Production and Consumption; or, Modernity as Civilizing and De-Civilizing

The question of whether to “privilege” production or consumption seems to have been definitively laid to rest—it was originally a Marxist inspired debate that became tangled and paradoxical to the point of incoherence when even Marx pushed the terms a bit further: the producer consumes in order to produce, consumption is a kind of production (of “labor power”), etc. While as an economic question, there may not be anywhere to go with production vs. consumption, as a political question interest in the question seemed to have faded because consumption has won the argument: who disputes that we live in a consumer society, that the consumer is king, etc.? But perhaps there are grounds for reopening the argument. I remember a brief debate on a Sunday morning talk show long ago (in the 90s, I suppose) between Patrick Buchanan and George Will, in which Will made the seemingly airtight case for free trade by pointing to the lower prices it made possible. Buchanan interrupted him with the assertion that “we are not just consumers, George,” but, rather, workers and citizens. And “worker” (producer) does seem to be far more conjoined to “citizen” than does “consumer.” Of course, Will’s point was true for the working class as well—perhaps even more importantly true for those who gained access to all kinds of previously unavailable consumer goods from outlet stores like WalMart due to trade with and investment in Third World countries with far cheaper labor. But that doesn’t settle things, if that trade and investment costs at least some of those WalMart shoppers their jobs, and if the independence, self-respect and community participation that comes from having a job are “goods” to be place in the balance against those purchased at Wal-Mart.

If we return to the mapping of American classes by the ArchDruid blog I have now referred to a couple of times, the argument for consumption is an argument for the salaried classes, and the argument for production one for the waged class. Of course, plenty of salaried employees are “productive” (engineers, technicians, etc.) while plenty of the waged are “unproductive” according to more Marxian criteria, while also catering more to “consumerism” (say, baristas at Starbucks). We will never be able to make these terms stay in one place. If we accept a little metaphorical stretching, though, we might be able to say that the salaried classes are comprised of those who differentiate themselves from each other and other classes through their consumption, while the waged classes express class solidarity and resentment towards the higher classes through their consumption. The consumption of the waged, that is, resists the consumerism of the salaried aimed at generating differences, and references a productive identity grounded in physical labor, or physicality and communality more generally. Other than the massive exception of immigration, and the possible exception (of which I am skeptical but willing to be proven wrong) of rejiggering international trade relations, I don’t think there is much that politics can do to support the productivist consumerism of the waged.

But, it is easy to say (it must be, because I see leftists saying it all the time), contrary to these sentimentalizing stereotypes of the working class, the waged are more likely to be obese, more likely to have loose morals and living habits (more divorce, more children out of wedlock, more cohabitation, etc.), to be drug addicted, on welfare and disability, and so on. To the extent that this is true, it seems to me to support an argument regarding the destructive effects of consumerism on the waged in particular. The disciplining of the working class over the past couple of centuries in Western societies has been one of the great subjects of the social sciences, the arts, and entertainment: there is no more familiar pop cultural cliché than the closed-minded and repressed majority group (white) worker who ultimately wreaks some kind of terrible destruction on himself and others. It doesn’t seem to me that too many people have thought to ask what might happen when the disciplining stopped, or stopped working. Even a rearguard action aimed at restoring this discipline along with even a somewhat, or provisionally, improved employment environment is worth the effort—first, because the more pessimistic analyses might be wrong; second, because it might buy us some desperately needed time.

But the sidelining of the “productive” or industrial working class is a side effect of much larger developments—if the workers have been shunted aside by the investors and ignored by the salaried, it must be because they were neither particularly indispensable nor a force to be reckoned with in the first place. The overall trajectory of Western capitalism is towards fewer and fewer people producing for more and more people. I have recently seen the proposal for free education made (by whom, I can’t remember—maybe all the way back to McLuhan?) on the basis of the following calculation: if you send a thousand children to school for free it will pay for itself because at least one of those thousand children will create something that will support the other 999. If that’s not exactly true, it certainly represents the general direction in which we are heading. (Which would mean that the class of “innovators,” too small, apparently, even to rate a mention by ArchDruid, are in a way more important than all the rest.) This means a very high (perhaps very specialized, but the capacity for specialization at a high level itself requires intense disciplining) level of discipline is required for a few but little or none is needed for most. Of course, we can’t know in advance who those few are, so it will make sense to keep up disciplining for most or all, at least until aptitude tests can sort out the probabilities (which is by around first grade already, isn’t it?), but what will be the motivation to sustain the notion of disciplining oneself for a 1/1000 chance of success and usefulness? In this context, all the contemporary conflicts over the American worker are a distraction. Here, in fact, we may have one of Marx’s predictions, the one, in fact, that was the basis of his communist optimism, that has come true: if producing goods, even luxury goods, is so cheap and requires so little labor, the only thing that prevents everyone from having plenty without doing much or any work is the system of private property. Wouldn’t a situation in which, say, cars cost 5 dollars to make, but since it is automation and the elimination of workers which makes them so cheap, there are no jobs, even those which pay 1$ a year, so no one can actually afford the cars, be absolutely ridiculous?

According to Austrian economics, there can never be “real” unemployment (that is, employment not caused by government imposed mechanisms such as the minimum wage)—in other words, there will always be someone who wants something done for which they are willing to pay that 1$ a year. In the long run, that may be true, but there is no guarantee regarding the kind of jobs we’re talking about—if the only work available is brushing the dust off the shoulders of rich men’s coats, we may have a free and even prosperous society, but not one with much dignity. These are extreme examples, of course, but that’s the best way to bring larger trends into focus. We could say that people will get smarter and more will be capable of handling the advanced programming and designing work that will be the genuinely “productive” work in such an order (perhaps it will be considered necessary to employ eugenics), but there’s no reason to assume they’ll be enough of that work even for the highly intelligent. The highly intelligent, though, might at least be expected to find stimulating ways to spend their time—others will have to be provided with ever more stupefying modes of entertainment. Surely many of them will become dangerous—perhaps the tiny productive ruling class would have to live behind high walls.

The more immediate problem is addressing the resentments that result from bad and often malicious policy making, for sure, but ultimately by economic and technological developments that are beyond anyone’s control and yet might well inflate those resentments beyond any conceivable remedy. When you see assertions like “American manufacturing jobs have been cut to 1/3 of their previous level since NAFTA” it’s easy to forget that many of those jobs would have been outmoded by now anyway. Even granting they were “lost” to China et al, if they had stayed here automation would have just been accelerated, perhaps costing lots of other jobs as well. There’s no reason to assume that “manufacturing” and “industry” were anything more than a couple of centuries transition from agriculture to information.

To propose solutions to these problems would be to make oneself look like a ridiculous futurist (by 2050, flying cars will shuttle us from our floating, solar-powered dwellings to…). The solutions will have to be proposed and struggled over (and, mostly, staggered towards) by those confronting them. For now, we can try to observant enough to notice everything (all the norms and institutions) that is likely to be shaken loose as we proceed. But we can also stay focused on defending civilization, always a complicated matter, as civilization is itself intrinsically experimental. In any given practice, association, institution or discipline, we are always on the verge of either adding or subtracting an increment of discipline. We can resist the subtraction and promote the addition, even if we don’t quite know what for or for how many—the “base” or “constituency” here comprises those, certainly a minority, who find self-discipline intrinsically liberating and a source of other liberations (moral, intellectual, economic, cultural). But this approach involves defending the terms upon which such determinations can be made—that is, it involves keeping “social justice” at bay. Aside from all the reasons we can easily bring to mind for resisting the victimary, a more neglected reason is that only by pulverizing the anti-discrimination ideology can differences emerge and flourish—sexual differences, ethnic, national and racial differences, for sure, but also, simply, differences in style, interest, talent, risk aversion, tolerance for novelty, etc. Among the opportunity costs of the victimary are surely all the forms of association and cooperation, and all the ways of designing living and working spaces and communities, including the ways of facilitating the fuller participation of the less intelligent and less talented, that might have been invented if the victimary censorship module had been shut down (and we didn’t have to pretend that differences in intelligence and talent were irrelevant or non-existent). How much energy has been drained by the anxiety over the fear of discovering that one has in fact been (or inadvertently will be) racist or sexist in some hitherto unknown way—and not just over the past 10 years, but over the past 50 or so, because the societal mobilization to hound the “prejudiced” goes back at least that far. (It’s interesting to look back at what the visionaries of the 60s, like Buckminster Fuller, had in mind for us, plans they expected to come to fruition within a couple of decades. Were they just fantasists, or did social priorities get disastrously misaligned? Perhaps a nationalist, alt-right position can get the best of all worlds—support both civilization and the working class here and now, while opening some space for the transformations that will make these problems disappear—to be replaced by other problems, surely.) Which is, again, to say that destroying the victimocracy is the problem of problems—only by solving that one can we even hope to take on all the others.

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