I commented at some length on this post on Ed’s blog and now, having had time to digest the article he links to, I thought it worth expanding here.
In “The Rebel Sell”, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter efficiently dissect much of what passes for ‘anti-consumerism,’ noting the pervasive irony that most attempts to opt out of consumerist life are really about opting out of a life defined by mass-produced consumables into one defined by a less brand-driven but equally consumerist aesthetic.
Just as they criticise their image of ‘anti-consumerism’ for being simply a re-tread of the 1950s ‘critique of mass society’, so their critique is far from a new one, echoing the critiques of “the Nike-clad masses raging against capitalism”, the London Evening Standard’s naming of ‘yippies’ (yuppy-style, hippy-ethic), and other similar comments that followed the rise of the so-called ‘anti-globalisation’ movement in the late 90s.
They note how “No Logo” became in itself a logo, but fail to note that Naomi Klein was aware of that as she penned the book, most clearly when she talked of the rise of Adbusters to megabrand and the associated launch of Adbusters-labelled accessories. The movement wasn’t good at articulating itself (and was marred by the inappropriate ‘anti-globalisation’ label) but I would argue that by the end of the 90s this irony was itself a subconscious focus of rage and the reason for the rise of much protest.
Walking around cities that were the locus of anti-globalisation action it was always evident that a sense of tribal identity was pervasive, and often enforced through unarticulated dress codes, musical tastes, and such. It was also clear that much of the rage that was most clearly manifested in the violent fringes was a result of the fact that there is no readily apparent way to free oneself from these ironies. “Choice” has become identified with consumerism, with the result that consumerism as a paradigm is nearly impossible to escape. It’s analogous to the dilemma that faced Neo in the later Matrix films, that perhaps his very escape and ‘rebellion’ was a way of perpetuating the system he was opposed to.
Of course the rage was also very clearly directed against the global institutions the G8, the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation all organs of increasingly globalised power, owned in large part by the consumers as opposed to the producers. That division of power, and the fact that for most consumables there is a clear divide between those of us who consume (the west) and those who produce (the far-east) left many of us with a deep feeling of disenfranchisement. By being a part of the system we were supporting sweatshop labour and other abuses of human rights, but there was no way for us to opt out of that system.
Heath and Potter pull out American Beauty and Fight Club as examples within their critique, particularly pulling out the latter film’s key quote for comment:
You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.
They are right that Fight Club offers no sufficient way out, that in a very real sense it simply shows a change of brand loyalty and I would add that the response to that film has magnified that issue. Once again it shows the vacuum that emerges when we start to look for a way to define our identity outside of the consumerist idiom. I have a hunch that the issue is at least in part a result of the lacking relationship between individual and group identity within the film (the desire to feel something ‘real’ that would appear to be a motivator for the physicality of the response is deeply individualistic, membership of the group is at least in part for the end of individual sensation).
When they turn to American Beauty they fall into the familiar trap that that film offers of believing that the lifestyle Lester adopts after quitting his job is that which the film is offering as an alternative to the lifestyle it clearly rejects. But with repeated viewings of that film (which do become rather tedious, but can help with interpretation) it seems that the true moment of clarity comes at the end, when Lester refuses to complete his movement into this new lifestyle and decides not to have sex with the girl who has so far been the object of his lust. Moral responsibility, however late in the game, appears to offer him real resolution and the adulthood he has needed throughout the film.
So here we have the dilemma that drives many of us to take on a belief system that could be described as ‘anti-consumerist’ and to which I’d hope to add the qualifier ‘critical’. We want to find a way to define our identity beyond brand-loyalty. We want to be able to live our life without oppressing others, whether on our doorstep or some thousands of miles away. And we want, in the midst of these individualistic demands, a real sense of connectedness. What we always need is a greater sense of shared imagination.
Above all, what is most sad about Heath and Powell’s article is the sense of resignedness it conveys. They are not unaware of the failings of consumerism, but seem given over to its all-pervasiveness. But I doubt that this piece will pacify many who are enraged by an enforced life of ironic compromises. They are entirely right that any movement that emerges against consumerism must be more critical in its thinking, and more aware in its history, but not, I hope, that such movements are necessarily flawed. However fanciful it may seem, imagination is the key.