The Big Ideas of 2012

The End of the Consumerist Model

A political and economic imperative.
The End of the Consumerist Model

Nick Whalen

Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download

I am writing these reflections in the midst of economic and political debates taking place throughout the world about the necessity of implementing stimulus plans to limit the destructive effects of the First planetary economic crisis of the capitalist world.

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Now when, in such debates, “investment stimulus” and “consumption stimulus” are spoken of in opposing terms, two distinct questions become confused, questions that, in fact, do require simultaneous treatment, yet according to two different scales of time, a difficulty which is all the greater, given that the present crisis heralds the end of the consumerist model.

Those who advocate stimulating consumption as the path to economic recovery want neither to hear nor speak about the end of consumerism. Yet, those who advocate stimulating investment are no more willing to call the consumerist industrial model into question. The French version of “stimulating investment” (which seems more subtle when it comes from Barack Obama) argues that the best way to save consumption is through investment, that is, by restoring “profitability,” which will in turn restore an entrepreneurial dynamism itself founded upon consumerism and its counterpart, market-driven productivism.

In other words, this “investment” produces no long-term view capable of drawing any lessons from the collapse of an industrial model based on the automobile, on oil, and on the construction of highway networks, as well as on the Hertzian networks of the culture industries. This ensemble has until recently formed the basis for consumerism, yet today it is obsolete, a fact which became clear during the autumn of 2008. Frankly speaking, this “investment” is not an investment: it is on the contrary a disinvestment, an abdication which consists in doing no more than burying one’s head in the sand.

This “investment policy,” which has no goal other than the reconstitution of the consumerist model, is the translation of a moribund ideology. It is a desperate attempt to prolong the life of a model which has become self-destructive by denying and concealing for as long as possible the fact that the consumerist model is now massively toxic (a toxicity extending far beyond the question of “toxic assets”) because it has reached its limits. This denial is a matter of trying, for as long as possible, to maintain the colossal profits that can be accrued by those capable of exploiting the toxicity of consumerism.

The consumerist model has reached its limits because it has become systemically short-termist, because it has given rise to a systemic stupidity that structurally prevents the reconstitution of a long-term horizon. This “investment” is not an investment according to any terms other than those of pure accounting: it is a pure and simple reestablishment of the state of things, trying to rebuild the industrial landscape without at all changing its structure, still less its axioms, all in the hope of protecting income levels that had hitherto been achievable.

Such may be the hope, but these are the false hopes of those with buried heads. The genuine object of debate raised by the crisis ought to be how to overcome the short-termism to which we have been led by a consumerism intrinsically destructive of all genuine investment, that is, of investment in the future, a short-termism which has systemically, and not accidentally, been translated into the decomposition of investment into speculation.

Whether we must, in order to avoid a major economic catastrophe, and to attenuate the social injustice caused by the crisis, stimulate consumption and the economic machine such as it still is, is a question as urgent as it is legitimate so long as such a policy does not simply aggravate the situation at the cost of millions and billions of euros or dollars while at the same time masking the true question, which is to produce a vision and a political will capable of progressively moving away from the economico-political complex of consumption so as to enter into the complex of a new type of investment. This new kind of investment must be a social and political investment or, in other words, an investment in a common desire, what Aristotle called philia, and which would then form the basis of a new type of economic investment.

Between the absolute urgency which obviously imposes the imperative of salvaging the present situation and of avoiding the passage from a global economic crisis to a global political crisis that might yet unleash military conflicts of global dimensions and the absolute necessity that consists in producing a potential future in the form of a political and social will capable of making a break with the present situation there is clearly a contradiction. Such a contradiction is characteristic of what happens to a dynamic system (in this case, the industrial system and the global capitalist system) once it has begun to mutate.

This question is political as much as it is economic. It is a question of political economy, a matter of knowing in what precisely this mutation consists, and to what political, but also industrial, choices it leads. It is a matter of knowing what new industrial politics is required.

Only such a response is capable of simultaneously dealing with the question of what urgent and immediate steps are necessary in order to salvage the industrial system, and with the question of how such steps must be inscribed within an economic and political mutation amounting to a revolution – if it is true that when a model has run its course, then its transformation, through which alone it can avoid total destruction, constitutes a revolution.

Bernard Stiegler taught himself philosophy while imprisoned for armed robbery between 1978 and 1983. He has since become a leading French philosopher of technology. This article was adapted from his recent book, For a New Critique of Political Economy.

88 comments on the article “The End of the Consumerist Model”

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Anonymous

People have the right to make individual choices. Switching banks is like switching between credit cards because you want to pay less interest. It's just a different option.

For me a fair business is one that doesn't have a parasitic relationship with it's workers and where the workers don't have a parasitic relationship with the business. The worker is able to meet the employer's needs most of the time and the employer is able to meet the worker's needs most of the time. It's a pretty balanced relationship. A pact. A basic respect for each other as people who both need to put food on the table and understand they have to work together.

The more "life" your business has, the more likely it is to be productive because your workers are healthier.
They want to be there, they feel good about what they do, they like who they work with and work for, and that shows.

Healthy people drive productivity.

Anonymous

People have the right to make individual choices. Switching banks is like switching between credit cards because you want to pay less interest. It's just a different option.

For me a fair business is one that doesn't have a parasitic relationship with it's workers and where the workers don't have a parasitic relationship with the business. The worker is able to meet the employer's needs most of the time and the employer is able to meet the worker's needs most of the time. It's a pretty balanced relationship. A pact. A basic respect for each other as people who both need to put food on the table and understand they have to work together.

The more "life" your business has, the more likely it is to be productive because your workers are healthier.
They want to be there, they feel good about what they do, they like who they work with and work for, and that shows.

Healthy people drive productivity.

Meltdown

Unfortunately most of the people commenting on this blog are filled with unhealthy hatred and are only looking to critisize and insult one another.

God bless your rotten black hearts.

Meltdown

Unfortunately most of the people commenting on this blog are filled with unhealthy hatred and are only looking to critisize and insult one another.

God bless your rotten black hearts.

Anonymous

Family time, time to talk about extraterrestrial life while high, putting around the garage building stuff time, learning new stuff time, need to be integrated into the measure of GDP to reflect a country's real state of development.

Anonymous

Family time, time to talk about extraterrestrial life while high, putting around the garage building stuff time, learning new stuff time, need to be integrated into the measure of GDP to reflect a country's real state of development.

Anonymous

At best, this article would earn a C in an Econ 101 class. What a sad, sophomoric polemical effort. Complete lack of coherence and cohesion. Nice sentences, but they don't mean anything. Too bad, really.

Just a brief example:

"Only such a response is capable of simultaneously dealing with the question of what urgent and immediate steps are necessary in order to salvage the industrial system, and with the question of how such steps must be inscribed within an economic and political mutation amounting to a revolution – if it is true that when a model has run its course, then its transformation, through which alone it can avoid total destruction, constitutes a revolution."

See what I mean? Plenty of fluff and lofty-sounding words, but no depth or any real ideas. Just tautological meandering around the edges of what might amount to a philosophical position in the hands of a more mature writer and thinker.

So sad. So very, very sad.

Anonymous

At best, this article would earn a C in an Econ 101 class. What a sad, sophomoric polemical effort. Complete lack of coherence and cohesion. Nice sentences, but they don't mean anything. Too bad, really.

Just a brief example:

"Only such a response is capable of simultaneously dealing with the question of what urgent and immediate steps are necessary in order to salvage the industrial system, and with the question of how such steps must be inscribed within an economic and political mutation amounting to a revolution – if it is true that when a model has run its course, then its transformation, through which alone it can avoid total destruction, constitutes a revolution."

See what I mean? Plenty of fluff and lofty-sounding words, but no depth or any real ideas. Just tautological meandering around the edges of what might amount to a philosophical position in the hands of a more mature writer and thinker.

So sad. So very, very sad.

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