Ordinary life with the consumer virus

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By DENIS DE MORAES*

Critical considerations on consumerist ideology

In memory of Alfredo Bosi.

Never has the expression “life for consumption” been so paradoxical, if we think about the very serious consequences of the pandemic, the alarming rates of unemployment and underemployment and the brutal increase in poverty and misery, especially in peripheral countries. However, the concentration of wealth, income and priority stocks of vaccines will ensure the rich countries of the Northern Hemisphere an “exuberance of consumption”, in the apologetic classification of one of the official journals of neoliberalism, the Financial Times.[1]

Global ad revenue is expected to rise by a record 14% in 2021 – the highest ever recorded by research agency Magna. Advertisers' spending is budgeted at US$ 657 billion – almost half of Brazil's mediocre Gross Domestic Product, in dollars, in 2020. The result will be achieved thanks to the avalanche of digital advertisements, electronic commerce and mobile and global content platforms on the network (Google, Facebook), streaming (Netflix) or hybrid (Amazon, Apple), which assume monopoly controls previously exclusive to corporate media.

In the context of post-pandemic economic recovery, at dramatically unequal levels between countries and regions, the intensification of consumerist appeals remains one of the mainsprings of production, commercialization, distribution, profitability and profit cycles. The global advertising industry is an irreplaceable cog in the gears, as it disseminates campaigns that drive a wide range of products and services in extensive consumer geographies, making use of advanced technologies that favor convergence between multiple means of dissemination and exponentially increase portfolios.

Not even the sufferings with the Covid-19 tragedy inhibit the glorification of consumption in the cynical synthesis of 11 letters – exuberance! What greater proof of contempt for the essentially human than the celebration of the unforeseen spiral of billions of dollars. And how many lines about the fate of lives saved, or the many jobs that need to be restored? The key to the incurable insensitivity lies in the words of Fredric Jameson: “The logic of capital is generally that of an irresistible impulse to expansion, or demand for increased accumulation, which cannot be checked, suspended or reformulated, without doing mortal damage to the system itself”.[2] Everything else seems nothing but trite.

Here I analyze certain elements of the ideology of consumption, particularly those that can help us understand its resilience as one of the pillars for the preservation of capitalist hegemony, as well as the implications of its fallacious pretension to represent desires within the market.

The generation of value around latent desires

Karl Marx addressed us floorplans the relations between production, distribution, exchange and consumption in the general functioning of the capitalist economy, highlighting the framework of mutual connections and interinfluences. After stating that “production, distribution, exchange and consumption (…) are members of a totality, differences within the same unit”, Marx reflects on how this system operates until production and consumption assume the form of “dominant determinations” .

According to him, “production appears as the starting point; consumption, as the final point; distribution and exchange, as a mean, which, in turn, is itself twofold, since distribution is the moment determined by individuals”. The great German thinker summarizes the unifying function played by consumption in the internal dynamics of the process he describes: “Production, distribution, exchange and consumption is the universality, distribution and exchange, the particularity, and consumption, the singularity in which the everything comes together”.[3]

In line with Marx's thinking, David Harvey explains that production and consumption establish a relationship of identity, intersection, correlation and complementarity in the generation of value around latent desires, through goods and inputs negotiated in the market, from the cost-benefit-profit equation. “Production creates the material for consumption and also dictates the manner or mode of consumption, while providing the motive for consumption through the creation of new wants and needs. On the other hand, consumption gives rise to production in the dual sense that production becomes wholly redundant without consumption, whereas consumption also provides the motive for production through the representation of idealized human wants as specific human wants and needs. .[4]

The ideological support consists of elevating consumption to the condition of the only productive activity hypothetically accredited to fulfill the expectations of individuals, groups and classes, especially when it links purchase impulses to the fulfillment of unsatisfied needs. The purpose, unstated, is to transform the act of consuming “into the main driving and coordinating force of systemic reproduction, social integration and stratification and the formation of the individual”.[5]

In such a scenario, consumerism appears as the “central point of our economic system”[6], capable of enforcing certain lifestyles, habits and choices in economic spaces of colossal dimensions. Social segments become components of a scheme for setting values, standards of conduct, fads and projective mechanisms, which the media and publicity undertake to continually reinforce.

The logic of the commodity in the cultural sectors

The cultural sectors are part of the expansion of the commodity form to all branches of activity. The induction of consumption converts artistic productions into salable and negotiable items, in an unprecedented proportion. The works become extensions of what Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy call “the logic of diversification and permanent renewal, a logic of novelty and accelerated obsolescence that governs the cultural industries”. Entertainment has consolidated itself as a trade in permanent lucrative update, harmless from the critical point of view and programmed to be disposable in the sequence of the next attractions.

Lipovetsky and Serroy elucidate: “One film drives out the other, one star gives way to a new one, one record replaces the previous one. The temporary is the aesthetic and economic law of mass culture at once, structurally in tune with the modern world of speed and perpetual innovation. Hence the kinship of cultural industries with fashion: at their core, as a mass production of non-durable products ready for consumption just for fun, there is “the transitory, the elusive, the contingent” (Baudelaire), characteristic of fashion. The logic of fashion and its speed of renewal, the easy seduction and the search for immediate success, is what underlies the functioning of mass culture”.[7]

Under such a configuration, commodified culture is guided by basic “rules” implemented by marketing strategists, with the ambition to evolve, as quickly as possible, from greed to the incorporation of new consumers. Zygmunt Bauman mentions some of these rules: “Abandon rigid standards, succumb to indiscrimination, suit all tastes without privileging any, encourage irregularity and 'flexibility' (the popular politically correct term for 'weakness of character'”. Bauman adds that conceptions about “the average taste of the masses” lose validity and give way to plans to capture behavioral trends, in constant mutations according to consumer profiles.[8]

It is a question of defining actions centered no longer on the general aspirations of the community, but on formulas capable of aggregating a variety of customers, in an increasingly complex competitive jungle, if we take into account the innovations successively introduced by platforms and fintechs.

In an environment where everything that seemed stable melts into thin air, appropriations of artistic works transcend the original intentions of their creators to adjust to the demands of national and international markets. The circuits encompass media events, public spaces, festivals, galleries, biennials, cultural centers, fairs, museums and tourist attractions.

Commodification brings to mass consumption a set of manifestations that until then were considered elitist (exhibitions, operas, ballets, classical music concerts) and that are now inserted in the media agendas linked to advertising and promotional offensives. They obtain public and private sponsorships, financing and subsidies, taking advantage of incentive laws and tax exemptions. Art auctions are no longer limited to salons and can be accompanied by 3D digital screens and online and real-time transmissions over the internet, moving fortunes with hyperinflated prices.

By the way, one of the catchphrases of the controversial and creative American artist Andy Warhol seems to find its perfect translation in current financialized art: “Making money is art, working is art and doing good business is the best art that exists”. Died in 1997, aged 58, Warhol is among the names preferred by investors. The 1963 painting “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” became the Pop Art guru’s most expensive work, selling for $105,4 million at Sotheby’s London auction in 2015.[9]

The previous year, two works by Warhol about Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando – triple elvis (Ferus Type) to Four Marlons – had sold for approximately US$153 million (18% above the minimum bid) at auction at Christie's, New York. “This is a market aimed at global collectors (…). More than records, the deal involves five, six or seven buyers competing to spend $50 or $60 million on an object,” said Brett Gorvy, curator of contemporary art shows.[10]

Economic power prevails, with values ​​arbitrated both by competitive disputes and by market valuation curves. The aesthetic and artistic meanings of works can be left behind when compared with the imperatives of commercialization. It does not seem excessive to me to say that old boundaries between economic production and cultural life are being diluted, insofar as the preponderant portion of artistic production is mixed with the presuppositions of the law of supply and demand.

“The real estate encourager”

As we have seen, consumerist ideology has infiltrated all stages of commodity production and marketing, including artistic creations and cultural heritage. The space of consumption is exacerbated as a field of forces that dislodges the notion of identity associated with the sharing of values, traditions and beliefs within organized communities – however much there may be different receptions and reactions to the discourses that seek to legitimize it socially.

On the other hand, there is no way to ignore certain identity bonds that individuals and groups end up developing (or believe they develop) based on explicit preferences and affinities. There are those who advocate that consumption stands out as a “sphere of meaning production”, given that consumer choices signal feelings and inclinations. Jean Baudrillard relativizes the formulation. In his view, the advertising discourse, by stimulating the compulsion to acquire and enjoy, induces people to believe, illusory, that their desires can be met with the possession of goods.[11]

How to imagine equitable choices in the hotbed of iniquities around us? Effectively, those who manage to consume without obstacles are the elites. Let us also not forget that the options offered to consumers are defined, as a rule, by business headquarters, based on marketing criteria, strategic concepts, profitability goals and competitive constraints.

If we distance ourselves from the rhetorical juggling that tries to legitimize the amalgamation of enchantment and pleasure, we will realize that consumption does not undo, on the contrary, it reproduces asymmetrical relationships between consumers, since needs remain stratified by classes, income ranges, purchasing power, social positions , levels of education and cultural background. The hierarchies are maintained: each consumption range corresponds to discriminated accesses and uses – from ostentatious opulence to precariousness in tiny profits.

Milton Santos also draws attention to the role of consumption as “the great emollient, producer or encourager of immobility”.[12] Managers seek to associate, when not subordinate, reactions and worldviews to the gauge of the market, hypothetically conceived as an engine for regulating aspirations. Which is a mystification, knowing that the market, on the one hand, is governed by the cult of profitability, and, on the other, marked by profound social inequalities.

One of the major obstacles to criticizing the ideology of consumption, at the extreme level on which it resides, is the mentality rooted in society itself – consumerism leveraged by advertising, the media and global platforms. The channels available for questioning its foundations are restricted and almost always hostile to contradiction and divergence. As is known, this stems from the media interdiction, the issue so dear to the reproductive logic of commodification.

In any case, it is up to critical thinking to reveal the side effects that consumerist ideology strives to hide. The order of consumption is at the heart of the capital accumulation process and aggravates socioeconomic and cultural inequalities, despite its promises of satisfaction and well-being. It cannot be naturalized at the expense of conformism.

Life with the consumer virus tends to trivialize social anxieties, dissolve symbolic goods into pure exchange value and, as much as the epigones of neoliberalism claim to be inclusive, enshrines exclusions in a society guided by what Milton Santos appropriately called the tyranny of money.

* Denis de Moraes is a journalist and writer. Author, among other books, of Media criticism and cultural hegemony (Mauad).

Notes


[1] Alan Barker, “Global advertising spending forecast to emerge this year”, Financial Times, June 13, 2021.

2 Frederick Jameson. The Culture of Money: Essays on Globalization. Petrópolis: Voices, 2001, p. 21.

3 Karl Marx. Grundrisse: economic manuscripts of 1857-1858: sketches of the critique of political economy. Sao Paulo: Boitempo; Rio de Janeiro, Editora UFRJ, 2011, p. 44.

4 David Harvey. The limits of capital. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013, p. 137.

5 Zygmunt Bauman. Consumer life. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2007, p. 47.

6 Frederick Jameson. The Culture of Money: Essays on Globalization, ob. quote, p. 56.

7 Gilles Lipovetsky; Jean Serroy. World-culture. Response to a disoriented society. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2011, p. 72.

8 Zygmunt Bauman. 44 letters to the liquid modern world. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2011, p. 90-91.

9 Lucas de Abreu Maia, “World lives boom in art auctions”, Examination, March 25, 2015.

10 Chris Michaud, “Two Warhols fetch $153 million to lead Christie's record-setting art auction”, Reuters, November 14, 2014.

11 Jean Baudrillard. the consumer society. Lisbon: Editions 70, 1995.

12 Milton Santos. For another globalization: from single thought to consciousness universal. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2000, p. 49.

 

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