The age of anti-consumerism has passed

It took the butt-ugly advertising wrap around my morning newspaper to remind me that tomorrow is Black Friday, supposedly the biggest shopping day of the year. You know, the day when Americans stampede one another to get into Walmart and pull guns on one another in the flat screen TV aisle of Best Buy.

It wasn’t so long ago that Black Friday, and the anti-consumerist hysteria that surrounded it, was one of the biggest days on the culture jammer’s calendar. Because that was also the day that Adbusters magazine sponsored Buy Nothing Day. That is the day when anti-consumerism activists try to “jam” the shoppers by cutting up credit cards, engaging in sit-ins, riding their bikes, participating in zombie walks or critical mass rides, and so on. The point is to not buy anything, while drawing attention to the grossness of those who are.

We had a lot of fun with BND in The Rebel Sell. It also meant that every year around this time, Joe or I would get a call from a radio station or Opinions page editor asking us to weigh on on the festivities. It went on for the better part of the noughties, and then…. it just went away. Buy Nothing Day is so far off the radar that it isn’t even on the home page of Adbusters today. 

But this only reflects a broader trend, which is that there is basically zero anti-consumerist rhetoric out there. The whole agenda — against advertising, branding, the co-optation of cool – is just gone. Why is that? Here are some possible reasons, not necessarily mutually exclusive.

1. The return of identity politics over economic and class politics.

During my undergrad years (89-93) at McGill, the campus was consumed with identity politics. The same debates you see now over consent, appropriation of voice, toxic masculinity, you name it, are back in full throat. Those energies tend to crowd out other concerns, e.g. economic-based issues.

2. The end of cool.

That’s pretty much the shift I argued for in AH — cool died when the internet came along, replaced largely by authenticity seeking. And a lot of the forms that takes — one-uppersonship in the yoga studio; DIY hipsterism; the obsession with food — are very much performative (doing obscure yoga, making craft beer, cooking complicated food), so the status dynamic is not so obviously based on consumption, and therefore doesn’t generate the same ant-consumption backlash.

3. The digitization of everything.

This follows a bit on the previous: there is no scarcity in the sorts of consumer goods that people used to have huge status competitions over. Music especially, but also books, TV, movies. Any advantage you could once use to arbitrage the lag in the transmission of information is largely gone.

4. Clothes are basically free.

5. Consumer electronics are basically free.

6. Except phones.

And this is where I think the most important shift has occurred.  The rise of social media tied to mobile consumption of information. Once upon a time, status was conveyed, and fought over, through proxy wars. That’s the trajectory from Veblen to keeping up with the Joneses in the 50s to the counterculture to cool hunting to authenticity seeking: All the status markers were proxies — what languages you could learn, what your lawn looked like, what bands you knew about or clothes you wore, what exotic vacations you took, etc.

But now, status is fought directly through social media: Instead of being mediated through our consumption habits, the indirect status seeking that drove consumerism for the whole post-war period is now hand to hand combat –  Facebook likes, Twitter RTs, Instagram followers. Who needs the latest pair of jeans when a photo of you and your squad making duckfaces gets 800 shares in an hour.

I’m not sure which is worse, the way things used to be or the way they are now. The old way was exhausting, and it also served to exacerbate social and economic inequalities (Notice how virtually every 80s teen movie involves a poor kid as hero getting initially mocked by the rich swell jocks, then finally winning over the rich girl and gaining the swells’ approval).

But it had one thing going for it, which is that it was a great mechanism for generating cultural goods.

The new social-media dynamic seems just as exhausting, and just as riven by social and economic inequalities, but culturally inert. Things seem stuck in neutral, almost like a cultural recession.

(Lots of this, esp points 4 and 6, came out of a chat Joe and I had last week. He may not agree with the rest of this.)


The age of anti-consumerism has passed — 6 Comments

  1. Do you not see an obvious synergy between 1, 2 and 6? Namely, that cool seekers have tried to authenticize (this isn’t really a word) their lifestyles by having the appropriate political views and cultural concerns, and do so in order to gain certain amounts of attention.

    Hence the incredible consumption and status-seeking around things like Hamilton, which is both an exclusive good, a cultural product, a political statement (presumably it means you support #blacklivesmatter), and generates a ton of (enviable) attention? Or the amount of second-rate cultural satire around rich “liberal elites” lifestyles: yoga, eating kale, binge watching Transparent, but very little about their actual material wealth; in fact much of that market–in terms of buying a large house, a car, designer clothing–seems to be “uncool”.

    I often joke now, “I miss the 90s, when you would get status not for having the cool opinions, but for buying stuff.” That to me feels like a very Rebel Sell joke….

  2. Well, two things. On one hand, while I’m not a “social media” person, I find it hard to agree with the claim that buying things to gain status is more culturally inert than performing cultural actions to gain status. I’d argue the contrary–perhaps it seems that way because the internetty approach does not lend itself to the generation of a single, national or transnational culture, but rather to a whole bunch of little cultures. So someone used to a national culture can look at “maker culture” or “the culture of this pocket of the internet” and say that’s not REAL culture. But they’re probably closer to traditional village, tribe or whatnot cultures than the top-down mass consumer culture.

    Second, none of this is true of rich people, particularly really rich people. They still do the consumer stuff, showing off with their ludicrously expensive cars, jewelry, clothes, yachts, jets, islands, plastic surgery and so on. They increasingly have their own separate culture and being able to do high-end consumerish stuff is the entry-marker.

    • Ooops, I reversed my “more than”. I meant I don’t buy the idea that performing cultural actions == more culturally inert than buying things.

  3. One thing that sparked for me after reading this is piece is how it probably relates to the rural conservative backlash we have been witnessing.

    This joke that Matt said, “I miss the 90s, when you would get status not for having the cool opinions, but for buying stuff.”, exemplifies to me how the social conservative working class must feel in the face of urban social liberalism.

    I understand it’s a big cogs in a massive system but this shift you mention has got to be a factor in what we are witnessing globally.

  4. Buying more stuff, garnering social media adulation and looking cool are thin threads to hang a culture on. But people who aren’t good at these things get ticked off because they aren’t and cheer for Leitch. They should all just go read some books with big words in them. They might not understand every chapter, but at least they’ll be at home and quiet.