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On the limits of consumer culture critique

Beneath the understandable enthusiasm conveyed in the scholarship done by those who have documented the enormous and expanding activism opposed to neoliberal globalization lurks a palpable unease.  Partly I think this connects to the almost total failure of anti-globalization activism to accomplish more than successes at the margin, and as important as those are, global capitalism rolls right along.  And even for Marxists who might be delighted to see artful protests undertaken that reveal the absurdly contradicting impulses of worldwide state-sponsored capitalism, I often sense a concern even there that consumerist oppositional politics (that is, activity undertaken to modify materialism at the level of say, a Walmart boycott) risks diverting attention from the trade agreements and state-to-state deals that end up finally dominating the scene.  Such activities are thus often more praised for their solidarity-enhancing organizing benefits than for their actual victories.

Such a claim will seem a little outlandish to those who have organized and fought to protest against, say, the annual head of state summits that bring to isolated locations the world’s most exclusive club.  But even there the hosting nations seem to have become ever more clever at coopting and redirecting and marginalizing protest.  And some of this anxiety I think is reflected, too, in the divided reception to such works as Naomi Klein’s No Logo, a book that has found an internationally effusive following but also provoked often quite sharp criticisms that at the level of economic scholarship her sometimes totalizing claims are finally unpersuasive.

These concerns are given free rein and evoke interesting responses in the new issue of Cultural Studies just out (September 2008, vol. 22.5), which focuses on consumerism.  The authors in that special issue bring to bear a wide ranging set of theoretical material, a range that includes Klein but also Zygmunt Bauman’s longstanding and suggestive thinking regarding liquid modernity and Foucault’s thinking about ethics and governmentality (much reconsidered in the contribution by Barnett, Clarke, Cloke, and Malpass at pgs 624-653).  They are concerns explicitly foregrounded in Jeremy Gilbert’s essay (“On the Commodification of Everything:  Anti-consumerist Cultural Studies in the Age of Ecological Crisis,” pgs. 551-566).  To simply quote from the start of the essay’s abstract:

Cultural studies is in a difficult position if it wants to find itself on the side of democracy against neo-liberalism in this age of ecological crisis.  A great deal of the deconstructive, anti-essentialist, post-humanist, post-modernist thinking of recent decades has undermined the grounds upon which earlier generations understood the commodification of the world to be distasteful.  In the absence of any normative conception of humanity, community, or nature, why not succumb to the deterritorializing thrill which the marketization of everything promises?  The liberal defence of consumer culture which characterized a whole genre of work in cultural studies is clearly unable to answer this question, predicated as it is on a now wholly anachrionistic critique of mid-century discourses of austerity, restraint, and patriarchal normativity.  [How are those for fighting words?]

Some of the authors would most emphatically resist the arguable caricature I have laid out; Michele Micheletti and Dietland Stolle take great inspiration from the fact that global corporations can finally be shamed into doing the right thing.  Their essay (“Fashioning Social Justice Through Political Consumerism, Capitalism, and the Internet,” pgs. 749-769) praises the sometimes subtle push and pull pressures exerted on transnational companies that finally can yield to breakthroughs.  A key historical example for their position is the way global companies were finally shamed into abandoning the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. I think one can share their urgent enthusiasm for the innovative protest tactics used today by organized opposition to, say, sweatshops, and still rightly wonder whether multinational companies have been all that restricted after all – tactical concessions here and there, a photo op with movement leaders, and the company smells better than ever.  I don’t want to be cynical, and small gains might be stoked into broader progress, but, perhaps having reached my toleration limit for all those We Are the Happy Oil Company Here to Say How Much We Love the Environment commercials that form a tired soundtrack to the Olympics, it’s hard to take stock of the broader scene and declare victory for the protests.  Some of these downsides are explicitly conceded (“Interestingly, given these rises [in the use of the boycott], activists are, today, more hesitant about using them.  They find that boycotts may do more harm than good…  Experience also shows that boycotts can also be difficult to organize and frame properly and almost impossible to call off.  Their actual financial effect on targeted products and corporations is debatable…”  [751]).  But MM & DS insist that these downsides can be subverted given the tools of the new media and the potential for accountability afforded the kid with a cell phone camera and YouTube access.

Other contributors concede the difficulties up front, but argue that some theoretical modification can save the day and challenge neoliberalism without the downsides.  The Barnett et al. essay I mentioned (“The Elusive Subjects of Neo-Liberalism: Beyond the Analytics of Governmentality,” pgs. 624-653) starts by confessing the shortcomings of Marxism, a move followed by a case for an uneasy alliance between Marxism and Foucauldianism (I note that the traditional view of Foucault on governmentality has to be significantly recast, and self-consciously it is by the authors, to make such a marriage work).  The move basically leads one in the direction of organizing opposition to corporate practices by pointing to the contradictions established by a company’s rules and norms and institutionalized culture, seeking ways to put such arrangements under ethical interrogation.

In a very interesting essay, Kate Soper (“Alternative Hedonism, Cultural Theory and the Role of Aesthetic Revisioning,” pgs. 567-587) works through the contrary impulses of anti-consumerism.  A key is her term, alternative hedonism, which is her way of calling attention to how certain anti-consumerist activism ends up simply reinscribing a different and more sanitized form of hedonism (“I hate how those cars are polluting the planet, and so I’ve got to have the new sexy electronic/hybrid cars!”).  A potential corrective to this new hedonism is the work done by artists to lampoon or more simply call attention to the false utopia that may be offered in the name of green consumerism.

Following a similar track, Sam Binkley’s “Liquid Consumption: Anti-Consumerism and the Fetishized De-Fetishization of Commodities” (pgs. 599-623) follows Bauman to note the disconnection between the utopian identities argued for by followers of, say, the Slow Food or Feng Shui movements, and their actual track record of producing anything more than anti-corporate rhetoric (which in turn stymies the benefits of having enacted new identity formations).

Still others seem less sanguine altogether.  An interview with Juliet Schor (author of The Overworked American) lays out a wide-scale scene of devastation, where kids are being mind controlled into consumerism without real opposition, and where religion is being commandeered to the cause of profit.  Schor is finally not wholly given to fatalism (“I do think there are possibilities here”), but she also sees no apparent hope in the political classes of the richest countries.

I fear my readily expressed skepticism will be read as advocating wholesale dismissal of these projects, but of course the opposite is true.  It may be the best possible antidote to the cultural and political malaise of the left (which may be momentarily suspended by excitement over the Obama campaign, though even that seems to be suffering a bit lately) is work of this very sort:  theoretically engaged, attentive to the conceptual dilemmas, and on the hunt for actual evidence of successes at the transnational level.


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