Holiday reminder: Buy Something!

Just a reminder: 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 Leftism, and misanthropic Romanticism posing as the genuine article. Consumers are not the problem; and you do no-one any good by harassing consumers (that is, you and I and our neighbors). Let alone making your little point by leaving huge piles of trash in the aisle for workers to clean up after.

I dealt with this at considerably more length last year, in GT 2004-11-26: Buy Something!; for this year I add only that today I bought a delicious (and completely unnecessary) orange smoothie, and several books that I didn’t need at the local used bookstore chain. And I note also Ellen Willis was right; as she put it 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. The theory is said to be particularly applicable to women, for women do most of the actual buying, their consumption 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.

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 buy 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?

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.

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.

— Ellen Willis (1969): Women and the Myth of Consumerism

Hope y’all had a happy Thanksgiving, and bought something worth having.

Further reading

5 replies to Holiday reminder: Buy Something! Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. mews

    straw man much? BND festivities usually bore me, but i doubt that many of its proponents actually think no one should consume anything. It’s just that Buy Nothing Day is a lot easier to sloganeer with than Buy What You Need, Locally and Ethically Produced When Possible, Making Sure You’re Not Using Material Goods As A Quick Fix When Some Genuine, Non-Mediated Human Interaction Could Suffice Day.

    consumption is a problem. people are buying crap they simply don’t need and it’s quite literally killing the planet.

    is it problematic that middle class kids are ragging on those below them for trying to make their lives comfortable? certainly. is it fucked up that, as always, women are caught up in yet more victim blaming? absolutely. leftist movements don’t grapple very well with the fact that any repercussions from any drastic change in society are going to fall hardest on the already disadvantaged. yet we can’t ignore the reality of consumerism, and yes, i will call it that.

    to extend your logic, it’s wrong to oppose war: to do so would be anti-worker because of the staggering amount of jobs the military industrial complex creates.

    i’m often impressed by your writing but i find this seriously lacking in nuance. it’s rare that one silly extreme can be ameliorated by taking an opposite silly extreme.

  2. Shawn

    I also agree that consumption is a problem. Arguing that consumerism isn’t a problem in itself is unhelpful in my opinion. As the commenter above mentioned, if consumption isn’t curbed our planet is going to further degrade quickly. Is it conceivable that we don’t have the luxury of taking the time to overthrow capitalism before more irreversable changes are made to our planet by our consumptive practices. Indoctrination into a consumer mindset is a serious problem and its going to be difficult to convince people to overthrow capitalism when their lives are defined by consumable goods which they are hooked on. Our societies’ ills need to be attacked holistically. Ignoring the fact that mass society is being indoctrinated on a daily basis by advertising is a good way to become quite disconnected with the reality of our modern world.

  3. Labyrus

    In my mind, “Buy Nothing Day” is kind of ridiculous, because it has no real impact, and it presupposes that participation in capitalism is some kind of choice.

    The real problem, of course, is not the fact that people buy things, it’s the economic structure of capitalism. And the relentless desire for stuff that people have would be most easily combated by forcing the people who make the decisions to produce things to face the consequences of their actions, rather than trying to make consumers voluntarily buy only “fairly” produced goods (although how any good can be wholly fairly produced in a Market environment is a question that baffles me).

    A question for Mews: why is it better to buy something that’s produced locally rather than not? That seems to me to be a rather strange idea.

  4. Alex Gregory

    Labyrus: I’d assume she/he meant that locally produced goods are better for the environment, primarily because they cut out transportation costs.

    And I also tend to agree that consumerism is indeed a problem. Willis may be right that there are many problems at the level of production, and that consumption can be a good thing, but, there are also problems at the level of consumption. Advertising does tell people what will make them happy (often falsely), and that isn’t a good way for people to live their lives.

· December 2005 ·

  1. asfo_del

    Consumerism is not only a problem, it is arguably the most important one in the struggle against oppression and capitalism. Every penny spent on consumer goods produced or sold by corporations goes to enrich our oppressors and extend their power to influence government policy and further their exploitation of workers and resources here and abroad.

    Saying, “Well, at least consumer goods can make us a little happy,” is a bit like saying, “Well, the world got screwed but at least we got some candy!” When the world’s oppressors offer us a bribe, it’s up to us to say. “Hell no!”

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