Buy Something!

Today (or tomorrow, if you’re not in the United States) is Buy Nothing Day, a tradition (not a meme; there are no memes) from the folks at Adbusters. The idea is pretty simple: you’re not supposed to buy anything today. This is supposed to be an action against consumerism. As it turns out, I made a completely unnecessary purchase today: a ticket to see The Incredibles for the third time, a big greasy bag of popcorn, and a big brand name Frozen Coke. Delicious, but oughtn’t I feel guilty?

No. I don’t feel guilty and I shouldn’t, because Buy Nothing Day is, in fact, a collosally misanthropic and subtly reactionary waste of time. Now, I couldn’t care less about the Adbusters crew, but there are people I respect (e.g., Elayne Riggs (2004-11-26), Mark Dilley (2004-11-19)) who support Buy Nothing Day and similar anti-consumerist actions such as the Great Holiday Boycott. I can understand why good people think there is a good idea here: anti-consumerist sentiments latch onto a real problem. But I dissent. Anti-consumerist doctrine, from Marcuse to Adbusters, distorts the nature of the problem, analyses it in terms that are subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly) misogynistic and classist, and offers solutions that systematically miss the point.

Buy Nothing Day is as nice of an example of anti-consumerist theory and practice as you could hope for. The problem is over-consumption of corporate-made goods; its source is consumers duped into mindless binging by clever ad-men; its solution is waking up and making the choice to opt out of the madness. (Here’s Adbusters: For 24 hours, millions of people around the world do not participate — in the doomsday economy, the marketing mind-games, and the frantic consumer-binge that’s become our culture. We pause. We make a small choice not to shop.) You make the decision to opt out, and to chide others into opting out too—by shuffling around stores in a zombie costume or harassing retail workers, for example; that is the road to enlightenment, and enlightenment means liberation. This attack on consumer culture is packaged as resistance to the bourgeoisie; thus, anti-consumerism is sold as Leftist populism.

The problem is that this is wrong on nearly every count. Stop for a moment to just look at what the theory of consumerism says about the origin of social problems—the delusions that the unwashed masses are allegedly duped into—and what it recommends as the solution—Gnostic liberation from the dirty material world. This is not Leftist critique; it is Romantic misanthropy. Look at how it is cashed out in action: ridiculing ordinary people going about their business by portraying them as mindless zombies, pigs, sheep, or cattle; harassing workers who have done nothing worse than show up for their jobs. This is not Leftist politics; it’s empty lifestylism and a display of personal purity. What it expresses is contempt and what it does is attack ordinary people—workers and women in particular. More on that in a moment. (I don’t want to suggest that everyone who recommends Buy Nothing Day or expresses anti-consumerist sentiments is some kind of slimy reactionary misanthrope. They aren’t; lots of decent and sensible people are involved. But I think those decent and sensible people are making an understandable mistake, and going along with a reactionary program without realizing it.)

Ellen Willis had it right in Women and the Myth of Consumerism (1969):

If white radicals are serious about revolution, they are going to have to discard a lot of bullshit ideology created by and for educated white middle-class males. A good example of what has to go is the popular theory of consumerism.

As expounded by many leftist thinkers, notably Marcuse, this theory maintains that consumers are psychically manipulated by the mass media to crave more and more consumer goods, and thus power an economy that depends on constantly expanding sales. …

First of all, there is nothing inherently wrong with consumption. Shopping and consuming are enjoyable human activities and the marketplace has been a center of social life for thousands of years.

The locus of the oppression resides in the production function: people have no control over which commodities are produced (or services performed), in what amounts, under what conditions, or how these commodities are distributed. Corporations make these decisions and base them solely on profit potential.

As it is, the profusion of commodities is a genuine and powerful compensation for oppression. It is a bribe, but like all bribes it offers concrete benefits—in the average American’s case, a degree of physical comfort unparalleled in history. Under present conditions, people are preoccupied with consumer goods not because they are brainwashed but because buying is the one pleasurable activity not only permitted but actively encouraged by our rulers. The pleasure of eating an ice cream cone may be minor compared to the pleasure of meaningful, autonomous work, but the former is easily available and the latter is not. A poor family would undoubtedly rather have a decent apartment than a new TV, but since they are unlikely to get the apartment, what is to be gained by not buying the TV?

That’s not all, either. Misanthropy is always easiest to take out on the people who are least powerful and most widely denigrated; it shouldn’t be surprising that anti-consumerist misanthropy is so often cashed out in backhanded attacks on poor workers, and especially on women:

The theory is said to be particularly applicable to women, for women do most of the actual buying, their buying is often directly related to their oppression (e.g. makeup, soap flakes), and they are a special target of advertisers. According to this view, the society defines women as consumers, and the purpose of the prevailing media image of women as passive sexual objects is to sell products. It follows that the beneficiaries of this depreciation of women are not men but the corporate power structure. …

The confusion between cause and effect is particularly apparent in the consumerist analysis of women’s oppression. Women are not manipulated by the media into being domestic servants and mindless sexual decorations, the better to sell soap and hair spray. Rather, the image reflects women as they are forced by men in a sexist society to behave. Male supremacy is the oldest and most basic form of class exploitation; it was not invented by a smart ad man. …

For women, buying and wearing clothes and beauty aids is not so much consumption as work. One of a woman’s jobs in this society is to be an attractive sexual object, and clothes and make up are tools of the trade. Similarly, buying food and household furnishings is a domestic task; it is the wife’s chore to pick out the commodities that will be consumed by the whole family. Appliances and cleaning materials are tools that faciliate her domestic function. When a woman spends a lot of money and time decorating her home or herself, or hunting down the latest in vacuum cleaners, it is not idle self-indulgence (let alone the result of psychic manipulation) but a healthy attempt to find outlets for her creative energies within her circumscribed role.

… Consumerism as applied to women is blatantly sexist. The pervasive image of the empty-headed female consumer constantly trying her husband’s patience with her extravagant purchases contributes to the myth of male superiority: we are incapable of spending money rationally: all we need to make us happy is a new hat now and then. (There is an analogous racial stereotype—the black with his Cadillac and magenta shirts.) Furthermore, the consumerism line allows Movement men to avoid recognizing that they exploit women by attributing women’s oppression solely to capitalism. It fits neatly into already existing radical theory and concerns, saving the Movement the trouble of tackling the real problems of women’s liberation. And it retards the struggle against male supremacy by dividing women. Just as in the male movement, the belief in consumerism encourages radical women to patronize and put down other women for trying to survive as best they can, and maintains individualist illusions.

In the past 35 years, we unfortunately haven’t come a long way. (Watch as women and girls are glibly portrayed as empty-headed, narcissistic, and shallow; marvel as unconsumer boys thoughtlessly objectify liberated women to pimp their project.)

So what must we do? Hey, it’s the holidays; let’s enjoy ourselves—even, yes, buy something, if we feel like it—and ignore or ridicule guilt-tripping anti-consumerists who haven’t got anything better to do than hector us. And when we get back to work, shouldn’t we remember that we’re all in this together, and that that the answer is to empower people instead of berating them? Here’s Ellen Willis again, sounding (alas!) eerily like she was writing about Buy Nothing Day itself, instead of the movement 35 years ago:

If we are to build a mass movement we must recognize that no individual decision, like rejecting consumption, can liberate us. We must stop arguing about whose life style is better (and secretly believing ours is) and tend to the task of collectively fighting our own oppression and the ways in which we oppress others. When we create a political alternative to sexism, racism, and capitalism, the consumer problem, if it is a problem, will take care of itself.

23 replies to Buy Something! Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. dru

    “When we create a political alternative to sexism, racism, and capitalism, the consumer problem, if it is a problem, will take care of itself.”

    Looking around, I think there is a problem that will soon be (and in many places, is) looming larger than sexism or racism: the problem of survival.

    I agree with some of the points about sexism and classism, but the irony of dismissing BND wholesale as “reactionary” doesn’t need to be pointed out.

    The modes of consumption that you describe are simply not sustainable, and are maintained only by unimpeded imperial access to the resources of the third world. The emissions thus created are fucking up the planet, causing hundreds of thousands of species to go extinct (and soon, humans, starting with Bangladesh). (You were drinking a Coke, ferchrissakes.)

    If the oil runs out and/or the economy crashes, we had better have ways of feeding millions of people in place that don’t require global capitalism or fossil fuels, or those people won’t have a chance to worry about sexism or classism.

    This seems painfully obvious. Kudos for being contrarian and pointing out the problems with liberal projects like BND, but it’s hard to see how consuming will help anything.

  2. Scott Neigh

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. I have to admit, I have celebrated BND with street theatre-type actions before, though not in a number of years. The first critique I read of it (and this may be floating around the internet still, I’m not sure) was an essay advocating that we celebrate Steal Something Day instead by some anarchists up in Montreal — they captured the class-related problems, though if I remember correctly there wasn’t a gender component to that analysis.

    Anyway, I agree that the consumerism/anti-consumerism paradigm has problems, and treating it as the problem/the answer leads to limited and even oppressive goals and activities. However, I think perhaps your post throws the baby out with the bath water, as it were. I’m only tentatively adopting this position as I need to think about it more, but I do think there is still value in problematizing unsustainable consumption. Obviously there are environmental implications, as the previous comment describes. I think there are also solid radical reasons for leaders within poor communities to problematize it — encouraging collective resistance and solidarity not by demonizing consumption and consumers, as some BND-related activity does, but by honestly pointing out that it is never really going to fill the void created by alienation while in the process of creating alternatives. And I think it is perhaps even more important to problematize it amongst the middle-class because sooner or later we are going to have give up that level and kind of attachment to consumption — giving it up won’t create the change, as the Adbusters folks claim, but an openness to giving it up might make the middle-class insistence on a repressive response to the movements that ultimately demand such change (workers, women, national liberation in the global south, and others) a bit less unified and strident.

    The problem, I think, is not problematizing excess consumption per se but doing it (a) in a way that is not conscious of the broader context of power and privilege and exploitative relations of production, and (b) in a way that uncritically reproduces the puritanism that pervades so much of North American culture (including many other facets of activist culture, unfortunately).

  3. tothebarricades.tk

    Hmm, I dunno. I think “Buy Nothing Day” is just a good catalyst for discussion and reflection over true values. Culture jamming, in other words - what Adbusters does best. If it were intended as a serious boycott, then I would have second thoughts…

  4. Sergio Méndez

    Charles:

    This time I have to disagree with you. You may have a point that some exposers and expositions of the anti-consumer theory, recur to misogynistic and beating-the-poor tactics. But that does not mean the theory depends on such aberrations at all.

    As Dru pointed before me, the problem with consumerism is indeed an environmental problem. We cannot keep our levels of consumption without risking to destroy the planet, and the species that live on it -including us-. I also agree with Marcusse and most of the Frankfurt school: consumerism is indeed a method to keep the people controlled. Selling people all kind of shit they don’t need while the system, at the same time, keeps them without the chance to have the basics to survive (your example of the poor family and the dilemma between the TV and the house, is exactly of what I am talking about) is certainly a way to keep people under control. Add to that the alienation of the people and the reduction of their personhood to the status of “consumer”.

    This is not something that affects only one class or gender. It affects all of us, specially the rich and the middle upper classes, that have more money to consume. I know this firsthand, since I am a member of bourgeois accommodated family in a country where people are starving and homeless. The first person to be blamed for this is me. And the first class I will blame to be mindless zombies in shopping malls, are those who belong to my class. Mea Culpa.

  5. Nancy Jowske

    my comments are here…

  6. NancyP

    I don’t take the “buy nothing day” seriously - just regard it as a reminder to spend time enjoying the company of family or friends rather than rush out and buy something unnecessary. Americans are highly pressured with this holiday nonsense - average Christmas spending estimated at 700.00 per family - and I think it would be better for our sanity if we spent more time writing letters/making phone calls, visiting, baking cookies, decorating the yard shrubbery with edible Christmas decorations (threaded strings fo cranberries and popcorn, for the birds), and included a charity (“neediest families” or other) in our gift-giving plan.

  7. Sheelzebub

    Right on!

    I’m into the whole simple living philosophy, mainly because I hate keeping track of stuff. And while I can get with not buying a ridiculous amount of crap (some stuff out there is just plain extraneous), a lot of anti-consumerism groups go after the powerless and rely on simplistic thinking. Their tactics aren’t changing anything—in fact, Adbusters jumped the freaking shark when they put out their sneaker for sale. Yeah, folks, that’s how we combat consumerism—with more consumerism!

    :::rolls eyes:::

  8. jp

    I tend to agree with the baby/bathwater analysis. Your view seems similar to me to the view that gets thrown around by old time Marxists, by the way, when one tries to talk of racism or sexism—well, they say, if we just solve this capitalist/communist problem, sexism and racism will go away.

  9. Discussed at aptenobytes.typepad.com

    Aptenobytes:

    Wading into the fray.

    There seems to be some discontent in the land. The middle classes that don’t need to buy anything are shocked by the poor saying that they need to shop.

  10. Discussed at www.lyingmediabastards.com

    Lying Media Bastards:

    Le News

    Guinea Pig Kids- !!! 1984 meets Charles Dickens. According to this article, New York City’s Administration of Children’s Services is forcing parents of HIV-positive children to give their children toxic, experimental AIDS drugs. If the parents refuse, …

  11. Discussed at randomwalks.com

    Dru Blood - I believe in the inherent goodness of all beings:

    Sustainability.

    I just finished cleaning out my fridge for the first time since R came to stay here. It’s safe to say that I’m fairly disgusted with myself for the amount of food that I just threw away, and the amount…

  12. inkheart

    thanks for this post - found it via dru blood. i agree with some points and disagree with others. for a while now i’ve been annoyed with wholesale rejection of markets and useless stereotyping of consumers, but many lefties will excommunicate people for hinting at such thoughts.

    reading this made me think of this:

    I needed those cheap dishes. And I understood how, from the point of view of the economically struggling millions, you could mistrust and loathe all the natty left-wing intellectuals, all the rasta-haired, chin-studded anti-consumerists who want to steal that one bone that you’ve been given: access to goods.

    Not endorsing it, just posting it.

— 2005 —

  1. Creford Wong

    How wonderful it is! Today, I had seen the film - “The Incredibles” this afternoon, My father also had seen this film in this evening. This cartoon movie is powered by Disney Company. In this film, I love the people’s sensation, scene, bugbears. The scene is so sublime. With the great imagination.

— 2007 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2005-05-02 – Écrasez l’Wal-Mart:

    […] market (it isn’t a creature of the free market at all), and certainly not because of some cracked anti-consumerist claptrap. The problem with Wal-Mart is that they steal your money and use it to keep their business running […]

— 2008 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2005-11-25 – Holiday reminder: Buy Something!:

    […] today — Friday November 25th — has been dubbed Buy Nothing Day by the Adbusters crew. I recommend that you Buy Something, for your own pleasure and as a memento of the important difference between serious, materialist […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-11-27 – Happy Feast Day:

    […] And, just as a holiday reminder, keep in mind that tomorrow is Buy Something (if you want it) Day. […]

  3. Gary Chartier

    Hi, Charles,

    I just had a chance to read this post. It struck me that you might find some of the analysis in this book resonant:

    http://www.amazon.com/Nation-Rebels-Counterculture-Consumer-Culture/dp/006074586X

  4. Gabriel

    I know this firsthand, since I am a member of bourgeois accommodated family in a country where people are starving and homeless.

    I wonder if Marx had a word for members of the ruling class who feel guilty and agonize about being in the ruling class. :)

  5. Sergio Méndez

    Gabriel:

    I do not feel “guilty” about being a member of the “ruling” class. I was just stating a fact.

  6. quasibill

    As a current stay at home dad, I’m going to have to say that much of Willis’s quoted analysis is dangerously wrong and misguided. Consumerism still tugs more strongly at me now than it did when I was the primary bread-winner. There are many reasons for this, but quite obviously, it isn’t related to my gender.

    Her analysis reeks of “but MY pet peeve is the lynchpin!” type of narrow-mindedness best exemplified by vulgar libertarians. We live in a system with interlocking systems of oppression, each of which plays its role in maintaining the whole. Singling out one bar as the sole support of all other bars is, IMO, dangerously misguided and has the proven record of historical failure/co-option by the ruling class. Pushing on only one bar can result in minimal increases of freedom along that one axis, but if pushed to the point of breaking, the rest of the cage will react with more oppression to secure the overall integrity of the system.

    I’m not into anti-consumerism for many of the reasons Charles mentions, but to deny that it is an independent problem that serves the ruling class just as much, if not more so, than sexism is to make a serious ideological mistake of intentional ignorance.

— 2011 —

  1. Youvegotto B. Kidding

    Engorged American chugs coke, defends ad industry to fight sexism! Yeah!

    http://www.google.com/search?q=Coke+sexist+ad&btnG=

    • Rad Geek

      If you interpreted this article as a defense of the advertising industry, or the Coca-Cola corporation, you’re mistaken. It’s not a defense of advertisers; it’s a defense of consumers. Insofar as it has anything to say about advertisers, what it has to say is that ad-men are not the primary problem with sexist consumer capitalism. The primary problem is male domination of society and corporate capitalist domination of the means of production. Advertising is a symptom, not a cause, of those problems. And the problems with the Coca-Cola corporation will not be stopped by hectoring one American into not drinking a coke on one day out of the year.

      You could say that the point is that whether or not my actions will undo Coca-Cola corporation’s control, I at least should not be contributing to Coca-Cola’s profits. And perhaps you are right; but if so, then it sounds like the point of the exercise is to change me, not to change Coca-Cola corporation. And I will point out that, whether I should change or not (no doubt I should in any number of ways), this seems to leave the bigger social problem unresolved.

      And also that if the point is to make a change in individual people’s mindsets, the mental tactics you use to do the persuading matters a lot, and this approach of trying to shame and ridicule, not capitalists, but ordinary consumers who disagree with your particular consumption priorities, by ridiculing them as fat, flabby, engorged, mindless, brainwashed, vain, greedy, etc., comparing them to zombies, cattle, sheep, pigs, etc., is probably not the right way to go about that. That kind of approach is more or less always pointlessly mean-spirited; and like many kinds of mean-spiritedness, it is very often most easily directed against the most marginalized and the most socially vulnerable people, using jokes and references that are themselves drawn from the ready library of nasty put-downs drawing on stereotypes of gender, social class, etc. Now instead of taking that kind of approach to the problem, you might start instead by trying to *understand* why people shop the way they shop and why they buy the things they buy — what genuine goods they get out of the decisions that they make, even though those goods may be limited or poisoned or attached to many strings. And then you might try to organize with those folks to develop alternatives that provide other ways to get the things that we need outside the corporate-capitalist nexus — countereconomic networks, fighting unions, community events, local gift economies, neighborhood co-ops and mutual aid networks, whatever is most appropriate to the need you are trying to address. Admittedly a serious attempt to provide alternatives rather than simply to mock and shame is a lot of work. And admittedly it gives you far less of an opportunity to have some laffs at your neighbors’ expense, or to feel cheaply righteous by comparison with people whose choices and whose motives you’ve made no real attempt to understand. But it does offer some remote possibility of addressing the social problems you claim to care about. Cheap ridicule and one-day consumption boycotts, not so much.

— 2013 —

  1. Discussed at feministcurrent.com

    Why not boycott the NFL? | Feminist Current:

    […] have been a number of smart critiques of Buy Nothing Day (and, more generally, Adbusters‘ focus on consumption and it’s […]

Post a reply

By:
Your e-mail address will not be published.
You can register for an account and sign in to verify your identity and avoid spam traps.
Reply

Use Markdown syntax for formatting. *emphasis* = emphasis, **strong** = strong, [link](http://xyz.com) = link,
> block quote to quote blocks of text.

This form is for public comments. Consult About: Comments for policies and copyright details.