work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Towards a Consumerist Critique of Capitalism (and a Socialist Defence of Consumer Culture)

11.16.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized
update 19th may 2013

slightly improved version now published in ephemera



To suggest a ‘consumerist critique of capitalism’ sounds quite oxymoronic – and even more so a ‘socialist defence of consumer culture’. Consumerism is widely seen as the cultural expression of developed capitalism and Marxist analyses from the 1970s onwards have tried to show how the development of an absorbent market for consumer goods was driven by the needs of accumulation and valorisation in late capitalism (e.g. Mandel 1975). Following Haug’s (1986) Critique of Commodity Aesthetics one could say that, from the point of view of capital, there emerged a very real need for false needs. As Marshall Berman noted – when, of all people, under the supervision of Isaiah Berlin he developed his 1963 interpretation of Marx as admirer of the freedom achieved under and by bourgeois liberal capitalism –  one major obstacle of such a view is that, by the workings of commodity fetishism, ‘the freedom Marx has given with one hand he seems to be taking back with the other: everywhere he looks, everyone seems to be in chains.’ (Berman 1999: 44). Yet with Berman (and, maybe surprisingly, also with Adorno) I will argue that from a dialectical point of view, consumer culture may hold the key to unlocking the potential for human development at the same time built up and held under the lid by capitalism. Referring to a vague prediction on the last pages of Capital, Berman (1999: 51) notes that after the initial period of capitalism that follows a rigid rationality of accumulation, in a

‘“consumer” period the capitalist becomes like other men: he regards himself as a free agent, able to step back from his role as producer and accumulator, even to give it up entirely for the sake of pleasure or happiness, for the first time he sees his life as an open book, as something to be shaped according to his choice.’

In this perspective, socialism is to build on the individualistic hedonism of consumer culture, making it available in the same measure for all. The adequate attitude towards consumer culture therefore would be what Kate Soper (2007) calls ‘alternative hedonism’ – developing responsible pleasure seeking out of the hedonism of the capitalist market society – rather than ‘anti-consumerism’ as an outright rejection of individual pleasure seeking as a capitalism-induced moral wrong. I would go so far as to charge the brand of anticapitalism that expresses itself mainly or solely as anti-consumerism with what in the Communist Manifesto is termed ‘reactionary socialism’ – an anticapitalism that seeks salvation in the rejection of technology and consumption whose utopia, de facto, tends to be a world of de-technologicalised frugal communities. It rejects the progress in human development available from a capitalist society and tries to re-establish older forms of authentic community, localised solidarities that imply parochialism and paternalism, even if they are, in most cases not the intended outcome.

Although I will not follow Marx in many of his substantive claims, I share his belief that any alternative to capitalism desirable from a standpoint of human development cannot go back on the progress made in terms of individual autonomy and liberty – and that this progress is owed to the dismantling of traditional feudal, paternalistic, and communal relations effected, largely, by the capitalist economy. Marx was convinced that alienation in these terms – the destruction of the highly personal ties of the pre-capitalist world – was above all an act of liberation (Jerry Cohen (1974) speaks of an end to ‘engulfment’).

I will argue that consumerism has entrenched ideas of individual liberty and self development beyond the point Marx could imagine possible within a capitalist society. I will further follow Marx’s figure of thought in which he makes the case that it is not individualism that is the problem in a liberal capitalist society but its inability to realise this freedom fully. Capitalist accumulation creates, inevitably, not only unknown freedoms, but also unheard-of inequalities. Again, following Marx to an extent, I will argue that these inequalities are not in themselves the problem. The problem is that these inequalities translate into inequalities of power (see e.g. Negri 1991, Gould: 157f., Buchanan 1982: 71) and thus impact on the personal freedom that is the central value in capitalist culture. In a nutshell: I think the capitalist achievements embodied in consumer culture need to be protected from what produced them in the first place: from capitalism.

Finally, I will argue that consumerism does not only provide the normative background that makes a successful critique of capitalism possible without recourse on traditional values (communal, nationalistic, religious) – consumerism also provides for a development in the ‘general intellect’ that makes it possible to organise free individuals in a way that does not imply the hierarchical, quasi-military apparatuses that were the parties that carried through revolutions in the past (from the Jacobins to the Communists) and, not least because of their organisational structure, turned uprisings intended as liberation into the beginnings of totalitarian states.

Anti-consumerism as desperation of the left

The initial socialist concern about consumption was not about how it is bad for you – it was how there is not enough of it. The original intent of socialist politics was to distribute the product of social production equally among those who produce it – so everybody, and not just a few – can consume what they need and if possible even more than that. This – although not in a socialist context – is also the central point of Daniel Miller’s critique of the critique of consumerism, when he points out that:

‘We live in a time when most human suffering is the direct result of the lack of goods. What most of humanity desperately needs is more consumption, more pharmaceuticals, more housing, more transport, more books, more computers.’ (Miller 2001: 227f.)

How did we get from there to a situation where concerns like this can be voiced by fair trade consumers?

‘Supporting the arts and crafts of indigenous peoples also provides them with the choice of staying in their homelands, where they can continue with their traditional and anti-consumerist way of life. Yet, I see in Mario Hernandez’s buying his house a limit to this notion. the lure of “the upper world from which advertisements and television and airplanes come…” is strong. Has Mario also joined the massed ranks of consumers?’ (Gould 2003: 343)

Personally, I sincerely hope Mario has been able to join our massed ranks – as in a way that is the whole point of fair trade. But how is a concern for the material well-being of all transformed into a concern about the spread of consumerism?

I would say it all began when revolutionary socialism started to go wrong – when it became clear that the workers were not going to produce the revolution that Marx had predicted they would. In his 1916 pamphlet on Imperialism, Lenin explained the failure of the workers of the industrialised nations to rise up, in essence, by consumerist bribery funded out of the profits of colonialist exploitation:

‘Out of such enormous superprofits […] it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy […] This stratum of worker-turned-bourgeois or the labour aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principle prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principle social prop […] of the bourgeoisie.’

The discovery of the ‘affluent worker’ by Goldthorpe’s team in the 1960s  – even though they themselves rejected the notion of an embourgeoisement of the working classes (Goldthorpe et al. 1969: 116ff.) – seemed to put a definitive end to any realistic hope for a workers’ uprising.  The idea of self-emancipation, so central to historical materialism, is quickly given up and replaced by the older idea of a vanguard educating the masses (Geras 1986:134). Geras (1986: 140f.) gives us

‘Two examples. The first is Althusser: for whom men are nothing more than the supports/effects of their social, political and ideological relations. But if they are nothing more than this, how can they possibly destroy and transform these relations? The answer is, as it has to be, by the power of a knowledge (Theoretical Practice) brought to them from elsewhere. The second is Marcuse: the working class integrated, manipulated, indoctrinated, its revolutionary potential contained, submitting to exploitation and oppression willingly, and failing to perceive, because unable to perceive, where its real interests lie. It is no accident that Marcuse keeps returning to the notion of “educational dictatorship”, only to reject it each time as unacceptable.’

While for a while educational systems and family structures competed for the part of main ‘ideological state apparatus’, relatively soon a consensus emerged that the agglomerate of consumerism, culture industries and media is responsible for widespread acquiescence to capitalist injustice and for nipping any subversive movement in the bud by means of cooptation (for a critique of this notion cf. Frank 1998, Heath/Potter 2005). A new society can only be formed out of people who have been removed from the stranglehold of consumerism – and hence a new society can only build on a successful anticonsumerist movement. In short: people need to be educated. Anti-capitalism through anti-consumerism, I would put forward, reneges on the idea of self-emancipation. Anti-consumerism – although it hardly ever describes itself in those terms – is a vanguard movement of an enlightened few trying to wake up the intoxicated masses from their addiction to consumption.

In theorists like Baudrillard (e.g. 1970), this turns into all-out culture pessimism with a self-referential system of commodity signs entangling us into an inescapable web of simulacra that deprive us of any access to something deserving the name “reality” – leaving us with no escape whatsoever. For those who still have hope it is no longer, as it used to be, progress in terms of redistribution of wealth, equality of opportunities, and democratisation of social institutions that is the primary objective but stemming the tide of commercialisation and commoditisation which are understood as ultimate weapons in the psychological warfare of corporate capitalism. In this view the alternative is consumerism and commoditisation on one side and community and culture on the other. As Kopytoff (1986: 73) put it:

‘In the sense that commoditization homogenizes value, while the essence of culture is discrimination, excessive commoditization is anti-cultural – as indeed so many have perceived it or sensed it to be.’

Anti-consumerism in the Conservative Revolution

Anti-consumerist sentiment is anti-bourgeois – but in a distinctively aristocratic way. One could say it is part of the self-elevation of the middle classes. The sneer on aspiring working class consumerism as latent in aspects of the fairtrade discourse (Raisborough/Adams 2009, Varul 2011) and openly acted out in the contempt of celebrity culture (e.g. Tyler and Bennett 2010). Contemporary class hatred, as Owen Jones (2011: 8) points out, has a strong anticonsumerist streak:

‘Many use it to show their distaste towards working-class people who have embraced consumerism, only to spend their money in supposedly tacky and uncivilized ways rather than with the discreet elegance of the bourgeoisie’

This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Consumerism in the working classes has been a moral concern throughout the 20th century (Cross 1993) and it was particularly articulate in the proponents of Culture Pessimism and the Conservative Revolution who provided the intellectual and academic background music for the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s. Their concern was mainly its alleged “anti-cultural” nature – it is they who are most of the many who sensed or perceived it that way, and they are among the first. What they take issue with, is precisely what Kopytoff points out as danger: homogenisation of value. In a commodity society where everything exchanges for everything else there may be huge inequalities – but the legitimacy of hierarchies and authority (and in the end even of inequality) crumbles away.[1] Ernst Jünger’s (1981: 20) condemnation of bourgeois society, too, takes aim at consumerism – which makes it impossible for it to recognise the ‘wonderful power’ of the unity of ‘domination and service’ because it values ‘all too cheap and all too human pleasures’ too highly.[2] Heidegger (2006: 167ff.) paints his picture of the abhorred inauthentic flight from being in the world in terms that are clearly targeted at the consumerist side of city life: idle talk, curiosity, ambiguity which lead to invidious comparison (2006: 175) and alienation (2006:178). What the Conservative Revolutionaries detested was not only the implication of equality and disappearance of hierarchy – it was also its inconsequential, antiheroic implications. The Catholic/fascist political theorist Carl Schmitt (1987: 66) brings it to the point when he dismisses the spiritual precursors (according to Campbell 1987) of modern consumerism: the Romantics and their dreams:

‘All their pretensions that lay beyond that were merely possibility. […] But the enormous possibilities that they had opposed to reality never became reality. The romantic solution to this difficulty consists in representing possibility as the higher category. In commonplace reality, the romantics could not play the role of the ego who creates the world. They preferred the state of eternal becoming and possibilities that are never consummated to the confines of concrete reality. This is because only one of the numerous possibilities is ever realized. In the moment of realization, all of the other infinite possibilities are precluded. A world is destroyed for a narrow-minded reality.’

What is rejected here is precisely what we (in a liberal-democratic society, in a consumer society) value most highly: diversity, opportunity, possibility over fixed identities and tradition. The reactionary critique of consumerism and its precursors is one of uprooting, estrangement, alienation from folk, from soil, from destiny. Hence, as Sznaider (1998: 46f.) argues,

‘one could say that nationalism and consumerism are opposite principles. But that does not mean that increase in consumption drives out nationalism altogether. The opposite may be true: Consumerism provides nationalism with something it can condemn – often as “Americanisation”, the battle cry of modern nationalists. Project Europe as an anti-nationalistic consumer project has provoked nationalist counter currents in all European countries.’[3]

It is around sentiments of anti-globalisation, anti-Americanisation, anti-consumerism that surprising and uncanny alliances emerge between the radical left and culturally ultra-conservative forces (Littler 2009 for example points out that the Islamist counter-project against Coca Cola: Mecca Cola has become something of an “official drink” at anti-globalisation events.)

The nostalgic nature of anti-consumerism and the partial convergence of left and right on it justify, I think, to understand it in terms of “reactionary socialism” whose “last words are: corporate guilds for manufacture; patriarchal relations in agriculture.’ (in the words of the Communist Manifesto)

Liberty and Alterity

What is the alternative? Is there anything good in consumerism? I suggest that it is precisely the alienating potential that unifies left and right in their rejection of consumerism that incorporates its human potential. In a way this point is not original –Virno (2004: 93) pairs up the despair of Heidegger with the optimism of critical theorist and communist Walter Benjamin:

‘For both Heidegger and Benjamin, those who are curious are forever distracted. They watch, learn, try out everything, but without paying attention. […] the judgment of the two authors diverges. For Heidegger, distraction, which is the correlate of curiosity, is the evident proof of a total uprooting and of a total unauthenticity. The distracted are those who pursue possibilities which are always different, but equal and interchangeable (opportunists in the prior meaning of the word, if you like). On the contrary, Benjamin clearly praises distraction itself, distinguishing in it the most effective means for taking in an artificial experience, technically constructed.’

Virno refuses to decide between Heidegger and Benjamin here – and that is symptomatic. Clearly, Heidegger is turning against the realm of possibilities (following Schmitt’s lead), while Benjamin embraces the pain of uprooting for the opportunities of development and freedom it yields. Monetary mediation implies the universal exchangeability of choices, the seeming reversibility of all decisions, and therefore the possibility to keep re-inventing oneself. Following pioneering consumer icons like David Bowie and Madonna one can complement or eradicate former selves by re-fashioning oneself with the help of new sartorial, musical, spiritual, ethical etc. stylisations. No chosen identity is ever final. If with Mary Douglas (1994: 136) we define cultures as standing ‘on forking paths of decision trees’ where having ‘embarked on one path’ makes it ‘difficult to get back to the choice that would have led another way’ – then consumer culture could be described as arrested on that forking where we decided that there will be no more forking, that there be universal reversibility of choice (Varul 2008). Although there is, of course, no real reversibility to be had – this is precisely what consumer culture aspires to. Not so much to undo what is done, but to gain the possibility of infinite expression (an infinity whose impossibility drove the original Romantics mad). This is one of the reasons why we find death so abhorrent, can no longer understand the very real desire of members of heroic cultures to give their lives in battle or sacrifice, why it is so difficult to understand fully the conclusion of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

Elsewhere (Varul 2009) I have argued that this romantic occasionalism is rooted in the structural romanticism of money. I suggest that it is this romanticism of consumer culture that is a major contributing factor to the 21st century victory of what Durkheim, writing at the end of the 19th century, called the Cult of the Individual – a unifying quasi-religious consensus that the individual person is sacred as attacks on personal freedom and dignity come to be experienced as a desecration – which indicates that the human being is both god and believer in this.

‘Quiconque attente à une vie d’homme, à la liberté d’un homme, à l’honneur d’un homme, nous inspire un sentiment d’horreur, de tous points analogue à celui qu’éprouve le croyant qui voit profaner son idole. Une telle morale n’est donc pas simplement une discipline hygiénique ou une sage économie de l’existence ; c’est une religion dont l’homme est, à la fois, le fidèle et le Dieu.’ (Durkheim 1898: 8)

While sometimes portrayed as opposites – for example by Leslie Sklair (2011) who advocates a socialist globalization driven by a ‘value system’ of ‘human rights and responsibilities’ as an alternative to the ‘value system’ of capitalist globalization revolving ‘around the culture-ideology of consumerism’ – I think it can be plausibly argued that, with the quasi-religious sentiment expressed by Durkheim being institutionalised in the dogma of human rights, that consumerism is its everyday version, its folk-religious practice. Consumerism as a culture contains the imperative of self-expression, self-development, of being all that one can be. And that matches up very well, I should think, with what Marx thought communism should achieve. This has been brought to the point, most enthusiastically, by Marshall Berman when he says that a major

‘bourgeois achievement has been to liberate the human capacity and drive for development: for permanent change, for perpetual upheaval and renewal in every mode of personal and social life.’ (Berman 1983: 94) ‘In order for people, whatever their class, to survive in modern society, their personality must take on the fluid and open form of this society. Modern men and women must learn to yearn for change, not merely to be open to changes in their personal and social lives, but positively to demand them, actively seek them out and carry them through. They must learn not to long nostalgically for the “fixed, fast-frozen relationships” of the real or fantasized past…’ (Berman 1983: 95f.)

True, this human capacity – lived out and reproduced in the sphere of consumption – is often enough recaptured and/or coopted into the new workplace. Subjectivity has become a productive resource and is exploited as such – from the classic case of flight attendants analysed by Hochschild (1983) to the way that “creatives” are roped into the production of aesthetic use value (e.g. Hesmondalgh/Baker 2008). The shift from personnel management and industrial relations to ‘human resources management’ from the 1980s onwards (e.g. Guest 1990) constituted a widening of the definition of what constitutes labour power reflected in new appraisal systems (e.g. Townley 1989). The various instruments of performance assessment give the lie to claims that such ‘affective’ labour is beyond measure (unless one ascribes Fordist assessment methods like MTM an objectivity they simply do not possess). What is measured (and hence: expropriated) just encompasses so much more these days.  Virno (2004) brings this very much to the point when he sums up those studies (and what he knows from involvement with workers movements) by stating how we now sell off to employers our very ability to have a conversation as central element of that thing “labour power”. Which means that we essentially give up to them what makes us human. Thus sphere of capitalist production is alienating in a very different sense from the sphere of consumption: the latter estranges us in that it uproots immediate relations to others and to nature, in that now money transactions mediate between us and objects, creating a distance that was not there before. But in the sphere of production alienation means, in a very straightforward way: you are alienated from what you produce (as you don’t own it) and you are alienated from the means of production which, of course, you don’t own either… and if those means of production include your very ability to have a conversation, to forge emotional bonds etc. – then that no longer belongs to you. Here the person is alienated by and subsumed under capital. If there is a ‘communism of capital’ it certainly is not to be found in the sphere of production. But maybe it exists in consumer culture?

Already when consumption was still much less individualistic than it is now (and in a country where conformity and homogeneity are more highly valued than here) Adorno (2005) – who due to his condemnation of the culture industry and his nostalgia for high culture is often enlisted in an anticonsumerist discourse – defended the sphere of consumption as last bastion of humanity against the machine:

‘Only by virtue of opposition to production, as something still not totally encompassed by the social order, could human beings introduce a more humane one. If the appearance [Schein] of life were ever wholly abrogated, which the consumption-sphere itself defends with such bad reasons, then the overgrowth of absolute production will triumph.’

This is the irony of the expropriation of subjectivity in the workplace: In order to be exploited, it must exist. Human resource managers can select it; it can recruit it; it can reward it – but it cannot produce it. Like all labour power it is produced and reproduced outside labour. The self-expressive creative employees so in demand nowadays need to be given an existence beyond. There they are to construct their authenticity – which then will be expropriated as a productive resource.

‘Being an efficient employee demands that you are more than an employee. Having a life outside work becomes a resource when doing work, not only because of the revitalizing function of having a family, a hobby, or doing sports but because having these non-work activities develop competences and experiences that might help create organizational results.’ (Pedersen 2011: 75)

That is – as much as it craves for it – production cannot bring individual subjectivity completely under its control as such subsumption would necessarily delete it as a resource. The sphere consumption is inevitably unruly and conducive to individualism and liberty.

But this is not just about individuality and liberty – it is also about the possibility of a sociality that can make do without fixed identity ascriptions. It is about cosmopolitanism and alterity. Alterity – as a not very good translation of Georg Simmel’s Fremdheit, strangeness, foreignness (Sennett 2002) – here denotes difference that comes without the need to categorise identities. Because in metropolitan (consumerised) city life we are all strangers in that we are seen to be free to construct and reconstruct and reinvent our visualised identities, a consumerist city can stomach new strangers, ethnic, religious, aesthetic, sexual, etc. difference so much better than any other known form of social life. This is more than multi-culturalism. We have seen multi-culturalism in many forms in the past – but it always involved a strong sense of communal belonging and clear boundaries between communities (usually along ethno-religious lines). Çağlar (1997: 182), arguing from a cosmopolitan perspective against a relapse into such communalism highlights the role of consumer culture in preventing reifying ethnicity, religion and community:

‘A multiculturalism of consumption is a multiculturalism of the market, in which consumers are left to define for themselves who they are, away from top-down constructions by the state or by fictive “communities”. But this implies […] that “culture” and “religion” must be kept entirely out of the public sphere and that citizens should be free to negotiate their own cultural self-definitions through exchange and collective consumption. Such a divorce between community and culture would need to apply as much to the majority group as to minorities within the nation.’

Any alternative to capitalism, if it is not to relapse into the frozen world in which everybody has their place must find a functional equivalent to this alterity-facilitating function of consumer culture. And even the most radically left anti-consumerist movements do have such a tendency to create island communities that are hostile to mobility. This here is Subcommandante Marcos (2001: 565):

‘“Foreigners” in a world “without borders” (according to the promise made by the victors of the Cold War) who suffer xenophobic persecution, job insecurity, the loss of their cultural identity, police repression, and hunger – that is, when they aren’t thrown into prison or murdered. Whatever its cause the nightmare of migration continues to grow.’

Naomi Klein (2002: 3) adopted him as hero of the anti-consumerist movement – a universal avatar for he ‘is simply us, we are the leader we’ve been looking for’. And of course he is absolutely right about xenophobia and marginalisation of large groups of migrants. But anyone who knows a bit about migration will be confident in rejecting the blanket notion of a ‘nightmare of migration’. More significantly, note how the “loss of cultural identity”, a genuine conservative concern, has become something that one now can conjure up as equally devastating as hunger and police repression. Such an attitude condemns people to their ethnic identities (it is significant that Gould above speaks of ‘peoples’, not ‘people’) – while commoditisation offers an exit:

‘Anti-modernists often bemoan that ethnic identities today are no longer “authentic,” but are rather superficial, made up of musical tropes and clothing styles and exaggerated gestures that aren’t passed down from generation to generation, but chosen through the influence of the mass media. But it is precisely this commodification that allows people to choose elements from various cultural traditions and blend them into a new identity. The same process also makes it easier for people to stray from their “original” identities – or in conventional terms, to integrate into society. Uncommodified ethnic identities are closed to outsider, and raise the costs for straying outside their walls: one either is or isn’t.’ (Sznaider 2000: 307)

Nobody knows that better than Subcommandante Marcos himself – hence his engagement in the literary market (he has co-authored a novel with crime writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II in which he gives himself an image makeover – and in which feature a number of revolution tourists from around the world…)


As in all societies, capitalist societies are built on expectations and mutual obligations. But while traditional networks of obligations are first of all entangling webs of very specific normative expectations that can only negotiated to a very limited extent, the capitalist economy entails an anonymisation and generalisation of obligation that allows us to be tied up in a very liberal way.

‘The “reciprocal and all-sided dependence of individuals” expressed in exchange value constantly recalls the fact that one owes one’s very existence to society. In order to justify and maintain that existence one has to offer one’s services (incorporated in a product or directly as labor power) to the owners of exchange value, that is, money. As workers individuals are, as Marx put it, doubly free: free to dispose of themselves as they please, but also free of any commodities whose sale could sustain them. Most of us are forced to sell our labor power as the only commodity we can continuously dispose of. In order to live we must, in effect, serve others. In a generalized and anonymized reciprocity like that of the capitalist market society ideally we can choose who to serve, that is, we are not servants of any particular master. But we have to serve somebody in order to obtain an income that allows us to exist as free individuals outside the workplace. And even if we are in a position to choose our temporal masters (employers/clients), as owners of social wealth (money) each individual master represents the mastership of society as a whole.’  (Varul 2010: 63)

The need to earn money as generalised debt – we owe our existence to society and we need to pay off that debt somehow. But in a liberal capitalist society we are not told how to do this. We are not liberated from serfdom as such, but we are no longer tied to a concrete master and our serfdom to society as a whole is sweetened by the reverse indebtedness of society to us – in the form of money as generalised bills of exchange. Graeber (2010) in a preview of his Debt: the first 5000 years brings the moral implication to the point

“The true ethos of our individualistic society may be found in this equation: We all owe an infinite debt to humanity, nature, or the cosmos (however one prefers to frame it), but no one else can possibly tell us how to pay it. All systems of established authority—religion, morality, politics, economics, the criminal-justice system—are revealed to be fraudulent ways of calculating what cannot be calculated. Freedom, then, is the ability to decide for ourselves how to pay our debts”

Graeber (2011), of course, sees any indebtedness as tied up in recurring relations of violence and violation in which even the balanced reciprocities of neighbourly exchanges of favours, gestures and attention (be it in the British or in the Tiv) become a sinister symptom of repression. But in making his case he cannot avoid to underline the, hitherto, universality of such relations of mutual indebtedness. Assuming we cannot do away with indebtedness as such, the individualistic ethos looks like the best we can get. But of course, there is an obstacle: inequality.

Inequality vs consumerist freedom

Inequality of wealth, as it entails inequality of power, is a threat to freedom – those who don’t have money to spend are excluded from the liberty of consumer culture. Liberty is tied to property – and property, by definition, means exclusion. The freedom which is a reality for the haves and an empty promise for the have-nots in capitalist societies (even where it tends to be above what Jimmy Reid called the “freedom to starve” – and that is, ironically, mainly thanks to labour activists like him). But this freedom is not something to be thrown away because for many it is nothing but an ideological appearance. Its realisation for all is what Marx (2000) had in mind when contrasting the division of labour that culminates in capitalism and the division of labour in communism.

‘For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.’

In essence: Marx thought about communism primarily in terms of freedom – everything else (questions of property, equality etc.) are means to this end: the generalisation and radicalisation of the freedom, that under capitalism is a privilege of private property. (Which is why Engels, in the Prinicples of Communism answers the question ‘What is communism’ stating ‘Communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.’) If there is evil in alienation then it is that, as Shlomo Avineri (1969: 116) put it, that in capitalist society ‘ the individual by being denied his private property is denied his existence as individual’.

If the issue is liberty – and if equality is mainly about equal freedoms – then the main issue is not immiseration and it also is not alienation. The question is whether freedoms are curtailed by unequal distribution of property rights even if there is some freedom of movement and expression for most. And property, material possession from clothing to newspapers, from Virginia Wolfe’s “room for oneself” to internet access does matter for freedom of expression. Selfhood – individual or collective, egalitarian or hierarchical, eccentric, traditional etc. – always needs to be constituted in material culture. But only in a capitalist consumer society are they to a large extent a matter of choice – hence my concern that an attack on consumerism will hit freedom and hence my suggestion that current consumer culture needs a functional equivalent in a socialist society, if that society is to be one of free individuals.

That negative recognition and negative freedom enshrined in consumerism threatened by the inequalities that the capitalist relations of production that make consumerism possible is of course a contentious claim – neoliberal promoters of negative freedom in the tradition of Hayek reject the notion that less money means less freedom (i.e. disagree vehemently with the notion that equality of wealth is a precondition of equality of liberty). Huei-Chun Su (2009) brings in John Stuart Mill’s notion of liberty against this view. Although Su positions Mill against negative freedom, I think he makes it reasonably clear that Mill is far from subscribing to a notion of ‘positive freedom’ in which more wealth means more capacities and thus more freedom.

‘In general, more wealth implies more choices to exercise the power of satisfying desires, but it does not imply more freedoms in other aspects. If Mill believed that more wealth always leads to more freedoms, exchanging liberty for affluence would not be an issue for him. In other words, in Mill’s view, there is no proportional correlation between the amount of wealth and the degree of liberty. However, for Mill, the idea of liberty cannot be completely cut off from the issue of material conditions either. Due to their physical constitutions, human beings need a minimum level of means to survive. Therefore, they should not be considered entirely free if they face the threat of the deprivation of a minimum level of subsistence.’ (Su 2009: 391)


It is easy to see why Mill is right in his rejection of a proportional relation between freedom and property. Not only is this due to the law of diminishing returns  – property is a social thing that can also diminish freedom (a car in a traffic jam, for example). However, Su is, I think, mistaken to interpret the difference between Hayek’s concept of freedom and that of Mill as one in which Mill allows for some ‘positive freedom’:

‘If we think about the liberty of the weaker members in the same community, Mill’s principle is actually a protection of their positive liberties. In short, Mill’s principle of liberty can be interpreted from the other angle: the purpose of limiting some people’s liberty is to protect everyone’s liberty of life and body’ (Su 2009: 411)

To the contrary – what Mill does is to spell out the concept of negative freedom in a way that makes it easy to see why even negative freedom is curtailed under capitalism. The freedom of the less well off is a much smaller one than that of those with greater spending power. If such a negative concept of freedom implies that its only limit is the obligation of

‘not injuring the interests of one another; or rather certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights’ (Mill 1910: 132)

then in a society with hugely unequal property rights the freedom of the poor is squeezed into what little space is left by the liberties taken by the rich. (Varul 2010: 59) Mill provides us with more than his own explicit argument for minimum income – and he does so by not stepping into the trap of positive liberty. With positive liberty you have to define what freedom should be freedom-to – and thus introduce normativity that impacts on negative freedom (not in that it curtails the freedom of the wealthier but in that it prescribes and proscribes what people can do with their freedom). What Mill makes visible is that property (as the only quantitatively limited positive freedom of an individual) curtails the negative freedom of others in that it extends the sphere of one person at the cost of others. Therefore there needs to be a quantitative limit. It is easy to see if we go back to the car: a car takes space – space that others then cannot use. It is therefore reasonable to limit car use so as to protect the freedom of movement of all. But of course these look like relatively insignificant differentials in freedom when compared to the impact that capital accumulation on a larger scale has. Although the range of products has changed since Marx wrote Value, Price and Profit, the fact remains that a small proportion of the population determines a large proportion of demand, and this in effect means that they dictate what kind of work counts as socially necessary and what does not – they have a disproportional say in the definition of social utility.

‘If you consider that two-thirds of the national produce are consumed by one-fifth of the population — a member of the House of Commons stated it recently to be but one-seventh of the population — you will understand what an immense proportion of the national produce must be produced in the shape of luxuries, or be exchanged for luxuries, and what an immense amount of the necessaries themselves must be wasted upon flunkeys, horses, cats, and so forth, a waste we know from experience to become always much limited with the rising prices of necessaries.

Inequality as constantly exacerbated through capital accumulation in the last consequence finds its expression in the social opportunity structure, seriously affecting what counts as valuable in terms of work (and hence education) by exerting disproportionate influence over what counts as valuable in terms of consumption. Capitalism is eating up the liberty that it produced in form of consumerism. If we want to protect the human progress culturally instituted in the sphere of consumption, we need to think about alternatives to capitalism. But is such a move possible at all? Can people perform such an act of transcending critique?

Consumerism and general intellect

The rationale behind the radical turn against consumption, as I have said, is the frustration of revolutionary hopes and the idea that consumerism is part of the apparatus of oppression (or at least appeasement) that lulls the oppressed and creates a false sense of legitimacy by instigating and superficially satisfying false needs (the sort of thing you people are being trained to do…)

I want to suggest a different perspective – which in effect means to reinstate the original perspective of Marx – dialectic materialism. In the German Ideology he says

The only connection which still links [people] with the productive forces and with their own existence — labour — has lost all semblance of self-activity and only sustains their life by stunting it. While in the earlier periods self-activity and the production of material life were separated, in that they devolved on different persons, and while, on account of the narrowness of the individuals themselves, the production of material life was considered as a subordinate mode of self-activity, they now diverge to such an extent that altogether material life appears as the end, and what produces this material life, labour (which is now the only possible but, as we see, negative form of self-activity), as the means.

The effect of this is alienation – expressing oneself, objectifying and realising oneself in one’s product, in work is no longer possible. But this is not only a deprivation, an cause of unhappiness. It is a liberation – a separation of the person from being entirely defined by their productive role – and an opportunity as:

On the other hand, standing over against these productive forces, we have the majority of the individuals from whom these forces have been wrested away, and who, robbed thus of all real life-content, have become abstract individuals, but who are, however, only by this fact put into a position to enter into relation with one another as individuals.

In working (meaninglessly) towards the end of a (meaningful) material existence the alienated individual establishes herself as a person who can – in cooperation with other persons – turn back on the way things are organised and change them. While for Marx there was not much he could bring up in terms of concretisations of such potentials (the individualisation afforded in principle by the alienation through waged factory work had a strict quantitative limit set by the extensive working hours and low pay), today’s material life affords quite a lot of excess individuality.

Consumer culture is geared towards the construction of individual selfhood, the free construction of subjectivity – and over the decades capitalist entrepreneurs have seen a market in that and catered profitably to such needs for self-construction. The combination of digital technology, telecommunication and software for social networking is the pinnacle of this development. The “self-activity” as self-construction has shifted from labour to “material life” (consumption).

In a further twist, capitalist production tries to tap into that new resource (consumer co-production, subjectivity in the workplace, as mentioned before) – but crucially, the curse of accumulation and inequality, and hence domination, persists. In the workplace subjectivity is consumed by capital as a productive force. But in order to do so – and in order to valorise commodities beyond the catering for material needs or traditional luxury – that productive force which is subjectivity must be let loose without too much control in the sphere of consumption.

The great contribution of dialectical materialism was to recognise that if there is to be fundamental change it is not enough that there is a society is unjust and exploitative, but also that this society has produced the possibility (“productive force”) to go beyond itself, both in the sense of an organisational capacity to break up the existing order of things and as a capacity to organise the new society. Both are best capture by the formula of “general intellect” as put forward by Marx in his Grundrisse. While Marx saw it incorporated in machinery as ‘objective scientific capacity’, Virno (2004: 106) sees it, today, ‘presented in living labor’.

‘The general intellect includes […] formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical propensities, mindsets, and “linguistic games.” In contemporary labor processes, there are thoughts and discourses which function as productive “machines,” without having to adopt the form of a mechanical body or of an electronic valve.’

According to Virno, the post-Fordist industry builds heavily on the imaginative and communicative ‘intellectually of the masses’ (2004: 107). This intellectuality is crucial.

One important ingredient in any revolution – and the reason why there have been so few in the past… and the reason why most of them were led by intellectuals – is that it takes not only the ability to organise and lead (in the sense of military leadership down the command chain), but crucially: it takes imagination. Virno does not explain where this imaginative and communicative intellectuality emerges from – but whoever knows business organisations from the inside also knows that they are not the places where the imagination is fostered. It comes from the outside – it is a cultural import. And the culture nourishing it is that of consumption.

Colin Campbell (1987: 76) celebrates the consumer’s ability to gain pleasure through cognitive and emotional self-control.

‘In order […] to possess that degree of emotional self-determination which permits emotions to be employed to secure pleasure, it is necessary for individuals to attain that level of self-consciousness which permits the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ [Coleridge]; disbelief robs symbols of their automatic power, whilst the suspension of such an attitude restores it, but only to the extent to which one wishes that to be the case. Hence through the process of manipulating belief, and thus granting or denying symbols their power, an individual can successfully adjust the nature and intensity of his emotional experience; something which requires a skilful use of the faculty of imagination.

In the first instance this liberation of imaginative potential, this autonomous imaginative hedonism does the job of what Haug (1984) portrays as outcome of capitalist manipulation: It creates much needed markets to soak up the output of a senselessly overproducing capitalist industry. But he and other followers of Vance Packard style theories of mind control over-estimate the extent to which advertisers and marketeers can contain the spirits they conjured up. Marshall Berman (1983: 96f.) concludes:

‘Where the desires and sensibilities of people in every class have become open-ended and insatiable, attuned to permanent upheaval in every sphere of life, what can possibly keep them fixed and frozen in their bourgeois roles? The more furiously bourgeois society agitates its members to grow or die, the more likely they will outgrow it itself, the more furiously they will eventually turn on it as a drag on their growth, the more implacably they will fight it in the name of the new life it has forced them to seek.’




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[1] Of course they – and Kopytoff – have it wrong on one count: there may be a homogenisation of value, but not of content and meaning – the qualitative difference of things is the very precondition for their commercial exchangeability (as Marx points out: quantitatively equal exchange value is expressed – and thus depends on – qualitatively unequal use value.)

[2] ‘Zu erkennen ist dies: daß Herrschaft und Dienst ein und dasselbe sind: Das Zeitalter des dritten Standes hat die wunderbare Macht dieser Einheit nie erkannt, denn allzu billige und allzu menschliche Genüsse schienen ihm erstrebenswert.’

[3] ‚Man kann sagen, daß Nationalismus und Konsumverhalten entgegengesetzte Prinzipien darstellen. Aber das heißt nicht, daß ein Ansteigen des Konsums den Nationalismus verschwinden ließe. Auch das Gegenteil kann zutreffen: Das Konsumverhalten liefert dem Nationalismus etwas, das er verurteilen kann, oft in Gestalt der sogenannten „Amerikanisierung“, dem Schlachtruf moderner Nationalisten. So hat das „Projekt Europa“ als anti-nationalistisches Konsumprojekt auch nationalistische Gegenströmungen in jedem Land Europas hervorgerufen.‘

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