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Published on December 16th, 2013 | by Mark Bou Mansour
Image © Chances are you’ve been spending financially more than you usually do these past few weeks and you’re probably going to spend even more before the month is over -after all, it is the holiday season. Consumerism is a touchy topic and an appropriately timed one as everywhere we’ll go this month we’ll be subjected to the commodified forms of “Christmas spirit” we’ve come to expect. While those in support of consumerism see consumerism as the driving force of our economies and even a form of freedom, those against consumerism are often wary of the detrimental effects to social relations and self-fulfillment arising from an extensive materialism. But can consumerism be used as a means of political control? Well, yeah. But just how powerful is the magnitude of this control? And how does consumerism operate as a dictatorship in the guise of democracy and Christmas joy? Put on your gloves, we’re going to answer these questions by slicing up the UK’s favorite holiday commercials of 2013. Consumerism, like most words we try to define in this blog series, has a number of definitions. In economic discourses it refers to policies that prioritize an ever-increasing consumption of goods and services. Under these policies, the free choices of consumers determine the answers to questions of what and how goods are produced, and so determine how a society organizes its economic resources. From this understanding derive other definitions of consumerism that recognize the importance of the consumer’s decision-making process. As such some people use the term consumerism to refer to doctrines that hold greater consumption to be beneficial to society and so argue that consumers should be knowledgeable of the marketplace in order to be informed decision makers. From the other side of the coin, however, come definitions of consumerism that refer to trends of selfish acquisition of material goods. These definitions emphasize harmful effects on society caused by greater consumption. The main argument in support of consumerism argues that, within an unregulated free market, consumerism ultimately empowers the consumer. The freedom of choice available to the consumer provides her with the power to determine what goods will survive on the marketplace and so what goods will be produced from society’s scarce resources. Meaning, power over society’s resources lies in the hands of the consumers and not the producers, or owners of the means of production. The consumer’s freedom to choose what to purchase would also serve as a check-and-balance over the amounts of profits a producer can make, effectively preventing excessive profits because consumers opt for competitive prices. While this seems to make sense in theory, practice often proves otherwise. Often, those who take this stance account for the shortcomings in practice by pointing the finger at government interference within the market. However, this argument also falters in theory if we pry open its cornerstone premise: does an exceedingly vast and diverse range of choices of products translate to a freedom of choice? There are a number of arguments against consumerism. A socio argument holds that the relationships a person develops with a brand name or a product make up for the lack of healthy social relationships. In a chicken or egg scenario, it can also be argued that the prioritizing of relationships with brands for the sake of their symbolic social status damage human relationships in society. A political argument against consumerism holds that the consumer cannot actually control how a product is made because corporations are not subjected to the same accountability as government institutions. A corporation only answers to its shareholders and not to human rights or democratic principles. And an environmental argument opposed to consumerism critiques the drive for more consumption for the severe damages it inflicts upon the planet through its ever-increasing exhaustion of resources and buildup of pollution. None of these arguments, however, answer our question regarding choice. Within the whirlwind of near infinite products coming off the production belt and the messages put forward by advertisements and pop culture, can we really say we have a freedom of choice? Put on your safety goggles; to satisfactorily critique consumerism, we need to summon the spirit of the radical left. Warning, you might experience flashes of discontent, desires to mobilize, lack of impetus to shave, and the unfolding of historical materialism. Marcuse’s answer to our question is no. Herbert Marcuse was a German philosopher and political theorist who dedicated the concerns of his works to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism. Associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory and celebrated as the “Father of the New Left”, Marcuse argued that capitalist democracies and soviet states were equally totalitarian. In his famous One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse levies a strong critique against both capitalism and soviet communism, accusing both of creating new forms of social repression and reducing revolutionary potential among people. These news forms of social repressions take the form of consumerism in capitalist democracies. By proliferating through mass media, advertising, and modes of thought, consumerism creates false needs which engross the individual into the system of production and consumption. The freedom of choice the consumer enjoys, argues Marcuse, is actually an “unfreedom” because the needs she seeks to satisfy are artificially produced by the economic system. These artificial needs induce the consumer to work more in order to buy more, thus entangling her further in the economic system. Moreover, the economic system fosters the idea that happiness can be bought and so causes the individual to misdirect her aspirations towards the consumption of products, and so prompts her to dedicate more of her life to labour hours. This consumption machine continues to churn out while inducing people to ignore the destruction and waste brought on the environment as well as the psychological harm that arises when social meaning and connection are replaced by material items. “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment” (Marcuse, 18). Consumerism, however, blinds people to more than just these damages. Marcuse argues that there are several dimensions to human existence –several ways of life, several forms cultures can take, orders society can organize into, meanings that can be conceived, and practices to be undertaken to attain those meanings- different to our present dimension of life. And all these dimensions have been eliminated in advanced industrial societies. Under consumerism, we live in a “one-dimensional” universe. The freedom of choice is an “unfreedom” not just because we submit to false needs but because we cannot conceive of needs, of a universe, other than those produced by advanced industrial society –we live in a one-dimensional universe of thought and behavior in which critical thought and oppositional behavior wither away. This allows, Marcuse insists, for totalitarianism to be imposed without terror. How does this total domination happen? Advanced industrial societies and consumerism, Marcuse continues, absorb spheres of existence previously held as separate and private, such as sexuality, into the entire system of social domination. While previously hushed as matters best left behind closed bedroom doors, sex is now openly cycled through the consumption machine, with products, medicines, and magazine articles designed not only to “enhance” your sex life but also telling you what the “best” sex is. Similar to the integrating of the private along with the public into the system of social dominance, we move beyond just integrating “outer” aspects of the individual towards integrating “inner” aspect of the individual –thoughts, emotions, hopes, beliefs- into the system of social domination. Shows like Jerry Springer are testament to this absorption of private and inner aspects where deeply personal matters of life are integrated into the economic machine. Dr. Phil takes this absorption further by not only commodifying personal and sensitive experiences, but by “teaching” and “counseling” the guests and the audience in how to develop “normal” and “healthy” attitudes, behaviors, social relationships, and families, effectively dominating individuals and families across the USA and international audiences. Consumerism further imposes a dictatorship without terror by stabilizing, or masking, class inequalities. By providing members of a lower class with the capacity to consume products for which both lower and upper classes have false needs for, consumerism creates a false sense of equality among the classes. A worker who cannot afford the same essential goods as her boss, like health care, is pacified when she can buy the same unessential material good, like a PS4 or Xbox One. Now that we have built our critique of consumerism as political dominance we’re ready to look at the UK's top 2013 Christmas commercials in part two of this blog. Come back later this week when we’ll talk about warm fuzzy feelings, evil animators, and why Marcuse wants you to have wild sex.   Sources Cited: Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man: studies in ideology of advanced industrial society. (1964). Food for Thought: Drux Flux, an award-wining animated short based on Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man: http://www.nfb.ca/film/drux_flux_en The High Price of Materialism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGab38pKscw Major Works by Marcuse: Eros and Civilization One-Dimensional Man An Essay on Liberation   Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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3

Jingle Tills: Consumerism, Marcuse, and 2013’s Top Holiday Advertisements – Pt 1

Chances are you’ve been spending financially more than you usually do these past few weeks and you’re probably going to spend even more before the month is over -after all, it is the holiday season. Consumerism is a touchy topic and an appropriately timed one as everywhere we’ll go this month we’ll be subjected to the commodified forms of “Christmas spirit” we’ve come to expect. While those in support of consumerism see consumerism as the driving force of our economies and even a form of freedom, those against consumerism are often wary of the detrimental effects to social relations and self-fulfillment arising from an extensive materialism. But can consumerism be used as a means of political control? Well, yeah. But just how powerful is the magnitude of this control? And how does consumerism operate as a dictatorship in the guise of democracy and Christmas joy? Put on your gloves, we’re going to answer these questions by slicing up the UK’s favorite holiday commercials of 2013.

Consumerism, like most words we try to define in this blog series, has a number of definitions. In economic discourses it refers to policies that prioritize an ever-increasing consumption of goods and services. Under these policies, the free choices of consumers determine the answers to questions of what and how goods are produced, and so determine how a society organizes its economic resources. From this understanding derive other definitions of consumerism that recognize the importance of the consumer’s decision-making process. As such some people use the term consumerism to refer to doctrines that hold greater consumption to be beneficial to society and so argue that consumers should be knowledgeable of the marketplace in order to be informed decision makers. From the other side of the coin, however, come definitions of consumerism that refer to trends of selfish acquisition of material goods. These definitions emphasize harmful effects on society caused by greater consumption.

The main argument in support of consumerism argues that, within an unregulated free market, consumerism ultimately empowers the consumer. The freedom of choice available to the consumer provides her with the power to determine what goods will survive on the marketplace and so what goods will be produced from society’s scarce resources. Meaning, power over society’s resources lies in the hands of the consumers and not the producers, or owners of the means of production. The consumer’s freedom to choose what to purchase would also serve as a check-and-balance over the amounts of profits a producer can make, effectively preventing excessive profits because consumers opt for competitive prices. While this seems to make sense in theory, practice often proves otherwise. Often, those who take this stance account for the shortcomings in practice by pointing the finger at government interference within the market. However, this argument also falters in theory if we pry open its cornerstone premise: does an exceedingly vast and diverse range of choices of products translate to a freedom of choice?

There are a number of arguments against consumerism. A socio argument holds that the relationships a person develops with a brand name or a product make up for the lack of healthy social relationships. In a chicken or egg scenario, it can also be argued that the prioritizing of relationships with brands for the sake of their symbolic social status damage human relationships in society. A political argument against consumerism holds that the consumer cannot actually control how a product is made because corporations are not subjected to the same accountability as government institutions. A corporation only answers to its shareholders and not to human rights or democratic principles. And an environmental argument opposed to consumerism critiques the drive for more consumption for the severe damages it inflicts upon the planet through its ever-increasing exhaustion of resources and buildup of pollution. None of these arguments, however, answer our question regarding choice. Within the whirlwind of near infinite products coming off the production belt and the messages put forward by advertisements and pop culture, can we really say we have a freedom of choice? Put on your safety goggles; to satisfactorily critique consumerism, we need to summon the spirit of the radical left. Warning, you might experience flashes of discontent, desires to mobilize, lack of impetus to shave, and the unfolding of historical materialism.

Marcuse’s answer to our question is no. Herbert Marcuse was a German philosopher and political theorist who dedicated the concerns of his works to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism. Associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory and celebrated as the “Father of the New Left”, Marcuse argued that capitalist democracies and soviet states were equally totalitarian. In his famous One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse levies a strong critique against both capitalism and soviet communism, accusing both of creating new forms of social repression and reducing revolutionary potential among people. These news forms of social repressions take the form of consumerism in capitalist democracies.

By proliferating through mass media, advertising, and modes of thought, consumerism creates false needs which engross the individual into the system of production and consumption. The freedom of choice the consumer enjoys, argues Marcuse, is actually an “unfreedom” because the needs she seeks to satisfy are artificially produced by the economic system. These artificial needs induce the consumer to work more in order to buy more, thus entangling her further in the economic system. Moreover, the economic system fosters the idea that happiness can be bought and so causes the individual to misdirect her aspirations towards the consumption of products, and so prompts her to dedicate more of her life to labour hours. This consumption machine continues to churn out while inducing people to ignore the destruction and waste brought on the environment as well as the psychological harm that arises when social meaning and connection are replaced by material items. “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment” (Marcuse, 18). Consumerism, however, blinds people to more than just these damages.

Marcuse argues that there are several dimensions to human existence –several ways of life, several forms cultures can take, orders society can organize into, meanings that can be conceived, and practices to be undertaken to attain those meanings- different to our present dimension of life. And all these dimensions have been eliminated in advanced industrial societies. Under consumerism, we live in a “one-dimensional” universe. The freedom of choice is an “unfreedom” not just because we submit to false needs but because we cannot conceive of needs, of a universe, other than those produced by advanced industrial society –we live in a one-dimensional universe of thought and behavior in which critical thought and oppositional behavior wither away. This allows, Marcuse insists, for totalitarianism to be imposed without terror. How does this total domination happen?

Advanced industrial societies and consumerism, Marcuse continues, absorb spheres of existence previously held as separate and private, such as sexuality, into the entire system of social domination. While previously hushed as matters best left behind closed bedroom doors, sex is now openly cycled through the consumption machine, with products, medicines, and magazine articles designed not only to “enhance” your sex life but also telling you what the “best” sex is. Similar to the integrating of the private along with the public into the system of social dominance, we move beyond just integrating “outer” aspects of the individual towards integrating “inner” aspect of the individual –thoughts, emotions, hopes, beliefs- into the system of social domination. Shows like Jerry Springer are testament to this absorption of private and inner aspects where deeply personal matters of life are integrated into the economic machine. Dr. Phil takes this absorption further by not only commodifying personal and sensitive experiences, but by “teaching” and “counseling” the guests and the audience in how to develop “normal” and “healthy” attitudes, behaviors, social relationships, and families, effectively dominating individuals and families across the USA and international audiences.

Consumerism further imposes a dictatorship without terror by stabilizing, or masking, class inequalities. By providing members of a lower class with the capacity to consume products for which both lower and upper classes have false needs for, consumerism creates a false sense of equality among the classes. A worker who cannot afford the same essential goods as her boss, like health care, is pacified when she can buy the same unessential material good, like a PS4 or Xbox One.

Now that we have built our critique of consumerism as political dominance we’re ready to look at the UK’s top 2013 Christmas commercials in part two of this blog. Come back later this week when we’ll talk about warm fuzzy feelings, evil animators, and why Marcuse wants you to have wild sex.

 

Sources Cited:

Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man: studies in ideology of advanced industrial society. (1964).

Food for Thought:

Drux Flux, an award-wining animated short based on Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man:
http://www.nfb.ca/film/drux_flux_en

The High Price of Materialism:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGab38pKscw

Major Works by Marcuse:

Eros and Civilization
One-Dimensional Man
An Essay on Liberation

 

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Mark Bou Mansour

has studied critical political theory and philosophy over the course of his undergrad and Master’s program, effectively turning his brain into mush. He now finds everyday things utterly fascinating and everywhere he looks he sees grand historical forces at play contingently shaping our worlds. Recently, he has taken a liking to shiny things like smartphones, computers, and web 2.0.



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