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Introduction: Trouble in Consumer Paradise

1   The New Politics of Consumption

2   Anti-Consumerism in Action

3   Encountering Anti-Consumerism

4   Interpreting Material Life

5   Consuming Differently

Postscript: After the Boom, Beyond the West




For Sarah MacLean


Western nations are routinely conceptualized by academics, social critics and western populations themselves as deeply embroiled in consumerism – and well they are. At each stage of the boom-to-bust capitalist economic cycle our political leaders insist that high consumption must be maintained or regained. At every economic moment, through good times and bad, unrestrained consumption parades itself as the prize of life. Escalating consumption, despite the peaks and troughs of retail sales, consumer confidence and levels of disposable income, is thus a permanent, systemic imperative: affluent populations must either be rapturously engaged in getting and spending or, as good workers and citizens, must be diligently rebuilding the conditions for economic prosperity and a return to the consumer good life. This book deeply questions this logic. The discussion offered here is not simply about consumption per se – as economic activity or individual behaviour – but about contemporary western critiques of consumerism and the ways in which people are attempting to subvert, escape and remake the economic constraints, cultural values and moral frameworks of the First World societies they inhabit.

Consumerism, of course, is not merely a phenomenon of rich nations; during the latter half of the twentieth century it became increasingly global, coming to pervade certain developing economies as well. Nevertheless, the world epicentre of consumption expenditure has been and indisputably remains the affluent West. This is true regardless of western economic cycles of consumer heaven and recessionary hell or of rapidly expanding, though now tempered, resource usage and discretionary spending in countries such as China and India. In global terms, the world’s rich nations can only be described as either consumerist or rampantly so. At no stage – not even during economic downturn – does the affluent world merely consume its global fair share of goods and resources, let alone underconsume them. The notable feature of the financial market crash of 2008, and the subsequent end of the long consumer boom, was that the overconsumption of goods and resources in the West did not somehow miraculously cease; it has merely been scaled down for a time – and those who have paid the price of our economic woes are, as always, those at the bottom of the social ladder both in the West and beyond. This permanent, if fluctuating, state of high consumption has privileged and rewarded many of us in affluent nations at the same time as it has, at least occasionally, troubled us. If consumerism has over the past century or more somehow captured a western consciousness, as many contend, it has also bedevilled a western conscience. As a result, consumerism has perennially engendered public debate and widespread public unease in the West – and no more so than over the last tumultuous decade of heady consumer binge and volatile monetary crisis.

Yet the key terms of this debate are resolutely slippery, and in a book of this nature – one written for a diverse readership – they call out for some preparatory discussion. What, after all, might actually be named and signified by the rolloff-the-tongue phrases that seem always to slip into public discussion about consumption, and particularly the material desires of the affluent world?

The terminology of ‘the West’ is one such elusive beast. As an entity, the borders of the West seem to contract and expand as we variously define it on the basis of geography, religion, culture, economic development, military alliance, political system and ideology. As a way of segmenting the globe, that which is western is indelibly marked by its juxtaposition to ‘the East’, and ostensibly includes not only western and northern Europe and parts of southern Europe but also North America and Australasia. Things become somewhat more diffuse, though, if we define our world in terms of affluence. Indeed, countries that enjoy ‘western-style’ consumption and have a high per capita gross domestic product include most, but not all, nations within the traditionally western orbit, as well as countries such as Japan and Singapore, Brunei and United Arab Emirates. These latter nations are hardly western in a cultural sense but they must be counted as part of the economically developed world. To cloud things further, a number of other countries – particularly China and India, as I have already noted – have been developing a ‘consuming class’ by way of hitherto extraordinarily high rates of economic growth, industrial expansion and commercial entrepreneurialism.

Historically, however, it is in a readily identifiable set of countries – the USA, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Ireland, Canada, Australia and so on – that particular economic frameworks, and particular sensibilities towards the acquisition and enjoyment of the products of the marketplace, have in the modern era developed apace. As such, high consumption has been cemented in the global mind, and particularly in the post-World War II era, as an invention and propensity of these kinds of societies – the societies of ‘the West’ – above all. This renders the terminology of ‘West’ and ‘western’ descriptively useful but inevitably clumsy. The same can be said for the starkly dichotomous language of First and Third World, Developed and Developing World, North and South. In the chapters that follow I thus variously invoke the overlapping terms ‘western’, ‘affluent world’, ‘rich world’, ‘First World’ and so on, but do so with a degree of caution. At times, also, I adopt the useful recent convention of referring to the Minority World to designate the West, and the Majority World to designate the rest. This linguistically reminds us that, on this planet, the few are rich but the many are poor.

If identifying the West is a fraught exercise, so too is defining consumerism. In everyday parlance, consumerism is not an abstract, academic concept; it is for many people a much utilized and often negative descriptor of a western – and increasingly global – Zeitgeist. It speaks of a perceived world that with each new generation becomes more and more embroiled in material gain; and more and more prone to nasty economic shocks because of it. While a perceived right to consume, to unrestrictedly spend one’s hard-earned money, has become accepted by many as a marker of personal freedom, power and expression and as the flag bearer of democracy, excessive consumption still presents itself as a social and moral problem. Consumerism is unstintingly spoken of in everyday conversation and in social commentary as an attitude and a behaviour that, while it waxes and wanes with the economic times, remains somehow definitive of historically rising levels of affluence. Attitudinally, consumerism is routinely understood by both the public and the critic as an individual, generational or cultural obsession: an obsession with continually wanting, acquiring and discarding stuff – and with both evaluating others and seeking existential meaning through this process. Behaviourally, this propensity towards abundance is apparently all too clearly demonstrated in boom-to-bust cycles of non-stop shopping and unconstrained spending, and in the mounting levels of refuse left behind as we tire of one product and opt for another. Consumerism, moreover, is often coupled with an ethos of materialism, generally understood as an overvaluing of things and money, and an exaggerated concern with their accumulation and possession. Paradoxically, in the contemporary West, these two phenomena seem to both converge and diverge in that purchasable things have come to be promoted not as objects to be hoarded and cherished, but as items to be transiently experienced and quickly discarded. In this sense, the West has seemingly perfected a form of consumerism that has buckled and twisted almost out of recognition the possessive materialism of which it was born.

In short, then, consumerism is conventionally understood as referring not to the consumption of goods and services per se, but to the endlessly desirous and routinely wasteful consumption of affluent economies. This is a form of consumption that is always, to a greater or lesser extent, part of the day-to-day reality of western life; and, at its worst, it is seen to embody the values of profligacy and greed, selfishness and indulgence, irresponsibility and social disconnection. There is, however, a twist: consumerism is almost always invoked by the public and the critic as a foible of others – and only sometimes of ourselves.

This same tendency to both deride and distance oneself from consumerism has been wellnigh perfected by social theorists, who have nevertheless crafted more detailed interpretations of its emergence and meaning. Consumerism – understood as a culturally manufactured desire for and preoccupation with the getting and having of consumer goods and experiences – has remained a perennial intellectual concern across the political spectrum. Scholars have unceasingly portrayed consumerism as paradigmatic of a capitalist modernity, speaking of it as an ideology, a moral doctrine, a culture, a syndrome, a mentality and a way of life. This has yielded a powerful narrative of modern times whereby consumerism is purveyed by political and economic elites, embraced by populations and lived by individuals. In an historical era of consumerism, the products of the marketplace are seen by theorists to have become ideologically and experientially central to self-identity and individuation, personal status and group belonging, and to social life itself. Thus, consumerism in the modern world is so often understood by theorists not only as material overabundance but also as ubiquitous, as at once everywhere and inescapable. In the process, consumer society and an accompanying consumer culture has, it seems, been forged over many decades, if not centuries. This is a society and culture in which – regardless of the highs and lows of global capitalism – all of economic and social life becomes organized increasingly around consumption as function and goal, and in which a consumerist mentality and sensibility dominates on both a collective and individual level. Part and parcel of this has been the central and ongoing phenomenon of commodification: literally the process of ‘marketizing’ existence, of rendering ever-more aspects of our everyday life as commodities – or things and activities that must be bought and sold through a system of monetized exchange.

Already, given this lightning tour through the language of consumption, we can begin to sense what an ‘anti-consumerism’ might be all about. We can begin to grasp the subject of its critique and the object of its opposition. This is a political discourse – and an emergent cultural and moral sensibility – that rests solidly on the public, critical and theoretical understanding of western consumerism sketched above. Yet it is a field of action as well as analysis, one that purposefully and volubly talks of and enacts a partial escape from the enclosing logic of the western consumer present and insists that the task ahead of us is not to return to an era of global hyperconsumption, but to hasten the demise of consumerism itself.

In the text that follows, I explore, question and conceptually extend the perspectives and solutions offered by this essential political critique of the era. I move also towards a reinterpretation of western consumerism – and the pressing task of understanding its reach and dimensions in a world in transition.


Gratitude, in its deepest sense, is perhaps best expressed with meaningful brevity – and, in acknowledging my many debts, I will keep to this rule. I could not have written this book without the help of three colleagues; Andy Scerri, Ferne Edwards, and Kelly Donati. As researchers, each of them brought an intellectual agility and a political passion to this project that has shaped it for the better. I thank all them warmly. I thank also those who participated in the interviews; both for the generosity of their time and the quality of their insights.

At RMIT University numerous colleagues have, over many years, influenced my thinking and writing. I particularly want to acknowledge the contribution of my friends in the Globalism Research Centre; especially Paul James, Yaso Nadarajah, and Manfred Steger, who was instrumental in bringing this book to publication. On a more formal note, I express appreciation of the financial support offered by RMIT through its small grants scheme, and the considerable support of the Australian Research Council through its Discovery Project program.

The writing of this book has been a wonderful and mostly joyous process, thanks to a handful of people whose involvement made it a much smoother task than it might have been. At Polity, Emma Hutchinson seemed to take to this book from the beginning and, with a gentle and enthusiastic editorial touch, has helped me improve on it immeasurably. My Melbourne-based copy-editor Gill Smith brought a wonderful clarity and lightness to so many of my paragraphs, while Anna Zaranko in the UK saw the manuscript through its final stages. Various colleagues and friends – especially Jo and Neil MacLean, Mandy Brett, Judy Smart, Jeff Lewis, Mary Danckert and Tim Jordan – offered much-needed advice, gave generous assistance or valiantly read the penultimate draft.

Finally, to my family. This book bears the supportive mark of my sisters Jan and Rob. It is a product, most of all, of the forever tangible gaze of my mother, the late Nicky Humphery. It speaks of – and I hope it will eventually speak to – my daughters Rosa and Freya. And it is written for Sarah MacLean. After all, after everything, it could not have been otherwise.


Vancouver in November is a perishingly cold place; Melbourne, Australia, is considerably warmer. Yet both it seems, around this time of the year, are hotbeds of radicalism or at least of civic action and agitation squarely focused on one of the key issues of our time – consumption.

Every year in Vancouver, and in many other cities around the world, Buy Nothing Day (BND) is staged in late November. As the slogan suggests, this annual stint of cultural politics, involving a whole range of activities from street theatre to public lectures, urges people, as the BND website puts it, to ‘shop less – live more’.1 Initiated by the artist Ted Benton, and subsequently adopted by the Canadian-based Adbusters organization in the early 1990s, BND has garnered considerable media attention along with a mixture of support and derision from within the broad global coalition of political movements of which it is a part. This focus on the perils of shopping embodies nevertheless what the North American sociologist Juliet Schor has usefully called the ‘new politics of consumption’: a politics fundamentally defined by an opposition to the entrenched consumerism of western economies and, more lately, to any return to the global consumer boom of the last few decades.2

Actions give rise to ideas, and further action. In December 2006 a group of Melbourne environmentalists launched what they called a ‘challenge’ rather than a protest event known as the Big Switch Off. The goal here was to enlist people as participants in a collective weekend of minimizing their environmental impact by forgoing the use of electricity, petrol and other energy resources. With their fridges unplugged and by the light of non-petroleum-based candles, this group of concerned citizens hoped in late 2006 that the Big Switch Off, like the BND, would take hold internationally and become an annual event.3

There is a purpose in beginning with these two civic actions. Together, they articulate the global and particularly the pan-western nature of a contemporary anti-consumerist politics. Each illustrates also one particular aspect of contemporary consumption: on the one hand, the conspicuous behaviour of shopping for material goods, and on the other, the often inconspicuous activity of consuming resources.

In speaking of the pan-western I’m not suggesting that it is only in the Minority World that the excesses of consumerism are being taken to task. On the contrary, the Majority World has long looked on aghast and with rightful anger at the consumptive greediness of the West, while Majority World commentators and social movements have offered a vigorous rebuttal of global commodity culture. Yet within the world’s richest nations it has over the last decade or so become hard for people to escape a now steady murmuring of concern. Here, in the affluent world, our bookshops have been doing a fine trade in critiques of western materialism and our newspapers regularly showcase articles on the perils of consumer culture – sandwiched, of course, between the advertisements and the insistences of politicians that spending equals growth, equals good. By 2008 these warnings had turned to lament and even a ‘we told you so’ sermonizing, with many a social critic laying the blame for a pulverized global financial market at the feet of the feral shopper ‘maxed-out’ on easy credit.

In this book, I am especially concerned to focus on these affluent world protests and polemics or, more broadly, on what I will call western anti-consumerism – a field of analysis and action which targets not consumption per se but the routine, if currently muted, excesses of consumer economies. While I have, for many years, been engaged in research on consumption in both western and non-western societies, what drives this geographically more modest study is the imperative to explore the singular and recently enlivened intensity with which consumer excess is condemned by western social commentators, challenged by western social movements, and popularly understood by the western public as socially undesirable (at least in its extreme manifestations). Why is this disdain the case? The West, after all, has long been portrayed as an Eden of commodity choice, and in global terms it most certainly is. While, in rich nations, a commodity abundance is accessed in grossly unequal ways, on an aggregate level it is indisputable that western countries are, in commodity terms, wondrous places to be – even in tough times.

But wonder can work on us in many ways. Despite the long-held view that western populations are mindlessly conditioned to shop – a view that will be challenged throughout this book – western individuals have always wondered both privately and publicly about the ultimate desirability of a world chock-full of purchasable things. There is, of course, a long tradition within affluent nations of biting academic analysis and social commentary in relation to the shallowness of a so-called consumer society. There is much evidence also that on an everyday level a majority of individuals within rich world economies experience an ambivalence towards the consumer marketplace – drawn to its luxuries, but repelled by its materialism.

Periodically, in the modern West, concern over consumption comes to a head and bubbles over into a powerful moment of oppositional polemic, public discussion, and social and political action. We in western nations have been experiencing one of the longest of these moments over the last few years, not least because of pressing issues such as climate change. Ironically, just as the wealth of the affluent world achieved an historical high in the late 2000s, also surfacing was trouble in paradise – and not just of an economic kind. This trouble was certainly to emanate from what, in 2008, became the new reality of economic recession, but even before then the dream of endless western abundance was being energetically disturbed by a growing chorus of people offering a direct challenge to the social, moral and environmental values encased in consumer economies.

Over the past decade or more within a number of western countries a new liveliness and urgency has been evident in relation to an albeit long, ongoing debate about the causes, ramifications and future of dominant modes of affluent consumption. Targeting western populations in particular, a resurgent left and liberal opposition to consumerism has focused on what has succinctly, if somewhat vaguely, been called overconsumption.4 Minority World social commentators, journalists, religious leaders, political activists and academics across the sciences, social sciences and humanities have voiced often impassioned resistance to what is seen as a hitherto increasing, and increasingly global, obsession with the consumption of material goods and commodified experiences. This obsession may well have taken a substantial hit through economic downturn. Yet, as we might now well observe, the western overconsumption of goods and resources remains a stark reality, while western governments remain ideologically wedded even more stubbornly than before to growth economics and accelerated consumption as the sole path to progress.

Overwhelmingly, this resurfaced opposition to consumer abundance has been characterized by an environmentalist ethos – questions of resource usage and waste have been central to this debate. But the latest desire to challenge western (come global) consumerism – and any return to its pre-2008 heights – is also social, cultural and emotional in focus, as such debates have always been. While almost all contemporary critics and activists talk of the need for an environmentally sustainable mode of living, many also focus intently on how the consumerism driving overconsumption undermines our sense of wellbeing and happiness; contributes to a culture of overwork, haste and instantaneous gratification; underscores a bland cultural homogenization of life; and fragments communities and social relationships. In short, contemporary critics argue, overconsumption left unchecked, and potentially shifted back into top gear as recession fades, will ultimately render a world that is socially moribund, one in which nature is subject to its final, irrevocable destruction and in which civic and communal life has entirely dissolved, leaving us to vainly seek fulfilment of our needs and desires in the essentially meaningless plethora of things we can buy.

I have, in beginning to introduce this resurgent political sensibility, articulated its concerns at their most bleak and overgeneralized – and at their most powerful. We can gain an immediate sense of the dominant thrust of this commentary simply through perusing recent booklists. Sometimes, it seems, we can read a book by its cover, especially when they are emblazoned with titles such as The Overspent American, Luxury Fever, Affluenza, The High Price of Materialism, The Costs of Living, Your Money or Your Life, Dematerializing and so on.5 An admirably accessible journalistic style marks much of this recent work, mirroring the broader re-emergence of the ‘bestseller’ political commentary exemplified by Naomi Klein’s No Logo.6 And, lamentably, the contemporary critic of consumerism has a rich field of horrendous statistics and concerning trends on which to draw in underscoring the validity and urgency of their arguments. In terms of global inequality, contemporary commentary can, and repeatedly does, point to the fact that 20 per cent of the world’s population – those residing in rich nations – account for around 85 per cent of total global consumer spending.7 In terms of environmental degradation, critics press home the reality that world consumption, global recession or not, is now far exceeding the Earth’s capacity to regenerate the resources feeding production.8 Moreover, in social and emotional terms, commentators make much of the fact that despite exponentially rising levels of wealth and commodity consumption within many rich nations over the past three decades or more, a sense of subjective wellbeing and life satisfaction among western populations has evidently remained stationary. Conversely, in many rich nations, indices of such things as social isolation, partnership breakdown, stress and depression have risen – in tandem, it would appear, with unprecedented levels of affluence that have only now moderated in face of a major economic downturn.9

The new politics of consumption, however, is not only a body of commentary. As an ‘oppositional discourse’, it informs a set of concrete responses to the conventional treadmill of work and spending. Many of the same commentators who write of a world of consumer emptiness look to a life beyond the glitzy commodity and dreams of a new consumer boom, championing instead an ethos of ethical and responsible consumption and promoting the adoption of lifestyle change embodied in movements for simple and slow living. Importantly, the new politics of consumption thus deals in political practice as well as social analysis.

So also does this book. Indeed, my focus in the chapters that follow is twofold. First, I survey the field of contemporary western critique and activism in relation to western overconsumption. Second, I attempt to further develop this field by seeking to productively rethink both how and why consumerism is maintained over time, and why and how certain forms of consumption are to be opposed.

My interest here is thus both intellectual and political. As a scholar – to use that always rather overblown term – I am concerned to deal with ideas, with how a contemporary critique of consumerism often connects with, sometimes ignores and, at its best, contributes to the long-pursued and ongoing project of theorizing consumption and the material nature of everyday life. But my task is more directly contestational too, since a contemporary western anti-consumerism, for all its possible failings, speaks very deeply to my own sense and understanding of justice, of right action and good judgement.

It must be said, however, that much recent commentary on western consumerism does not connect with a sense of what we might identify as critical humility. More than a few contemporary commentators equate the need to deal with the realities of overconsumption by being overly censorious; diagnosing, chastising or simply lampooning the apparently woeful materialism of the conditioned masses. In fact, a good deal of recent critical commentary on western overconsumption indulges, to varying degrees, in a high moralism, a pop psychologism, and a self-helpism, all directed rather more at the individual as consumer than at the institutions of commercial and political power that drive consumption systems. Moreover, there is a tendency, even in the best of such work, to take the erstwhile excesses and public cultures of consumption in the USA as characterizing western nations per se, eliding crucial differences in the way consumption is practised, conceptualized and questioned across western populations. Perhaps most limiting of all, much of the anti-consumerist literature currently available has been so determined to dispraise the ‘affluenza’ of boom-time economies and the commodity-lust of credit-drunk western citizens, that it has left itself with little to say about overconsumption in a time of rising unemployment, mortgage defaults, and relative shopper restraint. As a result, critics have been relegated to either celebrating the apparent end of global hyperconsumerism (and thus ignoring the brutal hardships of recession) or, more positively though somewhat ineffectually, portraying tough economic times as constituting a ‘breathing-space’ in which we can reflect on the need for more frugal and less materialistic ways of living.

In alluding to these limitations of a resurgent anti-consumerism, of the new politics of consumption, I am signalling the interrogative thrust of this book, albeit one that is informed – as I shall explain below – by an ethos of generative rather than conventionally critical analysis. The timeliness, importance and resonance of a critique of western overconsumption can hardly be disputed at a moment when our world seems to be under so much pressure environmentally, socio-politically and economically. Indeed, one task of this study is to appreciate the deeply constructive manner in which a renewed politics of consumption has repositioned the economic and social practices of western populations in relation to a whole set of interrelated issues: our attitude towards nature, our sense and use of time, our understanding of life satisfaction, the exploitative labour practices of global commodity production, the imperative to consume in a sustainable manner, and our obligation to ensure a globally equitable level of access to and distribution of the world’s resources. This new politics, if it can be so named, is a rich one indeed.

Yet a politics of change must question itself and the ideas it draws on and gives rise to, as much as it must question its object of opposition. The British sociologist Elizabeth Shove has noted the reticence of environmentalist commentators to analyse the assumptions they make about nature, society and the individual. As a consequence, Shove argues, an environmentalist politics often frames debate about resource usage and social change in terms of ignorance and profligacy on the one hand, and individual restraint and action on the other.10 The same could be said in more general terms about current social commentary relating to the state and impact of western consumerism.

As a field of public intellectual debate, contemporary western anti-consumerism tends to reinvigorate not only critical opposition and purposeful political action in relation to consumer capitalism but also, more perplexingly, an accompanying image of a vacuous mass culture and of individuals as pathologically conditioned to work, shop and, of late, strive blindly towards a rebirth of consumer good times. It tends to reinvigorate, too, a sense that the gearing of western economies to working and spending can be challenged merely through an act of individual will and lifestyle change. This, as we shall come to explore, draws much anti- consumerist commentary into a highly conventional but thoroughly dubious set of assumptions about the nature of consumer culture and the actions needed to transform it. Moreover, contemporary anti-consumerist commentary is, for the most part, drawn into a contradictory, and none-too-attractive, argumentative logic. While espousing concern for the health and happiness of the western individual, many critics in fact simply indulge in moral disdain or, at best, patronising lament for the apparently addictive consumption decisions and actions of the ‘great unwashed’ – a disdain embedded within a promise of liberation, or at least enhanced wellbeing, for those somehow brave enough to voluntarily turn off the telly and stop shopping.

In these last few paragraphs, I have already begun to prefigure some of the key lines of discussion that are found in this book and to signal how anti-consumerism is both celebrated for its transformative potential and substantially questioned, problematized and prodded. But, as I have already intimated, my task goes well beyond a simple description and review of a renewed critique of consumption. While western anti-consumerism is certainly the key focus of this study, I am concerned by implication to rethink some of the recurring ways in which consumption as a social practice and consumerism as a set of cultural values remain conceptualized within the western humanities and social sciences, and particularly within critical social theory.

Much social theoretical writing on consumption shares with a contemporary anti-consumerism a set of particular – and highly debatable – assumptions about both the ubiquity and dominance of consumerist values and about the central role and manipulability of human consciousness in maintaining consumerist forms of economic and social life. This book thus treats together the ‘political’ field of contemporary anti-consumerism and the ‘intellectual’ field of contemporary social theory, at least in respect of what some contemporary theorists have to say about consumption. By the same token, we are concerned here to bridge a gap of recognition and mutual engagement between the more public forms of anti-consumerist commentary and action and the now rich diversity of academic work on consumption and material culture. This gap emanates from a tendency in recent commentary – even when proffered by academic writers – to ignore or draw very selectively from consumption-related research that is seen as too intellectualist, abstract and complex. This is to some extent a favour reciprocated by the academy. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences have, with notable exceptions, been slow to engage with a politics of consumption that raises questions about the morality of consumption practices and, in particular, the environmental impact of consumerism. Thankfully, this mutual disregard is now changing, and this study is part of that change.

What marks this book also is a changed way of understanding the role and usefulness of what academics are apt to call ‘critical analysis’. In both championing and challenging a contemporary western anti-consumerism, the chapters that follow move between the descriptive and the analytical, gradually building up a portrait of this field while, at the same time, progressively testing its limits. Indeed, readers will note the refusal here to engage in a conventional, point-bypoint deconstruction of anti-consumerism, and a willingness instead to allow a narrative – and a questioning – of the new politics of consumption to slowly unfold. This approach is informed by a set of broader debates on the very nature and purpose of western research and theoretical speculation.

The Maori educationalist Linda Tuhiwai Smith has written eloquently of the links between the colonization of indigenous peoples and western research methodologies.11 Her work, and that of others, on the politics of research seems a long way from this discussion of anti-consumerism – but it is not. Within a number of western countries both indigenous and non-indigenous researchers working in a diversity of fields have been at the forefront of moves to remake research practice. In part, this has been informed by a long history of resistance to the imperialistic gaze of western research in which indigenous societies have been exoticized and often derided. But it is informed also by a practical need, in the face of the complex issues facing indigenous communities in the West, to readdress the most basic questions of how and why knowledge is produced, communicated and used. As part of what Tuhiwai Smith has referred to as the development of an indigenous research agenda, this questioning involves, among other things, the adoption of alternative conventions of critical analysis and theory construction that always have in view the processes, politics and ultimate point of particular research endeavours.

Such ideas both draw and contribute to western scholarship, particularly as the field of theory experiences – as it is presently – a realignment of purpose. As the British cultural critic Terry Eagleton has argued, the ‘golden age’ of cultural theory, of a deconstructive postmodernism intent on problematizing the categories of politics, morality and the universal, is long gone. Eagleton, as a cultural theorist himself, does not devalue the postmodern moment, but urges – and indeed senses in the contemporary politics of global social movements – a step well beyond an anti- foundationalist relativism. The time of ‘high theory’ (though not theory per se) is over, Eagleton rightly contends, if only because the global realities we now face require a clear and consensual political and moral response from the intellectual left, not an arcane academicism.12

Across the English Channel, similar concerns have been voiced by quite different writers. The French theorist of science and technology Bruno Latour has asked of the humanities – and particularly of social theory – that it abandon its endlessly critical impulse of debunking all within its path, that it transform its excessive questioning of ‘good matters of fact’ into dealing instead with contemporary ‘matters of concern’.13 This auto-critique from one who has himself forged a deconstruction of modern science is motivated, much like Eagleton’s intervention, by a realization that the academy urgently needs to deal with the pressing political issues of our time. In the process, Latour insists, we need to develop a new critical attitude that does not simply deconstruct but constructs, that moves beyond iconoclasm and endlessly pulling ideas apart to a position of intellectually contributing to debate around matters of human import. Latour thus writes of the need to ‘associate the word criticism with a whole set of new positive metaphors, gestures, attitudes, knee-jerk reactions, habits of thoughts’.14

Latour is undoubtedly on target, but why, we might ask, continue to privilege the task of criticism at all as the raison d’être of socially engaged academic analysis? Why not move instead to simply demote criticism to the status of a method or tool at hand to be carefully utilized, and to envisage the task of social inquiry as fundamentally generative, a notion that Latour himself fleetingly invokes? The term ‘generative’ in relation to the task of writing and theorizing about the social world inevitably signals a dual sense of the productive. A generative form of analysis and theoretical conjecture is certainly one which is constructive of new ideas – ideas that are offered in ways that build not impermeable, obtuse and jargon-filled theoretical edifices but renewed understandings. On another level, however, the task of a generative form of analysis, as understood throughout this book, is not simply ‘knowledge production’ or the offering of interpretation. It is also the exploration and assertion of possible solidarities of perspective, belief, action and even identities; it is the furtherance of a politics of change in a highly practical sense.

Perhaps all this is a longhand way of saying that analysis and theory should – in a thoroughly conventional sense – matter. And, indeed it should, as many social and cultural analysts would insist. But a turn to a deeply generative form of inquiry, I would suggest, speaks not simply of the obligation of the humanities and social sciences to engage, but of the imperative to adopt – as Tuhiwai Smith proposes – different modes of engagement. To ground this idea in the context of the present study, this does not entail an abandonment of the critical or of the need for firm judgement in dealing with the pronouncements and actions of contemporary commentators and activists in relation to the present exigencies of western consumption. It does, however, entail putting critique in its place, subordinating it to an open and self-reflexive search for new ways of thinking about consumerism, all within the context of maintaining solidarities of mutual understanding, ethical concern and political focus that builds on, rather than ungenerously derides, the ideas and efforts of others. This ethos undergirds the discussion that follows.



In the month I began writing this book I paid a long overdue visit to an old and very dear friend. We lunched round a solid Australian blackwood table that I knew well, though on this occasion I was to be served more than I bargained for. Not far into the first drink and the nibbles I was beckoned to the loungeroom and ushered into a space transformed or, rather, colonized. Obliterating a view of almost everything surrounding it was the latest of gargantuan and impossibly flat TVs. It had just been home delivered, unceremoniously dumped in the centre of the room, and hastily connected-up; we now stood together before the beast – given that sitting down, in what was still a tiny Edwardian parlour, was no longer a viable option. Remaining silent, but sporting a slightly excited and cheeky demeanour, my friend, knowing my work on consumption, seemed to be half insolently bracing for the critical onslaught. For my own part, I slowly, perhaps oddly, sensed what I can only describe as a rising joy, not in response to the flickering, inescapable screen but because what was being played-out in wordless action was a social reality, a human moment, that is rarely captured adequately in commentary, and least of all in theoretical writing. I could, and would, well argue the merits of the purchase, yet what was being impressed upon me was the delightful fact that the ‘commodity’ in front of us said nothing in particular, or at least not immediately, about the individual who had purchased it. It did not tell me that he was greedy or stupid, immoral or hypermaterialist, acquisitive or status-hungry, uncultured or unthinking. Knowing this individual, I knew also that such knee-jerk assumptions were ludicrous. They were not only wrong as a summing-up of the man, they illegitimately turned his act of consumption into a means of evaluating him. Here, in fact, was a person who, in his gregariousness and community engagement, put me to shame, and who had simply acquired, and was now showing me, a rather large piece of up-to-date and expensive technology – a thing – that would be used and enjoyed, and no doubt come to be a vehicle of good times to be had through watching the cricket with his kids.

Among critics, this way of understanding consumption is not common. There is an irresistible urge for intellectuals and social commentators to make objects say a range of things about the people who possess them. And what they are made to say is, as we have previously noted, often none too flattering towards the ‘consumer’. Occasionally, this is challenged. The anthropologist, Daniel Miller, for example, has recently explored with great delicacy the relationships between people and objects and the way in which our acts of acquiring and valuing things, far from defining us as materialistic and superficial, express our constant ability to use the material world in order to forge and foster our relationships with other people.1 This challenge, however, raises a central analytical and political dilemma. While there is much about material culture and our relationship with things that can be understood as constructive (and we will certainly return to this fact in later chapters) we cannot escape the need also to reflect on and question market systems, consumption decisions, and the ultimate value of particular kinds of objects. It is the preparedness to tackle this latter imperative that has indelibly shaped contemporary anti-consumerist critique. In fact, at no time in the modern period have social observers and political activists sought to be more evaluative of consumption and material possessions than they are currently.

For this, there has been a ready audience. There is, indeed, a definite though now perhaps shifting market for polemic on western consumerism. Across the English-speaking world in particular rarely has a month gone by over the last ten or fifteen years without a new book being published on the perils of working, borrowing and spending. Ironically, by late 2008 one could sense this output slowing in tandem with the global economy. Critics of consumerism have scrambled, like everyone else, to rejig their analysis in face of a boom gone pear-shaped. What remains in place, however, is anti-consumerism itself; that is a highly active and well-developed field of resistance to the still globally dominant logic of overconsumption. But just what is this field of opposition? What perspectives and aims partially unify it? In what sense can it be called a new politics of consumption? And what are its limits in terms of its ability to understand western material life and those who consume? In this chapter I begin to explore these questions by way of synthesizing and, at times, challenging a broad but relatively unified body of contemporary western social commentary on the extent, causes and consequences of consumerism.

In this commentary, there have been some prominent voices. This has been particularly so in North America, long the cradle of world commodity consumption. Pre-eminent here are Juliet Schor’s skilful expositions of overwork and overspending in the USA, which have been instrumental in reinstating consumption and affluence as a field of public debate in her own country and beyond. Schor’s work has constituted a vigorous return to a sense of western levels of affl uence as socially problematic – a critical sensibility that Schor rightly identifies as having once been a key part of an oppositional political agenda within western nations during the 1960s and 1970s. What this critical return brings with it, however, is a slightly altered set of concerns embedded in a realization of the urgency with which we must now confront the social and environmental costs of overconsumptive western economies set on fire over the past few decades by a ‘new consumerism’, and now struggling out of the inevitable recession. In a similar vein, the North American environmentalist Bill McKibben has spoken of ‘a new critique emerging’, not simply within intellectual circles but by way of the more grounded formation of a movement for ‘voluntary simplicity’.2

Notwithstanding the quality of Schor’s and McKibben’s insights, however, the epithet ‘new’ in relation to a contemporary politics of consumption smacks a little of overstatement. Invoking such an epithet underplays the extent to which contemporary anti-consumerist commentary exists on an analytical continuum, to a large extent reiterating earlier social theoretical, environmentalist and public intellectual arguments in relation to a commodity capitalism. Similarly, beyond the realm of commentary, a contemporary anti-consumerist activism and alternative lifestyle movement plays out a politics with a long pedigree.

It might be more accurate, then, to talk of a reinvigoration of a politics of consumption having taken place in a range of western countries over the last decade or more. And this needs to be placed itself within the context of a broader reinvigoration of the genre of oppositional political criticism more generally. Although it’s difficult to ground this claim empirically, there is an undoubted sense among western intellectuals, social commentators and activists that the ‘noughties’ have signalled a return, in the wake of a post-modern moment of radical doubt, to the stuff of politics. Just as there has been a discernable ‘environmental turn’ across the field of social analysis in the West, there has emerged also what we might call a ‘moral turn’ which seeks to rescue questions of value, universal rights and purposive ethical and political action from the clutches of what is seen by many as a debilitating overemphasis during the 1980s and 1990s on cultural and moral relativism.