We are taught by Lury, perhaps rightly so, that there is no one all-encompassing theory about consumption. Consumer culture is not entirely the result of changes in the organization of production and exchange of goods. And it doesn’t need to feed perpetually into a system where one class dominates the rest and social inequalities abound. That, at least, is the premise of concepts like “the active consumer” and “prosumption” – ways to bring power and meaning-making to the mass of people on the receiving end of capitalist production. But is that really such a good lesson? Perhaps choice, appropriation, and empowerment are like what Lury describes as a belief in the spirit of things – “a collective self-deception, a false representation, masking the effects of exchange and legitimizing the inequalities of our social order”.

The origins of the active consumer began with a practice described as “positional consumption”. A precursor to the idea of “prosumption”, it was how the leisure class of the early 20th century established their dominant social status as having good taste through the consumption of material goods they saw as “refined” or “cultivated”, and the rejection of other goods that were deemed “cheap” or “vulgar”. This created iniquitous social boundaries that perpetuated themselves with the self-reinforcing tastes of their captives. As time went on, however, more and more people outside the walls of the leisure class began their own material status posturing – what Hirsch described as the “democratization” of positional consumption.

Distressingly, Hirsch thought that “if goods function primarily as symbols, and all groups of individuals use them to establish distinctions between themselves and others groups… then there are, in principle, no limits to consumer demand.” Essentially, people will seek to differentiate themselves from others by purchasing material goods – and with the goods a symbolic position of status. There can be as many goods demanded as there are differences between people – which are many. And of course, much of the consumption will be in effort to emulate the refined or dominant classes. The possibility is also raised by Campbell that in addition to being motivated by status and envy, people are motivated to consume by pleasure. Yet he still ends with the same conclusion of never ending consumption.

He says that this is because in a modern consumer culture, where hedonism is a prime motivator, people experience a longing for “those pleasures created or enjoyed in imagination, a longing which results in the ceaseless consumption of novelty.” There are few sorts of people in this country that are held in higher esteem than inventors and entrepreneurs. The pursuit of novelty is the same as the pursuit of imagination, and the producers are constantly innovating new goods and services to sell. People consume these products and in the process are disillusioned – the actual consumption fails to live up to the imagined fantasy, the expected pleasure (often stoked by seductive advertisements). Thus the modern quest for ever greater pleasure to consume is never ending.

It should be obvious for whom an unsatisfiable demand is an advantage. The prospect of perpetual consumption brings with it the prospect of perpetual profits, the principal aim of capitalist society. But on the obverse side of riches acquired in the sale of ever newer and ever more consumer goods are the negative externalities which are often ignored. We pursue an agenda of infinite growth in a world constrained by finite resources. If the modern consumer culture is allowed to persist without some fundamental change to the use of petroleum which forms its heart, arteries, and veins, it will eventually collapse – bringing the rest of society down with it.

For all the good that being a dandy – the modern heroic consumer – may be, however creative or progressive or non-conformist your Macbook may seem, however you may interpret or appropriate the meaning of your laptop – none of that changes the fact that the rare minerals in your laptop (and mine) fuel the civil war in the Congo and enrich a company whose factory workers in China have repeatedly attempted suicide due to poor working conditions. So consider carefully those who tell you that consumption is what keeps the wheels turning – the people who tell you the best way to support your fellow man is to go shopping. We must not confuse true heroism with the heroized consumer.

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