Why shop till we drop?

Consumed - Consuming Life
July 20, 2007

Rampant consumerism blights all our lives, Keith Tester discovers.

The high-street clothing chain Primark sells copies of the latest catwalk styles at pocket-money prices, and its lines seem to change every week. If the bargain is not grasped today, it has probably disappeared for ever. Primark is about the immediate now; buy now, pay now without worrying about the credit card bill (or the workers who make these suspiciously cheap garments) and wear now because the jacket will be ludicrously out of date next week. A branch opened at London's Marble Arch in April. Queues stretched for miles, people were hurt and doors knocked off their hinges in the mad rush to get the style bargain of the moment. Some shoppers came to London especially to be there, and news coverage was immense. Some of the shoppers may have been a paid claque, but if Benjamin R. Barber and Zygmunt Bauman are right, what happened at Primark highlights some of the most profound issues in contemporary culture.

Barber argues that because all the needs of the sufficiently affluent have now been met, capitalism can reproduce itself only with the stimulation of immediate consumer wants for unnecessary products. The best way of achieving this is by infantilising consumers and making them live in and for the now, like children. Infantilisation is literal in that marketers are increasingly focusing their attention on children, but it is also metaphorical.

According to Barber, consumers are infantilised by "capitalist consumerism" that nurtures "a culture of impetuous consumption necessary to selling puerile goods in a developed world that has few genuine needs". "I want" replaces "I need" (and there is no place here for a "we"; after all, you might take what I want, just as the Primark shoppers know that there are not enough jackets to go around). "Want" satisfaction is about now, whereas "needs" satisfaction is long term. What Barber calls the "infantilist ethos" inverts the Protestant ethic that he sees as the heroic founding principle of American capitalism, and it stresses the easy over the hard, the simple over the complex, and the fast over the slow. "As the Protestant ethos once shaped a culture conducive to work and investment, the infantilist ethos today shapes a culture conducive to laxity, shopping and spending".

Bauman reaches similar conclusions, albeit from a different direction. Whereas Barber convinces by marshalling a body of evidence that is overwhelming, Bauman adopts a strategy that encourages dialogue through the development of an ideal type of consumer society, pulling a diverse range of empirical material into a coherent picture that might then be used to cast light on how we live today. His methodology is Weberian. Consumerism is "a type of social arrangement that results from recycling mundane, permanent and so to speak 'regime-neutral' human wants, desires and longings into the principal propelling and operating force of society". Yet consumerism can operate in this way only if "wants, desires and longings" are always left unsatisfied. It cannot possibly allow for a moment in which the consumer can be fulfilled. Primark needs its shoppers to return to the store once they realise that what they have just so joyously purchased will be stigmatised as out of date when next week's stock arrives.

This explains why new styles and products are so desirable. They come with the promise that they will bring about satisfaction, if only for a week. Consequently, Bauman argues, consumerism is founded on a lie. What it promises is impossible for consumers to enjoy: "The realm of hypocrisy stretching between popular beliefs and the realities of consumers' lives is a necessary condition of a properly functioning society of consumers." The hypocrisy is disguised by the felicity with which the now-discredited purchases can be discarded and, as Bauman observes, waste disposal is a growth area of consumer capitalism. Consumers rarely have to pay for delivery, but are happy to pay to get rid of what is no longer desired: "It is getting rid that now conditions happiness; and happiness, as everyone would agree, needs to be paid for." Primark once again makes the point. It produces the quickly obsolete, and consumers fight for the privilege of disposing of the soon-to-be-waste because what they have bought only has value now.

Barber's and Bauman's sights are trained on targets much larger than shopping, however. Both use consumerism as a point of entry into a fully blown civilisational critique that encompasses relationships, politics and values. According to Barber, infantilisation means that men and women are prevented from growing up and remain stuck in a state of narcissism in which satisfaction is sought through a marketplace attitude towards goods and people. This causes a pathological reaction in which the self is subsumed into what is out there, and it becomes inadequate (after all, if brands or some people are so popular, they must deliver to others what they promise - the problem must be with me). Consumerism puts at the core of contemporary civilisation the lie that systemic deceits are individual failings. For Bauman, it is in this way that contemporary society turns around Freud's argument that civilisation is only possible through the external repression and deferral of immediate desire. On the contrary; this is a form of civilisation that is able to let desire run rife so long as it is channelled into shopping for goods or other people, and as long as the individual feels himself to be the cause of all failure.

Is there any way out of living this lie? Here Barber and Bauman move apart. Barber turns tentatively to pockets of value that have managed to remain immune to infantilisation, such as religion (although he does not make enough of the infantilisation of religion that is called fundamentalism), and he ends with the announcement that: "We need democratic sovereignty to moderate market anarchy and market monopoly." However, Barber notes that he has no formula that might bring this situation about. Indeed, the logic of his book is that it can never happen because infantilisation leads to men and women who are not attuned to the long-haul politics of democracy. Consequently Bauman's approach might be more useful. He does not give comforting answers. Rather he writes books that usually end with a paradox, and this one is no exception. The concern with being up to date is beginning to run more quickly than the human ability to be up to date, and this can only result in the worst irresponsibility.

Barber and Bauman have written books that are engaged and important antidotes to the platitudes of the times. They know that while consumerism can be pleasurable, it can never be the basis for a responsible and honest human being in the world. These two books can be hard and complex, and they ought to be read slowly because only then will their nuances appear. They encourage the very human virtues they seek to recover from a world otherwise only concerned with the easy, the simple and the fast.

Keith Tester is professor of cultural sociology, Portsmouth University.

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole

Author - Benjamin R. Barber
Publisher - Norton
Pages - 406
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 9780393049619

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