Historically, cultures have maintained social order by defining needs and desires appropriate to particular people at particular times. A consumer culture views needs and desires as uniquely individual and limitless. Social order, in turn, becomes destabilized. Where social order is uncertain, the development of a meaningful and stable self is disrupted. Furthermore, because consumer culture commodifies everything, space outside the marketplace ceases to exist. Consumers who want to return to being citizens, and who want to begin to create new meanings and impute new values to themselves and the social order, cannot find nor create social space in which to do it.
In short, consumers eventually find troublesome the attempt to make life meaningful inside the almost infinite world of consumer goods. This is what I observed among the subjects I studied in 1998, as part of my dissertation on the Voluntary Simplicity movement in the U.S. The "simplifiers" I interviewed and surveyed all had chosen to simplify their lives after becoming exasperated with the stress of making life meaningful through the consumer lifestyle. Most of the subjects I interviewed experienced a crisis of self—a moment in their lives when they asked themselves “Who am I?” All the consumer goods, though useful in constructing various facades, had failed to provide them with an authentic sense of self.
Admittedly, only a small number of people ever reach this point of crisis. But consider the possibility that most consumers are on a trajectory towards such a crisis. Some of us will reach a crisis point and reject consumerism as a source of self-meaning. Others may reach this crisis but decide that the problem is not consumerism itself, but consuming the right set of goods. The American mid-life crisis—in which the individual disposes of old possessions and constructs a new self-identity by consuming new fashions, a new car, or other new material goods—exemplifies this strategy. Still others may go on convincing themselves that material goods will make them happy and give their lives meaning, while in denial that something about this strategy is unsettling. Finally, there may be some individuals who can truly find happiness and a deep sense of self-meaning through the acquisition of material goods. But if this number is small, is a consumer culture really the best way to go about structuring our social lives?
Whichever category we fall into, all consumers must spend time negotiating our way through the sea of advertising messages urging us to define our identities through consumer goods requires great psychological work. Consumers must filter, process, and/or avoid selling messages that are mostly superfluous and unsolicited. When marketers portray the goods and services they promote as indispensable vehicles for the realization of such virtues as authenticity, self-worth, happiness, and fulfillment, consumers are forced to invest time and energy into evaluating the extent to which one consumer choice or another will garner them the cultural assets (e.g., esteem, prestige, love, belongingness) they may be seeking.
But if there are psychological prices to pay for life in a consumer society, some might suggest those unable to pay the cost should simply opt out. According to this argument, failure to acquire important cultural resources by making choices within the consumer marketplace, and the social and psychological burdens following from such a failure, are the fault of the individual. This is certainly consistent with the individualistic orientation of selfhood advocated by Americans. But such a narrow vision is flawed for two reasons.
First, it assumes that our consumption practices are only meaningful from the point of consumption onward. After all, we consume to convey meanings about ourselves to others. This is the symbolic universe of consumerism. But there is a material universe as well. In this universe, the material goods we consume have real consequences in the lives of people who live in and around the places where the goods are manufactured and later disposed of. Failure to function within the symbolic universe of consumerism may be due to consciousness of, and concern for, the consequences of consumption in the material world.
The second problem with the narrowness of the “blame-the-individual” response is linked to the first problem discussed above. The problem is that not everyone has the option of opting out, now matter how strongly one might object to a social system in which cultural resources essential to self-survival and to the maintenance of the social structure are procured through the consumer marketplace. On the contrary, some people are excluded from ever opting in. This problem may be less pronounced in a country like the U.S. where the widespread availability of consumer credit gives all but the most marginalized members of society an opportunity to opt into the consumer lifestyle. But in a country like India, where at least half of the population is currently excluded from the shopping malls and multiplex cinemas, “opting out” is a ridiculous notion.
One danger of consumer capitalism is that it carries with it a legitimating rationale that allows us to dismiss members of society too marginalized to participate in the consumer lifestyle. According to consumer capitalism’s legitimating rationale, a consumer society is a free and open society in which anyone who works hard has the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of her or his hard labor in the consumer marketplace. From this perspective, anyone left out of the consumer lifestyle simply has not yet worked hard enough.
This rationale also allows those with social advantages to justify consumption of luxury goods while fellow members of society around them live in unacceptable poverty. People who have worked hard to acquire wealth, the argument goes, should be free to spend their wealth in whatever ways they want. I will return to the problems with this argument in a later installment in this series. First I want to introduce a counterargument to the notion that life in a consumer society is burdensome.
What I have so far described as burdens, some perceive as valuable opportunities for acquiring the cultural competency needed to sustain a meaningful social existence. In fact, many people actively seek more marketing information than is available passively. People will pay an entrance fee to auto shows, wedding shows, boat shows, home shows, garden shows, and other types of product-based exhibitions. What do they get for their money? They get what they must perceive as valuable information about new products and other consumer goods and services. That people seek out this information suggests that marketing messages may not always be burdens, and in fact can be desirable commodities in and of themselves. Indeed, any time a consumer pays for the privilege of wearing clothing that doubles as an advertisement, she/he demonstrates that self-commodifying advertising is often perceived to be an opportunity rather than a burden.
In other words, the perceived burden of failing to create a meaningful self through socially expected ways (i.e., material goods) makes subjecting oneself to marketing messages worth the burden. In a consumer culture, mass-marketed consumer identities represent a form of almost universal currency (except for those too poor to opt into the system of meanings). Choosing to engage non-consumer-based identities, therefore, is like trying to exchange a form of currency that is not recognized in consumer cultures.
If consumer cultures existed within closed systems, it could be argued that they offer an elegant solution to the problem of identity and social order. The real problem posed by consumer cultures, however, has to do with the impacts of the flows coming into, and going out of, the societies in which consumer cultures function. By "flows" I mean the natural resources being exploited outside the system to create the meaningful goods inside the system, the material (and often hazardous) waste leaving the system, and the cultural creep wherein the meanings of the lifestyles and goods within the system begin to influence cultures outside the system.
In a world where various societies' cultures are almost instantly linked through telecommunications and the Internet, the creep of consumerism into other cultures is inevitable. This is not universally problematic. Many cultures have adapted to consumerism with little disruption to the social order. In India, however, the transition is taking place with such speed, and with such a disruption of previous forms of identity formation and livelihood, that there are already signs of disillusionment (as evidenced in the violence in Bangalore following Dr. Rajkumar’s death, which I wrote about in “30 Days: ‘Outsourcing,’ The American Perspective (Part 1 of 2).”
I’m not proposing that India, or any society, should reject consumerism. In theory, there are certainly better alternatives. In practice, consumerism is the only option for many societies. My main hope is that, somehow, societies beginning to embrace consumerism can evolve their own unique consumer cultures that not only produce thriving economies, but that also, and more importantly, offer people more meaningful and less market-based ways to develop a sense of self.
In the next installment in this series, I’ll explore the possibility of such an alternative form of consumer culture evolving in India by focusing on a few signs of resistance to the creeping culture of consumerism.
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