06 December 2005

Do you hate consumer culture?

If we all hate consumerism, how come we can’t stop shopping?

Angry about all that packaging? Irritated by all those commercials? Worried about the quality of the “mental environment”? Well, join the club. Anti-consumerism has become one of the most important cultural forces in millennial North American life, across every social class and demographic.

This might seem at odds with the economic facts of the 1990s — a decade that gave us the “extreme shopping” channel, the dot-com bubble, and an absurd orgy of indulgence in ever more luxurious consumer goods. But look at the non-fiction bestseller lists. For years they’ve been dominated by books that are deeply critical of consumerism: No Logo, Culture Jam, Luxury Fever and Fast Food Nation. You can now buy Adbusters at your neighbourhood music or clothing store. Two of the most popular and critically successful films in recent memory were Fight Club and American Beauty, which offer almost identical indictments of modern consumer society.

What can we conclude from all this? For one thing, the market obviously does an extremely good job at responding to consumer demand for anti-consumerist products and literature. But isn’t that a contradiction? Doesn’t it suggest that we are in the grip of some massive, society-wide, bipolar disorder? How can we all denounce consumerism, and yet still find ourselves living in a consumer society?

The answer is simple. What we see in films like American Beauty and Fight Club is not actually a critique of consumerism; it’s merely a restatement of the “critique of mass society” that has been around since the 1950s. The two are not the same. In fact, the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years.

That last sentence is worth reading again. The idea is so foreign, so completely the opposite of what we are used to being told, that many people simply can’t get their head around it. It is a position that Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler, has been trying to communicate for years. Strangely, all the authors of anti-consumerism books have read Frank — most even cite him approvingly — and yet not one of them seems to get the point. So here is Frank’s claim, simply put: books like No Logo, magazines like Adbusters, and movies like American Beauty do not undermine consumerism; they reinforce it.

This isn’t because the authors, directors or editors are hypocrites. It’s because they’ve failed to understand the true nature of consumer society.

Continue reading, via THIS Magazine.


eurobrat said...

Just did 2 essays on this book for a uni class- it's a humbling and inspiring read. Fabulous critique of the counterculture superstar Naomi Klein...

auk said...

Thank you thank you thank you for this post. Read the full article and buying the book shortly.

This clarified the overwhelming dissatisfaction I felt about consumerism that I couldn't quite wrap my head around. I'm just so damn sick of all the hype surrounding hipsters, who are really just as conformist and consumerist as anyone else. Now I realize why my life is so spiritually and emotionally draining - because as a consumer I'm constantly competing or defending myself against the destructive rising tide of trends that forces me to rethink my sense of self every other day. Looking forward to reading this book!