Consumption is All-consuming
By Slavoj Žižek, originally published in full at The Guardian.
What we are witnessing today is the direct commodification of our experiences themselves: what we are buying on the market is fewer and fewer products (material objects) that we want to own, and more and more life experiences—experiences of sex, eating, communicating, cultural consumption, participating in a lifestyle. Michel Foucault‘s notion of turning one’s self itself into a work of art thus gets an unexpected confirmation: I buy my bodily fitness by way of visiting fitness clubs; I buy my spiritual enlightenment by way of enrolling in the courses on transcendental meditation; I buy my public persona by way of going to the restaurants visited by people I want to be associated with.
The anti-consumerist ecology is also a case of buying authentic experience. There is something deceptively reassuring in our readiness to assume guilt for the threats to our environment: we like to be guilty since, if we are guilty, it all depends on us. We pull the strings of the catastrophe, so we can also save ourselves simply by changing our lives.
What is really difficult to accept (at least for us in the west) is that we are reduced to the impotent role of a passive observer who can only sit and watch what his fate will be. To avoid such a situation, we are prone to engage in a frantic obsessive activity, recycling old paper, buying organic food, whatever, just so that we can be sure that we are doing something, making our contribution – like a soccer fan who supports his team in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from his seat, in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome …
Is it not for the same reason that we buy organic food? Who really believes that the half-rotten and expensive “organic” apples are really healthier? The point is that, by buying them, we do not just consume a product – we simultaneously do something meaningful, show our caring selves and our global awareness and participate in a large collective project.
One should not fear denouncing sustainability itself, the big mantra of ecologists from the developed countries, as an ideological myth based on the idea of self-enclosed circulation where nothing is wasted. Upon a closer look, one can establish that “sustainability” always refers to a limited process that enforces its balance at the expense of its larger environs. Think about the proverbial sustainable house of a rich, ecologically enlightened manager, located somewhere in a green isolated valley close to a forest and lake, with solar energy, use of waste as manure, windows open to natural light, etc: the costs of building such a house (to the environment, not only financial costs) make it prohibitive to the large majority. For a sincere ecologist, the optimal habitat is a big city where millions live close together: although such a city produces a lot of waste and pollution, its per capita pollution is much lower than that of a modern family living in the countryside. How does our manager reach his office from his country house? Probably with a helicopter, to avoid polluting the grass around his house …
To recap, we thus primarily buy commodities neither on account of their utility nor as status symbols; we buy them to get the experience provided by them, we consume them in order to make our life pleasurable and meaningful.
Here is an exemplary case of “cultural capitalism”: Starbucks’ ad campaign “It’s not just what you’re buying. It’s what you’re buying into.” After celebrating the quality of the coffee itself, the ad goes on: “But, when you buy Starbucks, whether you realise it or not, you’re buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee. You’re buying into a coffee ethic. Through our Starbucks Shared Planet programme, we purchase more Fair Trade coffee than any company in the world, ensuring that the farmers who grow the beans receive a fair price for their hard work. And, we invest in and improve coffee-growing practices and communities around the globe. It’s good coffee karma. … Oh, and a little bit of the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee helps furnish the place with comfy chairs, good music, and the right atmosphere to dream, work and chat in. We all need places like that these days. When you choose Starbucks, you are buying a cup of coffee from a company that cares. No wonder it tastes so good.”
The “cultural” surplus is here spelled out: the price is higher than elsewhere since what you are really buying is the “coffee ethic” that includes care for the environment, social responsibility towards the producers, plus a place where you yourself can participate in communal life.
This is how capitalism, at the level of consumption, has integrated the legacy of 1968, the critique of alienated consumption: authentic experience matters. A recent Hilton hotels ad consists of a simple claim: “Travel doesn’t only get us from place A to place B. It should also make us a better person.” Can one even imagine such an ad a decade ago? The latest scientific expression of this “new spirit” is the rise of a new discipline, “happiness studies”—how is it that, in our era of spiritualised hedonism, when the goal of life is directly defined as happiness, anxiety and depression are exploding?
This article was originally written for and published at The Guardian, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.