Ideologies about consumption and the consumer in the market economy
Glorifying capitalism as an “affluent society” and employing “consumer power” against “consumerism” and its “excesses”
Preface on the objective role of consumption in capitalism
Curious but revealing messages are in circulation about consumption. For example, it often must be “stimulated.” Consumption is actually demanded to get growth going. That already says a lot. Under capitalism, supply is obviously not the purpose, nor is production the means to provide needs with the desired goods. It’s the other way around: consumptive need is the means to advance the purpose of corporate growth. Therefore, one entity by no means comes into consideration as a stimulus of growth: the income of the working population that determines the capacity to consume and the amount of sales on the market of consumer goods. Instead, consumer confidence and the shopping mood are nourished, and the consumer is supplied with optimism rather than rumors about the crisis so that he strains his savings or credit cards for additional purchases. That's a contribution of consumption to growth that does no harm to balance sheets. The reason for these oddities lies in the companies’ prevailing calculations. On the market, people's incomes are in demand as a means for realizing the turnover of commodities, and in this respect they can't be big enough. On the other hand, the same income is a labor cost in the company account, a necessary expenditure for profit that reduces profit at the same time and is therefore calculated to be as low as possible. The condition for finding a job is that the employees deliver more in money than they themselves cost. Consumption therefore is not only a limited quantity, always too small for the demanded turnover of commodities. It is also a factor limiting profit; so increasing it for more sales is out of the question. All the same, growth gets going. Not only because the capitalists’ advances, separate from the wage factor, as well as their own upscale consumption, contribute their bit to demand. With credit, they free themselves additionally from the limits of the market in order to finance their growth. This corporate calculation, which the income is subject to, itself determines the whole purpose of the capitalist economy. The profit calculation decides what, how and how much is produced as well as the quality and price of the product. The expenditure for each product must bring about a surplus. In this accumulation of monetary wealth, the livelihood of the employees constitutes one element that remains limited to the narrow confines of a mere reproduction of their ability to work. Not only in Marx’s books, but also in reality, this mode of economy sticks to the principle according to which labor doesn't make one rich, but — at best — brings in the cost of living. Consumption is in every respect a dependent variable of capitalist production. It defines not only the extent, nature and price of goods, but also the income of the consumers, which is solely what enables them to consume.
In organizing his consumption, the individual of course enjoys every possible freedom. He can choose between products of the same or different type and compare them in quality or design. He is even the sole authority that decides on the act of purchase, admittedly under specifications dictated on the one hand by his own needs and the product range of the suppliers and on the other hand by his wallet and commodity prices. Many an alternative in the product range turns out to be doing without: either a holiday or a new car. For larger purchases, the consumer is free to save: doing without today, consumption tomorrow. If he doesn't like that, he can also exercise his freedom in the opposite direction and shop on credit: consumption today, doing without tomorrow, because payments must be made, too. And at the end of all the calculations and computations, there is a happy coincidence for the creator of this accounting system that preserves the consumer's freedom as well as his problem: the spent income will have flowed back into the tills of those who are so stingy with it and advance it again for their profit. The cycle can start again, that of capital and that of the consumer, who again has to earn himself an income which at best enables him to go back to work, thus to reproduce himself.
Of course, the consumer also has his own thoughts considering the private sphere of consumption and pleasure. In his comparing and choosing in the world of commodities, he actually only makes one decision, namely his. He takes poetic license, however, to interpret this in such a way that he is the one who decides. Of all things, the dependent variable of capitalist production fancies himself to be the master of the procedure whom the whole economy serves. This simple but false self-confidence of ordinary “consumers” would probably be the end of the matter if public and scientific experts, with their more or less elaborate contributions, didn’t add their fanciful manner to the glossing-over of things, enhancing it further and further. The ideological intention, however, is so die-hard that no experience to the opposite, accessible to everyone, can thwart it. In the past couple of decades, journalists and social scientists have publicly been paying attention to growing child poverty in the country, counting the increasing number of welfare recipients. They welcome “soup kitchens” to feed the poor as an innovative way to fight the expiration date on food. Meanwhile, there are enough hungry people in every city who are grateful for this generous act of disposal of products that have passed the “best consumed by” date. And at the same time, the same people, unmoved, uphold the legend of the “affluent society” which we all live in and which even promotes the average Joe consumer up to “king customer.”
But consumption also meets criticism — not of its shabby condition, but of a too-much of it. People who do not quite know how to make ends meet with their income somehow find themselves in an “affluent society.” And, depending on one’s moral sensitivity, effects are ascribed to abundance that should call each modern consumer's sense of responsibility into action. Dioxin in food, agricultural workers poisoned by pesticides, child labor in the Third World, the impact on the climate by the global transport of goods: these are abuses that the consumer should change his mind about: unfortunately, not about the purpose and character of a production that brings about these things, but about himself and his “consumer power.” Because by purchasing, he is involved in the system, he is expected to regard his consumption as cause of these evils and to correct them once again by purchasing. This is ineffective in practice and as theoretically misguided as the mentioned versions of praise and blame for the “consumer society.” That deserves an explanation.
The “affluent society”: functional needs as proof of a good life
The advocates of this praise attest that this economic mode is about the production of useful goods for a good quality lifestyle full of pleasure; that it is about material wealth that deserves the name prosperity and is made available, in principle, to all members of society. That is what the image of an “affluent society” portrays. The inventors of this image take note of money and its increase, around which capitalistic competition really revolve, yet only upside down, namely as if money simply estimated material wealth and opened access to it, as if it were the means for production and distribution of the results of production. Of course, only for those who have money. Anyone who doesn’t have any must find an entrepreneur whom he enriches with his labor. Whether this succeeds is questionable and depends on the profit calculation of the companies. Millions of members of the affluent society are without work and income. When this succeeds, it is profit, the companies’ objective, that determines what the efforts of the less well-off will come to. That means wages calculated with a narrow margin that people might be able to live on, but on which nobody would really like to live. The sigh that at least one's own children might someday have it better has still not died out in working class households. Money, after all, is not a helpful means for access to the nice things in life, but rather the purpose of capitalistic business. Its increase by the labor of those without property is the goal and criterion for using them, and the payment of wages commits them to merely maintaining their wage-laborer’s existence, i.e., to being excluded from the growing wealth they have to produce. The accessories of a modern worker’s household, which usually are paraded as evidence of the prosperity of the average consumer, simply reveal this.
Unquestionably, an array of goods that did not even exist at the beginnings of “industrial society,” much less be accessible to workers, is on offer today to the modern employee. It is certainly deniable that this circumstance justifies the honorary title “affluent society,” which capitalism has adorned itself with for more than half a century. The cars, freezers, or plasma screen televisions that are sighted in working class households have to serve as evidence. As if a mobile working population would be able to work flexibly in regard to where and when they work in “flexible companies” without having a set of wheels. The narrow window of time that still remains after an exhausting workday for handling the food question requires, for the purpose of saving time, stockpiling, which can't be done without refrigerators and other technical devices. The fact that the performance required in a modern job exhausts its holder without him getting a handsome reward goes well with the offers of the home electronics entertainment industry. A TV is just right for filling the little piece of recreational time that still remains after completing the necessities of reproduction for the next workday. In comparison to mighty cultural deeds outside the home, the home theater is first of all time saving. Second, the passive consumption of moving images does not demand too much of the remnants of fitness and attention, which are at best leftovers from facing the demands of work. And third, the thing is still significantly cheaper than Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, and is thus commensurate with the modest salary of a wage earner. The quantities time, energy, and money out of which the constraints of the wage worker’s existence are composed have become the target of a business-minded industry.
The praise of the affluent society is false precisely in that it gives the seal of a good life to pure necessities for fulfilling the functions of an employee’s existence. Certainly, even those goods that were once counted as luxury goods, such as prawns, have found their way into the commodity basket of ordinary employees. But what does this prove? Actually, only this: the productivity of labor has advanced so enormously that one pound of quality shrimp gets produced in ever fewer wage minutes and therefore the food industry can even take advantage of proletarian incomes for achieving profitable prices in this commodity segment. There is only one thing that the growth of productivity does not provide in this society: less labor time for the production of ever more and newer products does not provide workers with more free time and better access to goods. Modern employees must still put in around forty hours of effort per week for a wage which, for many, challenges their art of making ends meet and does not even cover necessities. The advantage of growing productivity lies one-sidedly on the side of business people, not working people. Capitalist growth and prosperity for all are thus not to be confused.
“The customer is king”: everything under control
The spin doctors of the best of all worlds want to know nothing of all this, however. With the fictitious figure of the king in every customer, they take the legend of the “affluent society” to even another level. With the extensive range of capital’s products, people should not only see themselves well served, the grand metaphor even presents the customer as the real master of production. He determines its content and its direction, the what, how and how much. Borrowed from economic theory, the act of purchase is interpreted as the voting procedure by which the customers, with the help of their banknotes, create signals and set the course for products and services desired in the future.
This really misses the truth. First, the metaphor of the king who is in every customer misses the mark, because the king must have been previously busy in the role of the pawn who offers his services for increasing others’ money because he himself has no money, hence must earn some. Only then can he carry out an act of purchase with his banknotes. And this is subsequently interpreted by the experts as a voting procedure, in which needs speak up in order to dictate their production targets. The named condition, however, runs counter to the alleged purpose of the procedure. Not needs, but only the need capable of paying counts. Where money is lacking, basic needs, such as for housing, fall by the wayside and the most absurd needs, such as for genital jewelry or a handmade Maserati, get their turn, provided they have the cash. Needs in the purely objective sense of the word are thus not an end, but a means, and indeed for the profitable sale of the offered commodities. Therefore, the limiting condition — capable of payment — is what really matters!
Once equipped with buying power, the consumer is indeed a figure that may feel like a king, because he is cared about by the world of big commerce. With elaborate advertising, the business world plays up to the customer, but not because they have his benefit in mind, but his useful potential, namely his buying power. There are, however, some lessons to learn from the fact that large companies that already complain about their extremely high production costs still have huge sums to spare for the advertising industry. First, namely this: for realizing the wide offers in commodities from various suppliers, the customers’ buying power is a terribly limited quantity that does not render the required turnover and profit for the entire amount of commodities. For exactly this reason, there is a battle raging with the weapons of advertising for this buying power in order to steer it into their own coffers. This circumstance does not in the least make the legend of the affluent society more tenable: measured against the growing commodity wealth of consumer goods, the monetary means of access in the hands of those who have produced all that in factories is simply too modest. And the immense effort, which seeks to define fashions or set trends not only by means of advertising, but also by inventing ever newer products and modern designs, shows another aspect: needs are not at all the autonomous quantity which predetermines the sort and amount of desired goods, as implied in the metaphor of the customer king. It’s the other way around: needs are largely determined in their content by the universe of commodities by which companies fight for the buying power of potential customers. Modern food chemistry creates innovative foods with flavor enhancers, substitutes or light products, the IT industry creates physical-technological novelties with cell phones or iPods which consumers never dreamt of before. Now they are here, newly awakened and defined needs, but alas not to attend to them, but to ask people for cash.
The larger public is of course short of cash. But this does not necessarily embarrass the business world. More likely the king customer has a problem, not because he is ignored, but rather because he is served, namely, with a product that is just as threadbare as his buying power, for which it is specially tailored. That leads, for instance, to the interesting question in the art of automotive engineering: how much car can one build for $3,000? It is no secret why, given the wide range of cars with all the comforts and genuine security technology, the cheap $3,000 version is needed. Here, with a Nissan or a VW, the profitable price is not deduced from the expenditure for the production of a useful thing. It’s the other way around; all the companies and their engineers derive the absolutely necessary and, above all things, expendable qualities of the use-value from the level of buying power they target and attempt to scoop on the market, so that also the major customer segment with lower wage incomes can be exploited for the profitable sale of the pared-down, cheap clunker. But the ideology of the customer as king represents the world upside down: something for everyone! Even the desires of the poorest people are, thanks to the market, heard in big production. As if it weren’t visible in this desire that it is not freely chosen, but is instead in essence formed through its capitalistic use.
What is more, the inventors of the fictitious character “consumer king” in the end involuntarily admit what kind of a laughing stock they have set into this world. Consumer protection agencies and advisory services give tips in various test booklets on how customers can protect themselves from the apparently omnipresent junk offered on the shelves. Internet sites for price comparisons are in demand so that the king is not ripped off by every idiot. Packaging and labeling regulations require that information be given, at least in small print, about which chemical or genetically engineered attacks his organism could possibly be faced with after consumption. In short, modern consumers find themselves surrounded by a horde of competing business people who pounce not only on their purse, but even on their health and safety with various products. Companies of course know about this type of enlightened customer, turning to a new sales strategy: “I won’t be fooled” is the slogan for instance of a German company for consumer electronics to make itself stand out from the crowd of competitors, with the telling hint that this company doesn’t think the customer is stupid. It after all knows the business sector in which it wants to succeed.
“Consumerism” and its “excesses”
It doesn’t stop with a praise of consumption. Consumption also meets with widespread criticism by modern citizens. Unfortunately, they have nothing against the shabby state of consumption, but criticize an alleged excess of it: “consumerism”. It is interesting where this opulence is sighted. Not in the establishments of Larry Ellison, Donald Trump and other rich people, but in the households of ordinary mortals who in the name of economic competitiveness have for decades been offered one wage cut after another. But the enlightened consumer knows how to swallow the lowering of his standard of living with the gain of a new insight, which makes people sit up: “You just don't need a lot!” — namely, more or less everything that is taken away: does everybody really need a car or isn’t carpooling enough? Isn’t the vacation replaceable by a “stay-cation”? Not even the food habits of an entire working population are spared from such considerations, and meat consumption is back to being a dispensable, because superfluous, matter. All material goods for a good life are abundantly available, but just not available for the majority in the form of a commodity wealth from which they are excluded for lack of financial resources. And in such a world, which could provide all the pleasures of life, the working population is nailed down to the tough standard of what is existentially indispensable, what they simply need. The general acceptance that this view of things has found proves once again that more than pure necessity has never been intended in the supply of things, nor asked for. When cutting down on alleged opulence, it is at any rate not prosperity that is meant to be kept back.
Declaring the reputed opulence in the ordinary consumer’s commodity basket to be something to renounce is not the last word. Its size is additionally and very categorically held responsible for a lot of the evils in the world of the market economy. If it comes to light that the footballs of large sporting goods companies are a product of Southeast Asian child labor, that pesticides in organic products not only ruin vegetables, but also the day laborers on Moroccan plantations and the drinking water of the region, or even that the CO2 emissions from a sprawling transportation of commodities by land and water warm the blue planet and its climate, then mainstream and alternative opinion-makers discover irresponsibility and exploitation: without fail, in the first instance, where the relevant state of course has already come into disrepute for other reasons. While the human drudgery of decent suppliers from Asia or South America gets away with a mild reprimand, if it is ever mentioned at all, the same process in states such as China, Venezuela or Sudan always has the stuff of a scandal. But this does not complete the list of perpetrators: who — one wonders — enables slave-drivers and environmental sinners to be so irresponsibly greedy? Of course, the consumer who buys the products of their lousy business practices; in particular, strictly speaking, the poor consumer who cannot afford intelligent products of decent quality and yet wants to be served. It’s no wonder that his demand — that cannot be satisfied in a decent way — is used by irresponsible producers for their irresponsible businesses.
More and more, cheaper, faster, further — with such comparatives, an excess in production and supply is attributed to what in reality follows from their principle. Child labor and day labor are cheap, pesticides increase crop yields, and the globe-spanning transportation of manufactured commodities opens markets and buying power. But now this is suddenly called exploitation. The latter has of course long since taken place in everyday operations, but passes by without objection and therefore without name-calling. Here, however, the taboo word is appropriate because in accordance with the taste of the public, the cited cases breach the legal and moral bounds within which exploitation is not even found. That, but only that, counts as scandalous.
“Consumer power” strikes back
The general surprise with which consumers notice these scandals refutes the cultivated image of the customer king with his authority over what capitalist firms do right away. He doesn’t have a clue about what now outrages him, much less did he order it. As a market participant, he is completely the dependent variable, not only in terms of his disposable income that his employer’s calculation lets him have, but also in terms of the quality and production process of the commodities offered for sale. Everything that incurs the label “excess” deserves, of course, to be fought against by responsible consumers. This starts with their own health, which must be protected from the escapades of the food industry, and goes on to take the huge step to take on responsibility for the entire rest of the world. Ultimately, even climate and justice in the Third World must be rescued by responsible consumer behavior. To this end, a consumer has to remember his “power.” Whatever runs wrong within companies according to the judgment of the audience will be fixed: strangely enough, not by changing production, but by changing consumption. An ethically conscious shopper shuns morally tainted products and will pay any price if it goes into the coffers of the right people.
The agreed standard with the upscale public is, of course, purchasing organic products only because various scandals of Mad Cow disease, rotten meat, and salmonella eggs in big supermarket chains and discount stores reverberate to this day. This also counts as a triumph of lived consumer power. The fact that “healthy food” could ever become a special label of food production already speaks volumes. Apparently, it is not taken for granted in capitalism that food should be healthy rather than detrimental. But, for a certain extra charge, health is supposed to be for purchase, allegedly in organic stores. The appeal to the health-consciousness and conscience of the consumers certainly already suffers from the fact that most do not have the buying power necessary for it. For it is just the same sort of entrepreneurs who on the one side equip their wage income so skimpily who on the other side supply the market with such unhealthy food. Nevertheless, the ethical consciousness of healthy living and responsible consumption, which responds to the shabby effects of capitalist production, is also increasingly hip among the masses. It can therefore be used in reverse as a means of business for just this industry. The big supermarket chains do not let this market escape them and stock their shelves with organics on a large scale. A respectable profit from the limited buying power of targeted customers can even be made in the organic sector, if only costs are reduced accordingly. Thus organic producers have recently been buying up chicken feed in the Ukraine, which, with its sensationally low prices, is beneficial for the balance sheets and with its dioxin less good in organic eggs. That’s why the largest suppliers of organic vegetables have their products produced by day laborers in Morocco, who work for practically nothing, and make the local residents do without affordable drinking water with the enormous water-consumption of their plantations.
Anyone who cares about the climate — another example — and raises the improvement of his private CO2 balance to the crux of responsible consumption, will — if he lives in northern Europe — cease to consume asparagus from Mediterranean countries because it has a record for requiring too much carbon dioxide for these long transport routes. Better to buy the vegetable from local farmers who will free a consumer’s conscience from CO2 pollution — at least to the extent that transportation is concerned. The local farmer’s business model, however, sends masses of East-European migrant workers with their CO2 clunkers skidding over the highways, so that they can bring in the harvest for a pittance. Regardless of whether the scandal is located more in the massive debris of combustion engines or in the bad treatment of human resources, it is obviously not so easy for a consumer to thwart a business calculation that he does not want to attack.
Some people feel their sense of justice challenged when the logos of major coffee roasters make them discover the poverty of South American plantation workers who deliver their coffee beans for a few pesos to the big sellers. Then, consumer power strikes very hard with “Fair Trade” — voluntarily paying one, two dollars more per pound in order to show the market for once what a fair price really looks like. What these consumers simply overlook is the fact that the price in the much-lauded “free play of market forces” is not compatible with fairness. The seller wants to achieve a high, not a fair price. The buyer is interested in a low price, rather than a fair one. Whoever has the upper hand will win in this struggle. That’s how profits are achieved, or else losses. Prices are just not there to bring about a balance that reconciles the conflicting interests of both market participants, making each of them succeed. Setting a good example doesn’t help here because the example misses the point. It’s almost an irony to present the voluntary renunciation of the well-meaning who fork over a few dollars more for their coffee as an example of practiced consumer power. It does after all not harm a hair of the big corporations whose practices are branded as unfair. They are not replaced, but complemented, by a niche business that is based on the readiness of some customers to donate and comes and goes with it.
Such examples are proof of a principle, and this consists in a mistake inherent in the idea of the consumer’s power: without the purchasing act by the consumer, the entrepreneur can’t bring in his profit; that’s why with the act of buying, the consumer has the company in his hand, because by changing to a new seller he is able to blackmail the old one into good behavior, unfolding disciplining effects for the whole rest of the industry. The condition for the success of the company, the purchase of the commodity, becomes the cause for the company’s strategy and for influencing it. This is a mix-up with dire consequences. Only by awarding another company does the consumer deny his purchase to the company that he discredits. This may have an effect, but by no means that which consumer power attributes to itself. In this way, the turnover of one company may suffer, while that of the others grows for the same reason. In changing his intention to buy, the consumer has remained completely within the playing court in which the many bemoaned excesses have taken place in the first place. The same financial calculation which was the cause for the ugly consequences can’t simultaneously be the remedy against it.
The fact that the fans of consumer power do not want to notice this contradiction comes from their denying to see their enemy by no means in business, but rather in irresponsible business. For them, the world of commerce falls into good and bad companies, into those that act morally and others that lack these attitudes. They have no objection whatsoever against profit, but a lot against profit greed. And with this of view of things, the honor of the capitalistic calculation in companies is saved in a way that it does not deserve. In this way, not the profit calculation itself, but an excessive or irresponsible attitude towards it, is made responsible for every evil. However, an entrepreneur does not have to have evil intentions to fire half the staff or palm off illegal day laborers with low wages. Such measures are an imperative of the economic reason that counts in this country. In lowering the costs, made possible by such measures, a company asserts itself on the market against its competitors through the price reduction of the commodity in order to secure the profit, sometimes even the very existence of the company.
The change that the consumer carries out in exercising his consumer power is not between two different company philosophies. In truth, he only exchanges his own disappointment for the new hope that the new supplier might behave better than the old one. His boycott of the busted wrongdoer is based only on his bad experience. And that is the only advantage the newly cherished company has over the wrongdoer: this bad experience hasn’t been made yet. This morality of modern consumers against excesses of commerce and trade has, of course, gone down well with the companies and promptly been turned into a business model for trade. Big fashion brands are courting this special clientele with the guarantee to refrain from using child labor and toxic substances in their textiles. Fast-food chains are luring with the promise not to process genetically modified ingredients in their burgers. What they are doing with their kitchen workers was still unknown when the article went to press.
From praising the “consumer society” to criticizing the consumer
The performance record of consumer power is modest. On the credit side, there is one thing above all: the effect that this idea has on the self-esteem of its supporters. They have shown responsibility and have nothing to blame themselves for. That the intended objective effects on the market fail to appear is guaranteed by the principle of production, which remains untouched. The mode of calculation that counts every expenditure as a cost that needs to be justified by profit remains in force in the organic sector and in other ethically guided enterprises. The poor treatment of people and nature therefore does not die out even in the sectors that sophisticated consumers consider to be the premium-segments of morally inspired production. People have become accustomed to the fact that the ones from whom they “never would have expected such a thing” are also — and especially — responsible for the big scandals of our times.
Hardly anybody learns from this experience, however. For that, a revision of the fictitious notion of the market-economy world of consumption would be necessary. The customer is not only well-served in principle, he is even the authority who — because of his shopping behavior and purse — functions as ideal client. Every excess or misdemeanor discovered from this false, but well-meaning theoretical basis could — according to this philosophy — be put right again by the power of responsible consumers. When this effect fails to appear in the face of daily horror scenarios, it must undoubtedly be the customer who is to blame, as his permanent bad shopping behavior and his stinginess creates a business opportunity for the “black sheep” amongst the many good suppliers in the first place.
Every newspaper proves this to be true. Why does the climate go down the drain? Because the consumer is too idle, doesn’t leave his car in the garage and won’t turn down the heat. Why do people suffer hunger in the Third World? Because the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere just can't get enough and are rolling in prosperity, even if the salesperson at Walmart does not notice it. Why don’t food scandals die out? Because the consumer is stingy and prefers to spend his money on an expensive car instead of investing in healthy organic food. Anyone who expects a pound of meat for two dollars has virtually ordered rotten meat.
So much for the bad opinion of the consumer, which is where the good opinion of capitalism as a service to customers inevitably lands. So the “customer king” in the end enjoys a double role. As a consumer, he may thank capitalism for an achievement that is not in its program: supply. And it is his excessive demands and lack of responsibility that can be blamed for the harmful effects that capitalist growth does have on nature and health, because profit is its goal and not supply.
© GegenStandpunkt 2010