate a collective identification. Its specific propaganda forms (advertising) provide unlimited ways for the cloddish consumer to cast himself in some fantasy role. Its ideology of debt (and particularly running up debt for the sake of worthless luxuries like ever bigger TV sets and dubious career accouterments like a college degree) may seem to exalt the present over the future, but in a deeper way it deprecates the present in favor of a mythologized future by playing to the fraud that someday we’re going to be rich. (Not, of course, everyone. But me, I’m going to be rich.) Consumer debtism draws from and helps perpetuate the same delusion which causes victims of corporatism to still identify with it and fail to resist it – because they hope/”expect” to someday be one of the bigshots themselves.
Consumerism is based on many Big Lies, for example that it’s physically sustainable and morally defensible. The trickle-down lie operates on two levels. It tells us that as passive consumers and periodic “voters” we’re actually more empowered than we’d be as active producers and citizens. And it tells us that those from whom we steal (to the extent we’re middle class Western consumers), at home and around the world, somehow also benefit from this robbery, or at least that in the end they too will all achieve the middle class blessing we now know. At any rate, doctrine tells us that this order of things is an immutable law of nature, that there’s no alternative, that however busted our hand seems to get, and however much it may look like even our own middle class status is being liquidated, we have no choice or desire but to double down on that busted hand.
Does consumerism arouse fanaticism? What are examples of a blurring of the lines between brand identification (such as the bizarre willingness and desire to be a walking corporate logo and even pay for the privilege) and quasi-nationalistic fervor? Being a sports fan is one. Soccer hooligans are just an extreme example of fandom. What does it means to be a passive yet fervent “fan” of something where one doesn’t also participate in the activity on a significant level? This is a form of fanaticism, however picayune.
While consumerism may not directly generate hatred of others, it mobilizes vast elements of shallow disdain. From my TV-watching days years ago (I’d bet things are even worse today) I remember how strongly it struck me how much advertising involved oneupmanship and using one’s consumerist prowess to be “better than” others, rather than buying something because it was actually good in itself. The appeal was very often not to potential happiness, but to a combination of contempt (for those who lacked the good/service) and fear (lest you remain one of those losers). This, of course, also reinforces conformity to system imperatives, particularly those involving getting a “job” and maximizing money-making. How much consumerism encourages us to imitate others, to imitate the mass, in particular to imitate elites, is too obvious to need further comment.
So there’s a brief sketch of consumerism as forming a loose, not formally hierarchical, movement structure. If this depiction is accurate, then it follows that this movement and its propaganda structure can be overcome only by a more potent idea and movement framework. This is another reason relocalization cannot triumph as nothing more than an improvised rhizomatic spontaneity, but why it will also need an overarching message and structure. (Of course, I don’t mean top-down hierarchy. I mean a real federalism. I briefly described part of what I mean in numbers 6-8 of my Basic Movement Strategy.)
So we need to seek answers to such questions as: Does advertising appeal to those who are basically frustrated? As a substitute for something real in modern life, everything the corporate system lacks and destroys? A democratic movement could fill this void.
If it’s true that propaganda in itself doesn’t have a deep, lasting effect, but must be backed up by coercion and fear, then does it follow that the consumerist propaganda will wear off as the pseudo-middle class continues to be liquidated? (That is, will kleptocracy be able to deploy the amount of direct coercion necessary to force continued belief in the propaganda, or will it continue with its largely inertial economic assault, thereby leaving the propaganda on its own and therefore unable to sustain itself? We already saw the many ways in which kleptocracy fails to look to its own base, and indeed liquidates it.) On the other hand, is the fact that the system is starting to attempt to impose forced markets (the classical example thus far being the health racket Stamp mandate) a sign that it’s losing confidence in its ability to continue to get people to believe its propaganda? This is certainly an attempt to back up propaganda with coercion.
We also see how advertising/propaganda has become far more aggressive (in quantity and quality) as the system has shifted from “normal” corporatism (largely accepted by the people, often passively welcomed) to neoliberalism (without exception rejected wherever the people understood it or intuitively sensed what it was; never once has even representative pseudo-democracy voted for neoliberalism over any other option).
Most important of all, how does a democratic relocalization counteract and overcome the consumerist mindset? The appeal must be on the political and spiritual level. These are certainly strong points for us if we can get a hearing in the first place, though we start from such a disadvantaged position. Here as in everything else, we face a long struggle and lots of hard work. We can search for the magic message which will help us reach the tipping point, but in the meantime we simply have to try everything, probe everywhere, and wherever something is working, double and redouble our efforts at that point. Only this active idea and force of an idea shall break though the obscurity of the passive darkness which enfold us, to the affirmative light.


  1. Nestor Canclini has written a book a few years ago (that I’ve only read parts of) a few years ago, which touches on some of the things you discuss here, called Consumers and Citizens. In it, he explores the question if it is possible to see consumerism as empowering in some way or other, and what this might consist of. (I’m guessing he explored this avenue because of the dire political situation most of latin/south america has been in for ages, which may have encouraged the development of alternative modes of organization.) So it might be interesting to have a look at.

    Comment by Foppe — August 21, 2011 @ 5:07 am

    • Thanks, Foppe.

      Comment by Russ — August 21, 2011 @ 6:20 am

    • I don’t see how consumerism can be empowering. It can be pseudo-empowering for people emerging from material destitution to a sudden cornucopia. But it seems to me this is just misdirection away from the potentially vast political, spiritual, and cultural space which opens up at such a time.

      Certainly, if you’ve been poor and you can now attain material comfort, do so. But don’t let that become just another form of material shackle. Especially since unless you’re rich, becoming a “consumer” merely retains the same shackle of not having enough, but lifts it to the realm of the absurd, since now one measures his deprivation by the consumer goods he can’t afford rather than the more mundane literal hunger.

      Comment by Russ — August 21, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

      • I didn’t either, after reading the bits that I did read. The author seemed simply to accept the status quo (enforced as it had been by the juntas).
        Having said that, consumption choices do matter, and can influence the fate of companies, etc.. So there must be something positive that can be said about it. I’m just not really sure what. 😉

        Comment by Foppe — August 21, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

      • Well, given all we’ve learned about branding and marketing, we might be able to put it to some constructive use for a change, for the right things.

        Comment by Russ — August 21, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

  2. “Consumerism uses many forms of propaganda, from ”home ownership” to the mythology of capitalism itself, to try to generate a collective identification. Its specific propaganda forms (advertising) provide unlimited ways for the cloddish consumer to cast himself in some fantasy role.”

    This. The collective ID thru mythological propaganda is the over-arching goal of every corporate brand (I prefer the term “corporate mark” now for it’s double entendre with a con but it’s not understood in American English.). Abercrombie and Fitch offering cash to Jersey Shore cast NOT to wear their clothes is an amazing case in action of a corporation defending it’s mark and by extension propagandized image against undesirables. If “Guidos” wear Abercrombie and I’m a white-bread frat boy (intended mark), well I just can’t wear that mark anymore lest I be associated as a Guido.

    Brand sabotage will make an interesting tactic.

    Comment by Ross — August 21, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    • I hadn’t heard of such squabbles among the flacks. That’s what I get for being so out of the pop culture loop. If they’re real capitalists, they should look for other lucrative brand-sullying opportunities.

      A few times I was going to use the word “mark” but used “target” instead, for the reason you said – I didn’t know if people would get it.

      I like brand sabotage. And there, as everywhere else, it would be merely self defense and counterattack. No Logo (published over ten years ago; things are even worse today) described how aggressive corporations have been in trying to stifle and dominate even normal democratic discourse, let alone intentional brand-attacking. As Klein put it, first they want to force you to talk about their brand, and then they want to force you to talk about it in only their approved way.

      Comment by Russ — August 21, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

      • In my defense, I only heard about that from Twitter and my connection to stocks, in general. I love the idea that they should take the money and move on to extort some other hapless “aspirational” brand.

        Yes, I read No Logo (html test) sometime ago. Today, the subversive strategy is probably the only way to go. Defense of logos and brands is pretty well accepted in the court and you’d get your ass handed to you if you tried to overtly devalue a brand.

        How about handing out Nike headbands and sneakers to the homeless? I’m at a loss for brand awareness amongst “consumers that matter.” I guess I should turn on MTV sometime…

        Comment by Ross — August 21, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

      • I’m all for singling out a particular brand, speaking out (the truth) about it, and trying to get a permanent boycott going. Let them try to use the courts in so brazenly tyrannical a way (not that they can’t win a few rounds there, but historically those kinds of PR battles are bad for the brand, period). Make an example, strike a blow, get good training going forward, and help move the perception along from “we don’t need this brand” to “we don’t need this kind of product [or sector] period.”

        Once in awhile I hear an idea like that bruited about.

        I wasn’t casting aspersions on your pop culture example. This blogger


        wrote a series of posts about that show, trying to draw broad lessons about class struggle from it. (Look in the April or May archives, maybe. Some time around then.)

        Comment by Russ — August 21, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

  3. I don’t know. I can’t think of consumerism as a movement. It’s more an instrumentality, a means for breaking apart social cohesion, as you say. Indeed, I’d say it is the preferred mechanism for isolating the individual from any sense of belonging to a larger society.

    And consumerism isn’t much older than 100 years. Adam Curtiss’ The Century of the Self did a nice job of documenting the rise of consumerism and how Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, purposefully used psychoanalysis to identify how to break down social taboo by appealing to the ego. Take the “torches of freedom” campaign, for example: http://www.prmuseum.com/bernays/bernays_1929.html

    To me, consumerism is just an advanced form of capitalism.

    “Does advertising appeal to those who are basically frustrated? As a substitute for something real in modern life, everything the corporate system lacks and destroys? “

    Actually, I think advertising deliberately CREATES that frustration, the fear, the sense that something is missing or wrong. Do you sometimes feel anxiety when you’re around people? Have we got the drug for you! Do you have bad breath? That could be simple chronic halitosis, which this mouthwash can take care of for you!

    Modern advertising is all about making the viewer feel inadequate and believe that buying the advertised product will remove that inadequacy. One of the great insights in The Century of the Self (and it may be in The Story of Stuff, as well) is that businesses used to advertise their products based on their qualities and how long they would last. Bernays and people like him realized that businesses could apply the psychological warfare of propaganda against their customers to make more sales. That’s why advertising today focuses on the qualities of the purchaser, not on the quality of the products.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — August 21, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    • Yes, like anything meant to appeal to the frustrated but not to solve the crisis that frustrates them, it’s meant to appeal to but also intensify the frustration.

      I wasn’t really calling it a movement but rather using that as a metaphor. I was looking at it as a phenomenon that has many of the same characteristics as a movement, and which therefore may need to be fought like a contrary movement. But as I indicated, I also think it’s largely dependent upon forces outside itself to zombify it, and if those forces are weak or neglectful, its “authority” may quickly wear off.

      “Instrumentality” is a good term. (Although that would also mean it’s not really a form of capitalism, but a tool of it.)

      Well, these are just some raw ideas I plan to think about further.

      Comment by Russ — August 21, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

      • Fundamentally, the techniques employed to create consumerism are techniques aimed at the basic function of the human comparator. People compare what they observe to what they expect and feel an emotion depending on the magnitude and direction of the difference observed. What is interesting is that modern advertisers often attack the consumers’ expectations over puffing the quality of their wares. For whatever reason, many modern consumers seem to accept the truth of claims made in advertisements and assume that it was their expectations that were wrong (e.g., you mean my bad breath is some kind of disease?). In many ways, these people willingly suspend their disbelief of claims in advertisement just as they do when reading a work of fiction.

        It’s sad, really. And outrageous. When you stop to realize that our government has allowed the private sector to adapt psy-ops warfare techniques against its citizenry, how can you believe that government, as currently instantiated, is the answer?

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — August 21, 2011 @ 10:58 pm

      • That’s another proof of the inherent anti-citizen nature of government (and, of course, of capitalism).

        People compare what they observe to what they expect and feel an emotion depending on the magnitude and direction of the difference observed. What is interesting is that modern advertisers often attack the consumers’ expectations over puffing the quality of their wares. For whatever reason, many modern consumers seem to accept the truth of claims made in advertisements and assume that it was their expectations that were wrong (e.g., you mean my bad breath is some kind of disease?).

        This again suggests to me the affinity between consumerism and movements and revolutionary situations in general. What’s critical to all is not the absolute level of tyranny and/or destitution (or for that matter the quality of any idea or policy), but the gap between people’s perceptions of what they have and what they deserve, and the vector/trend of what’s happening with this gap.

        The same factors consumerist propaganda exploits ought to be enlistable for an anti-consumer movement. One obvious one, which has already been extensively commented upon, is the gap between the things consumerism flaunts and teases, and the meager money which trickles down to the employee/consumer to enable him to buy them. This intentionally generates tremendous frustration which can be unleashed in innumerable ways. It can be channeled in many ways, good and bad.

        Comment by Russ — August 22, 2011 @ 7:31 am

  4. How to communicate a radically different story to billions of minds formed to receive its message as a threat. This has been the task of those against statism, for centuries. And now that there is TV and other mass media, the job has become that much harder. The state is becoming more expert at ‘control.’ Nevertheless, it will self-destruct.

    I haven’t watched TV for years, but am exposed to it now and then when my in-laws visit. What strikes me is its total effect; the noises, colours, lights, the rapidity. It is so obviously brainwashing, even though the vast majority of the people creating the content have no awareness of this at all. We are in a positive feed back loop now oscillating at an intensity which must soon (decades? years? months?) bring on collapse. Something else to point out; it is not advertising per se, not commercials and so on, but all of it. The entire effort is a subset of propaganda generally. In the core message being delivered I can no longer tell the difference between The News, fiction, commercials and cartoons (the surface differences are obvious).

    That said, we shouldn’t forget that advertising is everywhere in nature. Flowers’ colours and scents, birds feathers, human language, art. We cannot escape deception, even if we try, all of us together; not only can we not know what things ‘really are’, we cannot know what we ‘really mean’ when we try to describe them, either.

    The problem is the cynicism, the sociopathy, the soullessness of it all. The State (which is all aspects of the hierarchy involved in extracting resources via the non-elite up to the elite) generates this cynicism because it looks down on the non-elites. It has to. Being a hierarchy evolved to control value-definitions and distribution of wealth/power, the state cannot not be sneering, vapidly competitive, aggressive, addicted to growth, etc. And why do we have a state? In my opinion because taming fire and ‘controlling’ nature via farming put us on that path. But we have reached the end of this story, learned all it can teach us. So how do we tell the new story? Back to the original question.

    A criticism, Russ. You wrote: “the indelibly authoritarian dregs among any populace”. That “indelibly” troubles me. I know conflict is inevitable, but we cannot ‘win’ against our shadow unless we begin with the belief that all life is inherently valuable. Biophilia must be part of the life-ground we proceed from. A loose corollary of this is the misguided search for the sweet spot, the great message that will turn people’s minds warmly to a more open and anarchist society. My gut tells me this is impossible. If we are for diversity in all its messy wonder, it can only be via multiple paths, multiple messages, multiple renderings of a set of core stories than a new paradigm finds shape. It will find shape out of our varied efforts. We cannot find the sweet spot, the silver bullet. There is none. Hence: “we face a long struggle and lots of hard work.” That’s it. Plus faith (I don’t mean that conventionally) and humility. Both are very important.

    Comment by Toby — August 22, 2011 @ 6:41 am

    • I haven’t watched TV for years, but am exposed to it now and then when my in-laws visit. What strikes me is its total effect; the noises, colours, lights, the rapidity. It is so obviously brainwashing, even though the vast majority of the people creating the content have no awareness of this at all.

      By now I can barely sit still for online videos which are relevant to my work here. It often seems too passive and other-directed an experience. That’s why I rarely watch them, even where I probably would be willing to read the transcript if it were available.

      I agree on the prevalence of “advertising” and deception in nature, which is part of why I was willing to say “we need to use the techniques of corporate advertising and movement mustering against it”. This is all natural in principle (though the totalitarian magnitude of it is unnatural), and the question is therefore whether one uses it toward good or bad ends.

      By “indelible” I meant just what you say – there’s no “sweet spot” which will win everyone to what’s right. The best you can do is try to win enough people. Those are the true citizens. But those who will refuse to become human and free can’t be our concern, except insofar as they become aggressive toward us.

      I agree on the many paths, except of course paths which would retain exploitation and the stealing of economic and/or political sovereignty.

      Comment by Russ — August 22, 2011 @ 7:29 am

  5. Somewhat off-topic: http://crookedtimber.org/2011/08/22/utilitarian-psychopaths/

    From the linked article:

    The mismeasure of morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas

    Researchers have recently argued that utilitarianism is the appropriate framework by which to evaluate moral judgment, and that individuals who endorse non-utilitarian solutions to moral dilemmas (involving active vs. passive harm) are committing an error. We report a study in which participants responded to a battery of personality assessments and a set of dilemmas that pit utilitarian and non-utilitarian options against each other. Participants who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness. These results question the widely-used methods by which lay moral judgments are evaluated, as these approaches lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those individuals who are least prone to moral errors also possess a set of psychological characteristics that many would consider prototypically immoral.

    ► Participants high in psychopathy gave more utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas. ► Participants with traits indicative of negative moral character were more utilitarian. ► Researchers should not equate utilitarian responses to dilemmas with optimal morality.

    Keywords: Morality; Judgment; Decision making; Psychopathy; Values; Ethics; Intuition; Utilitarianism; Machiavellianism; Emotions; Reasoning; Moral rules; No Meaning; Moral dilemmas

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — August 22, 2011 @ 10:08 am

    • That stands to reason, since utilitarianism is maybe the most question-begging of moral philosophies. More accurately, it’s not a moral philosophy but an instrument for exercising some version of political morality (at best; as we see here it’s also a convenient disguise for amorality and immorality).

      “Greatest good for the greatest number” – according to what definition of the good, greatest number of what set (i.e., who counts as deserving of the good), what meets the threshhold of “great” good, etc.

      Bentham’s prescription gave us the panopticon. And he was one of the well-meaning ones!

      Given our moral premises, we all subscribe to some level of utilitarianism in how we’d prescribe their being put into effect. But to make a fetish of the instrument itself is just another form of “process” ideology which will always be objectively pro-power in practice.

      See the liberal process discussed in this post


      for a good example of instrumental utilitarianism detached from any anchoring moral premise.

      Comment by Russ — August 22, 2011 @ 10:55 am

      • This reminds me of something Krugman once said: “So economics is not a morality play; the social and economic order we have doesn’t represent the playing out of some kind of deep moral principles.”

        But the foundation of all modern economic theory is utility theory, which a study has confirmed is inherently psychopathic, i.e., immoral. Hence, economics is indeed a morality play, or more precisely, an immorality play.

        Unfortunately, every such study is flawed in some way or another. And the study wouldn’t be acted on even if it were accepted as perfect and true in every respect.

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — August 22, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

      • That reminds me of the time Krugman, Delong, and a few others had an exchange about how “you know, maybe part of the problem is that there’s not enough morality in economics!”, and then proceeded to the most inept, bloodless, technocratic discussion of morality. So there’s sometimes comedy around here.

        I read that link and skimmed the paper. I don’t know what I would have scored, but the questions were easier than those quizzes usually are. (I usually have to give up on them right away because every answer is, “it depends”.)

        Comment by Russ — August 22, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

  6. […] this as a piece of evidence which is promising in light of the previous discussion on this blog of consumerism as a movement.    Instead, they’re thinking in terms of survival amid permanent dispossession. Their […]

    Pingback by Underlying Ideology of the 99 « Volatility — October 12, 2011 @ 2:53 am

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