Thick and thin

A recent Economist post reports on Will Wilkinson’s rebuttal to the familiar thesis put forward by Benjamin Barber in a new book, Consumed. Barber, following Galbraith’s general idea in The Affluent Society, argues that consumer society requires the manufacture of false needs and a populace desperately fixated on trivialities and frivolity and the immediate satisfaction of shallow desires — convenience for its own sake. In his response, Wilkinson, the post notes,

theorised that on the veldt, we developed strong collective preferences in order to enforce the solidarity necessary for survival. Those preferences were “thick” — binding, and enforceable by those around you. The farther we get from those small communities, both demographically and economically, the more we are free to develop our own preferences. Those preferences are “thin”–less strongly reinforced–but they are in some sense authentically ours in the way that “thick” preferences never can be.

Not surprisingly, the Economist writer draws the conservative lesson from this that the allure of the “thick preference” world needs to be acknowledged in order to make the defense of consumerism stronger —

it concedes that something has been lost in moving away from tight communities with binding norms. There was something unique and joyful about that kind of community. My grandfather died surrounded by friends and family, bathed in a network of social relations impossible to replicate in this day of economic, social, and geographic mobility.

A defense of consumerist dynamism must start with a gesture of respect toward the lost world of stable social roles and conformity and the palpable ability of a community to keep its members in line in part through the rigorous control of the availability of material culture. Then one can argue that consumerism takes the repression away and allows people to explore their true individuality.

Those small communities were brutal to many of their members. The outliers in taste, intelligence, or almost any other metric except beauty and charm, could be brutally punished for their deviance. People worked harder at their friendships, because ties gone wrong in a small town are hard to bear; but they had to work harder at their friendships, because they were less likely to be compatible.

But I would take away a different lesson, that the critique of consumerism can’t look backward to a lost totality, a lost community, a golden age that precedes the vulgarities of MTV and the 24-hour news cycle. This is the conservative solution to the trap that postmodernity springs on us in a consumer society: the erosion of the ability to experience authenticity and the injunction to discover who we “really” are through various shopping-oriented quests for a comfortable lifestyle. A progressive critique would have to look forward, away from the lost conformist community and the dispersed conformity of lifestyle seeking in varied but formally identical niches. Hence the viability of a critique of consumerism that centers on the sheer ecological destruction boundless consumption wreaks (i.e.a new solidarity necessary for survival) , but this needs to be complemented with a critique of the postmodern subject, of the supposed problem of identity that prevents self-realization from becoming beside the point.