The study of consumerism revolves around what seems a simple question: Why do people buy things? For years, economists were content with a rather straightforward answer: because they want them. This answer has an Ockham’s razor-like clarity to it, which almost successfully disguises the fact that it’s entirely tautologous. It solves the mystery of consumer demand by simply making it a postulated truth and then ignoring it as a given, thus removing it from economics’ academic bailiwick. Wants are just there, and they are all essentially the same.
As eminent economist Alfred Marshall put it in 1890, “the economist studies mental states rather through their manifestations than in themselves; and if he finds that they afford evenly balanced incentives to action, he treats them prima facie as for his purposes equal . . . . He does not attempt to weigh the real value of the higher affections of our nature against those of our lower: he does not balance the love for virtue against the desire for agreeable food.” (Principles of Economics Macmillan and Co., Ltd, 1920).
Libertarians might be tempted to pat economists on the back for this non-judgmental and altogether amoral position: Who are we to judge the wants and needs of others? Economists should worry about only how an economy functions to fulfill those needs, no matter whether they are for bread and shelter or for styling mousse and Celine Dion records. Perhaps the position is one of expediency, because the simple demand question is, in fact, enormously complicated, prone to all sorts of conjecture, speculation, and rampant stereotyping, such that academics can hardly wander into that minefield without exploding themselves on some unexamined assumption about human nature. Of course, that hasn’t stopped folks from numerous disciplines not just economics but psychology, sociology, anthropology, and, most insidiously, marketing from trying.
Classic economics’ lack of interest in consumer demand can be chalked up to the “productivist bias”, which glorifies the role of production while assuming that whatever is produced will, for all analytical intents and purposes, be consumed; truckloads of remaindered junk at Big Lots notwithstanding. In centuries when scarcity was commonplace, starvation a concern of all societies, and obesity nearly unthinkable, it made sense that economists would worry exclusively about production. That an economy would waste its energies on anything but what was necessary and ardently clamored for was probably pretty hard to conceive. In some ways, the productivist bias reflects the dignity our species often suspects of itself: humankind, in its eminent rationality, is assumed to not only make and want just what’s necessary, but is also seen first and foremost as makers of things, as creators and not consumers. In this pretty picture, humans are not subject to manufactured needs the very phrase appears ludicrously oxymoronic from this perspective.
But as economies shifted from producing primarily such intrinsically necessary and obviously useful things like vegetables and furniture to mainly making such arguably unnecessary things like cosmetics and ornamental tableware and epistolary novels, the rote assumption of consumer demand took on a different implication: it became unqualifiedly elastic. Demand for any product, no matter how frivolous, would have to be assumed to be generated almost at will, which implies that regardless of whatever specific commodities happened to be manufactured, the most important thing producers make are the modern consumers themselves, suddenly full of weird desires for machine-embroidered towels and temporary cures for halitosis. How could this be? How did people learn to consume what’s unnecessary, and how did such unnecessary consumption become so prominent?
Shouldn’t we conclude that producers are responsible for manufacturing the vulgarized tastes of contemporary consumers, training them to eat garbage and to love eating it, if garbage was all they had to sell? The elaboration in the early twentieth century of an extensive and extremely resourceful advertising industry would seem to certify that conclusion incontrovertibly. (John Kenneth Galbraith dryly notes that “man has become the object of science for man only since automobiles have become harder to sell than to manufacture.”) But many people resist such an explanation because it would appear to circumscribe individual freedom and sovereignty. I want to believe that I wear Gap shirts and carry an iPod because I’ve logically concluded that they best suit my lifestyle, not because I’ve had that lifestyle sold to me by dynamic, colorful ads.
People like to believe they have rational reasons for their consumer choices (even though a glance into any one of the adman’s motivational research manuals should suffice to prove otherwise I recommend Pierre Martineau’s Motivation in Advertising, McGraw Hill, 1957). And more importantly, the productivist bias taking the form of a pervasive pro-business attitude, touting unlimited growth and the profit-making it enables demands that more ingenious explanations that don’t impugn producers be devised.
Thus, social scientists duly began to theorize the consumer, attenuating the difference between his necessities, physiological and more or less self-explanatory, and his desires, which had to come from something other than bodily need. Perhaps the most commonsensical way of explaining the latter is the human’s allegedly innate desire for novelty. According to this theory, once we are no longer starving, we become afflicted with a new torment we hadn’t previously had time to notice: boredom. To assuage this new affliction, we want ever new things provided to us, be it a new stew pot or the new fall TV schedule.
But there’s a great deal of arbitrariness in this: “Choices are not made randomly,” explains Gervasi. “They are socially controlled, and reflect the cultural model from which they are produced. We neither produce nor consume just any product: the product must have some meaning in relation to a system of values” (cited in Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures Sage, 1998). So when we buy a Volvo, it’s not just because we need it to get to Whole Foods Market and it’s not just because we’ve grown bored of our Saab. Consumption’s not strictly about utility and novelty. We expect that what we consume will have some social meaning. And sociologists have generally agreed that consumption especially suits one specific kind of meaning: the expression of one’s place in the social hierarchy.
Drawing on the long-entrenched discourse of luxury, they see consumer desire as a product of social emulation: people naturally want to imitate their betters, buying what the upper classes have in efforts to prove their own classiness. As the rich have their signifiers co-opted by those beneath them, they are forced to find ever newer ones, and so the wheel of fashion turns. In America, which pretends to be a classless society and which obstinately refuses to dole out honorifics like “duke” or “marquis” to dignify its luminaries, the need for such conspicuous consumption was more acute, which is likely why it took an American, Thorstein Veblen, to coin the notion in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).
But if commodities serve as signifiers, they would be able to express so much more than simply class. They would be a means of articulating an identity to ourselves; to express ourselves to ourselves, to speak ourselves into being. This would seem the case today, where we have become accustomed to seeing ourselves as the sum total of the things we possess, as opposed to the sum total of things we have experienced. Indeed, we need to turn our experiences and our memories into things by taking scads of photographs and buying souvenirs. That we would amount to the objects we own is inevitable under capitalism, which respects property more than experience. Its conception of rights turn our thoughts into intellectual property and reifies our family heritage and our education into social capital things that belong to us primarily as useful tools. We learn without having to be taught that this is so, that our inner sense of self is only as authentic as the outward forms of expression we find for it. This is why I become more myself the minute I get some “tribal” design tattooed on my arm, and why my book and record collection can serve as a pretty accurate index to my soul.
This attitude is hegemonic in American society; it’s implied wherever it’s not explicitly promoted. It’s the lingua franca of social communication; it’s established itself as the only accepted currency of identity. So even if you thought to understand yourself in terms of what you’ve done rather than what you have, no one else would give you the recognition that would make such a self-concept stick. Rather you would likely be regarded as an asocial freak, and you would inevitably begin to question your own sanity. So while it feels like freedom when we get to choose the objects through which we define ourselves, it’s really an expression of how deeply we’re trapped in its discourse. And a dismal corollary of this predicament is that we can’t even enjoy the things we consume on the level of personal pleasure. We’re always already using them as signs and are thus set at one remove from the sensual experience of them. When I listen to a Clash record, I am always already consuming myself as a Clash fan and thinking how cool this makes me rather than hearing the music itself.
This is Debord’s point in The Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books, 1994). Today, modern man can only consume images of himself consuming; he is a perpetual spectator. “The more readily he recognizes his own needs in the images of need proposed by the dominant system, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. . . . The individual’s own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere.” There is no place we can go outside of consumption; we are always trapped in the world as store, buying back our own lives, one purchase at a time.
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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.