Conservative critiques of consumerism

by Rob Horning

9 February 2006


I was listening to Dionne Warwick(e) sing “A House Is Not a Home” today, and after I finished puzzling through the ontological and semantic ramifications of the opening line (“A chair is still chair even when no one is sitting there”—does that mean that we can’t assign semantic identity on the basis of function, or does it affirm that meaning remains relational even under adverse transitory conditions? Is human agency sufficient to preserve the conditions of signification or is the signifying process always already in the hypothetical?) I started to wonder how Bacharach-style pop could have ever fallen from prominence, and how strange it was that my father, who owned these records when they were released, hasn’t listened to them since the 60s, while I listen to them all the time. I wondered, How could he have ceased to listen to them (other than because I pilfered the vinyl from his collection)? Though I am accustomed of thinking of him as being much more conservative than I am (his vote for Bush, even in 2004, testifies to that), it may be that in cultural matters, I am more more conservative. I’m the one who wants to see fashion halted, want to see something recognized as good, as satisfactory, as pleasing, to remain so forever. Let the chart hits of 1971 remain on the top of the charts till Doomsday, I say. Whereas my father seems to be discovering new music more and more (if you can call smooth jazz music), I’m perpetually narrowing my focus and ignoring as much of what is current as I possibly can. I want to trumpet the lasting value of cultural artifacts in the face of an entertainment industry that wants me to see its products as disposable. (If it can’t convince me of that, it has to resort to the technological ruse of duping me to buy the same things over and over again as they are remastered or larded with bonus features or what have you.) Rejecting novelty and ever suspect of the zeitgeist, I am always championing the conservative values of frugality over luxury, simplicity over fashion, truth over hyperbole, function over form, satisfaction in work (hard work, even) rather than reified leisure.

As Daniel Horowitz details in The Morality of Spending, there is a long tradition of left and right blurring into each other via vituperous critiques of consumerism, as such critiques are essentially moral. Capitalism makes possible choices for self-indulgence that moralists, nostalgists, Luddites and other zealots wish would remain impossible. It encourages a hedonistic view on self-gratification that makes moralists’ various articulations of the “good life” harder to abide by, recognize or even attempt. Moralists try to imagine a authentic life that exists untouched by the more debasing aspects of consumerism, but as my old notebook entry for yesterday touched on, such authenticity is a myth, nearly impossible to conceive. I don’t think one should stop trying—even if such utopian fantasies are “phony,” they still evoke alternatives to what we can all agree is a not-entirely-satisfactory status quo. Capitalism’s own moral justification for itself comes from the comforts in can provide despite its corrosive effects on the continuity and community within in a society. Consider these words of robber baron Andrew Carenegie (courtesy of an Economist article about Lakshmi Mittel): “The price which society pays for the law of competition ... is great, but the advantages of this law are also greater still than its cost—for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development.” As Horowitz points out, anticonsumerist critiques often typically evince class prerogatives; this is obvious in a condemnation of conspicuous consumption, but is also present in criticizing poor people for coveting brand names or jewelry or other “wasteful” goods. It’s tempting to think of the “good life” as something achievable by anyone, in any class, but such a belief would fly in the face of the fundamental way class configures what sort of life one can potentially lead. Wait a second, maybe I’m not so conservative after all.

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