The End of the Consumerist Model

A political and economic imperative.

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 This ensemble has until recently formed the basis for consumerism, yet today it is obsolete, a fact which became clear during the autumn of 2008.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.