December 17, 2002
The New Politics of Consumption

The New Politics of Consumption (by Juliet Schor)

As I continue to read, I continue to have issues with Schor's premise.

"Luxury, rather than mere comfort, is a widespread aspiration."

Again I have to protest that unless she draws some boundaries between the poor and the rest of the population, her arguments are absurd. As I said before, she chose to quote an economist who states, ""vast majority of US households...can barely make ends meet," without either refuting or considering the statement in the rest of her article.

I continue to wonder why she quoted the man if she was going to go ahead and argue that that "vast majority" aren't just trying to stay fed and sheltered from one payday to the next, they're hankering after a Lexus and a Caribbean cruise.

She also cites a 3.4 percent shift in the share of wealth controlled by the top 20 percent, over a fourteen year period as though 3.4 percent were some mind-boggling number.

I'll also admit that I truly dislike her habit of quoting statistics from the early 80s to the early 90s in one place, then the late 80s to the late 90s in another place. If she's not going to use a consistent time frame in which to try and prove her premise, it's very difficult for the reader to follow her argument. There were, as we all know, a lot of different factors in place in the early 80s and the late 90s .

She also does things like mentioning a "skyrocketing" bankruptcy rate without reference to whether these are personal or business bankruptcy or noting that in her sample year, 1998, there was this little dot-com bubble bursting all around us.

"Within the middle class-and even the upper middle class-many families experience an almost threatening pressure to keep up, both for themselves and their children. They are deeply concerned about the rigors of the global economy, and the need to have their children attend "good" schools. This means living in a community with relatively high housing costs. For some households this also means providing their children with advantages purchased on the private market (computers, lessons, extra-curriculars, private schooling)."

I simply can't get worried because people care about the state of the global economy, okay? Nor can I see parents worrying about good education as a signal of some kind of moral collapse in our society.

Ditto with the need for people to 'provide advantages' for their children in school. Where is she from that parents never had to buy school supplies, pay for tutoring for kids who needed extra study, or even finance extra-curricular activity? Why is this all a surprise to her?

"These problems are magnified for low-income households. Their sources of income have become increasingly erratic and inadequate, on account of employment instability, the proliferation of part-time jobs, and restrictions on welfare payments. Yet most low-income households remain firmly integrated within consumerism. They are targets for credit card companies, who find them an easy mark. They watch more television, and are more exposed to its desire-creating properties. Low-income children are more likely to be exposed to commercials at school, as well as home. The growing prominence of the values of the market, materialism, and economic success make financial failure more consequential and painful."

This paragraph barely even makes sense and she doesn't help by immediately leaving the subject of "low-income households" for her almost equally incoherent argument about how this "new consumerism has also set in motion another dynamic: it siphons off resources that could be used for alternatives to private consumption."

It's hard to be certain, but upon my second reading of this section, I seem to understand that she wants us to stop spending our money on ourselves and use it for "public goods", whateverinthehell those are. She thinks we should use our money for, "free time, the public sector, and saving" although what the point is of saving money we're never supposed to spend, she never says.

Aha! Wading through until I'm about 3/4 of the way through the article, I think I've identified a "public good." She thinks we should consider the environment more and consider how what we buys impacts the environment. What she calls, "Ecologically sustainable consumption". More bike lanes for people who want to ride their bikes instead of driving a car.

And we should have more public libraries because without them, she has to buy books and printing a lot of the same book is bad for the environment. And we need public phone booths so we don't have to own cell phones. Also we should take more time off for "leisure," although that means making less money. (Understand, you're "spending" the income you could have had on the leisure.)

This gave me the creeps:

"4. Democratize consumption practices. One of the central arguments I have made is that consumption practices reflect and perpetuate structures of inequality and power. This is particularly true in the "new consumerism," with its emphasis on luxury, expensiveness, exclusivity, rarity, uniqueness, and distinction. These are the values which consumer markets are plying, to the middle and lower middle class. (That is what Martha Stewart is doing at K-Mart.)

But who needs to accept these values? Why not stand for consumption that is democratic, egalitarian, and available to all? How about making "access," rather than exclusivity, cool, by exposing the industries such as fashion, home decor, or tourism, which are pushing the upscaling of desire? This point speaks to the need for both cultural change, as well as policies which might facilitate it. Why not tax high-end "status" versions of products while allowing the low-end models to be sold tax-free? "

We'll all just start living down to the lowest common denominator, okay?

This is eerily similar to the arguments used to dumb down the schools twenty years ago, so that the "less fortunate" didn't have to feel deprived by watching brighter students get ahead.

At the very end of her article, she suggests that this shift in consumerism be a combination of consumer-based activism and government policy, which leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth about the entire article, not that I wasn't disenchanted with it already.

Considering how I disliked this, I'm surprised I put this much time into critiquing it, but whatever. It read to me like a combination of sloppy scholarship and muddy rhetoric.

I'm just saying.

Posted by annezo at 01:11 PM

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