The question that could be posited is whether articles like this, writers like Naylor actually reinforce the very behavior they seek to expose; since ostensibly bringing the matter to public attention may increase the value of the one-percenters, the distinction and status they enjoy. The theory of Thomas Frank is that the central force responsible for turning the consumerist wheel, the old wheel of retailing, now the wheel of consumption, is not the consumer’s wish to conform, but that their spending patterns become a reflection of their sense of individuality, somehow permeating the fluid notion of self-worth. The common error in attacking the 1% gang is attributing to them a unique wrong set of values which negates a dynamic that runs more profoundly. By extension, rebels and outcasts, the iconoclasts, the budding bourgeois, have a correct set of values, since they are too street smart to be duped by the system and its consumerist entreaties are are therefore inherently incapable of even unconsciously advocating consumerism. Realistically, consumerism is a behavior pattern and not a set of values- just think of the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments- and our non-conforming rebel consumers engage in comparative practices- the construction of the cool identity- so their buying behavior produces in its own way, a consumerist pattern.
From Rick Salutin:Tom Naylor’s hour has struck. It is the hour of the 1 per cent.
Naylor’s day job is as an economist at McGill University in Montreal. But his secret identity — about as secret as any superhero’s — is Muckraker, a heroic figure reaching back to crusading journalists during the robber baron age in the U.S. Their Canadian avatar was Gustavus Myers, also an American, with his acidic A History of Canadian Wealth (1914). Naylor rakes Canadian and global muck joyously yet assiduously — not a contradiction if you’re happy in your work.
… This status based consumption can also be viewed as part of a devitalization of experience. An empty form. Boredom of repetition. Consumption as an abstract noun. A concept. Significantly, the term “tormenting reference mechanism” is fitting. Every new activity, new electronics, better wine, etc. becomes shorn of vitality, increasingly spiritless and disengaged. In a self-defeating loop, there is an inability to let go, to overcome the ho-hum, the inertia and give in to experience….
Thirty-six years ago he wrote a History of Canadian Business during its formative phase, arguing it acquired its fatal habits of subservience to foreign money from the start. Lately he’s written on organized crime, calling it mostly disorganized, and debunking the myths of the Mafia. What really riles him is the criminal (or should be) activities of high international finance today. The robber barons at least produced real things that people used. Today’s banksters and hedgies produce only “instruments” and “derivatives.” They’re the scammiest….
…His new book, the one that chimes with the times, is called Crass Struggle. It’s based on “a quantum leap in sheer numbers of those loaded with loot. The emergence of this band of socially insecure parvenus vying for status with an established überclass dramatically intensifies the traditional competition for ‘bragging rights’ that propels the market for collectibles (and other luxuries) forward.” That’s an example of the vigour of his writing. The appalling esthetics and detestable ethics of the 1 per cent seem to energize, not deplete him….
The theory, as unraveled by Thomas Frank of Baffler fame,is that critiques of consumerism like that of the Naylor book, are actually used as a way to sell luxury goods. Frank’s central observation, with some added sauce from Thorstein Veblen, is wanting to stand out in the crowd, the luminous figure in David Reisman’s Lonely Crowd, the lone rebel, the individualist, the Ayn Rander, is an intrinsically positional good. A concept. The rebel, the individualist as Ready-Made following Duchamp’s conception, and he or she want nothing better than to take a good leak in the urinal on the rest of us as a way
xpressing distinction. It’s the Duchamp concept of disruption, shock of the new and eventually schlock of the kitsch that keeps people moving on this circuit training of spending. Of course, their are other complex factors, such as our nebulous theories of what liberty and freedom actually are, and the often insidious manner in which so-called bourgeois values actually lead to greater restraint…
… If everyone else is going to be wearing a suit and tie, then showing up in casual dress is a way to appear more relaxed, personable, and fun than everyone else. If everyone has an Oldsmobile, then driving a bug makes you stand out; it seems fresh, hip, cool (or as we would now say: irreverent, quirky, edgy). Of course, when everyone else joins in the rebellion, the effect is lost. So the individualist has to come up with some new way to stand out from the crowd. And, often enough, this will involve buying something new. Thus individualism generates its own cycles of obsolescence, and generates its own form of competitive consumption. Read More:http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~jheath/hip%20consumerism.pdf
Salutin: It’s a brilliant strategy: focusing not on their depredations, but their pretensions: the cant of high income conmen full of their own superiority who try to prove it with their haute tastes and styles, like “the 25-year-old financial whiz kid waxing eloquent over the bouquet of a 1945 Mouton-Rothschild or a 1947 Cheval Blanc in a glass he waved under a nose whose septum had been burned out by cocaine.” Or like an epicure I know who proudly serves you “the third most expensive Chablis in the world.” Feel free to add your own version of the archetype, based on personal experience. Dwelling on affectations rather than their (almost never prosecuted) felonies, is a delicious form of revenge….Read More:http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1095798–salutin-mr-1-per-cent-meets-his-match
Within a larger context, the consumption patterns that are decried by Naylor are part of what can be termed the absence of presence,the problematical void, its non-existence being what Martin Buber categorized as an I-thou relation. The world, society, charges at us with great velocity,heightened by technological platforms of dissemination, but at the same it comes at us time in a remote manner, not Levinas and his face to face encounter; it comes to us masked and violent but without contact and impulse. there is no encounter with the individual soul, just a hovering cloud of coldness, a world without vibrancy and relatedness. Without engagement and devoid of conversation, animating principle. Spiritless. Nothingness. Does reality exist beyond that which appears to the senses whose reliability is increasingly not credible and consistently undermined. The precarious and frightening aspect is that humanity is to a large extent the creator, the initiator and perpetuator of this very reality to which we presuppose ourselves to be simply observing, and criticizing. The effect of a mirror within a mirror. And what is mirrored is just Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.
Heath:Thus the classic critique of consumerism, expressed in the ‘countercultural idea’, becomes the primary mechanism through which cultural elites express distinction, and assign low status to the consumption choices of the majority.
According to Frank, this is how rebellion became the new form of consumerism: No longer would Americans buy to fit in or impress the Joneses, but to demonstrate that they were wise to the game, to express their revulsion with the artifice and conformity of consumerism. The enthusiastic discovery of the counterculture by the branches of American business studied here marked the consolidation of a new species of hip consumerism, a cultural perpetual-motion machine in which disgust with the falseness, shoddiness, and everyday oppressions of consumer society could be enlisted to drive the ever-accelerating wheels of consumption. Thus striving to be a rebel, or a non-conformist, now plays the same
role in sustaining consumerist behavior patterns that ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ played in the 1950s. In both cases, agents are attempting to achieve positional goods through consumption. In both cases, this behavior is collectively self-defeating, but generates a cycle of competitive consumption that is quite beneficial for those supplying the relevant consumer goods. Read More:http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~jheath/hip%20consumerism.pdf
…Not only do people often choose to work overtime hours, but many of the chronically ‘overworked’ are professionals who exercise considerable discretion in setting their schedules. In any case, none of this could explain ‘overspending’, since all consumption beyond a certain basic margin of need has a self-evidently voluntary character. The solution to the puzzle, according to Schor, lies in the fact that many consumer goods have primarily comparative value. People use their paycheques not only to purchase goods that are intrinsically desirable, but also to acquire what economists sometimes refer to as ‘positional goods’. A positional good is one which derives some significant fraction of its value from a comparison with others. (In Bourdieu’s terms, any good that expresses distinction would be positional.) Sometimes owning the good is used to secure a position, sometimes the good itself is intrinsically positional. For example, wanting to receive an above average grade in a class is positional, because it amounts to wanting a better grade than (roughly) the majority of other students. Whether or not one achieves this goal therefore depends upon how many others fail to achieve it (in a way that, for instance, aspiring to get a B does not). The element of comparison in positional goods is what leads to the development of consumerism. ( ibid. )