The Land of Plenty? America Consumed with Guilt
May the lights in the land of plenty
Shine on the truth some day
– Leonard Cohen, ‘The Land of Plenty’
Since the first Elizabethan voyagers set foot on its ‘virgin land’, America has often been heralded as the land of plenty. In an account of his reconnaissance mission to Virginia in 1584, Captain Arthur Barlowe rhapsodizes about the region. He conjures up idyllic imagery of fecundity and describes finding shoal water that ‘smelled so sweet, and so strong a smell, as if we had been in the midst of some delicate garden abounding with all kinds of odoriferous flowers’. Of course, behind the production and proliferation of Barlowe’s hyperbole stood more strategic and colonial aims. But such pastoral visions of an endlessly rich land have left an indelible mark on the American imagination. The Edenic abundance of the New World has often been taken as evidence of its providential precedence. These intoxicating fantasies of surplus and the unwavering belief in boundless consumption endure to this day, albeit in a grotesque and parodic form.
America is home to less than five percent of the global population, and yet it uses around a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources (burning up nearly 25 percent of the coal, 26 percent of the oil, and 27 percent of the world’s natural gas). As of 2003, the US had more private cars than licensed drivers, with SUVs among the bestselling vehicles. New houses in America were 38 percent bigger in 2002 than in 1975, despite the average number of people per household being lower. Americans spend $70 billion a year on cigarettes, and nearly $818,000 every day, or about $300 million a year, on Oreos. Of course, such statistics – which might have once been a source of astonishment – are now little more than dull quanitifications of what we all intuitively know. That very little if anything has changed in recent patterns of consumption in light of such knowledge is testament to the power of consumerist disavowal, the cynical gesture that insists: ‘Yes, I know very well, but still’. This defensive response to external challenges to the consumerist mindset may be evidence that those idealist significations of America as the land of plenty have a longevity that far exceeds that of their material referents. Any confrontation with the reality of the destruction wrought by over-consumption is relegated in importance when compared to the symbolic ideals of consumer society. The persistence of the right to consume without restraint overrides any potential sense of guilt. Indeed, any guilt feeling is displaced onto those ‘killjoys’ who would try to reactivate the buried bad conscience of others. Don’t try to make me feel guilty about buying this. As the Hummer tagline proudly asserts: ‘Need is a very subjective word’.
The triumph of consumerism in the US is regularly seen as a fait accompli, a concrete achievement so self-evidently good and right (one might even say ‘natural’) as to be beyond question. Those who have dared to challenge the desirability and viability of rabid consumption in the past – the Puritans, the Transcendentalists, the Prohibitionists, advocates of ‘voluntary simplicity’, the 60s counterculture, ecological groups, and sections of the recent Occupy movement – have made minimal impact upon the hegemony of consumerism. It is often supposed that the real consumerist boom, which began in the post-WWII era of prosperity and continues to this day (despite the crisis), has been fuelled by increased expectations, most notably those for more and varied material goods (TVs, automobiles, technology, and so on). Yet, in reality, our expectations as consumers are perpetually diminished and must be purposely and repeatedly thwarted in the service of consumerism’s continuity. For all the emotional and financial investment in new products, the unspoken presupposition of consumerism is that no commodity will ever actually deliver its satisfaction as advertised. The endless promises of happiness will always be broken, even as the speed on our ‘hedonic treadmills’ increases. As consumers we remain forcibly disappointed. Indeed, if a product were to genuinely sate the desire that prompted its initial acquisition, this would risk jeopardizing the treasured narrative of infinite consumption. Instead the act of consumption must ultimately be emptied of any genuine gratification, while the production process must actively program obsolescence into all consumer goods.
The acquisitional motive, so central to the first wave of bona fide consumerism, has been supplemented by the urge to discard. Accompanying the freedom to consume supposedly ‘new and improved’ models must be the freedom to immediately dispose of the old and outmoded, even if the latter is nowhere near the end of its functional capacity. Anyone who does not follow suit in hastily clearing out the old to make way for the new is bound to suffer the stigma of being a defective consumer, and to feel the guilt associated with failing to live up to consumer society’s standards. One might think here of the phenomenon of hoarding as an interesting example of an unintentional opposition to the consumerist desire to eternally discard and replace everything. The hoarder is someone who is habitually incapable of ‘letting go’ of items that consumer society deems to be valueless trash. In a society a consumers, the subterranean value-system of a hoarder appears downright dysfunctional. The urge to retain things indiscriminately is pathologized as a problem to be resolved, an idiosyncrasy to be downplayed or a symptom to be treated. Meanwhile, the compulsion to gluttonously consume, discard, and consume again, is normalized and encouraged as healthy.
The routinization of consumption is a subject taken up in David Foster Wallace’s well-known ‘This Is Water’ commencement speech of May 21, 2005. One of the daily routines he dissects is that of purchasing groceries. Wallace criticizes what he calls the ‘natural default setting’, which fashions responses around self-centered, petty frustration. He claims that this way of thinking – or rather of not thinking – abjures our acknowledgement of what is in fact the ‘sacred’ site of a radical individual choice; that is, a choice about how to respond to, and how to think about, such situations. As if the shuddering experience of horror during these experiences signals a personal failure of some kind; as if an individual’s critical worldview is somehow distorting what is (or at least could be) otherwise a perfectly pleasant encounter. Contra Wallace, the point is that these quotidian modes of consumption genuinely are miserable and frustrating; moreover, they are structurally and intentionally so. For the same reason that the furniture in McDonald’s is deliberately designed to be uncomfortable, massive supermarkets aim to expedite footfall, transforming the customers into bodily extensions of the conveyor belts beside them, all in the name of maximizing profits (which, lest we forget, remains a legal duty for corporations).
The ‘take-away’ message from Wallace’s feted speech seems to be that those of us with a liberal arts education are better primed to decide (1) what to think about, and (2) how to do so. But this safe, predictable lauding of a humanities-based education too readily privatizes responsibility and makes the changing of perspective an individual quasi-heroic act. It offers precious little beyond the very ‘banal platitudes’ that Wallace so derides. Moreover, this position dovetails with the inalienable right of individual liberty, which is utterly powerless to confront the real perils of mass over-consumption. Attempting to alleviate our justifiable frustration at the grocery-store – or any other site of consumption, for that matter – by simply recalibrating our way of thinking is precisely what makes us better consumers and infinitely worse citizens. For just this reason, it is likewise not enough to merely advocate more ‘reasonable’, ‘ethical’ or ‘fair’ forms of consumption. The fashionable yet oxymoronic notion of ‘ethical consumerism’ both results from and reaffirms existing class inequalities, since the self-righteously ethical consumer is also closely wedded to the notion of individual freedom and remains unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge their own socio-economic advantage. Along this line, one’s choice to, say, buy locally-sourced organic produce from a farmer’s market rather than artificially preserved food from Wal-Mart, reflects merely a personal choice. The obvious problem being that our hypothetical consumer’s neighbor might deploy the same ‘personal preference’ argument to defend buying a new SUV or two. The prestige that accompanies such ostentatious ethics is a privilege and a poor substitute for the genuinely collective responsibility and transformation needed to make excessive consumption a thing of the past.
When Karl Marx wrote of the ‘fetishism of commodities’, he was not stating the undeniable fact that certain objects and brands become status symbols in an affluent society. Such an observation would have been trivial already in the nineteenth-century. Rather, Marx ambitiously aimed to theorize the commodity form in general, that is, the process of commodity production and consumption above and beyond individual instances. He claimed that the commodity form is such that the value of something is only realized when it enters into an exchange relation with another thing. To the people doing the exchanging, it appears as if the individual items posess value in themselves. The commodity form disguises the human labor and social relations that are the essence of making (and exchanging) all things. This process of mystification constitutes the real fetishism of commodities. In light of this, it is high time we reacquainted ourselves with the human effort congealed in all ideas and things, and not just those deemed most desirable by the vagaries of fashion. Such a reconnection would entail confronting the ever growing heaps of debris and refuse created by our consumer society. For if we are to break the stranglehold of consumerism that imprisons so much of the national psyche, it will not be enough to simply focus on the seductive coruscating sheen of the new; we will have to recognize the coagulated labor within all things. Every excessive, pointless, disgusting commodity, every surplus item, every decomposing food stuff and rusting ‘outdated’ technology – all have a piece of us sedimented in them. Perhaps above all else though, we are not just consuming things; we are consuming an idea – the alluring, stubborn, wishful and commodified idea of America as ever the land of plenty. We consume the image, and the image consumes us. The hope is to break this cycle. Break it soon.Close