The Consuming Self

 
 

Americans increasingly identify with our consumption. When combined with political tribalism, the result is the increasing refusal to do business with members of other political or cultural groups. In the end, an identity based on consumption will only consume itself.

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As officials in Washington enact new economic sanctions against foreigners, Americans seem increasingly eager to level sanctions against each other. The economic outrage wars continue, with casualties on both sides and no shortage of hypocrisy. Boycotts, firings, state travel bans, and more are being deployed as individuals, businesses, and even state governments try to apply economic pressure to each other.

These efforts manifest the usual (if intensified) partisan tribalism. But there’s something else going on here, too, rooted in a changing conception of the self. Why are so many so eager to use economic coercion against those with different views? For the same reason a bag of potato chips in my kitchen touts the purchase of wind energy credits: Americans increasingly identify with our consumption. When combined with political tribalism, the result is the increasing refusal to do business with members of other political or cultural groups, or even to participate in a symphony fundraiser with them.

This impulse to deploy economic decisions as partisan and cultural warfare is related to the way anti-discrimination law has been weaponized against First Amendment freedoms. Although economic pressure campaigns are not backed by armed government agents the way laws are, they have an even greater reach. There is a dangerously illiberal complementarity between the hijacking of anti-discrimination law and the rise of private or local economic sanctions. Both are attempts by Americans to find means of economic coercion against those of differing political and cultural views.

As a matter of policy, absent material harm (i.e., locking people out of essential goods and services) government should generally leave people free to do business, or not, with others as they see fit. But, as a matter of culture, we should be hesitant to try to use economic pressures to coerce others into renouncing their views. Economic pressure tactics are not attempts at rational persuasion. Rather, they are fundamentally coercive—they say, “I’ll hurt you financially unless you do what I want.” Economic pressure may induce the wicked to amend their ways, but it should be deployed rarely and with deliberation, lest we slip into constant economic warfare against our fellow citizens over ordinary political disputes.

The Dangers of Constant Economic Warfare

This economic coercion is distinct from the reasonable preferences we all have when choosing whom we deal with. For example, I buy my coffee beans from a friend with a small coffee-roasting sideline, and I get satisfaction not only from the better product he supplies, but also from supporting him instead of the beverage-slinging leviathan spawned in Seattle. But this is not the same as declaring that I will never buy from that caffeine-dispensing behemoth so long as its CEO has political views I disagree with. I prefer to buy better coffee from a friend, but in a pinch I’ll buy from the green-hued coffee monster, as I am not trying to use whatever economic power I have to try to punish ordinary political disagreement.

However, many Americans are eagerly using their economic decisions to pressure and punish. There are two common justifications for this. The first is simple: use whatever means you can to hurt your enemies and induce them to surrender. The second justification is that one has a moral responsibility to spend in accord with one’s values and principles, and that commerce with those with differing views provides them with the financial means to promote their own perspective.

The dangers this political Manicheanism poses are obvious, as it reduces us to our political tribes and posits them as factions locked in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. It ignores the wisdom of Solzhenitsyn, who reminded us that the dividing line between good and evil runs through human hearts. It makes political affiliation a defining characteristic and thereby expands the realm of the political (and thus of political conflict) into all of life. It smacks of a secularized religious fervor—one must not have dealings with unbelievers and heretics, lest one be defiled.

Both politics and personal finance thus become intensely morally significant, with that morality rooted in tribal identification and consumer choices. Ironically, many of those who once insisted that morality be kept out of politics now seem to know no morality but the political. Morality, understood as profession of the right political and cultural views, is instantiated through consumption that supports those views. The wicked are punished through economic sanction, the good are rewarded through patronage, and personal righteousness is achieved through consumption of the right goods and services from the right people.

Consumption as Identity

The impulse to make purchases an expression of the self is rooted in a self-understanding of consumption as identity. Our culture increasingly sees the consuming self as the authentic self—who one is derives from what one consumes. Advertisements promote personal identification with our brand and product choices. They sell us images and associations as much as products. We are encouraged to take pride in our purchases and to see ourselves in flattering terms because of them. When the mesmeric charm of the advertising agency is combined with the tribal inclinations of politics, we are soon convinced that virtue and wickedness reside in politicized consumption. As the potato chip bag suggests, you can buy your way to virtue!

In our contemporary culture, the narratives, roles, and relationships that previously established identities and defined virtue have been pushed aside, and individuals are now encouraged to craft their own identities. We were told that conforming to established roles was stifling and that destroying them would liberate us, allowing us to create our own identities and find fulfillment. However, this approach rarely results in the freedom that its philosophical advocates expect. Traditional sources of identity are not replaced with free self-creation but with prepackaged consumer identities and tribal allegiances. As finite, historical beings, we cannot escape the contingency of our existence. And within the limits of our historical being, self-creation through consumption and tribal affiliation is much easier than self-creation through intellectual or aesthetic effort and achievement.

This consumption-oriented identity is not only a matter of purchasing the potato chips of environmental virtue. It infects countless other aspects of life as well. For example, our culture views sexuality not in terms of relationships that take place within a broader context of family and community, but in terms of “preferences.” We are taught to identify ourselves by our sexual desires and to view sexuality through a lens of consumption. Desire is understood as constituting authenticity (and therefore identity). Condemning the indulgence of someone’s sexual desires is therefore viewed as condemning a core part of his or her identity, which consists of essentialized sexual desire. However, the fulfillment of sexual desire qua desire is seen as only incidentally interpersonal, insofar as others may be needed to satiate desire (at least until sex robots are perfected). It is not the Other who is desired, but only the stimuli that the Other provides. Sexual stimuli are consumed to satisfy current desire, and in this process, the objects of desire are commodified, as is most evident in the use of pornography.

This transformation of others into objects of consumption is not confined to sexuality; it is present across the whole of the consuming self. And although modern democratic liberalism has most totally extended consumer identity across human life, its sources are ancient, rooted as they are in human nature. Thus, we can look to Plato’s memorable discussion of the transition from a democratic to a tyrannical soul and observe how an identity formed by mesmeric image-makers selling desire and consumption will become enslaved to desire, and therefore tyrannical toward others. Goaded by desire, the tyrannical consuming self will have little respect for other persons or the human goods they pursue.

The consuming self will seek to control those who produce, and it will not respect integrity in production, such as the freedom of artists to create (or not) in accord with their consciences. It will rage at those who refuse it something, and at those vendors whose views puncture the illusion of achieving virtue through consumption. It will engage in bizarre secular recreations of ritual religious purity (thou shalt not eat chicken sandwiches from a company with a conservative Christian CEO, lest it defile thee).

And thus the consuming self becomes a tyrant, to itself most of all. The attempt at self-creation through consumption brings neither freedom nor fulfillment, but only slavery to desire. In the end, an identity based on consumption will consume itself.

Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.

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