Invisible Chains: Consumerism, Debt, and Consciousness

Colin Jenkins I Social Economics I Theory I May 20th, 2013

Critical analyses regarding the effects of "consumerism" have been a staple of Leftist theory for the past century. The Situationist International, appearing in the 1950s as an extension of Lukacs' unique brand of social analysis from the 20s, famously ridiculed the "western lifestyle" as a "fake reality which masks the capitalist degradation of human life."[1] The Situationists viewed the "spectacle" as the process for which people's desires are shaped and molded towards consumerist tendencies through mass media, marketing and advertising, and advanced techniques like "recuperation." This counter-cultural examination quickly became synonymous with a Left that had already come to terms with the "economic injustice" which characterized "the predatory phase of human development."[2] In opposition to this "rigged game," a determined and conscious working class countered with radical unionism and activism, direct action, stacks of polemics, studies on socio-economics, and avant-garde artistic techniques that fell under the banner of "culture jamming." "Detournement" turned the act of recuperation upside down by attempting to radicalize and politicize the corporate slogans and logos that flooded the "spectacle," leading to modern alternative media outlets such as Adbusters, the unsung catalysts of Occupy Wall Street and Rolling Jubilee, and street artists like Banksy, who combines detournement techniques with urban graffiti to send powerful counter-cultural messages via concrete canvass.

Naturally, any opposition to consumerism, especially from within those societies historically classified as "western" or "industrialized," is counter-hegemonic and proto-revolutionary. After all, the cultures derived from them have come to be dominated by ideals rooted in capitalism and market economies, naturally leading to intense daily routines that consist of celebrity worship at the altar of reality television and a multi-billion dollar "gossip industry." And when considering the dominant culture is one of superficiality, where our identities are based on what we own, wear and drive - in other words, consumerism - any stance in opposition to this is naturally "against the grain." The current counter-culture is one that not only recognizes the inherent dangers of a society where meaningful human concerns like impoverishment, homelessness, ever-increasing militarism, racism and misogyny take a backseat to Reality Housewives, American Idol and Jersey Shore; but also one that dares to make conscious lifestyle decisions which run contrary to this domination, while also working to break the collective trance that derives from such. Despite the obvious legitimacies found in this stance, and assuming we haven't conceded to nothingness, it's important to consider (1) how this opposition affects the Left's ability to function as a real alternative to the embedded socio-political hegemony, and (2) how it affects the Left's relationship with a working class that has embraced much of this culture as its own. The inherent risks of elitist-like diatribes against what have essentially become "cultural norms" beg for a re-evaluation which must recognize the need to accommodate both scathing cultural critiques and working-class political means. And while this seemingly half-assed approach to addressing such reactionary psychology may be debatable, the dangerous effects and continued escalation of consumerism clearly represent a powerful barrier to reaching any semblance of a collective working class consciousness. Its roots are not always as clear.

In 1901, following the conquest of Madagascar, French General Joseph Simon Gallieni immediately introduced a franc-based currency in order to impose an "educational tax" on the native population. This move had three implied purposes: "To teach the natives the value of work;" to create an immediate and effective monetary form of debt; and to instill consumerist tendencies within the population. While the first "function" followed the typical blueprint of colonialism by creating cheap forms of "human resources" to exploit, the latter two incorporated tangible debts to "legitimize" servitude (a tactic that would soon take hold in the "modern international financial system") and a culture of consumerism as the psychological means to establish and maintain what Antonio Gramsci once referred to as "cultural hegemony." As David Graeber explains, "The colonial (French) government was quite explicit about the need to make sure that (indigenous) peasants had at least some money of their own left over, and to ensure that they became accustomed to the minor luxuries - parasols, lipstick, cookies - available at the shops."[3] Understanding the connection between alienation, debt and consumerism - and how each may be used as a form of control - goes beyond the "inferiority complex" that Fanon once attributed to colonized populations which are "physically and symbolically destroyed, and in their place the colonizer produces a people who deserve only to be ruled."[4] Essentially, these are tools that transcend international and inherently racist relations between the "core" and "periphery" - making class analyses absolutely vital in regards to the "forced dependency" created by the architects of the dominant culture, not only from the perspective of an indigenous population, but also from that of the domestic working classes. "It was crucial that they (the colonized) develop new tastes, habits and expectations; that they lay the foundation of a consumer demand that would endure long after the conquerors had left, and keep Madagascar forever tied to France."[5]

Establishing a "cultural hegemony" runs analogous to principles that drive the market business model, which relies solely on individual "desires" to sell products. Since most of these desires do not constitute basic needs in the Maslovian sense, advertising and marketing must convince consumers that they need big screen televisions, new clothes, technological gadgets, and so forth. With such a task at hand, the business community had to look no further than the colonizers' experience in establishing control over its subject population. In a 1955 edition of The Journal of Retailing, Economist and Marketing Consultant, Victor Lebow, urged business "leaders" and marketers to cultivate and exploit this consumerist mentality with full force:

(Our economy) demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.... We require not only "forced draft" consumption, but "expensive" consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.[6]

To them, the ultimate challenge was not merely establishing a monetary system which allows for widespread consumer spending (fiat-based, supply-side economics) - a task that is handled in conjunction by the "financial wizards" of the hegemonic class - but rather creating the psychological desire to drive such spending. Essentially, as Lebow implied, this may only be accomplished by deflating the "meaning" out of life and replacing it with artificial "spiritual and ego satisfactions" that are achieved through false consciousness and "forced draft consumption." In a scene from the movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden famously rails against the effects of this conditioned psychology on the working classes:

I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables - slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit that we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose of place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives.

While Durden's underground sermon accurately characterized the nihilistic decadence of America's Generation X - a generation born at the pinnacle of this consumerist assault - he was merely echoing the theoretical basis of "commodity fetishism" espoused by Marx nearly a century and a half prior:

(With the spread of markets) there will come a time when everything that people consider as inalienable will become an object of exchange, of traffic, and can be alienated. This is the time when the very things which till then had been communicated, but never exchanged, given, but never sold, acquired but never bought - virtue, love, conviction, knowledge, conscience - when everything, in short, passed into commerce. It is the time of general corruption, of universal venality. It has left remaining no other nexus between man and man other than naked self-interest and callous cash payment. [7]

As predicted, this commodity-consumer paradigm has dominated life for much of the past century. Just as workers are commodified and alienated by their role within the labor-capital relationship, they are doubly commodified and exploited in the consumer-capital relationship. Marx recognized this; western imperialists recognized this; and the corporate business community recognizes this. Hence, the appearance of an extensive "propaganda model" that is carried out in the form of a multi-billion-dollar marketing and advertising industry - which is controlled to a large extent by "a relatively concentrated network of major corporations, conglomerates and investment firms."[8] And while there are certainly examples of acute organization within this corporate community (i.e. The Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce, etc…), the maintenance of its hegemony ultimately falls on a loosely connected arrangement of entities that share one powerful commonality: the search for profit. It is this very dynamism that makes it such a formidable foe for the Left in its attempt to deploy class-conscious politics.

Long before the onset of industrialization, capitalism, and even market economies, there were many examples of cultures partaking in the act of accumulation for reasons other than need. Therefore, it seems such "gathering" is likely inherent in our DNA. So what's the problem? Well, first of all, it's important to differentiate between a superficial condemnation that borders on envy, and an analytical assessment that attempts to identify and deconstruct mindless, narcissistic and reactionary societal tendencies. By doing so, it brings much needed legitimacy to the latter purpose, while avoiding further alienation from folks who find natural enjoyment in the acquisition of things. In other words, it's not the act of "wanting" that's inherently bad, it's the totality of a "consumerist" society that intensifies the process of degradation and dehumanization which has already been established within the realms of capital, labor and property relations. And while the battle against exploitation via labor and property is complex, multi-layered and formidable, especially when considering its collective nature and the multitude of external factors involved, the battle against anti-consciousness perpetuated by consumerism can be won on an individual basis, from within. Ultimately, it is this compounding "superstructure" which houses many aspects of superfluous want, where the transition from a civil society to a "surface society" has been made complete; and ironically, where the reversal of such may begin. Therefore, juxtaposing "superficial condemnation" and "analytical analysis" is absolutely vital when breaking down this inherently destructive process. Secondly, it is important to identify such characteristics of a "surface society," with the most dangerous of those coming in the form of personal identity, whether internally through the self or externally through the perception of others. Historically, this process of "self-worth through accumulation" and its reciprocal effect on public perception has blurred the lines between consummation for personal enjoyment and "conspicuous consumerism" as a means of establishing human value. Thorstein Veblen's observations of more than a century ago, though somewhat obvious, still ring true:

Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit."[9]

As if the illegitimacy and consequences of personal fortune and unequal distribution are not enough, the cultural norms that are created through consumption and public display serve to compound and further entrench such inequity on a social scale. As such, the "cultural hegemony" becomes a self-sustaining phenomenon that persists without the need for direct manipulation. "This principle has had the force of a conventional law," explains Veblen. "It has served as the norm to which consumption has tended to conform, and any appreciable departure from it is to be regarded as an aberrant form, sure to be eliminated sooner or later in the further course of development."

A civil society is one that recognizes the collective nature which exists within a community and realizes the inherent connection between a common good and the individual "pursuit of happiness." The essence of civility was captured by Peter Kropotkin in his historical work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution:

The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history. It was chiefly evolved during periods of peace and prosperity; but when even the greatest calamities befell men --when whole countries were laid waste by wars, and whole populations were decimated by misery, or groaned under the yoke of tyranny --the same tendency continued to live in the villages and among the poorer classes in the towns; it still kept them together, and in the long run it reacted even upon those ruling, fighting, and devastating minorities which dismissed it as sentimental nonsense. And whenever mankind had to work out a new social organization, adapted to a new phase of development, its constructive genius always drew the elements and the inspiration for the new departure from that same ever-living tendency.[10]

A "surface society" is one that ignores this commonality and replaces it with narcissistic tendencies that are centered within a false sense of identity - one that constantly pursues wealth or, at the very least, the appearance of such. In Prosperity without Growth, Tim Jackson writes, "The profit motive stimulates a continual search for newer, better or cheaper products and services. Our own relentless search for novelty and social status locks us into an iron cage of consumerism. Affluence itself has betrayed us."[11] This society, in sharp contrast to its civil counterpart, has been intensified by the maturation and successive mutations of capitalism, a system that has far outlived the spotty improvements it once offered to its ancestral systems of feudalism and mercantalism.

The development of a "surface society" is as much intentional as it is incidental. On one hand, it represents a regression to what Kant once referred to as "man's self-imposed infancy." On the other hand, it represents a product of invention - the intended result of a social and economic system that is manipulated and shaped through intensely concentrated power structures and profit-seeking motives. The latter brings us back to the French subjugation of Madagascar, where a noted "strategy" used to gain control of the indigenous population was to mold them into consumers who become "accustomed to the minor luxuries available at the shops." Thus, by doing so, they are not only assimilated into the "western mindset," but also dependent on the perceived need for otherwise worthless commodities. Post-industrialized societies are marked by similar dynamics, some of which are natural byproducts of the corporatized market system, and others which are products of design through hierarchical decision-making and political and monetary policy. Ultimately, if the interests of the "ruling-class" (the super minority) not only differs from that of the "working-class" (the super majority), but actually runs adversarial to such, then the need to "manipulate a culturally diverse society so that the ruling-class worldview becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm," like Gramsci once suggested, is logical on face value.

As we embark well into the 21st century, debt has officially replaced "labor surplus value" as the fundamental tool used by "the rich to extract wealth from the rest of us."[12] However, below its tangible use for "extracting" and funneling wealth to the top lies a crucial weapon in the battle for consciousness and working-class servitude. One of the most notable instances of "assimilation through policy" is reflected within America's love affair with home ownership, which has been intensely subsidized by the federal government for the past century. Interestingly enough, the push for home ownership was rooted in two essential motives: to quell the radical working-class uprisings of the early 1900s, and to serve as a subtle avenue for transferring public funds to private finance. Federal support of home ownership "began as an extension of anti-communist efforts in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; as on organization of realtors put it at the time, "socialism and communism do not take root in the ranks of those who have their feet firmly embedded in the soil of America through homeownership."[13] The working-class angst that had begun to surface, both internationally with the events in Tsarist Russia and nationally with the groundswell of union activity and workers' strikes, presented the need to ramp up capitalist intervention in domestic policy. What followed were the federally-backed "Own Your Own Home" campaign, the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC), the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Federal National Mortgage Association (better known as "Fannie Mae."). The consensus among the "owning-class" was that indebted homeowners do not go on strike. The subsidization of private home ownership through tax incentives (where the federal government actually pays homeowners a portion of their expenses at the end of the year) allowed for the manipulation of working-class interests, and were eventually fortified by modern advents of the same, such as consumer debt (rampant through the 1980s and 90s) and student loan debt (dominant from the 1990s to present). It is no surprise that this "control by debt" mantra has intensified during an historical macroeconomic transition from tangible production economies to highly abstract "financial" economies. In contrast to the potentially negative perception of debt, the introduction of seemingly positive forms of class connections have been deployed in the form of "privatized" retirement plans, company "profit sharing," 401Ks and "deferred compensation" plans - all of which urge workers to give portions of their earnings to Wall St. in the promise of long-term returns. Yet another artificial creation of vested (in the form of a direct monetary medium), though contradictory, interest in the owning-class' well-being. The result: A working-class that cheers on the Dow, Nasdaq and S & P 500 under the false impression of inclusion and mutual interest, all the while being fleeced.

Naturally, as "financialization" has sprung up as the dominant paradigm, so has the near-complete fusion of what C. Wright Mills once referred to as "The Power Elite." Graeber writes:

Financialization is not just the manipulation of money. Ultimately, it's the ability to manipulate state power to extract a portion of other people's incomes. Wall Street and Washington, in other words, have become one. Financialization, securitization and militarization are all different aspects of the same process. And the endless multiplication, in cities across America, of gleaming bank offices- spotless stores selling nothing while armed security guards stand by-is just the most immediate and visceral symbol for what we, as a nation, have become.[14]

So, where does consumerism fit into this bleak reality? It's rather simple. Without a constant effort to ensure people remain "accustomed to the minor luxuries - parasols, lipstick, cookies- available at the shops," the potential reach of debt is limited. Of course, basic necessities like housing, health care, food, clothing, and even water can and have been commodified in this fashion - but this isn't enough. Without creating and maintaining an insatiable "need" for luxuries, immense avenues of profit (on one side) and debt (on the other side) are essentially shut down. Furthermore, beyond the basic pursuit of monetary gain (profit) and wealth extraction (debt) lies the foundation of the status quo: the struggle for consciousness. A working class that remains ignorant to its role in this struggle; that remains indignant towards members of its own class through artificial divisions (race, gender, nationality) or false consciousness (by foolishly blaming the poor, homeless, welfare recipients, etc..); that buys into the Weltanschauung established by the "owning-class," is one that stands idle in the face of its own collective disenfranchisement. It allows "the norms of gender, class, and culturally circumscribed behavior, the requirements of work, the pressures of seeking status through consumption, and, in the absence of viable social alternatives, the need to find almost all enjoyment from private commodities" to dictate human life.[15] In this sense, consumerism is the enemy of solidarity; and solidarity is the catalyst of social awareness. Because if and when genuine class consciousness takes flight, society runs the risk of offering a meaningful human existence - an inevitable death to the status quo and the collective realization that "you're not your fuckin khakis."


[1] Guy Debord. The Society of the Spectacle.

[2] Albert Einstein. Why Socialism? Monthly Review: May 1949. (Paraphrasing Thorstein Veblen)

[3] David Graeber. Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011)

[4] Franz Fanon. Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967)

[5] Graeber, Debt.

[6] Karl Marx. The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847.

[7] Victor Lebow. Journal of Retailing, Spring of 1955.

[8] Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988)

[9] Thorstein Veblen. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: Macmillan, 1902), pp. 68-101

[10] Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. 1902

[11] Is rampant consumerism ruining our lives? The Guardian, March 17, 2011.

[12] "Can Debt Spark a Revolution?" David Graeber. The Nation, September 5, 2012.

[13] Vincent Cannato, A Home of One's Own, National Affairs, Spring 2010.

[14] The Nation.

[15] Michael Albert. Parecon: Life After Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2003), p. 205.