Throw the Book at Me: A Reply to Tim Barker

Here’s the link to and the text of my response to Tim Barker’s smart review of Against Thrift.  The journal in which this skirmish appears should be on your list of sites to visit.  Jacobin, it’s called, and it features writing by people in their 20s who make my colleagues–well, OK, me too–sound kind of tone deaf.

And now the text:

Throw the Book at Me: A Reply to Tim Barker

James Livingston


I can see why Tim Barker thinks that my career as a contrarian is over.  Here I am defending consumer culture—in his terms, “the culture of capitalism”—so how can I be speaking truth to power?  As he knows, the power to which I have been speaking all these years is the left-liberal historiographical establishment, not the imperialist warmongers (although, for the record, I have tried in my own diffident, academic way to criticize both capitalism and imperialism).  My goal, all along, has been to unsettle the assumptions that regulate the thinking of the academic and the larger Left, to let us see capitalism, socialism, consumerism, and democracy—also pragmatism, feminism, and the corporation—differently.  Not complacently, differently.  But now, in this trade book, I’ve become just another shill for corporate capitalism and its cultural attendants?

It seems so.  To judge from Barker’s review, I’ve unsettled nothing; at any rate none of his leftist assumptions were dislodged or even remotely disturbed by my polemic.  So I have to wonder why his review is so forgiving, so benign, so friendly.  This is the journal called Jacobin, where the harmless Ezra Klein gets flogged for being a liberal, right?  Why then doesn’t the young radical excoriate the old apologist, the guy who’s “defending the culture of capitalism”?  I’m not begging for punishment, mind you, although I have a professional interest in male masochism (no, really).  I just want to know why Barker lets me off the hook.

There are three possible explanations of this clemency.  First, I’ve got some residual left-wing credentials.  It’s true, I remain something of a Marxist, and go beyond David Harvey or Robert Brenner by “claiming that the re-investment of profits is no longer even necessary for economic growth,” and arguing for redistribution on these unique grounds, where capitalists and their criteria are simply superfluous; it’s also true that I have urged the Left to adopt FUCK WORK as its slogan; finally, it’s true that I’m an enthusiastic supporter of and occasional participant in Occupy Wall Street.  Second, I do “address the argument that consumerism is a barrier to social change,” apparently to Barker’s satisfaction because he doesn’t contest my conclusions.  Third, I am “uncannily optimistic,” and so cannot be blamed for my political idiocies, not any more than a naive bandmate can be blamed for his unrealistic dreams of a record contract.

But still.  Who on the Left is not in favor of income redistribution?  To be sure, most of you urge this policy as a moral imperative in the name of the poor, whereas I see it as an eminently practical and necessary corrective to the problem of surplus capital in the hands of clueless CEOs—by my accounting, the 99% has a long-term economic interest rather than an immediate moral stake in turning the oligarchs into public servants.  But wait, poor Ezra Klein is Keynesian enough to oppose austerity, and to recommend a more equitable distribution of income, yet nobody at Jacobin is letting him off the hook.  Why me?  And who cares where I stand on OWS?  Its core constituency has much less in common with me than with Kalle Lasn (Adbusters), Chris Hedges (War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning [2002), and David Graeber (Debt: The First Five Thousand Years [2011])—who, like Barker and almost every other leftist out there, see unbridled consumerism as the gravest threat to the environment, and, accordingly, to their souls.  Again, why does Barker grant me clemency?


Clearly it’s my sunny disposition: I get a pass because I’m “uncannily optimistic.”  By this Barker means that I locate the source of my hopes in a conjectural future rather than an actually existing social reality, and therefore can be forgiven for my ignorance of how things work in these times, on this planet.  In effect, and with significant intellectual charity, he’s claims that I’m speaking the language of utopia, writing in the dialect of science fiction, so that any criticism of my ideas must first acknowledge the ironic, quaintly poetic distance I’ve created between the real and the symbolic, between what is and what ought to be.  Here’s the remarkably generous rhetorical turn that makes my rehabilitation possible:


“Whatever one makes of the details of his economic argument, the two main points—that we have the productive capacity to reduce working time and expand leisure, and that our present crisis can be explained by the maldistribution of income—will be agreeable to most leftist readers.  And yet, gazing at the rack of almost identical collared shirts gracing Livingston’s cover, these readers might ask themselves why he is so intent on defending the culture of capitalism?

“One answer is that he’s only kind of doing that. . . . Instead of defending actually existing capitalist consumerism, he defends the promise of a future which will feature consumption alongside ‘redistributing income and socializing investment’—bringing it under popular control so it can be driven by social concerns rather than mere profit.”

This generosity worries me.  If you know that your ethical principles don’t reside in and flow from the historical circumstances that surround you, then you must repudiate or evacuate your time and place—you must somehow escape the past, which means treating the present as the negation of your hopes and treating the future as their only repository.  This attitude toward History typically produces radical, even apocalyptic visions, such as those entertained, once upon a time, by Gerrard Winstanley, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Maximillien Robespierre—the original Jacobin!—and then John Brown, and now, in our own time, by Kalle Lasn, Chris Hedges, and David Graeber.

If, on the other hand, you know that your ethical principles are not fully inscribed but are still faintly legible in those historical circumstances, you will find promise in your own time and place, and you’ll want to stay put—you’ll think of the past as an archive of possibility, which means treating the present as the cause of your hopes and treating the future as an open question.  This attitude toward History typically produces pragmatic approaches that are nonetheless revolutionary, or at least progressive, such as those developed, once upon a time, by James Madison, G.W.F. Hegel, Toussaint Louverture, and then Abraham Lincoln, and now, in our own time, by almost no one on the Left or Right.  Things do fall apart these days.

In any event, I’m with the pragmatists.  What young John Dewey said on the choice between Kant and Hegel still seems indisputable to me:  “This, indeed, is the failure of the Kantian Ethics: in separating what should be from what is, it deprives the latter, the existing social world as well as the desires of the individual, of all moral value; while by the same separation, it condemns that which should be to a barren abstraction.  An ‘ought’ which does not root in and flower from the ‘is,’ which is not the fuller realization of the actual state of social relationships, is a mere pious wish that things should be better.”

So I have to refuse the clemency of this court.  I am, in fact, “defending actually existing capitalist consumerism.”


Practically speaking, that means I’m defending commodity fetishism, a.k.a. “reification,” advertising, and most of what else passes for the cultural apparatus of capitalist oppression.

How did I get away with this?

To begin with, I don’t see that consumerism is the handmaiden of capitalism, because I don’t see capitalism as a closed system, a totality that excludes socialism or any other mode of production.  Socialism doesn’t appear or exist only where vanguard parties represent or plant it, as Sombart and Lenin—strange bedfellows—would have it.  Instead, it emerges and evolves as capitalism did in its early stages, without decree or even denomination, in new “social relations of production” that don’t get noticed until it’s too late to reinstate the old.

Markets, commodities, money, merchants, debt, credit, profits, middlemen—we know that all these phenomena preceded what we call capitalism by centuries (unless of course you’re David Graeber, and then you believe it’s been around for five thousand years, anyway).  What makes us think these phenomena will or should disappear when socialism arrives on that beautiful morning when we finally rise to the millennial occasion?  What makes us think that markets exclude distributive justice, or that socialism doesn’t require markets?  What makes us think that consumerism—buying, using, and modifying commodities with pleasure—must validate capitalism and nullify socialism?

The intellectual godfather of economic reform in Eastern Europe, ca. 1957-1991, was Wladzcmierez Brus, who worked with and learned from two of the great economists of the 20th century: Oskar Lange, who, along with Fred M. Taylor of the University of Michigan, developed a theory of socialist planning that silenced the braying from the stables where Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises bred their reactionary ideas; and Michal Kalecki, who, with his path-breaking studies of business cycles in the 1930s, both anticipated and consolidated the Keynesian Revolution.  Here is what Brus wrote in an essay of 1969 called “Commodity Fetishism and Socialism,” after the Prague Spring: “In given socio-economic circumstances an increase in the scope and importance of commodity relations may, for a number of reasons, facilitate the development of a socialist society.”

My argument on behalf of consumer culture presupposes this obiter dictum as a self-evident proposition.  Democratic socialism—remember, there are backward, fascist, totalitarian variations on this theme—is, or requires, workers’ self-management, private property, distributive as well as commutative justice under the rule of law, political pluralism, and consumers’ sovereignty.  Markets underwrite all of these requirements by enabling and enforcing the supremacy of society over the state.  Democratic socialism cannot then thrive in the absence of markets, and vice versa.  The question for those who value democracy, regardless of what mode of production they favor, is therefore not whether markets and commodities shall prevail, but how.

So I am not apologetically conceding that actually existing consumer culture is a commodified, reified realm of leisurely social interaction which just happens to be convened after work, after hours, post-production.  I am celebrating the fact.  Meanwhile, I’m trying to unsettle the standard-issue left-wing assumption that this realm of leisure is just another annex of capitalism because many commodities congregate there.  In any case, I haven’t gone back to the future.


Let me illustrate my claim about the relation between markets, consumerism, and democratic socialism—or is it mere democracy?—by noticing three recent trends, all derivatives of the Internet.  First, we are witnessing what I have elsewhere called “primitive disaccumulation,” by which I mean the decommodification of information and music permitted by blogging, file sharing, and DIY software.  More people have more access to more information, and more people listen to and produce more music than ever before, and yet they appropriate and distribute more and more of these goods without the mediation of prices and markets.  They’re doing so as participants in a consumer culture.

Second, the social networking made possible—or rather unavoidable—by the Internet has animated consumer boycotts which have changed and are still changing corporate behaviors.  Such boycotts have, not coincidentally, been the leading edge of the cultural revolutions that have transformed politics since the 1950s, when the civil rights movement began using the market power of black consumers to change American folkways.  But the Internet makes a huge difference by compressing the time it takes to mobilize a constituency and, with the same keystrokes, broadening its social composition.   I won’t fan the fires I’ve already lit by suggesting that the Arab Spring recapitulates the “war of position”—the “passive revolution,” as Antonio Gramsci put it—which was first conducted by the civil rights movement in the US, and which was then reenacted in Eastern Europe after 1968.

Third, the rationalization of the “marriage market” via the Internet, like the entry of women into the labor market, has challenged the romantic notions of love that, contrary to the intentions of all parties to the bargain, have always reproduced male supremacy, from Tristan to Byron to Edward.  To be sure, this rationalization of affect categorizes and standardizes the attributes of attraction (like “sexiness”), and thus makes a lot of us long for good old-fashioned love, the flood of passion that sweeps away every emotional embankment.  But notice that this rationalization produces a different flood plain—a more level playing field.  You may not want to step onto that field; it nonetheless produces a closer approximation of gender equity than what was possible in the absence of the market power women can now wield as consumers in their relations with men.

Of course warnings against the dangers of this “leveling” now abound—just as they abound in complaints about the degradation of public opinion in the blogosphere, which, lacking any barriers to entry, is less marketplace of ideas than demolition derby.  Eva Illouz, for example, argues in a brilliant new book (Why Love Hurts [2012]) that men have rigged the marriage market by hedging their emotional bets in ways women can’t, or won’t, and that, in doing so, men have covertly reinstated male supremacy.  What her argument misses is the obvious possibility that women are learning to use both labor and marriage markets to their advantage, and this obvious possibility goes missing because Illouz assumes that rationalized markets are by definition the location of reification, alienation, and oppression—the stronghold of neoliberalism, not the site of social democracy.  As always, the asymmetry of power produced by the market exchange of equivalents between capital and labor is the analytical template, as if the labor theory of value explained all manner of exploitation, as if commodity fetishism were the solvent of genuine feeling for others, as if economic calculation as such were the enemy of the spirit.


“You might accept Livingston’s point that there’s nothing a priori immoral or unnatural about the way advertising awakens new desires, but as long as poor people have to sate those desires through borrowing instead of a guaranteed income, it’s easy to look disapprovingly at the manufacture of need.”  Yes, it is easy—too easy, in view of my argument about obesity and income distribution, not to mention consumer debt.

I was trying to make it hard to live by such truisms.  I was trying, that is, to demonstrate that advertising is the last utopian idiom of our time because it’s where freedom is depicted as the release from necessary labor and its attendant anxieties—not the result of hard work, honest living, and plain speech.  The Left, I argue, is still too deeply, even emotionally attached to the idea and the agenda of productive labor, which insists that the consumption of goods is authorized only by the prior production of goods with real value.  Thus the parasitic capitalists become the object of critique because their incomes are deducted from the sum of value produced by less fortunate others: thus we change the world by correcting the relation between effort and reward, between work and income.  I call this combination of idea and agenda the “pathos of productivity.”  I trace it to the Protestant Ethic and bourgeois propriety, of course, but I also ridicule Matthew Crawford’s flamboyantly nostalgic book, Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009), as the perfection of the Puritan jeremiad, which always brings us back to our callings, those secular vocations we know as work.  Finally, I quote Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Alfred North Whitehead, and Don Draper to say, very politely, FUCK WORK.

We don’t need work to fashion our genuine seIves, to produce character and authenticity.  There’s not enough real work to go around, anyway, so we might as well get on with a discussion of why the relation between the production of value and the receipt of income can never again be understood as a transparently cause-effect relation.  We might as well get on with a discussion of how to detach one from the other—income from work—and entertain, accordingly, the practical applications of the criterion of need, “from each according to her abilities, to each according to his needs.”  We’re already involved in this discussion when we debate so-called transfer payments and entitlements.  More to the point, we’re already involved when we disagree about the meanings of consumer culture.

But good Christ, must I defend advertising?  I thought so.  Here’s why.  The dream world conjured by advertising needs analysis at least as much as the dream world convened by religion.  Neither is a distraction from or a distortion of reality, just another domain of “false consciousness”: both are fundamental realities that require our close attention as human beings, at least if we’re intent on understanding rather than evacuating the world as it actually exists.  For each contains a truth that every human being is eager to live by.  Religious faith teaches us that God is immanent and legible in our everyday lives as a freedom concept—not as the figure of providence, not as a friendly spiritual counselor, not as the abolition of all particular circumstance, but as the unity of desire and capacity, the ability to change our circumstances in accordance with our intentions.

Advertising meanwhile teaches us what Marx did, that true freedom lies beyond the realm of necessity, in the aftermath of hard labor—off the clock, as it were, and after hours.  It doesn’t sell specific commodities, it sells freedom from the world of work.  Of course it does so in the name of corporate profit, so what?  By now this message (FUCK WORK) just is the medium we call advertising.  By the same token, religious establishments still sell salvation, providing comfortable probation from this life, but their customers are always right because they know better—they buy into this profane world, and, judging by the empirical evidence alone, they change it.  The truths of religion and advertising are still “alienated,” which is to say they’re obscure and irrational and archaic, but, like the truths discoverable in dreams, they’re also profound.


The environmental integument is, as always, the last stand of the leftist critic.  “Livingston does address the argument that consumerism is a barrier to social change [Enter, stage left, MLK to Valclav Havel] . . . But when he tries to apply this model of consumer-driven social change to his most provocative claim—consumerism is ‘good for the environment’—he falls regrettably short.”

Do I?  Barker demonstrates my explanatory shortfall with an invocation of “those concerned that our present level and style of consumerism is bad for the environment”—a category that includes everybody, even the benighted David Brooks, even me—and then a series of rhetorical questions.  This double strategy tells me that common sense has been roused from its grammatical underground to discipline the village idiot, to remind us of what can’t be said in public by reciting what is self-evident to the public.

“The climate impact of higher incomes—and even of democratically controlled investment—is indeterminate.  With more money to spend, won’t people fly more, and buy more meat (food revolution notwithstanding, after all, beef consumption continued to climb until the recession made people too poor to buy so much)?  Why wouldn’t a democratic public prove as bad at accounting for long-run externalities as private corporations have, perhaps by voting themselves a huge gas subsidy?”

Actually, the climate impact of higher incomes is perfectly predictable.  Rich people produce less waste because they can afford to acquire goods that are more durable than the crap the rest of us buy—on credit.  They don’t buy Maseratis, they invest in Priuses, and they create green spaces on their roofs.  They have fewer children than the rest of us, thus defusing what we used to call the population bomb.  And those children go to private schools, where they learn from an early age that the environment is endangered mainly by diabetic fat people, who clearly consume too many calories, too many resources, and too much sidewalk space in Midtown.

My premise is that consumer preferences (“use values”) are better guides to the genuine needs of the majority than the bottom-line goals of the traders and the CEOS.  From that premise, I read the consumer boycotts of the postwar world—from Montgomery, Alabama, and the lettuce fields of California to the online petitions that forced the Komen Foundation to stand down—as the political equivalent of the great strikes that workers waged, once upon a time, to claim that collective bargaining was simple justice, and to declare that if capitalists could treat human beings as uniform means to their limitless end of more money in the bank, then capitalism was morally bankrupt.

Contra Barker, I don’t see any tension between increasing the consumption of use values and keeping the planet livable.  The tension I see is between his version of keeping the planet livable and my hope of improving democracy.  I’m sure that both projects, his and mine, require the kind of de-centered, pluralist markets that would disarm the traders and enable consumers’ sovereignty, forcing private investment to follow the retail demand curve rather than seek speculative outlets wherever they appear.

I’m also sure that he would disagree.  So we can both update our contrarian credentials.




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