Un-brand your heart (and mind?)

Below I reproduce a quote about consumerism as a form of social control from the Wikipedia page about Herbert Marcuse’s book ‘One Dimensional Man’

Herbert Marcuse strongly criticizes consumerism, arguing consumerism is a form of social control. He suggests that the system we live in may claim to be democratic, but it is actually authoritarian in that the few individuals are dictating our perceptions of freedom by only allowing us choices to buy for happiness. It is in this state of “unfreedom” in which consumers act irrationally by working more than they are required to fulfill actual basic needs, ignoring the psychologically destructive effects, ignoring the waste and environmental damage it causes, and also by searching for social connection through material items.

It is even more irrational in the sense that the creation of new products, calling for the disposal of old products, fuels the economy and encourages the increased need to work more to buy more. An individual loses his or her humanity and becomes a tool to the industrial machine and a cog in the consumer machine. Additionally advertising sustains consumerism, which disintegrates societal demeanor, delivered in bulk and informing the masses that happiness can be bought, an idea that is psychologically damaging.

There are other alternatives to counter the consumer lifestyle. Anti-consumerism: a lifestyle that demotes any unnecessary consumption, and with that, demotes unnecessary extra work, extra waste, etc. But even this alternative is complicated with the extreme penetration of advertising and commodification because everything is a commodity, even the things that are actual needs.

What I wonder is this.

Are the street gangs, that amply demonstrated their apparent freedom this week to help themselves to the symbols of consumerist society, more or less trapped in the machine than those of us who work long hours to pay for things we don’t need?

I’ve read of the people who looted shops described as the canary in the coalmine for our society, subject to the effects of toxic gas before it gets to the miners. Doubtless, it’s a provocative metaphor, but it’s an interesting one.

There’s been so much talk about right and wrong this week, but the canary down the mine has no concept of this, it simply croaks it. That’s because concepts of right and wrong are no use to a canary. For humans right and wrong are not just moral concepts we pass on uncritically; they do require, on some level, a personal cognitive process with reflective qualities. If moral values were as fixed as some of the government would like you to believe, all those before the courts today would be hung, or transported to Australia.

Working in education, my own interest is particularly in learners’ feelings, the affect, our emotions and how they can drive us. The trillions that companies spend every year on building brands are appealing primarily to our emotions. Many of us can talk ourselves out of a purchase on the basis we don’t really need it, but it requires that robust cognitive input. We affect how we feel by being a consumer and how we feel drives our consumption.

The reason I mention it is because it seems to me that although the people who looted shops may have exercised some cognitive processes (I might get caught, I might go to prison, do I actually care?), the frenzy of illegal consumption was probably initially driven by emotional states.

In which case, as the intellectualising of the phenomenon begins in an attempt to structure the future, should we do what must be the unthinkable if you are The Man driving The Machine.

Ask the canary how he feels about it?

Posted on August 12, 2011, in Consumerism, News, Philosophy, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Yes.
    Have you read Tom Hodgkinson The Idler?

  2. I mean How to be Idle

  3. For me stealing is much easier from a big company than a small one. There is no moral thought. The only question asked is will I get caught. It’s no different than a politician stealing from the taxpayer through expenses rather than mugging them.

    • Rather like the defence case of the guy who got sent down for stealing £3.50 worth of water from Lidls. He was nothing to do with the riots but decided he was ‘thirsty’ walking home from his girlfriend’s house. The shop was open, unattended and people’s morality is not always a fixed entity. Psychology of crowds is very different from that of an individual. I find the knee-jerk justice and expensive jail terms for nicking sundry items worrying. Far better that people like that are made to contribute something positive to the situation than burden tax-payers yet further.

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