The diagnosis is apparently simple, the symptoms often all too clear. If you are a manic shopper, hooked on credit card debt and have a house (and perhaps even a self-storage bay) full of things, then you’ve probably got it. If you are driven by the chase for social status, overworked, overstressed and perhaps even overweight, then the signs are not good. If you live a life of commodity excess but feel empty inside, if you crave happiness but don’t quite have it, then it’s almost certain; you’ve got affluenza.
The affluenza virus, or some similar pathology, stands as one of the core concepts within recent discussions of the ills of Western consumer society, from Robert H. Franks’ Luxury Fever to Tim Kasser’s The High Price of Materialism to, in Australia, Clive Hamilton’s Growth Fetish. These and other similar bestsellers have, over the past few years, rejuvenated a much needed public intellectual critique of consumerism, of the Western (and increasingly global) indulgence in the glorious commodities of advanced branded capitalism.
The critique offered within such books, of communities in decay, societies fragmented, individualism lost and nature destroyed is perhaps familiar and open to argument but no less welcome because of this. Familiar too, however, and much more problematic, is the potent mix within many recent books of virology and social critique. Whether conceived as a useful political strategy to get people thinking or as an identifiable condition, talk of affluenza has become the stock-in-trade of the consumer critic. Clearly, recent commentators have seen the language of the virus, the fever, the obsession and the fetish as somehow potentially resonating with those many people within and beyond Western nations now feeling by no means at ease with rampant consumerism.
But just how useful is this language, and the idea of consumption as pathology? What kind of take on society and the individual does all the talk of affluenza actually buy into? And how might we more effectively talk about the major, pressing issue of over-consumption without running to the medical textbook?
The usefulness of pathologising contemporary consumerism — our inordinately high levels of consumption of everything from hold-in-your-hand material things to the ‘unseen’ commodities of petrol and electricity — is, at best, an open question. A number of commentators talk of affluenza with at least some sense of the dubious, lightweight nature of the concept and with a sense, too, of the dangers of burdening the populace with yet another malady in a world terrified of viruses, both real and virtual.
But other critics of contemporary consumerism are less attuned to irony. Earnestly drawn into their own rhetoric, many a purveyor of the affluenza idea write as if practitioners of evidence-based medicine. Whether attributed to a behaviourist habitualism, a deeply neurotic drive towards emulation, a psychoanalytic sublimation and displacement of true needs or a fundamental spiritual malaise, talk of affluenza can often sink rather rapidly into a pop psychology of the worst order.
Habit, emulation, sublimation, malaise: perhaps all of these are, at various moments, in operation when I wander the mall and stand before a counter. But perhaps not. And it is this perhaps not, this tangled string of triggers and coincidences behind hyperconsumption, which is rarely acknowledged or explored within the new critique of consumerism. Indeed, this is a critique that, while timely and so much needed, can be resolutely static and backward-looking in its relentless deployment of an oversimplified, deterministic model of explaining our present over-consumptive predicament.
No doubt, what drives the use of this simplistic model is the perceived need among many of the new critics of consumerism to lock on to an easily digested, marketable concept that invokes a popular recognition of ‘something wrong’ and generates media babble. For this, affluenza, in its roll-off-the-tongue way, is a pretty good candidate. Yet, pathologising consumption treads a fine line between resonating with people and turning them away from the very politics and futures you want them to consider. It emulates rather than moves beyond the well-worn and very tired strategies of liberal/radical dissent, and it simulates rather than reinvigorates the old orthodoxies of concerned social commentary.
To take the latter point first: in numerous chance conversations I have had with people about the new critique of consumerism, the complaint is inevitably raised that it is not new, that it is does indeed simply revisit old ideas about consumption as sickness and dropping out as its cure (or ‘downshifting’ in the latest parlance). In reply, the new critic might answer: ‘no, but we are putting the issue of overconsumption back on the agenda’. This is not a bad initial response. But we can take the quibble about newness deeper, and here much of the recent talk of affluenza hits big problems. For what is rekindled within this concept is that nasty little tendency within the social sciences — so well recognised by the philosopher Hannah Arendt back in the mid-twentieth century — towards portraying people as conditioned animals rather than as plural in selfhood and action. This plurality, not individuality, is what allows people to surprise themselves and others; it is, to draw on the work of a more recent philosopher, Elizabeth Grosz, what renders the world and humanity always in process of becoming rather than rigidly patterned.
To put this in less philosophical terms, much of the recent critique of commodity excess works through a strategy of enlightenment proslytism whereby whole populations are seen as conditioned to shop, while the future is being modelled by the unconditioned who have jumped off the treadmill of overwork and overspending. People are thus seen as essentially uniform rather than plural and as divided into two groups, only one of which holds the hope of change and the plan for the future.
Politically, in terms of the long history of oppositional critique, this returns us to the thorny question of false consciousness. And perhaps, in the early twenty-first century, this question might well be opened up once again, at least through recourse to the more sophisticated notion of cultural hegemony. After all, the apparent willingness of most of us, within countries such as Australia, to consume at high levels — or at least desire to do so — and to distance ourselves from the environmental and social costs, does seem to be terribly well explained by the proposition that our consciousness has gone askew.
The problem is that critiques and movements that have utilised this way of thinking have failed dismally in the past to relate to the nuances of everyday life, to get people to think about that life and to bring about change. In short, the pathologising strategy does not have much of a history of intellectual prescience or political success.
By the 1980s, ‘false consciousness’ had largely disappeared from the left/liberal lexicon, but the idea never really went away. Its full return in the guise of affluenza is thus no surprise. Nor is the fact that it runs into the problems of old. Here, as in all such social diagnostics, the people are both the problem and the hope. They are simultaneously the thing despised, or at best pitied for their spiritless hyperconsumption, and the thing lauded for their banked-on ability to change. Affluenza, the idea, thus delivers a double whammy of retrograde sociology and, sometimes, smug politics: it blithely rekindles the pathology of the purchase and the cherished left/liberal dichotomy between the smart and the dumb, the rational non-consumer and the neuron-free shopper.
The alternative to this simplism, however, is expressly not to run back to a wishy-washy non-judgementalism in which we seek to understand every little subjective complexity and contextualised reason as to why we consume. That would leave us with a bland ethnography of consumption and little structural politics at all. Indeed, few writers now push the shopping as popular resistance line of argument, not least because it has become somewhat dubious to myopically insist that an individual forges an identity, expresses revolt, or gives life to subversive desires through the commodity. Social critique in the age of anti-globalisation has to be more broadly political than this and to consider the impact of consumption beyond the confines of the local and the subjective. But such a broader, renewed politics of consumption might also need to think very seriously about any easy return to strategies of old, and to question the current penchant within recent critiques of consumerism for the medical metaphor.
The real strength of the recently renewed critique of overconsumption does not come from its diagnostics but from its delineation of what overconsumption does, or possibly does, socially, personally and environmentally. Affluenza is doomed to become an honoured member of the pantheon of glib concepts. But, in contrast, the current re-emphasis on the dynamic between nature and industrial culture, production and consumption, and the material and human worlds has real content and a power to mean something to people, to say something that is, if not new, at least about an energetic renewal of oppositional ways of thinking and living. What it renews is a sense that commodities have biographies — from the precious resources used in their production, to the often exploitative work involved in their making, to the logic of profit involved in their selling, to the conflictual meanings surrounding their purchase, to the difficulties plaguing their disposal.
To be sure, many of the solutions offered within recent critiques of Western over-consumption are as underformulated as the flight to pathology. But this does not devalue the essential message conveyed in the work of some of the more thoughtful writers on the current high levels of Western consumption such as Juliet Schor in the United States or Richard Eckersley and Clive Hamilton here in Australia. Whatever shortcomings mark the work of such writers, the key point that consumption matters and over-consumption matters a great deal must surely be listened to. These commentaries are also a million miles away from the timid politics of a culturalist reading of consumption that, by the late 1990s, had left itself with nothing else to say other than that consuming was a complex social activity. It is complex, and this is what is irritatingly overlooked within so many of the recent tomes on the evils of shopping. But then at least the new politics of consumption delivers a somewhat more confronting story.
The new critique of consumerism is in fact an indication of the ‘after theory’ return to politics identified by the British writer Terry Eagleton, among others. As Eagleton has recently observed, there is an unmistakable left/liberal return now to discussing fundamental questions of morality, nature, biology, religion and humanity both within and outside the academy, and doing so in a manner that does not fall back on a safe, complacent cultural constructionism or a depthless moral relativism. Importantly, this is evidenced not only within public intellectual discourses such as those over globalisation and overconsumption, but also within high theory itself, where there has been a vigorous and fruitful return to questions of the body, nature, time and the politics of change.
But the question here is about the exact nature of any such return to the political, and this is where the affluenza analysts go terribly wrong. All the talk of affluenza simply mirrors rather than reformulates a politics of consumption that saw its heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s with the publication of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, J.K. Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. These were formidable critiques, but for a different world, a different time. If the new anti-consumerism wants to present a newly calibrated critique, to present new possibilities, then it must break the mirror and reflect on its own ways of understanding the world it wants to challenge. This means imagining and utilising different and divergent ways of addressing consumerism, not simply recycling the old through an all-too-quick grab for easy pathological fictions.
Kim Humphery teaches in the School of Social Science and Planning at RMIT University and is conducting an Australian Research Council funded project on anti-consumerism in the contemporary West. For more information go to http://www.rmit.edu.au/anticonsumerism