Excess: Anti-consumerism in the West

March 18, 2010

Do we need another study showing that happiness cannot be bought and that too much is bad for the self and for society? There are already three recent studies entitled Affluenza that highlight its malign personal, social and environmental consequences. Nevertheless, Kim Humphery's Excess is timely, since, despite the recession underscoring the fragility of Western economies, consumerism remains seen as a solution, not as contributory, to the "shopocalypse".

Humphery presents a sympathetic but critical engagement with the plethora of movements, ideas and lifestyles that constitute "the new politics of consumption" in North America, Western Europe and Australia. His case is that critics of overconsumption have too often articulated "disdain or pity for an imagined imbecile called 'the consumer'". Such condescension towards even relative prosperity has long been common among various reform initiatives that write off "the people" as corrupted by the market or mass culture.

Humphery's interviews with movement activists found them less prone to buying into a notion of "false consciousness" than polemical authors, but the prevalence of such a viewpoint has tended to leave anti-consumerists sounding elitist and vanguard-like, hectoring those who do not behave like them, and it has marginalised their political impact to a bourgeois minority. Some critics end up sounding like their quarry - focused on the individual, on lifestyles and personal ethical commitments, and loading consumer culture with determining interpretive significance. Anti-consumerism has ignored practices and worlds outside consumption and shelved political questions of market regulation or of capitalism.

Excess admits the appeal of the more dramatic tenor of Naomi Klein or George Ritzer. But Humphery urges a more nuanced assessment of material life as not simply the all-encompassing and morally bankrupt consuming desire of unwitting dupes, but more as driven by routines, technologies that encircle and involve, and powerful capitalist economic structures.

The real strength of Excess lies in the recognition of the pleasures involved in consumption - that it is creative and meaningful, as well as destructive and controlling - and also of the loss that anti-consumerism entails, whatever its benefits.

Excess can be imprecise in detailing when this "new politics" came about, although it rarely strays before the neoliberal era and focuses on the post-Cold War period to 2008. Quite how new the "new politics" are is also moot, since such critiques, as Humphery concedes, were abundant in the affluent societies of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although the work draws on an impressively multidisciplinary repertoire (sociologist Juliet Schor is a recurring reference), concepts such as Ronald Inglehart's post-materialism make only a fleeting appearance, and historians may be surprised that the works of Matthew Hilton, Lawrence Glickman, Victoria de Grazia and Avner Offer are not discussed. Humphery's milieu is urban and progressive and this neglects more conservative, ruralist or religious unease with consumerism, not to mention the Co-operative's alternative ethos. Nor does he dwell on the degree to which rhetorics such as "sustainability" have been assimilated by mainstream politics and policy.

Those seeking empirical detail on the Slow Food movement, downshifting, Buy Nothing Day, culture jamming, militant anti-capitalist campaigners or more mainstream fare such as fair trade should shop elsewhere. This is a work of social theory, not an alternative lifestyle guide. It moves against the "cultural turn" that dominated the humanities from the 1980s and in which concepts of consumption were central - less because this rejected theories of mass culture to interrogate the manifold identities of consumers, than because it saw consumption chiefly in cultural terms, and it was at odds with economists' and environmentalists' anxieties.

Humphery favours a new materialism: a more proportionate, just and moral (but not moralising) understanding of consumer life, blending political economy with personal politics. This would be less deconstructive postmodernism than a generative, socially engaged theory. Can we afford for Excess not to obtain its intended impact?

Excess: Anti-consumerism in the West

By Kim Humphery. Polity, 224pp, £55.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780745645407 and 45414. Published 6 November 2009

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