Consumerism vs. self-realization

by Rob Horning

1 April 2011


I have been reading Alternatives to Capitalism, a collection of essays edited by Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene. (I can’t remember where I got the idea to read it from; possibly because Chris Dillow linked to it in a post.) The collection probably couldn’t have been published at a worse time—in 1989, just as the really existing alternatives to capitalism were collapsing and neoliberals were about to begin citing that collapse as irrefutable proof that there are no real alternatives. But while the discussion of worker-managed factories in Yugoslavia and subcontracting procedures in socialist Hungary are not immediately relevant today, much of the book’s more-theoretical material seems as pertinent as ever, dealing with the question of persistent high unemployment and its various ramifications.

Martin Weitzman’s essay about “profit-sharing capitalism” discusses profit sharing as a means of redistributing entrepreneurial risk, something that I tend to neglect when I am building my own post-capitalist castles in the air. It’s probably fair to say that most workers dislike that sort of risk—it’s essentially the precarity of the freelancer life, having to continually rejustify oneself and one’s productivity. Indeed, much of my complaining about social media revolves around how it pushes more and more workers into this condition of having to be entrepreneurial about their livelihood. It’s probably an underrated virtue of most jobs, even when they are full of mundanity and unfulfilling tasks, that you don’t have to constantly face the prospect of your work going uncompensated on an hour-by-hour basis and you don’t have to work on spec. You don’t have to invent the work for yourself and convince someone else that it is worth doing. But unfortunately, as recent evolutions in capitalism suggest, this is an inefficient arrangement for capital, and possibly can only be sustained through labor activism, unions, etc. Even then there are problems. Weitzman writes:

Our ‘social contract’ promises workers a fixed wage independent of the health of their company, while the company chooses the employment level. That stabilizes the money income of whomever is hired, but only at the considerable cost of loading unemployment on low-seniority workers and inflation on everybody—a socially inferior risk-sharing arrangement that both diminishes and makes more variable the real income of the working class as a whole.

He proposes replacing steady wages with a profit-sharing scheme, which trades a predictable income for full employment,a public good with positive externalities for all of society. I’m not sure that his policy prescription fits contemporary conditions though, which seem to be dissolving firms into smaller units and making more and more employees free agents, who will increasingly have to try to piece together what income they can from various sources; profit sharing seems more likely to take the form of subcontracting from a vast pool of underemployed labor.

And Jon Elster’s essay, “Self-Realization in Work and Politics,” makes some interesting distinctions with regard to the sorts of activities that lead to “self-realization”—which he defines as a “state that is essentially a by-product” of other practices but is in fact primary to our experience of the “good life.” Market incentives don’t necessarily point us to these behaviors, and consumerism often operates on a logic that positively thwarts them. Consumerism presupposes that satisfaction can be purchased, and that we know what we want going into an exchange. But often what we want is this by-product state, the experience of absorption in a task, of doing meaningful work, of surmounting challenges, of losing our self-consciousness. Consumption generally offers convenience, not challenges; opportunities for self-display, not self-forgetting; superficial novelty, not absorption. I don’t think consumption becoming a form of production and hipsterism becoming a job function helps mitigate this any; it seems to worsen it. Drawing on Tocqueville, Elster makes the point that “with rapid technical change, the careful attention to detail that characterizes most forms of self-realization is pointless; conversely, pride in craftsmanship may block innovation.” Self-realization is not necessarily something that can be made efficient, the way consumerism can be. And what we are incentivized to do economically in capitalism is not necessarily a reflection of what we want or what will be best for us.

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