It’s one of these topic where almost everyone who speaks about possesses a polarised view on the subject. Either you take a look at the world today and see a society that rejects previous methods of being happy in favour of a shallow, crass desire for material wealth propagated by large corporations via the media. Or, you see consumer society as a good thing, a place where a wide range of products can be bought, and with such competition it’s easy to get goods at a bargain rate. From slight variations of these two opinions, the topic never seems to get any further, which I find is lamentable. If you have a look around, the majority of posts on this topic fall into those two broad camps, outlined above, with little room for grey areas.
This problem is reflected even in the definition of consumerism. Source: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/consumerism
2 Often derogatory the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods: many people are becoming increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of consumerism
For those of you who love wikipedia, their definition gives a greater sense of this divide. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumerism
- One sense of the term is to describe the efforts to support consumers’ interests. By the early 1970s, it was the accepted term for the field and began to be used in these ways:
- “Consumerism” is the concept that consumers should be informed decision makers in the marketplace. Practices such as product testing make consumers informed.
- “Consumerism” is the concept that the marketplace itself is responsible for ensuring economic justice and fairness in society. Consumer protection policies and laws compel manufacturers to make products safe.
- “Consumerism” refers to the field of studying, regulating, or interacting with the marketplace. The consumer movement is the social movement which refers to all actions and all entities within the marketplace which give consideration to the consumer.
- While the above definitions were being established, other people began using the term “consumerism” to mean “hih levels of consumption”. This definition gained popularity since the 1970s and began to be used in these ways:
- “Consumerism” is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or economic materialism. In protest to this some people promote “anti-consumerism” and advocacy for simple living.
- “Consumerism” is a force from the marketplace which destroys individuality and harms society. It is related to globalization and in protest to this some people promote the “anti-globalization movement“.
Although the definition varies from source to source (this is why language has no truth, due to no fixed meaning) the latter sums up the problem here in greater depth. Consumerism exists in society as an ‘either or’, where each stance effectively defines itself against the other. To be blunt, it seems you either think it is crass materialism or it isn’t, or you think it either ensures fairness in society or it does not. There is little in between, little grey and if you ask me, it exists little more as a sensationalist term. It’s even trendy to say you’re against consumerism; making you a conforming non-conformist, another fun matter entirely.
What is my point? We don’t allow our thoughts about consumerism to reflect reality. I wonder, how many of you reading this laughed with scorn and thought it a sad state of affairs when people queued overnight for the release of the latest iPhone? How many of us would then actually quite like to own an iPhone? How many of us do? It shows a double standard, where we might mock those who appear to slavishly follow consumerist trends, while at the same time you’ve already done so, since you now own that very product. I wonder, are any of you reading this on an iPhone? If so, you’ll in the exact position I want you to be for thinking about this problem. Even with the above example, we encounter a problem if we peel back our narrow view on the subject.
There are other things we queue overnight for, even camp out for. Back in time, you used to do the same thing for movies at the cinema, ticket sales for festivals, and still today people camp overnight and queue for hours to get tickets at Wimbledon when the tennis is on. But we don’t scorn them, we don’t say they are slaves to materialism. You’re paying for an experience; the ticket gives you access to it. We view watching great sportsmen and women play as something that is priceless, as it is an experience, but when you break that down, you realise it’s still a product. Just because there is no material object involved does not mean it is not a product. Something is being sold, something is being bought. You don’t just pay for an iPhone after all, you pay for the experience of owning one. I can go into an apple store and experience it, but only if I buy it can I own that experience. In the same way, I can watch the Wimbledon final on the TV, but there’s this tangible sense that I don’t own the moment, since I’m not there in person – there’s no physical link, not attempt at ownership by being there.
Are we all just hypocrites then? Have we fallen into some trap where we don’t realise how deeply we subscribe to consumerism? Are we all mindless slaves, driven to buy products without even noticing it? No. That’s sensationalist. That’s deluded. I’m leading you with those sentences towards a conclusion that is another polar extreme, not an actual understanding. I tend to find in artists that we are very often in the camp that rejects materialism and consumerism. We create for our own benefit, we produce (see where this is going – think about why I’m using ‘produce’ here) for ourselves. What do artists produce? Art. Do we offer commissions? Yes. Do we therefore sell our products? Yes. Does art have a material value? Yes. Is art necessary? No. So what do artists do? We create a product that has no real value in terms of practicality, and then we sell it to those who collect products. It’s a more permissive form of economic materialism, but it still is.
So how do we escape from this? We can’t. Don’t be dismayed either; dismay comes from one of the polar extremes. In reality, what happens? Do we mindlessly collect art? If you view art as worthless, yes, if you see art as impractical, yes. But if you see art as something of value? We view those who appreciate art or literature as cultured; we see those things as motifs of “high culture” but what makes it any different to buying a pair of shoes? I might see no value in a pair of high heels, but others do. Does that make the person who buys art and different to the person who buys shoes? No. What’s the issue then? It’s not that you’re buying something, that everything can be viewed as either a necessary product or an unnecessary one. The problem we fail to recognise in our polar attitudes towards consumerism is that it relies on what you judge to have value. Value is permissive, value has no fixed definition. It varies from person to person. What even constitutes value is not fixed. Some define value in terms of how much money it’s worth. Some have defined the value of a product as relational to a sale price and the price of labour in producing it – that was Marx. We can define value as something that is based on necessity. Do we need that product? Yes/No? Then depending on the answer, the product either has value or does not. Need is of course determined by the individual’s circumstances, and even then, what do we mean by need? We’re getting caught in an endless attempt to define. Even simply, value can be determined by whether we like it or not. It can be as simple as that.
If you’re still here, take a breather. I promise we’re almost done.
What this means for us is that we can neither escape consumerism nor can we be part of it. Others can say our purchases are not based on necessity. I can go buy a pair of walking boots, but someone can turn around and say that is not necessary because I can always walk anywhere barefoot. It just gets silly – and that’s what this is. It’s silly to apply one person’s ideas of value onto another. It’s silly to say that purchasing something because you like it is consumerist, because our like of a thing is a measure of value. It’s silly also to suggest that we should make everything ourselves and therefore avoid money. Some of us will be better at other things, so we’ll naturally trade things, rather than just continue making our own bit of rubbish. If, say we are hunter-gatherers, I might be better at hunting animals, and you might be better at making clothes from animal fur. It would be mindlessly stupid for me to hunt and then make shoddy clothes myself, or you to try to hunt but not catch the right animals. Net result, we wouldn’t survive winter unless I went out and hunted for us both, and you then made clothes from those skins for us both. This is called the division of labour, and you know, Marx said this. Read the German Ideology – it’s in there. Society is basically made up by dividing labour and then trading based on our merits. We are no longer hunter gatherers, but the principle still applies. Have a think. Dividing labour makes sense, and is also efficient. However, the hunter gatherer can also learn to hunt or make clothes, which does throw a wrench in that. I guess that means dividing labour only then works if we don’t have the time to do that all.
So to conclude? It’s foolish to think of consumerism in a simple way. There are complex interactions going on, which can both label us as consumers or not. What is crass materialism to one isn’t to another. Our everyday actions reveal both consumerist tendencies and non-consumerist tendencies at the same time. I for one have commissioned artists. I’m a consumer. At the same time, I’m teaching myself to draw. So with that, I’m a consumer who is not a consumer. Doesn’t consumerism just feel silly now?