12 September 2011

Are we a consumerist society - or a 'producerist' society?

By Rupert Read

We are thoroughly used now to thinking of our society as a ‘consumerist’ society, and of ourselves as, above all, ‘consumers’. This seems to many of us now quite simply an obvious truth, and in some ways a good truth: think of ‘consumer protection’ and ‘consumer rights’ organisations, from Ralph Nader to Which? Think of ‘ethical consumerism’.

But: what if this self-image were in fact both misleading and disastrous? The term ‘consumer’ summons up images of endlessly-open mouths, waiting to be filled with more and more stuff. It evokes ideas of us consuming the resources of the Earth. It figures us as the problem. But what if thinking of ourselves as ‘consumers’ were both to allow and facilitate the consumption of the Earth to continue (even: to mandate its continuation) and to take ourselves as individual consumers to be the primary agents of this consumption? And what if in fact we aren’t its primary agents?

The concept of ‘consumerism’ is extremely useful for those who want to sell us things. Because it then seems as though they are only doing our bidding. We are the agents: they are merely satisfying our wants and needs. This is exactly how mainstream economics characterises the fundamental nature of human exchange: it’s a matter of demand and supply. Supply exists, allegedly, only to satisfy demand.

I say that ‘consumerism’ is a piece of false consciousness, and indeed a tool for our continued and growing enslavement. The real push for us to be ‘consumers’ comes from producers. It is producers who need to sell us stuff, in order to profit – and the most effective way that they can do is to artificially create in us ever-growing ‘needs’. That’s where marketing and advertising come in. Marketing and advertising are the selling arm of the producers’ interests in our society. They are what turns us into consumers. Mainstream economics conceals this truth behind its rhetoric of individual consumers being the ‘pull’ factor at the root of economic exchange. But in fact, it is the ‘push’ factor that dominates – producers push their products at us continually, with thousands of coded messages a day. They even get us to blame ourselves for the disposal of the waste that such endless pushing inevitably creates: you wouldn’t know from listening to government and corporate rhetoric that by far the largest proportion of the ‘waste’ stream comes from corporations, not from households.

Our economy, our system, our world, is not really ‘consumerist’. It is producerist. Capitalism is a producerist system. Its most brilliant product, its greatest — its foundational — achievement and lie, is to produce individuals willing to participate in it, grateful for it, and in ignorance of its real nature. Its ultimate product, that is to say, is: consumers. It makes you and me into/as consumers… Producerism is a system – our system – the crowning achievement of which is to conceal from its workers and its bottom-level clients (those whom it changes in order to sell its products to them – to us) its own real nature, such that it becomes the accepted wisdom – and it even becomes a kind of pseudo-leftist or pseudo-ecological creed – that we live in a ‘consumerist’ society.

Producerism’s subtlest product is consumerism itself, as a hegemonic ideology. ‘Consumerism’ conceals the very great extent to which producerism is hegemonic. The production of consumers, of people as desiring-machines always wanting more, with inexhaustible ‘needs’, allegedly fuelling an endless need to expand the economy (and to eat up more and more of our ecosystems in the process): this is really what producerism is all about.

So long as we think of ourselves as ‘consumers’ we are blaming the victim. What we need to do is to slough off the consumerist self-image, and instead to get clear about who is primarily to blame for the waste, the ecological destruction, the ethicless profit-maximisation, the endless commodification of our world. It isn’t us: it is ‘the market’, capitalism, profiteering producers.
Of course, they aren’t even really producers. It is really workers who produce things, in factories, etc. . Well, actually, even that is an exaggeration. Unlike real plants, strictly-speaking factory-plants don’t ‘produce’ anything! They just re-arrange bits of the Earth, with (ever-larger) inputs of energy. But that’s a story for another occasion. For now, it will be quite enough of a transformation, of a truth-telling, if we can overcome the idea that the degradation of the Earth is our fault.

Don’t blame yourself. Don’t blame ‘consumers’. Blame those who made consumerism: the ad men, and the ‘producers’ for whom they work.

To say it again, in conclusion: the ultimate product of our times – the ultimate work of ad-man genius — is consumerism itself, and each of us (thinking of ourselves) as ‘consumers’. Strictly speaking we live in a producer-ist, not a consumer-ist society.

We need to move beyond the danger in the ‘consumerism’ concept of a widespread blame-culture, which I call blaming the victim. We never seem to pay enough attention to those who light and stoke the fires: the ad-men, the product-designers, etc.

Let’s start to do so.

[This is a revised version of a column that first appeared at BetterNation.]

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