Note:  This is a written version of the talk given by Ishay Landa.  It is not fully worked out as a paper.


The Left and the Masses: The Question of Consumerism

Ishay Landa

I wish to tackle the topic of this panel from a specific angle: the issue of consumerism. In left-wing circles “the consumer society” is widely held in contempt. It is seen as deplorable epiphenomenon of capitalism, where shallow hedonism takes the place of genuine human bonds. The left-wing project of political transformation is thus largely conceived as emancipation from consumerism. The perceived need is to wean the masses off their consumerist infatuation, cure them of their addiction to “false” and “artificial” needs, etc.

There are problems with this prevalent view, and I wish to exemplify some of them with a quotation from by Horkheimer from 1931, in which he denounces false needs and subconscious manipulation:

After […] the frantic circulation of capital […] was set in motion, mankind has finally arrived at a point where the relationship between need and machine (or work) have been totally reversed; it is no longer need that requires mechanical work, but mechanical work […] that generates new needs. In a regime of superproduction, in order for all the products to be sold it is necessary that the needs of single individuals […] be maintained and even multiplied so that consumption may increase […]. Modern civilization has pushed man onward; it has generated in him the need for an increasingly greater number of things; it has made him more and more insufficient to himself and powerless. Thus, every new invention and technological discovery, rather than a conquest, really represents a defeat and a new whiplash in an ever faster race blindly taking place within a system of conditionings that are increasingly serious and irreversible and that for the most part go unnoticed.

If you ask me what is the problem with these assertions, then I’ll have to start with a confession: this isn’t Horkheimer: this is Julius Evola–the fascist Italian thinker, who also supported German National Socialism. My point is not that Evola equals Horkheimer, or that they are even similar: there are huge differences between them–I want to be very clear about that; nevertheless, when it comes to consumerism, there is a certain undeniable overlap between their positions: Evola advances a critique of consumerism which is often very hard to distinguish from the conventional posture of leftist Critical Theory.

The reason that the anti-consumerist position has become nearly hegemonic in left-wing discourse is the historical shift in left-wing discourse, which had moved from an early critique of capitalism as a system of scarcity and want to a post-1968 critique of capitalism as a system of baneful–affluence. During the boom years which followed the Second World War, many dissidents in the western world became convinced that capitalism had resolved the question of scarcity once and for all. So it then became a question, for those not making their peace with capitalism, of attacking it on the grounds that it produces excessive and harmful material wealth, flooding humanity with worthless, shoddy goods. Hence the notion, strangely purporting to be critical, of “the affluent society.” So ever since the early 70s, the left has criticized capitalism as a system of relentless growth which has to be stopped, for political reasons, and then, of course, also ecological ones. Capitalism is conventionally portrayed as a monster that grows continually, until it reaches “the limits to growth” which are external to it, natural limits, such as depleted resources, climate change, and so on.  This notion of capitalist unlimited growth is reflected, even in this years’ left-forum CFP which emphasizes, “capitalism’s inherent drive to growth.”

Such an approach is often traced back to the writings of Karl Marx. Examined through a Marxist prism, this account is problematic: capitalism reveals immanent limits to growth, largely independent of any natural factor. Nor is the problem one of “growth” at all: strictly speaking capitalism doesn’t want “to grow,” it wants to make profits, and if the rate of profit isn’t high enough it doesn’t grow, or grows only very slowly. This remains one of the most rudimentary of Marxist insights.

This insight, in turn, is vindicated by the global economic reality of the last 4 decades, a period of relatively slow economic expansion, under the sign of what economists sometimes refer to as “stagflation.”  This process, of which the years since 2008 are merely an exacerbation, is due to limits which are intrinsic to the capitalist process of valorization, as Marx had diagnosed, for example in the 3rd volume of Capital: “The true barrier to capitalist production is capital itself.”

It is also very important to emphasize that for the mature Marx the relative growth of mass consumption under capitalism and the expansion of needs it entails was a positive development, and this against the widespread image of Marx as a forerunner of the Frankfurt School line of social criticism. The following passage captures Marx’s position very nicely:

[E]ach capitalist does demand that his workers should save, but only his own, because they stand towards him as workers; but by no means the remaining world of workers, for these stand towards him as consumers. In spite of all ‘pious’ speeches he therefore searches for means to spur them on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire them with new needs by constant chatter etc.

If we stop here, we can construe this as conventional leftist pessimism, emphasizing the inculcation of false needs, etc. But the immediately ensuing remarks dispel any such notion. Marx adds:

It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilizing moment, and on which the historic justification, but also the contemporary power of capital rests.

The expansion and massification of needs is for Marx a salutary facet of capitalist production: “The greater the extent to which historic needs—needs created by production itself, social needs […], are posited as necessary, the higher the level to which real wealth has become developed.”

So there’s nothing farther removed from Marx than the standard complaint against the way capitalist production engenders ‘false needs.’ Marx expressly attacked the bourgeois logic of this accusation:

Artificial need is what the economist calls, firstly, the needs which arise out of the social existence of the individual; secondly those which do not flow from his naked existence as a natural object. This shows the inner, desperate poverty which forms the basis of bourgeois wealth and of its science.

That the later Marx squarely posited the notion of “false needs” within the bourgeois horizon, casts an unflattering light on those subsequent generations of “Marxists” who have made such ample use of this term.

So the problem with consumption under capitalism has nothing to do with insidious affluence. In the third volume of Capital Marx ascertains, “society’s power of consumption is determined neither by the absolute power of production nor by the absolute power of consumption but rather by the power of consumption within a given framework of antagonistic conditions of distribution, which reduce the consumption of the vast majority of society to a minimum level, only capable of varying within more or less narrow limits.”

Here Marx identifies both the possibility and the need for a superior socioeconomic order, arising out of capitalism but transcending its limits, in which mass consumption will be expanded. After “the abolition of the capitalist mode of production the part regularly consumed by the direct producers would not remain confined to its present minimum level.”

Marx’s essential and usually overlooked insight concerns, I believe, the way that capitalism is in many ways incompatible with consumerism, the latter being the source of numerous problems from a capitalist point of view, of cultural, political, and even economic natures. Here, for limitations of time, I will only mention the political expressions of friction between consumerism and capitalism, and even this just in telegraphic fashion.

As long as the economy runs more or less smoothly–understood in terms of capitalist profit extraction–political problems can be kept at bay. But in times of economic crisis, the political friction between workers-consumers and capitalism becomes frequently explicit.

It is customary to narrate mass consumption as a tale of insidious manipulation: the masses are cast as dupes, manipulated at will by public relations experts. This is a system, so the argument goes, in which fabricated “desire” takes the place of genuine “need”: which again disregards the historical and social nature of needs.

Yet even if, just for the sake of discussion, we accept this as an accurate portrayal of the mechanism of mass consumption, the political implications drawn from this portrayal would still be questionable. For it is precisely the “inflaming of desire” which can turn into a political problem for capitalism. For the new desires–wholesome or detrimental–must now be satisfied by capitalism, and the failure to do so can trigger civic unrest. Already in the mid-18th century, an English squire used the quintessentially political metaphor of the Magna Carta, to describe the consumer demands of the laboring classes. He did so with regards to the profoundly un-English vice of drinking tea:

A cup or two as a bitter, […] confined to the higher orders of the people, […] could do no great mischief. … It is the curse of this nation, that the laborer and mechanic will ape the lord … You may see laborers who are mending the roads drinking their tea. … They consider it as their magna charta, and will die by the sword or famine, rather than not follow the example of their mistresses. What would you say, if they should take it in their heads not to work without a daily allowance of French wine? This would not be thought a mere extravagant demand now, than tea was esteemed forty years ago. Consider the tendency of these pernicious and absurd customs!

In times of crisis, capitalist ideologues aim to justify austerity measures. They therefore become Critical Theorists of sorts, and do their best to remind the masses that the things they desire, they do not actually need. But it’s not so easy to re-bottle the genie of consumerist desire. This explains why so many liberals and conservatives–Evola is just one example–had realized that mass consumerism is a political liability. Daniel Bell referred to this as “a revolution of rising entitlements.” Mass consumerism becomes a Trojan horse within the capitalist framework, precisely because this system can only imperfectly accommodate it.

In conclusion, from a Marxist point of view, critics of consumerism bark up the wrong tree altogether. Instead of attacking the Achilles heel of capitalism, the limitation on consumption, they concentrate their attacks, in effect, on its civilizing aspect, its expansion of needs.

What is at stake is the very question of whether the capitalist system can and ought to survive.  As Marx saw it, the more capitalist “productivity develops, the more it comes into conflict with the narrow basis on which the relations of consumption rests–this characteristic barrier in fact testifies to the restrictiveness and the solely historical and transitory character of the capitalist mode of production.” To insist, therefore, on locating the problem in consumerism, is to ignore history and urge capitalism to stay, while expecting the masses to foot the bill; to attack capitalism in the name of consumerism, by contrast, is to advise capitalism to listen to history and to be gone.

July 31, 2013