Reply to Michael Fisher’s Review of Against Thrift

Here’s what has been posted since Monday at USIH, a response to Michael Fisher’s review.  I learned a lot from thinking about what Michael wrote, and then responding as best I could.  It’s strange how that works, finding out what you really think after the fact.  Or not so strange after all.  I’m grateful, in any event, for the opportunity to do that belated thinking.

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“You Can’t Say That”: A Reply to Michael Fisher

James Livingston

I

Since I started writing Against Thrift in 2009, the typical response from my liberal and left-wing colleagues has been “You can’t say that!”  I’ve heard it a hundred times by now.  They mean it.  They assume that consumer culture is, at best, the place where bad taste, bad faith, and bad manners rule with the permission of advertising—it’s redeemable only by recourse to the suspicious methods of cultural studies—and is, at worst, the place where conscience, commitment, and even common sense go to die.  When I was a fellow at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library three years ago, one of my colleagues responded to the description of the project by saying, with no trace of irony or humor, “You’re the Devil.”

The book has been reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but not in the New York Times or The New Republic.  It’s been reviewed in Bloomberg Business Week, but not in Dissent, The American Prospect, The Atlantic, or The Nation.  Meanwhile I’ve written book-related op-eds for mainstream publications like Wired, the LA Times and the Christian Science Monitor, and been interviewed by NPR stations from San Francisco to New York.  The last radio interview I did, however, was with John Batchelor at WABC, where his talk show colleagues include Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

How to account for this discrepancy?  Is it a clear Left/Right divide, or just a difference between academic and middlebrow discourse?  My argument on behalf of consumer culture makes no sense in the absence of my argument for a redistribution of income and a socialization of investment—and vice versa.  Conservatives like John Batchelor and Leftists like Sasha Lilley at KPFA/San Francisco have grasped the connection between these arguments, and have responded with reasoned aplomb rather than astonishment.  So the question becomes, Why is the liberal, academic Left so uniform in its views of consumption that its reflexive response to my defense of consumer culture is exasperation and dismissal (“You can’t say that!”), if not horror and disgust (“You’re the Devil”)?

You could say it’s a trade book with an incendiary title, so what’d you expect?  Of course the middlebrow radio stations and the mainstream newspapers would pay attention—they need as much “provocative” content as they can get to attract listeners and readers—but you can’t expect serious journalists, intellectuals, and academics, typically liberals who are necessarily suspicious of finance capital, to entertain an argument that takes the universalization of exchange value (a.k.a. commodity fetishism) for granted, and that meanwhile treats advertising as the last utopian idiom of our time.

In these serious parts, it goes without saying that commodities are the enemy of the spirit; that consumer culture privatizes our experience and infantilizes our desires, thus precluding local community as well as progressive political action, not to mention the salvation of our souls; that advertising, the advocate of mindless consumption and the enemy of plain speech, puts everything up for sale, including our very souls; and that consumerism is clearly the most dangerous threat to the environment.

II

Actually, it doesn’t go without saying, and that fact raises a different question: why do we need to keep repeating ourselves?  The same thing gets said over and over, as if hundreds of clerics were transcribing one master text—as if the critique of consumer culture is a reaction formation that has finally become a repetition compulsion.  From Max Horkheimer to Paul Goodman, from David Riesman to David Potter, from Stuart Ewen to Juliet Schor, from Benjamin Barber to Jackson Lears, from James A. Roberts (an earnest marketing professor) to Kalle Lasn (the editor of Adbusters and a crucial inspiration of Occupy Wall Street), and—while we’re at it—from Robert Samuelson to David Brooks, the refrain never changes.  It goes like this: Americans are the pliant products of a social pathology specific to the extremity of capitalism; they’re the willing subjects and the passive objects of a consumer culture induced by advertising and enabled by debt.

Like Christopher Lasch, who claimed thirty years ago that consumerism was the material condition of what he named the culture of narcissism—it was no longer an occasional personality disorder—these writers repeat the refrain because they assume it’s self-evident.  Barber, for example, knows that his readers are already familiar with the master text, and so he never bothers to make an argument in Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (2007); instead, he reintroduces Lasch to an audience that might have forgotten him and proceeds directly to the requisite hyperbole: “Lasch’s account of narcissism resonates with much of what I will portray as the new capitalist ethos of infantilism.  The ethos animating postmodern consumer capitalism is one of joyless compulsiveness.  The modern consumer is no free-will sybarite, but a compulsory shopper driven to consumption because [sic] the future of capitalism depends on it.  He is less the happy sensualist than the compulsive masturbator, a reluctant addict working at himself with little pleasure, encouraged in his labor by an ethic [not ethos?] of infantilization that releases him to a self-indulgence he cannot altogether welcome.” (51)

Sound familiar?  Of course it does, even though these declarations must lack the factual basis their author would demand of his interlocutors–I want to ask, when’s the last time he whacked off?  Benjamin Barber, a political theorist by training, holds an endowed chair at the University of Maryland, and, according to the flap copy on his book, he “consults with political and civic leaders throughout the world on democratization, citizenship, culture, and education.”  James A. Roberts is a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas; he’s not a communitarian critic of capitalism, and he’s never been to Camp David.  But in a new book called Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy (2011), he explains the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic goods, cites Jean-Paul Sartre on the meaning of life—I am not making this up—and then reproduces Barber’s boisterous critique of consumer culture in prose that would put a ferret to sleep: “Compulsive buyers are preoccupied with the importance of money as a solution to problems and as a means of comparison.  Like status consumers, they make purchases in an attempt to bring into balance the discrepancy between their identity and the lifestyle projected by various products.  . . .But as compulsive buying becomes more severe in an individual, and more prevalent in our society, it causes serious personal, interpersonal, and social problems.”  (102-3)

Is this strangled prose a kind of plagiarism?  If I were grading Roberts, I’d have to consult my university’s guidelines under the heading of “permissible paraphrase.”  But then I’d have to bet on a source, and what could I exclude from the database?  Barber, a likely source, isn’t the author of the master text—his renunciation of argument is evidence of his own borrowing—he’s just another cleric with a pornographic imagination and a strong prose style.  But if it’s not plagiarism, what is it, what do we call this borrowing?  Is Barber’s purple prose convincing because it works at the level of rhetoric, where close observance of the conventions, speaking of pornography, permits but also requires the occasional flourish, that moment when the argument is completed not by reference to evidence but by the athletic effect of a perfect metaphor or a quick cut?

These plaintive questions, which I ask without irony, boil down to just one.  Why do we—academics, journalists, artists, intellectuals, writers, editors, readers—take the master text for granted, so that the typical response to my argument on behalf of consumer culture is, “You can’t say that”?

III

Michael Fisher makes the question quite poignant in his smart, funny, and friendly review of my book.  He has of course borrowed from the master text transcribed by Barber, Roberts, et al., knowing that the original was written, once upon a time, by high-brow fugitives from mass culture and learned critics of its industrial apparatus.  But he has tried to translate that text, to transpose it into a new key, where we might read and listen differently.  He’s not just reiterating; he’s riffing.

Fisher deftly summarizes the economic argument of Against Thrift, and, like most of the comrades on the Left who favor the idea of redistribution in the name of equality, he finds it convincing.  But, again like most of the comrades, he labels it “hard-boiled” and “descriptive,” as in dispassionate and reportorial—as if my disagreements with every other explanation of the Great Recession are unimportant, as if I hadn’t chosen to argue against the conventional wisdom on the role of consumption in economic growth, as if my description of the current crisis (or any other description, for that matter) is not already an analysis with an accompanying policy agenda.

Fisher then makes a slow turn, from what he calls my “descriptive argument for why consumer culture is good for us” to what he calls the “normative argument.”  At this point, the equally ancient distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goods makes a timely appearance, and it hereafter serves as sturdy rhetorical protection against the intellectual intrusions that follow.  At the gates of hell, these metaphysical niceties have always served as prayerful homilies: when nothing else abides and your soul is at stake, you can always console yourself by writing a footnote to Plato.  Ask P. G. Wodehouse.

“Thankfully, Livingston is not one to shy away from ambitious intellectual tasks (he likens himself to Galileo early in the book).  In ‘Part Two: The Morality of Spending,’ he unveils his normative argument for consumer culture’s goodness, this time with respect to our souls, and tries to re-designate consumption, instant gratification, and instinctual satisfaction as intrinsic moral goods.”

Or do I?  Is my language a “subtle pragmatist’s trick”?  It is true, I have no patience for metaphysics.  I’m a pragmatist through and through, and so I don’t see how any description of any phenomenon excludes or postpones a normative argument—that is, an actionable attitude toward the object of knowledge.  I also don’t see how a distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic goods holds up under the condition we call modernity, or post-modernity, when the universalization of exchange value (“reification”) is complete.  But I do show that it is only in the neighborhood of consumer culture—at our leisure, after hours and at play—that we learn to treat each other as ends in themselves rather than means to the ends of our incomes or careers.  In this sense, I show that what comes of buying, using, and sharing goods is better for us than what comes of producing goods under the sign of alienated labor.  It beats working.

Instant gratification or instinctual satisfaction—and how, pray tell, would we gain access to our instincts?—can’t be an “intrinsic moral good” in these terms, and I never claimed either was such a good, because we can’t know anything’s value, moral or otherwise, except in retrospect, as a moment in an unfolding semiotic sequence.  In other words, value, moral or otherwise, is like truth: neither can be known until exchanged, unless represented.  Here is how William James put the proposition: “Day follows day, and it contents are simply added.  They are not themselves true, they simply come and are.  The truth is what we say about them.”

And yes, it is true, I suggested in the introduction to the book that Galileo was my hero because he wasn’t a deep thinker, just a radical empiricist looking to demonstrate the new facts made visible by his telescope.  It was my clumsy way of choosing history over theory.  I said that “the telescope at my disposal compresses time rather than space,” and hoped readers would, as a result, understand the obvious limits of the project rather than attribute inordinate ambitions to its author.  But I now want to make those ambitions clear, because no review of the book, including Fisher’s, and no interview about it, not even at Pacifica Radio, has yet revealed the scope or the implications of the argument.

IV

I wrote this book in the hope of allowing us to see that consumption is the proper goal and the necessary limit of production.  When it has been or becomes this goal and limit, the use values that consumers want can contain—not displace—the pursuit of exchange value, of wealth in the abstract.  Money and credit, accordingly, can become means of exchange, not ends in themselves: the formula for capital (M-C-M*) can then give way to something like simple commodity circulation (C-M-C), something closer to the archaic yet real and pleasurable circuits of gift economies.

This seemingly utopian urge—this hope of mine—is actually validated by the measurable trends of recent economic history, the last hundred years of development.  We can make consumption the goal and the limit of production.  But to do so, to accept and act on my economic argument, is to interrogate what we mean by “character.’  The structure of our moral personalities is at risk in that interrogation, because the realization of desire we call “spending” and the deferral of gratification we call “saving” are both emotional achievements and material accomplishments.  Max Weber and Sigmund Freud understood this social-psychological congruence, and tried, accordingly, to itemize the historical conditions of an ascetic or anal-compulsive character type that could systematically and happily abstain from the pleasures of the world.  On the wings of the Owl of Minerva, they were explaining the Cartesian ego at the very moment of its dissolution.

It’s time that we followed their example—it’s time that we tried to itemize the historical conditions of new character types and the moral (not to mention political) horizons that become visible from their standpoint.  But how?  My procedure in Against Thrift was to begin with the economic history of the last hundred years as an indispensable preface to a defense of consumer spending and consumer culture.  Redistribution was the least of my goals—it was just the first step, I thought, toward the imagination of a moral universe in which repression, denial, and delay of gratification are no longer the foundation of the social-psychological structure we recognize as “character,” and, consequently, in which any fixed boundary between inner self and outer world (the central conceit of modernity, according to Nietzsche) is erased.

So let me retrace my steps.

Private investment out of profits is an unimportant source of growth, and so the pursuit of profit as such is, as Keynes put it in 1930, a “somewhat disgusting morbidity.”  It follows that the forced savings or deferred consumer choices that corporate retained earnings represent are worse than pointless, they’re destructive.  It also follows that we don’t need to keep decisions about our future in the hands of those who think that the bottom line is a larger sum of exchange value—rewarding CEOS and traders with lower taxes and higher profits is a recipe for economic and moral disaster.

Let me put it as plainly as I can.  The members of the investing class—we used to call them capitalists—are now as superfluous and superannuated as the European landed nobility had become by the late 18th century.  They’re good for deep background, baroque settings, and self-parody if you want to write a novel or make a movie about a civilization that has already expired.  Otherwise they don’t matter.  Otherwise we need to get on with a future that excludes them except as public servants, as “humble, competent people, on a level with dentists,” according to the Keynesian designation of economists.  We begin by redistributing income away from the 1%, toward the 99%.

What then?

We socialize investment because we need to—because we need to redefine profit to include the social consequences (the “externalities”) of investment, including the environmental consequences, and because the pattern of economic growth can no longer be determined by the insatiable needs of those who honestly believe that more money in the bank is the purpose of life and the insignia of success.  That means we take responsibility for the future, or rather that we stop sacrificing the possibilities and pleasures of the present to a future held ransom by our own deference to an archaic economic model and an outmoded character type.

It means that we stop saving for a rainy day, and stop assuming that the inner-directed, anal-compulsive character is normal and, dare I say, normative.

Notice that our obligation to future generations is enlarged, not diminished, by this commitment to, and in, the present.  But notice, too, that when we stop saving for a rainy day because we can, we have already begun to reconstruct our “character” in ways that move us beyond inner-direction and anal compulsion.  In this sense, we have already begun to move beyond Protestant Christianity—that old work ethic—as the “deepest moral resource” of our everyday lives.  So yes, of course, we have already begun to redefine individualism, the very nature of our selves, as soon as we ask who and what we’re saving for.

V

That’s what Against Thrift is about, this ongoing, incomplete, still inarticulate movement toward a new moral universe made navigable by the passage beyond what Marx and Marcuse called the realm of necessity, where hard work and emotional sacrifice add up to the cause of character and the price of civilization.  Either way, in retrospect or prospect, it’s not a pretty picture—the future I sketch looks like hell itself according to Michael Fisher—but either way, we don’t have much of a choice in the matter.  We can treat the differences between these pictures as moral possibilities that are real historical events and thus empirical problems, or we can continue to copy from the master text, which simply denies that consumer culture contains any possibility worth contemplating.

Fisher is of course correct to suggest that I am uninterested in “lasting salvation”—who except a dead man can tell us what that means?—and to label Christian faith as the moral adhesive of the civil rights movement.  But I would insist that my godless project is in keeping with the social origins and import of this faith, indeed that it aims to complete what religion (and, in its own fashion, advertising) can only attempt.  In the beginning, the criterion of need—from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs—regulated the disposition of the church’s economic, emotional, and doctrinal resources: you were your brother’s keeper, so charity wasn’t a choice.  But as the church became a going concern in the post-republican, Hellenic world, the criterion of need became politically problematic.  In the absence of ways to deliver the goods to everyone—in a world dominated by disease, hunger, and poverty—this criterion became local or eschatological, either the creed of communities that had withdrawn from the larger society, or, what is practically the same thing, the ideological correlate of faith in an impending apocalypse.

We still inhabit a world dominated by disease, hunger, and poverty.  But withdrawal is not an option, not anymore, because we know how to deliver the goods to everyone: we know that scarcity, whether economic or emotional, is socially contrived and culturally enforced.  We’ve long since solved the problem of production; we haven’t even begun with the problem of consumption because we’re so afraid of what it will cost us in the currencies that underwrite our “character.”  We can finally afford to be our brother’s keeper—we can live by the ancient criterion of need, and, in doing so, we can live up to the original challenge of Christianity.  We don’t yet know how because we’re still too afraid of the material abundance that enables consumer culture.

My purpose in writing Against Thrift was to lay these fears to rest—or rather to explain them, to myself among other adults made anxious by the extremities of very late capitalism.  Michael Fisher understands that, I think, because he has refused to merely reiterate the master text that has allowed so many smart people to say the same thing about consumer culture without thinking, and without evidence.  He never falls back into  the parental moment when “You can’t say that” sounds like the appropriate response to bad taste, bad faith, or bad manners.  Still, his review would suggest that I have only inflamed our fears of the future.  That makes me nervous.

 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Reply to Michael Fisher’s Review of Against Thrift

  1. Gingerman

    I find Against Thrift enormously challenging on multiple levels — intellectually, politically and professionally. Thank you for writing it.

    Intellectually: I’m not a scholar (and BTW: you very likely underestimate just how arcane is your subject and the manner in which you discuss it) so I miss some of your references, but more fundamentally, I find your arguments on consumer culture dense and mind-bending. But I like a challenge, so I slog through the density. In the end, being a simple person, I like Marx’s simple formulation in the German Ideology, in which I might not be confined solely as “a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic.”

    Politically: I consider myself a person of the left, and I can say emphatically that I find the lack of imagination and free-spiritedness there most dis-spiriting. But I certainly can’t go to the other side; I just don’t — can’t — see the world in their terms. I’m not surprised that you’ve received the responses that you have. I urge you, as strongly as I (with no particular standing) can urge you: stick with it! Not that it’s done any good, but via e-mail I’ve goaded TAP, Dissent, the NY Review of Books and Washington Monthly to review Against Thrift.

    Professionally: I spend my working hours in community development banking on the theory that low- and moderate-income persons among us (i.e., working class and often minority as well) face a problem of capital accumulation. The Community Reinvestment Act, closely related to my work, is one way to exert a form of social control over capital. Your dis-accumulation formulation — your whole argument — calls at least some aspects of that project (I’m being cryptic in the interests of brevity) into question, which I deeply appreciate. You make me think.

    A small aside: I started as an undergraduate at NIU just as M. Sklar was making his exit for In These Times, and no doubt while you were a grad student there. But the remaining history profs introduced me to William Appleman Williams and to a wide world of books and contemplation that I have yet to play out fully (i.e., because I’m still alive).

  2. Pingback: Seven Questions for James Livingston | myrivercityblues

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