Opening Remarks for Being Human in a Consumer Society Experts Meeting
Ana Marta González
A couple of weeks ago, one Spanish national newspaper opened its front page with huge headlines: “HOLIDAYS THREATENED”.
The headline was meant to announce the upcoming strike of airport workers during Easter vacation, and also during crucial days in the summer. While this is worrying from many points of view –especially for those people who make a living from tourism— the interesting point here is that the accent was placed on the fact that our holidays -our free time - were threatened. Thus, the most salient element in this piece of news was the consumerist side of society –the highlighting of our consumerist selves— even if the consumerist side could hardly live without the productive side –which also makes up an important part of our selves.
We seem to live peacefully with this fact, and, for the most part, are not ashamed of describing our society as a consumers’ society, even if, at times, we regret that many valuable things –especially human beings and human relations— are treated as just another consumer good; even if we are increasingly aware of the danger that the aggregate effect of our peacefully enjoyed consumer practices may have on the environment and o
n the working conditions of people living on the other side of the world.
Taking these worries seriously into account, however, could explain the title of this experts meeting, whose very phrasing seems to suggest that it is difficult, if not heroic, to maintain one’s humanity in a consumer society. Conflicting interpretations of consumer society
Indeed, as we know, there are many social analysts who would subscribe to this view: taking their impulse from classical social theories of modernization, they recognize a dark, anti-human, side in the advance of market rationality, and its consumerist counterpart, which they see mostly in terms of “colonization” of spheres which should
follow a different logic.
While the way this normative element is accounted for remains a matter of dispute, the persuasion that unites all of these theorists can be summarized by saying: Instrumental rationality, on the one hand, and hedonistic enjoyment, on the other, are somehow eroding communal life and moral reason.
To the extent that consumption is seen fundamentally as part of a system that follows patterns of instrumental rationality, these critical theorists tend to consider the expansion of consumption –the transition from a so-called productive capitalism to a consumer capitalism— as a further, if alluring and more seductive, threat to humanity, a new sort of “totalitarianism”, as Baudrillard would put it.
On the other side of the spectrum defined by this very conceptual frame, however, we find theorists who, if they do not celebrate, they at least recognize and legitimize the modern pattern of consumption as a way of expressing aspects of our personality –our identity— which were kept in check under the former regime of productive capitalism. These theorists have shown that the contemporary phenomenon of consumption cannot be adequately approached merely in terms of instrumental or utilitarian rationality or as a function of the market system, since it incorporates an expressive
element on the part of the agent, which exceeds the mere satisfaction of needs.
Although those theorists who privilege a macro-structural approach to the phenomenon of consumption, along Veblen’s lines, are inclined to interpret this “expressive element” as a latent function of consumption (as in Merton’s account) in terms of (unconscious) expression of social status; others, more prone to adopt the perspective of the agent, insist that consumers’ choices can only be properly understood insofar as we enter into their motivations and reasons. They thus take into account the various cultural traditions and ideals informing agents’ personal mindset, as well as the social conventions which these agents have to manipulate in order to adjust to different social contexts.
All these positions, I think, are more than sufficiently represented in this experts meeting, in the papers by Campbell, Ritzer and Mestrovic, and there are reasons to think that we will have time for passionate debates over these days, which we hope will lead us to a better grasp of each other’s positions. Thus, all I want to do with these introductory remarks is to offer what I think may be the philosophical background for framing this debate. An ethico-political frame for the economy
The fact that important aspects of human life can be threatened by an overwhelming desire for material goods is not a new concept. This was part of the reason for Aristotle’s cautionary remarks against what he termed as “unnatural chrematistics”, that is, the desire of acquiring wealth far beyond what is necessary to lead a good life.
By contrast, “natural chrematistics”, that is, the art of acquisition aimed at providing for daily human needs, is for Aristotle an integral part of “economy”, literally understood as “household management.” Economy refers then to the administration of property, which is necessary for a fully human life. A “fully human life” for Aristotle is a life not merely confined to the realm of such economic or domestic activities, but also engaged in actions and projects valuable in themselves, actions and projects which lead us far beyond our own particular interests, and help us develop a practical concern for the public good.
As for the more particular question, regarding how much –how many goods— are actually necessary to lead such a life, Aristotle did not have a quantitative
answer, but a qualitative one: he pointed to the difference between being driven by a desire to live, and being driven by a desire to live well
, for which both political freedom and virtue are requisite. While this qualitative answer allows for different levels of wealth and even luxury depending on the context, Aristotle did assert that “the amount
of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited” (Pol. I, 8, 1256 b 14).
Implicit, of course, was the idea that political freedom –which he clearly understood not as negative but as positive freedom, in Berlin’s sense— is threatened as soon as citizens are tempted to replace their concern for the public good with a concern for their own private interests. I would say that this worry is also to be detected in Efrat and Tal’s papers. At any rate, it was because of this that Aristotle posited that the economy and market activity belong to the private sphere.
As we know, liberal thinkers have always rejected this view, seeing Aristotle as a primitive enemy of the market. However, Aristotle himself held this opinion and, at the same time, recognized that the sort of reciprocity we find in the market is one of the sources of unity in the city
. The point, of course, is that while private property introduces social difference, the exchange
of property in the market does generate something resembling a common good, a sort of reciprocity –not equivalent to justice.
Both points are worth considering, because they remind us of the possible meaning of a human, ethical, context for economic activity, sketching simultaneously the micro and the macro conditions for it. From the perspective of the agent we certainly need moral virtue, as Pablo stresses in his paper, but this cannot be realized entirely apart from a governing idea of what is a good human life; and given man’s social and political nature, neither this idea nor its realization depends merely on the individual alone, but also on the nature of social and political relations. While human flourishing crucially depends on personal decisions, these decisions are framed within the context of a family and a political society, under the influence of certain ideas and values.
Looking at present consumer societies from this Aristotelian perspective, then, one is tempted to say that the very growth of market activity not only has transformed the language of human interactions, but has problematized the autonomy of the political realm, which is supposedly in charge of granting equality and freedom to all citizens before the law. The process, however, is an ambivalent one.
On the one hand, the very growth of the market has increased the intensity of the sort of reciprocal relations –do ut des
— which make up civil society, creating a rich and dense web of human interdependence, revolving around the exchange of goods and services. As a result, market rationality permeates our everyday life in ways which make it very difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the human from the economic side of our interactions for the very simple reason that human relations are usually mediated by material objects. Thus, our humanity often seems to speak the language of the economy, even when it wants to express a reality beyond the economy, for instance through gifts. Allison and Roberta’s papers make this very clear.
Yet, on the other hand, the advent of a consumer society is not merely the discovery that consumption has become a prominent language in our relation to the world. If this were the whole story, we could perhaps conclude that the increase of consumption does not threaten humanity in any meaningful sense. However, consumer society has another more worrying side to it, namely, the ethical disconnection between the acts of individual consumption and the aggregate effects of those very acts. The ethical disconnection between acts of individual consumption and their aggregate effects
The complexity of our societies does not allow for a clear recognition of the connection between individual actions and common goods and “bads”; we are supposed to rely on experts, whose opinions very often are contradictory; we are supposed to rely on politicians, which is also a daring thing to do. Further, we are supposed to do so within a political frame which verbally rests upon the defence of individual rights, and the deliberate renunciation of articulating any notion of the public common good.
It was Thomas Hobbes who first expelled considerations of happiness from the realm of politics and made them a mere private matter, having mostly to do with attaining the objects of one’s desire. In chapter 11 of Leviathan
“The felicity of this life, consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus
, utmost aim, nor summum bonum
, greatest good, as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he, whose senses and imaginations are at stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter…”
In sharp contrast with Aristotle, for whom desire for a good life, and hence an anticipatory representation of it, constitutes a necessary precondition for ethical activity, Hobbes advises us not to dwell much on those sorts of general ideas and focus instead on the particular desires implicit in the most mundane choices. The very dynamics of desire mobilizes our senses and imagination, and it is this mobilization that we need to feel alive. This granted, felicity –he says- is nothing other than: “Continual success in obtaining those things which a man from time to time desireth, that is to say, continual prospering… (…) life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense”
While any Aristotelian philosopher would like to contest this characterization of life simply in terms of “motion”, the truth is that Hobbes’ approach represents an early modern philosophical legitimization of the activities leading to the development of the market and, ultimately, to the success of consumer societies. This account, at least in this respect, is not contested by the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Drawing on Hobbes words anyone could conclude that fostering desire is a way of fostering human life, and, likewise, increasing the ways of satisfying desire is a way of increasing all the felicity that man can expect in this life.
Now, how could we possibly object to this account? Once we have abandoned the ethico-political frame assumed by Aristotle, his crucial, qualitative distinction between the desire to live
and the desire to live well
is difficult to apply. Why should I limit my desires as long as they do not endanger anyone’s life? While one can still try to be individually temperate and sober, the reasons to be so would seem no longer supported by ideas of a common political good; while each can follow his desires according to his own subjective ideal of the imagination –as Kant would put it— there is no public reason strong enough to move me, to oblige me, in that direction. Within a Hobessian framework, as the one incorporated in our political system, the only possible ground for a common action in this regard would be the awareness that our physical lives were threatened by the ever growing desire.
Now, while this is perhaps the scenery some cultural critics are trying to unveil today, it is not entirely clear how to argue for it. Although we can certainly point at the fact that the acceleration of the dynamics of desire in one part of the world has a negative impact in another part of the world, this sort of argument rarely moves the individual agent who has more particular and possibly more pressing reasons for pursuing his or her desires, and is bound to experience any invitation to limit his expenses as an illegitimate limitation of his freedom.Balance
While consumer society may be just a way of stressing the fact that we have come to express our selves increasingly through consumption acts –something which is not necessarily negative—, it is also true that it puts before our eyes certain ethical challenges of a global dimension. Are we perhaps facing the limits of a typically modern western approach to social and political life? While the structure of ethical responsibilities in this regard is no clearer than the structure of globalization itself, the ethical perplexities we are facing certainly require deep reflection on our consumer practices.
I am sure that our discussions here will enlighten this reflection.
“Hence some persons are led to believe that getting wealth is the object of household management, and the whole idea of their lives is that they ought either to increase their money without limit, or at any rate not to lose it. The origin of this disposition in men is that they are intent upon living only, and not upon living well; and, as their desires are unlimited they also desire that the means of gratifying them should be without limit”. Pol. I, 9, 1257 b 15- 1258 a 16.
See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, V, 5.
Hobbes, Th., Leviatán, Chapter 11, part 1, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, ed. Sir William Molesworth, London: John Bohn, 1839, vol. III, Second Reprint 1966, Darmstadt: Scientia Verlag Aalen, p. 85.
Hobbes, Leviatán, chapter 6, p. 51.