|Zadok : Papers : The Abuse of Consumerism|
Zadok Paper S101 Winter 1999
Money makes the world go round
A new world order has been formed
It's a bitter sweet symphony this life,
The central myth of capitalism is money. To the person living within capitalism it takes on significances well beyond its role as a medium of exchange. In regard to consumerism's abusiveness, the central myth of money provides the most immediate obvious illusion of salvation, or mirage of healing, from the largely unadmitted abusive cycle of consumerism. It is the social construct upon which the denial of abuse and hopes of painless redemption can be pinned. It is in this context that money so easily slips into its central role within the social desires and identity of the consumer. Marx, for example, describes this process in the following rhetorical passage.
That which is for me through the medium of money-that for which I can pay (i.e which money can buy)-that am I, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money's properties are my properties and essential powers-the properties and powers of its possessor. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness-its deterrent power-is nullified by money.
Whereas money, historically, is a socially constructed marker which represents something other than itself, it becomes under capitalism a thing of value in itself; it has been naturalised to the point that it is as natural a part of the world of the consumer as air or food, a central myth undergirding capitalism's functioning. As well as being present in the mind and heart of people, Marxists argue, money in the form of capital is also present in a collective sense as the key organising principle of capitalist society. Marxists describe the process by which society is re-organised around capital (and its associated productive process) as commodity reification. William Dowling, a commentator from within the Marxist tradition, writes that commodity reification is the "process through which the capitalist system breaks the processes of production and distribution into smaller and more manageable units in the name of greater and greater efficiency until society as a whole begins to mirror in its structures the lineaments of what began as a mode of experiencing the world".
What this looks like in consumer society is that social interaction of everyday life increasingly conforms to the requirements of the commodity production process rather than the other way around, where the economy serves human need. Herbert Marcuse describes these creeping imperialistic tendencies which re-organise everyday consumer realities.
The productive apparatus and the goods and services which it produces "sell" or impose the social system as a whole. The means of mass transportation and communication, the commodities of lodging, food and clothing, the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to producers and, through the latter, to the whole. The products indoctrinate and manipulate.
Lift up your eyes, look to the heavens
It could be a sign, or a seven-eleven.
Many later Marxist writers are significantly disturbed by what they see as the overwhelming expansion of capital into previously untouched cultural areas, especially under the historically recent globalised economy. Fredrick Jameson, a prominent contemporary Marxist, describes the current historical era as "late capitalism" which he argues is characterised by "sheer commodification as a process". Late or multinational or consumer capitalism", he writes, "constitutes . . . the purest form of capital yet to have emerged, a prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas".
This expansion has been so great, he argues, that even the realm of aesthetics which has historically maintained a degree of autonomy from the economy has now been brought within capital's domain. In his words: "aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally." The result of which has been an impoverishment in the effectiveness of Left political groups who now lack a critical cultural distance from the processes of production and consumption.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the strength of the money myth is that the desire for wealth dominates mainstream notions of collective progress. Richard Eckersley, a researcher for the CSIRO, writes that in "modern industrial societies, we tend to define 'progress' in terms of a rising standard of living. Standard of living refers to material well-being, which relates to produced goods and services. So what we usually call 'progress' is better understood as material progress."
In the following passage Richard Eckersley, drawing from a host of psychological research, describes the 'irrationality' of clinging to the hope of material progress for people within industrial countries.
Wealth is a poor predictor of happiness, as is age, gender, and ethnicity. People who win the lottery are no happier a year after the event than they were before. People have not become happier as their societies have become richer: although Americans on average earn twice as much in real terms as they did in 1957, the proportion saying they are 'very happy' has remained relatively constant, with one poll series even showing a decline from 35 per cent to 29 per cent.
Yet the irrationality of material progress is not the result of an arbitrary lack of reason somehow inherent within consumers but, rather, is imposed by the productive apparatus. Evidence for this comes from a recent study in which eight out of ten Australians, when asked about their preference for how they would like society to be, chose "a 'greener', more stable society, where the emphasis is on cooperation, community and family, more equal distribution of wealth, and greater economic self-sufficiency [over] . . . a fast-paced, internationally competitive society, with the emphasis on the individual, wealth generation and enjoying the 'good life'".
We see, therefore, the extent of the power of the money myth through which capitalist society has undergone an immense reorganisation in all spheres of life due to the increasing dominance of capital. Money as a natural part of the capitalist architecture provides a sufficiently strong principle for completely re-organising forms of thought and social life in what Ched Myers calls "the absolute rule of capital". Or, as Debord describes it, "society in its length and breadth becomes capital's faithful portrait".