Consumed

Mainstream news organizations seem to be discovering anti-consumerism.  A couple of articles have appeared recently in the New York Times focusing on the ways in which the deepening recession is impacting Americans’ consumption patterns.  In a piece in the business section of the paper, for instance, the lack of correlation between purchases of material objects and happiness is noted.

The background, of course, is that the economic downturn has made it harder and harder for the U.S. middle class to stay on the treadmill of work and consumption that they’ve been persuaded to climb onto by decades of Madison Avenue advertising.  Money, the article argues, is far better spent on experiences (particularly ones with a social component) than on material things, since the latter quickly lose their aura of newness and become simply a drag, while experiences continue to resonate in our memories even after they are over.

But I think that the Times article makes a key mistake.  By linking the anti-consumerist movement to the economic downturn, it suggests that resistance to frenetic consumption is a product of forced austerity.  It well may be in some instances, but this perspective is likely to cement the association between the environmental movement and self-flagellating, hair shirt-wearing, humorless, style-deficient killjoys.  The point about happiness and the turn away from the hollowness of the consumer lifestyle gets lost in the very real sufferings created by the recession, about which the Times recently ran another article.  The recession may be leading families to stay at home playing scrabble more than previously, but it’s also leading to more grinding, quiet desperation and to more domestic abuse.  This is not a particularly silver lining.

Another problem with the Times article is that it treats our collective ambivalence about consumption as if it were a recent phenomenon.  In fact, such attitudes are rife in popular culture, and have been for a long time.  It’s not just Woody in Hollywood’s Toy Story 3 who notices that we’ve created a soulless culture of disposability.  Such an awareness is virtually ubiquitous, one might even say constitutive, of Hollywood.  From the days of Bladerunner and The Terminator, our major culture industry has been quite willing to limn our fear that the gadgets we create and then discard will bite back.

In a brilliant presentation at the Grad Center last spring (a brief summary of which you can find here), Professor Patricia Yaeger discussed the way in which films such as these represent our collective hopes and fears around consumption.  Yaeger spoke in particular about our fascination with robots, who provide us with anthropomorphized incarnations of our consumer fantasies that the things we create might somehow provide us with meaningful emotional relationships.  At the end of the day, however, as Marx pointed out long ago, commodities are just other people’s alienated labor.  They remain alien to us, and also ineluctibly linked to forms of exploitation – as well, it should be added, as environmental degradation.

Today, the issue of environmental collapse seems increasingly prominent in our collective meditations on consumption.  Peculiar, then, that the New York Times article didn’t focus at all on the environmentalist imperative behind campaigns to diminish consumption.  Perhaps the author was afraid of being painted as a killjoy.  But the point is that less consumption actually tends to increase happiness (once the basic requirements of life such as food and a safe dwelling are secured, of course), as long as it’s linked to deepening social networks.  And, of course, it’s also key to preventing runaway climate change.

Here’s an excellent report from the New Economic’s Foundation that underlines precisely these points.  It’s called Are You Happy?

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