Consumerism and contamination

[5 January 2006]

By Rob Horning

Much of what philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his recent New York Times Magazine article about globalization seems like common sense upon a cursory read because it confirms what we want to believe already, that the globalization of capitalism is spreading freedom, and that consumer choices are a perfect proxy for liberty and result in a broader opportunity to live life as one chooses. These are things we already believe to be true about our own lives, that our frequent and habitual choices in the market every day make us unique individuals exercising boundless freedom. So to trap impoverished people in traditional ways of life or to condemn them for being attracting to the flexibility and convenience of Western consumerism’s bounty would be unfair, and as Appiah seeks to emphasize, deeply patronizing: “Talk of cultural imperialism “structuring the consciousnesses” of those in the periphery treats people like Sipho as blank slates on which global capitalism’s moving finger writes its message, leaving behind another cultural automaton as it moves on. It is deeply condescending. And it isn’t true.” This rings true because we all intuitively resist the idea that our social context determines in any way our consciousness, that we are not inventing the lives we want for ourselves spontaneously with each passing minute. It is much more convenient to focus on the smaller picture, to be ” taking individuals—not nations, tribes or “peoples”—as the proper object of moral concern” and work inductively based on satisfying case studies that demonstrate a consumer happily making decisions that feel and are meaningful to him. Yes, the individual may be the best arbiter of what behavior is authentic to him, and he can choose between Coke and Pepsi and he can decide which soccer stars to cheer for and what radio station to play and all of that but that doesn’t change the fact that he is forced to operate within a system that uniformly rules over all these arbitrary choices, that decides for him that he will cherish these choices as the essence of his being, in lieu of political power or participation in traditional cermony or some other proxy for cultural significance. The point is not that people don’t like shopping. They do. The point is that shopping effaces all alternatives for cultural expression and recognition. That is the homogenity produced by globalization—it doesn’t mean we all drink Coke and listen to Girls Aloud. As Appiah himself points out, “different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development”—and this is precisely what globalization obliterates without any concern for the differences among persons, leaving only one avenue to spiritual development, the market. The uniformity produced is that we are atomized as individuals and abstracted from a community, which is extremely liberating on the one hand—there is no limit to what we can buy, no traditions shackling us to a specific way of life—but extemely alienating on the other. The framework that gives us direction in life erodes, the underpinnings for a meaningful, fulfilling life melt into the air as compulsory consumerism puts on the “hedonic treadmill” chasing after ever more exciting goods to give us self-definition.

To support his case Appiah trots out some straw men (the mavens of “politcal correctness” who want to ram traditional ways down the throats of people willy-nilly and who thrill at telling people what to do, no different than mullahs forbidding children polio vaccines) and deploys the old cultural studies canard that consumers are really producers who make their own meaning out of the neutral goods that industries supply to market, that this therefore means that consumerism is automatically empowering. But this line of reasoning assumes that goods come with some intended use, which obviously they don’t—manufacturers don’t care what you do with something once they have your money and you can’t show them up by “misusing” them—by reading Dallas against the grain. Just as little girls decapitating Barbies doesn’t do anything to upend sexism, contriving off-label uses for goods does nothing to end the hegemony of consumerism. Of course consumers are not dupes; they are given incentives to buy and these distract them from the way society is stripped of every other incentive that’s now attached to a consumer good, that’s not personal pleasure or convenience or self-aggrandizement.

Most tendentious is Appiah’s implication that globalizing capitalism is inherently beneficial because the real totalizing system, Islamic fundamentalism, is the actual threat. How can he ignore the likely possiblity that globalization and fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin, that they reinforce each other, that Christian fundamentalism is not also a part of this. You don’t have to be an acolyte of Jihad vs. McWorld to recognize that possibility. To just toss out the “you think it’s X but it is really Y you should worry about” line of reasoning offers a misleading either/or scenario.

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