Bansky, Chomsky, and Lifestyle Consumption
I’m “reading” a photo book of Bansky graffiti right now, and it’s very intriguing content. For those who may be unfamiliar, Banksy is a graffiti artist from the UK with a serious lefty, anti-establishment bent. One of his “pieces” that hit home for me was this:
This reminded me a famous quote from the book and movie “Fight Club.”
You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.
And I think this idea, expressed by many counter-cultural artists, is at the heart of the philosophy that I’m trying to expouse on this blog. Noam Chomsky lends a bit more of an intellectual explanation for the critique:
The last thing that business wants is markets in the sense of economic theory. Take a course in economics, they tell you a market is based on informed consumers making rational choices. Anyone who’s ever looked at a TV ad knows that’s not true. In fact if we had a market system an ad say for General Motors would be a brief statement of the characteristics of the products for next year. That’s not what you see. You see some movie actress or a football hero or somebody driving a car up a mountain or something like that. And that’s true of all advertising. The goal is to undermine markets by creating uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices and the business world spends huge efforts on that.
Once you put on these lenses of messaging critique that Chomsky so well illuminates, it’s hard to go back. I’ve spent the past 7 years or so examining my market wants and desires, and it has been quite a journey. For example, I used to be an active backpacker and mountaineer. This is an activity in which the participant purchases several hundred to several thousand dollars worth of equipment and travels hundreds or thousands of miles to walk around in the woods or on a mountain. This is nothing more than glorified walking, but it is turned into a lifestyle by glossy photos in outdoor catalogs and magazines of grizzled, chisel-faced men staring out from some vista….while they wear the “right” clothing. I used to work for an outdoor guide service, so I know first hand that there is a quid pro quo between the guide services, magazines, and gear companies. The services and magazines sell “the lifestyle” and the vendors kick back free gear or advertising fees. If Chomsky’s political critique is about “manufacturing consent,” then the economic critique is about “manufacturing consumption.”
My example above is just convenient because I had a personal lens into the industry. I pretty much just go for walks in my community and do some day hiking in parks these days. This same walking doesn’t require all of the fancy gear, which is somewhat of a fetishism anyway. However, the same framework can be applied to any “lifestyle” product: German cars, the yoga industrial complex, the personal firearms industry, the hunting gear industry, certain higher ed institutions, the pickup truck industry, any “segmented” clothing retailer, the modern furniture industry, and even the farm equipment industry! (I’m not discriminating in discriminating against various consumer segments!)
Unlike the commentators cited above, I don’t view capitalism as inherently problematic. I recognize that our market system has pulled many millions out of poverty, and raised the standard of living in many societies to the point of “post materialism.” The only reason I can spend time on this social critique is because of the post materialist nature of my own society. However, I agree 100% with Chomsky that citizens are constantly barraged with marketing messages intended to turn them into irrational consumers of one particular product or another. How can a person even be seen to have a shred of personal self-determination in this structure?
I think the answer is that we must become inherently cynical any time we are asked to purchase a product. We must ask, “why do I want this?” What type of social construct has put me in the situation where I want to spend $50,000 on a pickup truck, or $50,000 on a sedan, when functional alternatives may be more reliable and more affordable? Or, why do I need to pay $100 for a cell phone plan when the $30 MVNO alternative provides the same exact quality of service. We need to become much more discriminating in how we give our money away, or else we’re nothing more than the cultivated consumers of whatever brand has hooked us this week or this year.
The US has the highest median income of any large developed country in the world, yet we have a paltry savings rate. In the capitalist spirit, those savings could be thrust into low-cost investment vehicles like Vanguard low-cost mutual funds to start building wealth. This strategy might even be considered radically capitalistic. Those who are presumed to be “exploited” by capital – labor and consumers – should use their newly-developed cynical world view to take advantage of the very capitalistic system, giving them more options to challenge the hegemony of the vendor and employer.
I recognize that a mass-movement of this variety could have problematic consequences for economic growth and economic well-being generally (employment, etc). However, I am not so illusioned as to believe that many Americans would actually employ this strategy (despite the fact that many first-generation immigrants do just this). As a result, it is probably a safe personal strategy to use frugality to develop an independent income stream and financial safety net to counter the dominant influence of employers and retailers in one’s personal financial life.