Juliet Schor perceptively describes a complex set of social problems that demand political remedy. But I disagree with her analysis of the new consumerism and, thus, with her proposed remedies.
Analytically, Schor argues that dramatic increases in economic inequality have combined with increasing social comparisons to upscale reference groups in the mass media to produce an intensive quest for upper-middle-class status goods. Widespread participation in this inflated status game has socially destructive results, including environmental degradation, shrinking public provisioning, and an “aspirational gap”–with personal debt spiraling up and personal happiness spiraling down.
As to remedies, Schor’s proposals aim to stem both competitive consumption and its harmful welfare effects. She wants a consumer movement that promotes family, religious, communal, egalitarian, and environmental values rather than status competition. She also calls for taxes on status goods, green taxes and subsidies, and tighter regulations on credit and advertising.
The Postmodern Market
While I share many of Schor’s personal commitments, I don’t think her agenda will work as intended because she has misidentified the basic mechanisms that generate overconsumption and its attendant consequences. What is now driving consumption is not upscale emulation, but–in a word–differentiation.
The contemporary market–let’s call it the “postmodern market”–depends increasingly upon two strategies to increase sales and profits. First, areas of social life that traditionally fell outside the market–health care, education, prisons, religion, the arts, poverty, the environment, caring for the elderly and the dead–are now being brought into the market. Second, consumer identities are being fragmented, proliferated, recombined, and turned into salable goods. Thus, transnational companies compete on how quickly and effectively they can create markets out of new styles, meanings, and experiences produced in public culture. For example, Nike has abandoned the core principle of modern marketing, which advises companies to weave into their advertising only those elements of public culture that are consistent with the distinctive meanings of the brand. Instead, Nike is bent upon attaching the “swoosh” logo to any person, place, or thing that achieves recognition in the popular cultural world of sports. Monopolizing the public channels of meaning creation–grabbing the latest public fashion–is becoming more important than monopolizing particular meanings.
The culture that supports these postmodern market conditions is premised upon an extreme version of consumer sovereignty. The “good life” is not a matter of having a well-defined list of status goods now possessed by wealthy television personalities. Instead, it is an open-ended project of self-creation. The idea is to circulate continually through new experiences, things, and meanings–to play with different identities by consuming the goods and services associated with them. The market promotes a sense of freedom from constraint, an ultimate individuality through commodities. Environmental degradation, the personal debt crisis, and private provisioning are the unhappy results of these unnatural beginnings. As desires become more dynamic and promiscuous, consumption levels soar. Impossibly high incomes (or loads of debt) seem absolutely necessary, but not because we aspire to mimic the status goods of the upper middle class as seen on television. Rather, fountains of money are needed to participate in the postmodern version of the “good life,” in which one pursues enhanced experiences and multiple lifestyles by purchasing their ever-changing props.
If I’m right that postmodern market conditions lead to overconsumption problems, then a different kind of political intervention than the “new politics of consumption” is required. To see why, let’s suppose that Schor’s proposals were instituted. What social changes would result? My analysis suggests the following:
1. Social class is but one of many identities that the market promotes. Thus, if status competition were completely shut down, the market would effortlessly redirect that fraction of market activity devoted to status competition to other kinds of self-definition.
2. The market would find the non- status values that Schor’s agenda encourages and turn them into salable goods. For example, the communitarian lifestyle (Disney’s Rockwellesque Celebration, Florida), the progressive lifestyle (Benetton, Body Shop, Working Assets), the green lifestyle (The Nature Company, Smith & Hawken, Ben & Jerry’s). Challenges to the market from alternative lifestyles can be turned into more grist for the postmodern market.
3. The new politics of consumption agenda would not impact social inequality. Schor assumes that there is a fixed set of “positional goods” that are used to convey status. Yet one of Bourdieu’s most forceful arguments is that social distinction is not produced by a consensual set of status goods, but by socially endowed sensibilities that are expressed through acts of consumption. Historians and sociologists have shown conclusively that status consumption is extremely dynamic, moving easily across goods and categories. So, even if it were possible to limit the consumption of particular goods that are now status symbols, status competition would simply shift to other goods and activities.
A Political Response
If the cause of overconsumption problems is located in the postmodern organization of the market, challenges must aim at market structure–in particular at the processes through which the market recycles public culture as commodities–not the particular goods and services currently for sale. The market will cease to promote postmodern consumer culture only when this strategy becomes more difficult and less profitable (or, alternatively, higher profits are to be had from new strategies). For example, “cultural pilfering” taxes on advertising, sponsorships, tie-in promotions, and public relations expenses would slow the proliferation of commercialized culture. Or, perhaps the process could be hampered by limiting commercial access to the mass media and legislating in favor of more public noncommercial media outlets and fewer private ones (see Bob McChesney’s recommendations for “The Future of the Media,” in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review).
Intervening with market structure rather than market content is also politically preferable. Though Schor understands the elitist, anti-democratic problems inherent in legislating how people should consume, she can’t avoid proposals that dictate consumption patterns because her analysis focuses on commercial content. For example, she calls for legislation favoring mom-and-pop retailers over chains. In my research, I’ve found that working class people absolutely depend upon Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and J. C. Penney’s for inexpensive merchandise of reasonable quality and look forward with great enthusiasm to a celebratory meal at Red Lobster and shopping trips to the local outlet mall. Is it appropriate to discourage these practices in favor of middle-class aesthetics?
We also need a strategy for mobilizing consumers, but based upon different organizing principles than Schor’s. To deflate the motivating force of postmodern consumer culture requires a collective understanding of the linkages between nomadic consumer desires, recombinant consumer identities, and the structure of the postmodern market. As the troubles spawned by the postmodern market continue to grow–and Schor’s figures on credit card debt suggest that the strategy is approaching its limit–it is crucial to anticipate ways to frame this critique of consumerism in a manner that will resonate with a broad audience. Paradoxically, an anti-consumerism movement must adopt sophisticated marketing techniques to have any hope of resonating with people for whom commercial rhetoric has become the dominant vernacular of social life.