Productivist bias

For a column about consumption, Rob Walker’s “Consumed” in The New York Times Magazine has a quite a productivist bias. Generally Walker will identify some newly popular species of product on the American market — Cafe Press tchotchkes, organic food, fur, catastrophe novelty items — and then he’ll interview the manufacturer of the product to find out more about it. rarely will he interview consumers of the product in question; it’s as if they have said all that really matters, all they are competent to say, by buying it. This is generally the economic attitude toward consumer behavior — it can be fickle, caparicious but ultimately it is immaterial. If something gets bought, that’s good. If something lingers in the inventory, that’s bad. Otherwise consumer goods are morally neutral and consumers are sovereign — no one judges their right to make whatever decision they want about how to dispose of their resources. If they want to eat cat food and drive a Hummer, so be it. That’s freedom in action.

But the price they pay for this sovereignty is a certain neglect that Walker’s column illustrates. Their point of view isn’t taken seriously; they are always regarded as the prey in the warrior competition in the marketplace. There is never anything heroic and clever in their decisions, whereas ingenious entrepreneurial decisions to sell this or that object, or to try this or that distribution channel or advertising method are routinely lauded. Thus the active aspects of the consumer’s decision — as hedged and manipulated and circumscribed by the wiles of marketers as it may be — get lost and the inventive uses to which they put goods are neglected in public discourse; that information remains a subject for private discourse, though perhaps blogging is changing that. It may be that because people’s aims in consumption can vary vastly — there are as many uses as there are subjective notions of pleasure — writing about it becomes too diaristic, too personal and too specific. But there is always one single aim in production: profit. Everyone can understand that and everyone can understand how well that aim was accomplished in reading about it. Or it may be that we don’t recognize something as production until it’s done for profit rather than personal use or enjoyment. What makes you happy is your own affair; what makes money, that’s something we all want to know about.