The Rebel Sell

If we all hate consumerism, how come we can’t stop shopping?

Photo by Stephen Gregory

Do you hate consumer culture?

Angry about all that packaging? Irritated by all those commercials? Worried about the quality of the “mental environment”? Well, join the club. Anti-consumerism has become one of the most important cultural forces in millennial North American life, across every social class and demographic.

This might seem at odds with the economic facts of the 1990s—a decade that gave us the “extreme shopping” channel, the dot-com bubble, and an absurd orgy of indulgence in ever more luxurious consumer goods. But look at the non-fiction bestseller lists. For years they’ve been dominated by books that are deeply critical of consumerism: No Logo, Culture Jam, Luxury Fever and Fast Food Nation. You can now buy Adbusters at your neighbourhood music or clothing store. Two of the most popular and critically successful films in recent memory were Fight Club and American Beauty, which offer almost identical indictments of modern consumer society.

What can we conclude from all this? For one thing, the market obviously does an extremely good job at responding to consumer demand for anti-consumerist products and literature. But isn’t that a contradiction? Doesn’t it suggest that we are in the grip of some massive, society-wide, bipolar disorder? How can we all denounce consumerism, and yet still find ourselves living in a consumer society?

The answer is simple. What we see in films like American Beauty and Fight Club is not actually a critique of consumerism; it’s merely a restatement of the “critique of mass society” that has been around since the 1950s. The two are not the same. In fact, the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years.

That last sentence is worth reading again. The idea is so foreign, so completely the opposite of what we are used to being told, that many people simply can’t get their head around it. It is a position that Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler, has been trying to communicate for years. Strangely, all the authors of anti-consumerism books have read Frank—most even cite him approvingly—and yet not one of them seems to get the point. So here is Frank’s claim, simply put: books like No Logo, magazines like Adbusters, and movies like American Beauty do not undermine consumerism; they reinforce it.

This isn’t because the authors, directors or editors are hypocrites. It’s because they’ve failed to understand the true nature of consumer society.

*

One of the most talked-about cinematic set-pieces in recent memory is the scene in Fight Club where the nameless narrator (Ed Norton) pans his empty apartment, furnishing it piece by piece with Ikea furniture. The scene shimmers and pulses with prices, model numbers and product names, as if Norton’s gaze was drag-and-dropping straight out of a virtual catalogue. It is a great scene, driving the point home: the furniture of his world is mass-produced, branded, sterile. If we are what we buy, then the narrator is an Allen-key-wielding corporate-conformist drone.

In many ways, this scene is just a cgi-driven update of the opening pages of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. After yet another numbing day selling the MagiPeel Kitchen Peeler, Harry Angstrom comes home to his pregnant and half-drunk wife whom he no longer loves. Harry takes off in his car, driving aimlessly south. As he tries to sort out his life, the music on the radio, the sports reports, the ads, the billboards, all merge in his consciousness into one monotonous, monolithic brandscape.

It may give us pause to consider that while Fight Club was hailed as “edgy” and “subversive” when it appeared in 1999, Rabbit, Run enjoyed enormous commercial success when it was first published—in 1960. If social criticism came with a “sell by” date, this one would have been removed from the shelf a long time ago. The fact that it is still around, and still provokes awe and acclaim, makes one wonder if it is really a criticism or, rather, a piece of modern mythology.

What Fight Club and Rabbit, Run present, in a user-friendly fashion, is the critique of mass society, which was developed in the late 1950s in classic works like William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers (1959) and Paul Goodman’s Growing up Absurd (1960). The central idea is quite simple. Capitalism requires conformity to function correctly. As a result, the system is based upon a generalized system of repression. Individuals who resist the pressure to conform therefore subvert the system, and aid in its overthrow.

This theory acquired such a powerful grip on the imagination of the left during the 1960s that many people still have difficulty seeing it for what it is—a theory. Here are a few of its central postulates:

1. Capitalism requires conformity in the workers. Capitalism is one big machine; the workers are just parts. These parts need to be as simple, predictable, and interchangeable as possible. One need only look at an assembly line to see why. Like bees or ants, capitalist workers need to be organized into a limited number of homogeneous castes.

2. Capitalism requires conformity of education. Training these corporate drones begins in the schools, where their independence and creativity is beaten out of them—literally and figuratively. Call this the Pink Floyd theory of education.

3. Capitalism requires sexual repression. In its drive to stamp out individuality, capitalism denies the full range of human expression, which includes sexual freedom. Because sexuality is erratic and unpredictable, it is a threat to the established order. This is why some people thought the sexual revolution would undermine capitalism.

4. Capitalism requires conformity of consumption. The overriding goal of capitalism is to achieve ever-increasing profits through economies of scale. These are best achieved by having everyone consume the same limited range of standardized goods. Enter advertising, which tries to inculcate false or inauthentic desires. Consumerism is what emerges when we are duped into having desires that we would not normally have.

*

Both Fight Club and American Beauty are thoroughly soaked in the critique of mass society. Let’s look at Fight Club.

Here’s the narrator’s alter ego, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), explaining the third thesis: “We’re designed to be hunters and we’re in a society of shopping. There’s nothing to kill anymore, there’s nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that social emasculation this everyman is created.” And the fourth: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need.” And here he is giving the narrator a scatological summary of the whole critique: “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.”

Fight Club is entirely orthodox in its Rousseauian rejection of the modern order. Less orthodox is its proffered solution, which in the middle and final acts moves swiftly from Iron John to the Trenchcoat Mafia.

A more conventional narrative arc, combined with a more didactic presentation of the critique, can be found in American Beauty, the Oscar-winning companion piece to Fight Club. The two films offer identical takes on
the homogenizing and emasculating effects of mass society, though the heroes differ in their strategies of resistance. Fight Club suggests that the only solution is to blow up the whole machine; in American Beauty, Lester (Kevin Spacey) decides to subvert it from within.

When Lester first starts to rebel against his grey-scale, cookie-cutter life, he begins by mocking his wife’s (Annette Bening) Martha Stewart materialism. Here’s Lester in a voice-over: “That’s my wife, Carolyn. See the way the handle on her pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That’s not an accident.”

Later, Carolyn halts Lester’s sexual advances in order to prevent him from spilling beer on the couch. They fight. “It’s just a couch,” Lester says. Carolyn: “This is a $4,000 sofa upholstered in Italian silk. It is not just a couch.” Lester: “It’s just a couch!” Capitalism offers us consumer goods as a substitute for sexual gratification. Lester strains at the bit.

The relationship between sexual frustration and mass society is a general theme of the movie. Here is Lester giving his family theses one and three over dinner:

Carolyn: Your father and I were just discussing his day at work. Why don’t you tell our daughter about it, honey?

Lester: Janie, today I quit my job. And then I told my boss to go fuck himself, and then I blackmailed him for almost $60,000. Pass the asparagus.

Carolyn: Your father seems to think this type of behaviour is something to be proud of.

Lester: And your mother seems to prefer I go through life like a fucking prisoner while she keeps my dick in a mason jar under the sink.

So what does Lester do to reassert his individuality, his masculinity? He takes a new job. He starts working out. He lusts after, then seduces, his daughter’s friend. He starts smoking pot in the afternoon. In short, he rejects all of the demands that society makes on a man of his age. But does he stop consuming? Of course not. Consider the scene in which he buys a new car. Carolyn comes home and asks Lester whose car that is in the driveway. Lester: “Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I’ve always wanted and now I have it. I rule!”

Lester has thrown off the shackles of conformist culture. He’s grown a dick, become a man again. All because he bought a car. Carolyn’s couch may be “just a couch,” but his car is much more than “just a car.” Lester has become the ultimate consumer. Like a teenager, he consumes without guilt, without foresight, and without responsibility. Meanwhile, Carolyn’s questions about how he intends to make the mortgage payments are dismissed as merely one more symptom of her alienated existence. Lester is beyond all that. He is now what Thomas Frank calls “the rebel consumer.”

*

What American Beauty illustrates, with extraordinary clarity, is that rebelling against mass society is not the same thing as rebelling against consumer society. Through his rebellion, Lester goes from being right-angle square to dead cool. This is reflected in his consumption choices. Apart from the new car, he develops a taste for very expensive marijuana—$2,000 an ounce, we are told, and very good. “This is all I ever smoke,” his teenaged dealer assures him. Welcome to the club, where admission is restricted to clients with the most discriminating taste. How is this any different from Frasier and Niles at their wine club?

What we need to see is that consumption is not about conformity, it’s about distinction. People consume in order to set themselves apart from others. To show that they are cooler (Nike shoes), better connected (the latest nightclub), better informed (single-malt Scotch), morally superior (Guatemalan handcrafts), or just plain richer (bmws).

The problem is that all of these comparative preferences generate competitive consumption. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” in today’s world, does not always mean buying a tract home in the suburbs. It means buying a loft downtown, eating at the right restaurants, listening to obscure bands, having a pile of Mountain Equipment Co-op gear and vacationing in Thailand. It doesn’t matter how much people spend on these things, what matters is the competitive structure of the consumption. Once too many people get on the bandwagon, it forces the early adopters to get off, in order to preserve their distinction. This is what generates the cycles of obsolescence and waste that we condemn as “consumerism.”

Many people who are, in their own minds, opposed to consumerism nevertheless actively participate in the sort of behaviour that drives it. Consider Naomi Klein. She starts out No Logo by decrying the recent conversion of factory buildings in her Toronto neighbourhood into “loft living” condominiums. She makes it absolutely clear to the reader that her place is the real deal, a genuine factory loft, steeped in working-class authenticity, yet throbbing with urban street culture and a “rock-video aesthetic.”

Now of course anyone who has a feel for how social class in this country works knows that, at the time Klein was writing, a genuine factory loft in the King-Spadina area was possibly the single most exclusive and desirable piece of real estate in Canada. Unlike merely expensive neighbourhoods in Toronto, like Rosedale and Forest Hill, where it is possible to buy your way in, genuine lofts could only be acquired by people with superior social connections. This is because they contravened zoning regulations and could not be bought on the open market. Only the most exclusive segment of the cultural elite could get access to them.

Unfortunately for Klein, zoning changes in Toronto (changes that were part of a very enlightened and successful strategy to slow urban sprawl) allowed yuppies to buy their way into her neighbourhood. This led to an erosion of her social status. Her complaints about commercialization are nothing but an expression of this loss of distinction. What she fails to observe is that this distinction is precisely what drives the real estate market, what creates the value in these dwellings. People buy these lofts because they want a piece of Klein’s social status. Naturally, she is not amused. They are, after all, her inferiors—an inferiority that they demonstrate through their willingness to accept mass-produced, commercialized facsimiles of the “genuine” article.

Klein claims these newcomers bring “a painful new self-consciousness” to the neighbourhood. But as the rest of her introduction demonstrates, she is also conscious—painfully so—of her surroundings. Her neighbourhood is one where “in the twenties and thirties Russian and Polish immigrants darted back and forth on these streets, ducking into delis to argue about Trotsky and the leadership of the international ladies’ garment workers’ union.” Emma Goldman, we are told, “the famed anarchist and labour organizer,” lived on her street! How exciting for Klein! What a tremendous source of distinction that must be.

Klein suggests that she may be forced to move out of her loft when the landlord decides to convert the building to condominiums. But wait a minute. If that happens, why doesn’t she just buy her loft? The problem, of course, is that a loft-living condominium doesn’t have quite the cachet of a “genuine” loft. It becomes, as Klein puts it, merely an apartment with “exceptionally high ceilings.” It is not her landlord, but her fear of losing social status that threatens to drive Klein from her neighbourhood.

Here we can see the forces driving competitive consumption in their purest and most unadulterated form.

*

Once we acknowledge the role that distinction plays in structuring consumption, it’s easy to see why people care about brands so much. Brands don’t bring us together, they set us apart. Of course, most sophisticated people claim that they don’t care about brands—a transparent falsehood. Most people who consider themselves “anti-consumerist” are extremely brand-conscious. They are able to fool themselves into believing that they don’t care because their preferences are primarily negative. They would never be caught dead driving a Chrysler or listening to Celine Dion. It is precisely by not buying these uncool items that they establish their social superiority. (It is also why, when they do consume “mass society” products, they must do so “ironically”—so as to preserve their distinction.)

As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, taste is first and foremost distaste—disgust and “visceral intolerance” of the taste of others. This makes it easy to see how the critique of mass society could help drive consumerism. Take, for example, Volkswagen and Volvo advertising from the early 1960s. Both automakers used the critique of “planned obsolescence” quite prominently in their advertising campaigns. The message was clear: buy from the big Detroit automakers and show everyone that you’re a dupe, a victim of consumerism; buy our car and show people that you’re too smart to be duped by advertising, that you’re wise to the game.

This sort of “anti-advertising” was enormously successful in the 1960s, transforming the VW bug from a Nazi car into the symbol of the hippie counterculture and making the Volvo the car of choice for an entire generation of leftist academics. Similar advertising strategies are just as successful today, and are used to sell everything from breakfast cereal to clothing. Thus the kind of ad parodies that we find in Adbusters, far from being subversive, are indistinguishable from many genuine ad campaigns. Flipping through the magazine, one cannot avoid thinking back to Frank’s observation that “business is amassing great sums by charging admission to the ritual simulation of its own lynching.”

*

We find ourselves in an untenable situation  On the one hand, we criticize conformity and encourage individuality and rebellion. On the other hand, we lament the fact that our ever-increasing standard of material consumption is failing to generate any lasting increase in happiness. This is because it is rebellion, not conformity, that generates the competitive structure that drives the wedge between consumption and happiness. As long as we continue to prize individuality, and as long as we express that individuality through what we own and where we live, we can expect to live in a consumerist society.

It is tempting to think that we could just drop out of the race, become what Harvard professor Juliet Schor calls “downshifters.” That way we could avoid competitive consumption entirely. Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking. We can walk away from some competitions, take steps to mitigate the effects of others, but many more simply cannot be avoided.

In many cases, competition is an intrinsic feature of the goods that we consume. Economists call these “positional goods”—goods that one person can have only if many others do not. Examples include not only penthouse apartments, but also wilderness hikes and underground music. It is often claimed that a growing economy is like the rising tide that lifts all boats. But a growing economy does not create more antiques, more rare art, or more downtown real estate, it just makes them more expensive. Many of us fail to recognize how much of our consumption is devoted to these positional goods.

Furthermore, we are often forced into competitive consumption, just to defend ourselves against the nuisances generated by other people’s consumption. It is unreasonable, for example, for anyone living in a Canadian city to own anything other than a small, fuel-efficient car. At the same time, in many parts of the North America, the number of big SUVs on the road has reached the point where people are forced to think twice before buying a small car. The SUVs make the roads so dangerous for other drivers that everyone has to consider buying a larger car just to protect themselves.

This is why expecting people to opt out is often unrealistic; the cost to the individual is just too high. It’s all well and good to say that SUVs are a danger and shouldn’t be on the road. But saying so doesn’t change anything. The fact is that SUVs are on the road, and they’re not about to disappear anytime soon. So are you willing to endanger your children’s lives by buying a subcompact?

Because so much of our competitive consumption is defensive in nature, people feel justified in their choices. Unfortunately, everyone who participates contributes just as much to the problem, regardless of his or her intentions. It doesn’t matter that you bought the SUV to protect yourself and your children, you still bought it, and you still made it harder for other drivers to opt out of the automotive arms race. When it comes to consumerism, intentions are irrelevant. It is only consequences that count.

This is why a society-wide solution to the problem of consumerism is not going to occur through personal or cultural politics. At this stage of late consumerism, our best bet is legislative action. If we were really worried about advertising, for example, it would be easy to strike a devastating blow against the “brand bullies” with a simple change in the tax code. The government could stop treating advertising expenditures as a fully tax-deductible business expense (much as it did with entertainment expenses several years ago). Advertising is already a separately itemized expense category, so the change wouldn’t even generate any additional paperwork. But this little tweak to the tax code would have a greater impact than all of the culture jamming in the world.

Of course, tweaking the tax code is not quite as exciting as dropping a “meme bomb” into the world of advertising or heading off to the latest riot in all that cool mec gear. It may, however, prove to be a lot more useful. What we need to realize is that consumerism is not an ideology. It is not something that people get tricked into. Consumerism is something that we actively do to one another, and that we will continue to do as long as we have no incentive to stop. Rather than just posturing, we should start thinking a bit more carefully about how we’re going to provide those incentives.

The Rebel Sell will appear in book-length this September from HarperCollins. Click here to order a copy from Amazon.ca

You can also order this book from Amazon.com. The American title is Nation of Rebels.

Joseph Heath is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is the author of The Efficient Society: Why Canada is as Close to Utopia as it Gets, published by Penguin Canada in 2001.

Andrew Potter has taught philosophy at the University of Toronto and at Trent University in Peterborough. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre de Recherche en Ethique at the Universite de Montreal.