Being Consumed (3) Libido dominandi

Continuing William Cavanaugh’s discussion of Being Consumed: economics and Christian Desire

If there is no such thing as the free autonomous individual and there is no objective good, in a free-market what we really have is sheer arbitrary power, one will against the other. This is what Augustine called libido dominandi – the lust for power.

Cavanaugh explores what this power struggle looks like in a free-market economy, particularly through the lens of the marketing industry.

On the one hand, advertising communicates information about products to consumers to enable them to make rational choices. Here the consumer is treated as free, autonomous and sovereign.

On the other hand, marketing manipulates the consumer to create desire while simultaneously hiding the fact that it is doing so.

Most advertising has long abandoned the link between mere information and a rational consumer choice. Instead, via memorable images, ideas and themes it links the product with deeper human desires – love, sex, friendship, beauty, self-esteem, success, happiness etc. And this questions the self-acceptability of the consumer.

This is what has been called the ‘organized creation of dissatisfaction.’

Any good examples come to mind?

This all brings to mind what Marva Dawn talked about when in Dublin with us – ‘we technologize our intimacy and itimacize our technology’ (not sure about how to spell those words!)

And this is very deliberate and highly researched. Companies (generally) don’t spend billions on stuff that doesn’t work (unless you are Anglo-Irish Bank). Cavanaugh quotes Marketing News, it is about,

“creating mythologies about their brands by humanizing them and giving them distinct personalities and cultural sensibilities.’

Ah, we may think, “I see through this nonsense. I know a car isn’t going to make me irresistible to the opposite sex. Most of this is, (to link back to a recent post) bullshit.” And so you have a whole genre of anti-advertising advertising that knowingly exposes the game of advertising and invites you, the consumer, to join with the anti-establishment movement connected with the product. For an example see this post on the consumer as freedom fighter.

But back to Cavanaugh’s main point – in our intensely commodified culture is an inbuilt imbalance of power in favour of the marketer. And we are hopelessly naive if we think that we are not deeply shaped and influenced by such power. Here are some examples:

  1. Companies withhold information about products to consumers that may be damaging to consumer confidence. Battles over transparent food labelling come to my mind here – feel welcome to add any examples of your own.
  2. The power of surveillance: companies gather vast amounts of detailed data about individual consumers and target those consumers using that ‘disequilibrium of knowledge’. Cavanaugh references Erik Larson’s famous 1992 book The Naked Consumer: How our Private Lives Become Public Commodities. What he describes – how purchasing patterns, births, deaths, political views, educational levels, credit histories, pet ownership, hobbies, illnesses and so on – are harvested from various sources, can only have increased exponentially in reach and sophistication since the arrival of Google and the Web.
  3. Companies saturate the social space of consumers with a torrent of images and messages. Everyone of us swims in this torrent every day and hardly notice. It represents ‘an almost total takeover of the domestic informational system for the purposes of selling goods and services.’ (Herbert Schiller)
  4. Concentration of power in enormous transnational corporations. In numerous industries, a few huge corporations dominate production and consumption – Cavanaugh lists meat production in the USA (4 companies have 80% of the market).  Smaller producers are put out of business, or are powerless to challenge the power of these corporations. Supermarkets like Tesco come to mind in the UK and Ireland.
  5. Increasing disparity of power between employer and employee: and here we are right into current hot issues of executive pay especially in banks that have helped wreck the economy. In 1980 says Cavanaugh, the average CEO made 42 times more than the average production worker. In 1999 that had risen to 475 to 1 and continued to rise. This represents increasing power of the ‘owners’ of capital.

And (rant alert) how the convenient naivety of the free-market about human-nature led to the wild excesses that led to the current Credit Crunch. Those with power and the access to capital misused that power for their own ends. Christians shouldn’t be surprised at this but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be outraged at the abuse of power either. And outraged at the seeming invincibility of the powerful from prosecution and conviction. Ireland, with her deeply authoritarian, paternalistic and enclosed ruling class  is one of the worst places in the West for such justice to be done in my opinion.

But the vast power of corporations also means deep insecurity and powerlessness for the employee. Ask former Dell factory workers in Limerick or countless other examples. If you know that your company can up-sticks and move to India (or wherever) and pay employees desperate to work for anything there a fraction of what they pay you, you are in a fatally weakened position. This is ‘free trade’. The only ‘end’ is the profit of the company. You are expendable and decidedly ‘unfree’.

Cavanaugh doesn’t go into this – but to take an example of a famous US multi-national in Leixlip in Ireland that makes computer chips – it also puts employees in an uncertain and competitive ‘market’ with each other within the company. You are constantly measured against your peers and if you are in the bottom x% of a bell curve of productivity you probably won’t last, even though you are doing your job. This is a ruthless use of power to increase productivity.

But in this ‘free-market’, many companies will say they have no choice but to act this way. If they don’t, their opposition will. They ‘have’ to search for cheap labour because if they don’t the company may not survive. Consumers want and expect the lowest price.

“In a world of consumption without ends, it is assumed that the consumer will want to maximize his or her own power at the expense of the labourer, and the manager does not feel free to resist this logic, lest his or her own corporation fall victim to competition from other corporations that are better positioned to take advantage of cheap labor.” (22)

But underpinning, and more important than, consumer demand for low prices is stockholder expectation of profit. Huge investment funds demand a return from corporations and put seemingly irresistible pressure on executives to deliver. If they don’t they are out – see the recent story of UK Tesco boss being forced to resign after 26 yrs of working there after a shock profit warning wiped £5 billion off the company’s share price . And those executives have added reason to maximize profit – they will gain personally from significant stock options.

6. Political power and the free-market. Cavanaugh unravels here the fascinating, and apparently contradictory, link between authoritarian regimes like China and free-market economics. How can Communism co-exist so comfortably with Capitalism?

The answer lies in a disciplined labour force which is highly attractive to business. The ‘employee’ is a small and powerless cog in the state machine. Political power is used to serve business, the individual is expendable. Lack of employee rights and muffling of free speech sits very well within a free-market economy. Cavanaugh quotes Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano speaking of the military dictatorships in Latin America of the 1970s and 80s,

“People were in prison so that prices could be free.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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