Friday, November 10, 2006

Anti-Consumerism – a class distinction

I’ve been searching for articles on “anti-consumerism” and I’ve come across an interesting article in This Magazine, called The Rebel Sell, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. I agree with this article but I disagree with it as well. Let me explain.

Heath and Potter write,

We find ourselves in an untenable situation. 0n the one hand, we criticize conformity and encourage individuality and rebellion. On the other hand, we lament the fact that our ever-increasing standard of material consumption is failing to generate any lasting increase in happiness. This is because it is rebellion, not conformity, that generates the competitive structure that drives the wedge between consumption and happiness. As long as we continue to prize individuality, and as long as we express that individuality through what we own and where we live, we can expect to live in a consumerist society.


I agree that, “As long as we continue to prize individuality, and as long as we express that individuality through what we own and where we live, we can expect to live in a consumerist society.” I also agree that there is a class of people in the US (and Canada?) who express their individuality through what they own and where they live (and what they drive and what/where they eat, etc., etc.). This class of people is referred to as the “middle” class or the “upper” class.

I am not a member of either of those classes. I am a member of the “lower” class, therefore I disagree with the following part of Heath and Potter’s statement.

On the other hand, we lament the fact that our ever-increasing standard of material consumption is failing to generate any lasting increase in happiness. This is because it is rebellion, not conformity, that generates the competitive structure that drives the wedge between consumption and happiness. (emphasis mine)


This statement seems to beg the question that conformity would generate an increase in lasting happiness, as it relates to our ever-increasing standard of material consumption, if conformity was indeed the issue.

In other words, according to Heath and Potter, giving in to the pressure to conform and buy what “everyone” has, would bring us lasting happiness … if only we resisted the urge to take the next step and rebel against the masses who copy us. That rebellion causes us to search for something else to buy that no one else has.

This spiral of having to buy something new and even more unique (or costly?) is what causes our loss of lasting happiness (according to our authors), not conformity.

Not only is this statement ludicrous, it entirely misses the point of anti-consumerism, at least for those of us in the “lower” class.

Anti-consumerism is about rescuing our hard-earned dollars and our self-esteem from the greed driven motives of giant corporations who want us to believe that the only way we can be accepted (loved) is by purchasing their products.

To those of us in the “lower” class, anti-consumerism has nothing to do with being cool, or unique, or “better than” the Jonses. It has to do with being “good enough.”

We don’t hear comments like, “[My] place is the real deal, a genuine factory loft, steeped in working-class authenticity, yet throbbing with urban street culture and a “rock-video aesthetic.”” (We are the authentic working-class, fergawdsake!)

We hear comments like, “You don’t have a TV in your bedroom?” “Your car is old, don’t you think it’s time for a new one?” “You bought that old house? I would’ve thought they’d have torn that house down by now.”

The message the anti-consumerist “lower” class hears is, you are not “good enough” (you should feel shame) if you don’t buy what we have bought.

It doesn’t seem to matter that they (our peers) can’t afford a TV in every bedroom, or a new car, or an expensive house, either. What matters is that they bought it (on credit- because advertisers told them they wouldn’t be loved if they didn’t). They “own” it (along with the bank), and if we don’t have the same things we should feel Ashamed and Embarrassed.

The burden of the “lower” class anti-consumerist is to resist this pressure to conform, to spend, to buy what we don't need. This isn’t an easy thing to do. Even for the most stalwart of us, this type of peer pressure can be overwhelmingly difficult to swallow without tasting some of the shame and embarrassment that is being dished out.

Therein lies the pain of non-conformity. However, to conform is to lose sight of our goals, to put our self-esteem in someone else’s hands, and to lose all hope for the future.

Conforming will not generate happiness, much less lasting happiness. It generates only a feeling of confusion, and at some point, it comes clear to us that we’ve surrendered our lives to line the pockets of the greed-mongers.

Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter write an interesting article that I believe offers some insight to the “middle” or “upper” class. But for us poor folk, it misses the boat entirely.

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