Saturday, July 21, 2018

Consumer Politics: If You Want a Better World, Support Your Political Party

Tony Judt was one of our more astute observers of society and history.  As he lay dying from ALS his mind remained clear as his body failed him.  He managed to produce two books and contribute the majority of a third during that period.  Perhaps his most popular effort in an impressive career was the history he documented of the emergence of the great democratic states of Europe from the tragedy of World War II.  He had commented often on the sadness of watching nations that once believed “we are all in this together” and created great and just societies based on that principle slowly sink into the nastiness inherent in neoliberal economics.  In his book Ill Fares the Land (2010) he provided this assessment of where we stood at that time.

“We no longer have political movements.  While thousands of us may come together for a rally or a march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest.  Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns.  Laudable goals—fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers—are united by nothing more than the expression of emotion.  In our political, as in our economic lives, we have become consumers: choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole.  We must do better than this.”

Since that time, a number of studies have discussed our “fragmented individualism” as a way of explaining why interest in the traditional work of political parties has waned—along with their effectiveness.  Wolfgang Streeck produced a particularly insightful examination of citizens as “consumers of politics.”  His contribution was an essay titled “Citizens as Customers: Considerations on the New Politics of Consumption.  This work was part of a collection of articles included in Streeck’s book How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System. 

In Streeck’s telling, the postwar years were an era of prodigious demand for industrial goods.  Recovering from wartime destruction combined with pent-up postwar demand and augmented by the demographic transition from rural to urban and industrial settings, industries were faced with the need to mass produce cars, washing machines and such as quickly as possible.  This situation led to the production of large numbers of simply designed items that were required to be cheap and robust—an approach referred to as “Fordism” after the US automobile manufacturer.  Product differentiation was minimal.  Wages and profits soared in this era.

By the 1970s, supply would begin to catch up with demand and levels of economic growth could not be maintained.  What was necessary for manufacturers to sustain their profitability was the transition from an economy based on meeting the population’s needs to one based on meeting the population’s desires.  Augmenting the workforce with women and the option of moving production to lands with a cheaper workforce kept wage costs low.  Meanwhile, new technologies simplified the manufacturing process, making it more flexible.  It became cost-effective to allow significant variations within a product line.  This provided consumers the ability to select features that were important to them but varied from the default version of the item.

“Product differentiation matched manufactured goods—and increasingly, services—more closely to individual consumers’ particular utility functions.  At the same time, it enabled and encouraged consumers to refine that function, by developing or paying more attention to their individual wants, on top of the common needs served by standardized products.”

“What made the customization of product ranges economically attractive, and eventually helped capitalist economies move on from the stagnation of the 1970s, was the degree to which it increased the value-added of industrial production: the closer products came to the specific preferences of consumers, the more consumers turned out to be willing to pay—and, indeed, the harder they were prepared to work and the more they were prepared to borrow for the purchasing power needed to participate in the new paradigm of economic growth, with the transition it involved from saturated to affluent markets.”

This stage in economic evolution was accompanied by dramatic changes in society and in our political lives.  When there were only a few television shows to watch, only a few types of cars to choose from, and product choice was driven more by need than individual choice, societies were much more universally connected by shared experiences.  There was less opportunity for one to differentiate one’s self from others.  Similarly, in politics, association with a political party involved less opportunity for individual expression and demanded a loyalty to a set of common goals.

With the coming of broad product differentiation, selection of a particular product in the marketplace became a means of broadcasting a message as to what kind of person we were.  The message sent would align with messages being sent by others, but the number of others would be limited.  And the ties with others with similar interests and tastes would be limited as well. 

“The vast variety of alternative possibilities of consumption in affluent post-Fordist markets provides a mechanism that allows people to conceive of an act of purchase—concluding, as it often does, a lengthy period of introspective exploration of one’s very personal preferences—as an act of self-identification and self-presentation, one that sets the individual apart from some social groups while uniting him or her with others.”

“Sociation by consumption, then, is monological rather than dialogical in nature, voluntary rather than obligatory, individual rather than collective.”

“Since communities of consumption are much easier to abandon than traditional ‘real’ communities, social identities become structured by weaker and looser ties, allowing individuals to surf from one identity to the next, free from any pressure to explain themselves.”

These conditions are to be compared with the demands of a political community as instantiated by a political party.

“Unlike the highly flexible communities of choice that emerge in societies governed by advanced patterns of consumption, political communities are basically communities of fate.  At their core, they ask members to not insist on their separate individuality but to accept a collectively shared identity, integrating the former into the latter.  Compared to market relations, political relations are therefore by necessity rigid and persistent; they emphasize, and must emphasize, strong ties of duty rather than weak ties of choice.  They are obligatory rather than voluntary, dialogical rather than monological, demanding sacrifices in utility and effort; and they insist on loyalty—providing, in terms of Albert Hirschman, opportunities for ‘voice,’ while frowning upon ‘exit’.”

The above analysis leads to the conclusion that citizens grown used to highly personalized consumer decisions will carry over that mode of operation into their public, political lives.  That is essentially the observation by Judt with which we began.  Interests and enthusiasms come and go, and we think as individuals instead of as members of a collective.  But we are members of a collective and must relearn how to behave as such.

History tells us that most political change/progress comes when society is presented with a threat—particularly one that is existential in nature.  In the United States the existential threat was the Great Depression.  For Europe it was World War II.  In both instances, political changes ushered in greater prosperity and improved economic equality.  Consumerism, neoliberal propaganda, and other developments have weakened that sense of being members of a collective. 

It seems the liberal party has been more affected by consumerism than the alternative one.  Think of the Bernie Sanders supporters who were unwilling to accept an alternate candidate and chose to either not vote or vote for a third-party candidate.  That was not a vote wasted as a sign of rebellion, it was equivalent to a vote for Donald Trump.  It is those who believe in a liberal democracy who have become unreliable; those driven by fear, hatred, or greed never waver.

Those of us who believe in a liberal democracy face an existential threat.  Trump and his supporters want to make the nation into something foreign and undemocratic.  All that is necessary to counter this is to show up and vote.  We must forget our disappointment that pet projects are not perceived as being of high priority.  We must forget that our candidates are not perfect.  We must demonstrate military discipline because we are engaged in a war.  We must assume that survival of our way of life is at stake.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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