In chapter 3 Clavier turns to the ‘Rhetoric of Consumerism’. By this he means the persuasive story / stories which shape our Western consumer culture – and people like us in it.
And I’ll say upfront, if you want to be critically informed about the world in which we live read this chapter.
He starts by referencing the atheist philosopher A C Grayling, one of the few thinkers to attempt to offer a robust defence of the good of consumerism. This quote gives a flavour. Comparing consumerism to religion Grayling says,
Both the language and the symbols offer what religion once did – a common structure. But as a community bond it is … more democratic and equitable. For consumers are not fools, not victims of dogmas taught by a priesthood. They are their own priests, they know what they want and are getting it. (42)
So in this vision consumerism is freedom and enables autonomous individuals to construct their own identities and happiness. But such freedom is only for the select who can consume as they wish. As Clavier notes
Graylings’ ethics are at best meaningless and at worst insulting to low income people or the vast majority of people who live in the developing world. (42)
It is also a vision which imagines that we are somehow detached, above the fray, and able to make free rational choices unaffected by a culture intensely manipulated by the market.
Clavier draws nice parallels with Cicero’s orators. Today consumerism works through charm and eloquence rather than rational argument. The entire superstructure of Western prosperity demands relentless and ever-evolving consumption. Buying becomes more than a purchase, but an activity of self-expression and self-fulfilment. And so desire is the driver of the consumption cycle – desires must be created, stoked and refreshed in an endless cycle of wants.
Frugality, ‘enough’, satisfaction and contentment are therefore the enemies of Western capitalist culture. They threaten the very basis of economic sustainability.
Personal dissatisfaction, therefore, isn’t a byproduct of consumerism but the very essence of it. A contented public would be the ruin of Western economies … Billions of dollars are spent on consumer behaviour research to find new methods for convincing people that they’re yet to find true happiness and that they have needs yet unmet. (46)
And so consumerism is effectively a desire factory – new needs and new desires create new commodities while old ones are thrown out. And so our vast waste disposal problem and the destruction of the physical world. The rather inconvenient truth about consumer dreams is that they are destroying the real world at a catastrophic rate.
A major difference from Cicero’s time is that powerful rhetoric would have been rarely heard, yet Western culture is one of unceasing rhetoric, we live in a society of perpetual persuasion, telling us stories about reality and our ideal place within it.
Clavier unpacks in more detail the processes of consumer persuasion. In such a world of endless manipulation, choice becomes a burden rather than a freedom. It is a culture of never-arriving, never-resting and never-enough (my description).
In a desperate competition for attention, marketers analyse and study us as never before. Data is gold-dust and is used to inform the stories we are sold so that they connect with us at a personal and emotional level.
The heart rather than the mind is the object of their appeal … Delight is the key to connecting emotions to information and stories intended to persuade. (53-4)
This echoes Augustine, “a hearer must be delighted to he can be gripped and made to listen” (54, quote from On Christian Teaching, 4.12.28)
And Clavier links here to the power of mass entertainment in creating delight and selling us things in the process. This includes films, box sets and such like of course, but boundaries are increasingly blurred between information like news and marketing. Everything is shaped around pleasing the customer – the market is ‘on our side’ and there to help us experience life to the full.
And so sources of delight are ‘systematically commodified’ – this is the strategy of ‘inform, delight, engage’. We are not bullied but delighted into being loyal consumers of favourite brands. Virtually nothing is beyond commodification.
Take your life for example. The genius of Facebook, followed by other social media platforms, is that our delight in sharing our lives with others has been monetized. As Clavier says, we are ‘willing (but unwitting) marketers. Delight is the key to getting them to share their experience with others’ (57).
Increasingly we are becoming aware of just how deeply Google, Facebook, Amazon and others are able to exploit our personal data, but most of us just don’t mind. It’s a trade-off – our delight for their profit. We don’t feel oppressed, in fact it is
a bondage of delight … we enjoy it. If given a choice between being middle-class consumers and any other identity, almost everyone in their right mind would choose the former … so long as we feel free, does it really matter if we aren’t? (59).
So while the planet burns and extinction rates rise; while we are increasingly aware of the hidden dark side of consumer goods made in sweat shops far away; while we may fret about the breakdown of community and social bonds and we worry about the impact of social media on mental health – we still feel that the market ‘works’ – what, after all, is the alternative? Clavier again:
Where may one go to escape from being primarily a consumer within the rhetorical community of consumerism? … (59)
The answer many conservative Christians give is choice – we must choose to resist (somehow) the all-pervasive embrace of the market. But for Clavier this is inadequate,
The contest isn’t between choices but between the suggestions and delights that give rise to choices. In short, if Cicero and Augustine are right, that what’s needed isn’t just a different choice but, more fundamentally, a rival rhetoric powerful enough to persuade people to be something else than a consumer. (60)
And it is that rival rhetoric articulated by Augustine that the next chapter gets into. We’ll discuss how successful this move is at the end of this series.