Monday, April 13, 2009

What Is Wrong With Consumer Culture?

This is a mannequin in a store near my home. What is this strange expression he has, and who thought it would be useful for selling me something?

Now that the economy sucks, we're getting a lot of funny reverse moralizing about the consumers we once were. "Wow, were we ever profligate, eh? All that spending! What a bunch of . . . gluttons we were!"

The implication is that now that we have no money, we're starting to remember the happier, simpler pleasures of life. "The kids and I have rediscovered the library, and boy are we having fun!" No need to spend spend spend. Fun is just around the corner.

Now it seems to me there is some truth to all this. Too much consumer culture really is bad for people, and going to the library really is fun and wholesome.

But I think the basic elements are often misidentified. It's often suggested that consumer culture is inherently evil because it involves superficial values, or because it induces conformity, but it seems to me this is mistaken: what is wrong with consumer culture isn't that it is inherently bad, but just that it is so goddamn distracting.

Consider the charge of superficiality. Sometimes people seem to think there's something wrong with the whole shopping concept -- that buying stuff, especially stuff you don't really need, is itself a suspect activity.

But this just seems false. Not because of abstractions about how the economy functions (though those may be relevant too), but just because an economy with shopping has jobs that workers can go to, with specified hours, predictable demands, and life and family benefits -- all of which can be profitably regulated by the state. No shopping would put many of us at the whims of nature and chance. No rain this year? No crops? Too bad for you. Sure, you may say, some of the jobs associated with consumer culture suck. And that is true. But that is not a problem with consumer culture itself; it's a problem with the particular implementation of it we've got hold of here and now.

Other times the superficiality charge comes packaged differently, and people will say that it's shallow to enjoy buying things when you could be enjoying more sophisticated activities, like reading novels and listening to music. Now, anyone who knows me knows that no one is more supportive of the so-called "sophisticated activities" than I am. I read; I go to artsy French movies and opera performances; I don't own a TV. But none of these conflict with liking things, and liking to buy them. On the contrary, it's all of a piece. I enjoy beauty and pleasure; I like nice things; so I like having them in my home where I can use and look at them all the time. Sure, this doesn't justify the buying of ugly, useless, crap. But that just means the thinking participant in consumer culture should shop wisely, not that he shouldn't shop at all.

Some people think what's bad about consumer culture is that it leads to conformity. If everyone sews, everyone's clothes are different. If everyone goes to the same store to buy their prom dress, everyone looks the same.

It is true that consumer culture can tend toward conformity. But that's not always bad. One amazing and great thing about the can of Diet Coke you had with breakfast (OK, the can of Diet Coke I had with breakfast) is that it's exactly the same as the can of Diet Coke Lindsay Lohan is drinking on her movie set. There's no vintages, no guide book to selecting the best kind of Diet Coke. It's all the same. Conformity can be democratizing.

And shopping needn't produce conformity. Anyone with a crazed obsession for wearing 70's clothes with fringe isn't going to stay home every evening sewing. She's just going to buy them on Ebay.

The problem with consumer culture isn't that it's superficial to shop, or that it consumerism induces conformity. The problem with consumer culture is that it's so distracting. You live in a consumer culture, and voila! you find you can't think about anything except buying stuff. It's exhausting. You have a perfectly good MacBook Pro, and all you can think about is a MacBook Air. You have some workout clothes, but gee, wouldn't it be nice to go shopping for some shiny new tanktops? Is that new TV technology? Are those new sandals? Want, want, want; buy buy buy. It's relentless.

It's this distracting influence, I think, that makes gives consumer culture its truly morally questionable quality. Because the more you're thinking about what you want to buy, the less you're thinking about other stuff -- and for sure, the less you're thinking about giving your money away to people who actually need stuff more than you do. There used to be sort of natural checks on the all-encompassing nature of consumer culture. People used to go more regularly to church, to be reminded about other people; they used to see other people face-to-face more often; there weren't as many affordable things to buy.

If you think about it, it's no surprise that consumer culture tends to take over your entire brain, given that it's the job of thousands of people to make it do just that. All day, every day, they're thinking, how can we get inside this person's mind? So it's not a big shock that they're successful.

As I see it, the answer isn't to try to get rid of consumer products, or to change your entire value system so you start growing your own cotton. You just have to build in a few checks on the system. Put yourself in situations where you'll be reminded of other people, and where you'll be likely to forget, for a few moments, the siren call of the shiny, the new, the cute, the awesome.