Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In what ways does the advance of consumerism leave us politically homeless?

In what ways does the advance of consumerism leave us politically homeless?

The world order that we have today is very different to that of the past century. The ideology of puritanical capitalism, oriented on hard work and growth through reinvestment and saving is all but gone. Our society today is predominantly a consumerist one (Bauman,1998). Which means that our main role in it is to consume. Not that in preceding societies consumption did not play a role, however, there were other roles, such as the producer and the soldier (Bauman, 1998). Today’s society has less need for mass industrial labor and conscript armies, instead it is more interested in engaging its members in the role of the consumer (Bauman, 1998). While there is no question that in both societies consumption played a role, it is the change of emphasis, which makes the difference between the two (Bauman, 1998). The extent of difference between present day society and that which came before it, is best illustrated by Bauman, (1998) who compares the terms in which the meaning of ones existence was once examined -before, poets, philosophers and moral preachers pondered whether one works to live, or lives to work(Bauman, 1998). Today the question is whether one consumes to live or lives to consume (Bauman, 1998). Furthermore, with emphasis on constant consumption, stability and concrete goals become much less relevant. In a world where companies are constantly producing we are surrounded by a multitude of ever-changing options, here instead of wanting what we need we started to want just to want and when we obtain, we move on to wanting something else. In such a setting of fast paced production and ever progressing technology how can an individual stay put? It would be the same as standing still in the moving sands(Bauman, 1998).

Furthermore, globalization is another side of the same coin. It aims to facilitate consumption on the global scale. Abolishing visas between some countries, reducing tarrifs and making movement of goods easier, comodifying cultural artifacts and adding them to mainstream markets, creating global hubs of commerce, global stock exchange markets, global financial institutions, fast technological advancement and reduction of the impact of time and space, all of the above are characteristics of globalization. It is therefore easy to see how consumerism and globalization are mutually complementary.

However, looking at the picture of this society, one might notice that something is missing. That something is the political and social dimensions that were so prominent in the previous century. Hence this absence makes one ponder of whether in the midst of consumerist age we are moving past politics, state and citizenship. Are we sacrificing the rights and duties of participation in the decision making process that democracy, for which we fought for so vigorously in the past century, stands for? There are strong views, such as Barber(2008), which suggest that this is indeed the case, that we are a society gone mad with greed and individualism - rejecting all that binds us together, for our individual desires. Nevertheless, as one explores in more depth all the facets of the present social order, the case becomes less clear cut. This essay thus examines the ways the advance of consumerism leaves us politically homeless.


According to Barber(2008) The two defining forces of the modern world that go hand in hand are consumerism and globalization. With consumerism we are transformed from citizens into shoppers and undermine the national sovereignty from the inside (Barber, 2008). At the same time, Globalization makes the nation state take the back seat, giving all the powers to the corporations, which undermines sovereignty from the outside (Barber,2008). As a result, the two combined effectively deliver a massive blow to democracy, citizenship and liberty (Barber, 2008). Barber (2008) believes that if sovereignty and state autonomy are removed, it would be impossible to have a democratic government that would enforce laws, and protect its citizens. It also leaves no place for citizens to exercise their civic duties and take part in the process of participation & decision making for the public good, which is what democracy is all about. The tension between the consumer and the citizen is the tension between the private chooser vs. the public chooser (Barber, 2008). While the questions of what “I want” is answered by the market , the question of what “we need” is answered by the community(Barber, 2008). When one is encouraged to do others work, society get distorted and destabilized. Barber (2008) explains the distortions by comparing consumerism to a mental disorder - a civic schizophrenia - in which the citizen’s identity is fragmented and the fragments that relate to civic/public identity are blocked out. While it might seem that ones individual wants are harmless, when explored deeper it turns out that our seemingly private choices affect the public domain. When combined, the effects of our private choices do not equal to the effects of collective public choices-distortions and dysfunctions are created. Privatization is a good example. Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher both believed that there is no such thing as a public sphere or society; everything was oriented on satisfying individual wants. Thus to minimize state intervention they initiated privatization of all previously government owned domains such as public transport, health care, education sectors. Barber (2008) points out the flaw in this approach, because when public goods are privatized their worth is compromised, that is you cannot protect a few in a climate of general insecurity and you cannot educate some in the midst of societal ignorance (Barber, 2008).

Thus, in a same manner, privatization leads to a collective suffering of consequences of choices that we never directly made, which means that we are at the mercy of free market economy rather than democratically elected governments. This logic leads Barber, (2008) to conclude that we would be left politically voiceless, unattended- homeless.

Tourists and vagabonds – The social strata of consumerist society

Consumerist society like any other society is a stratified one. As in the past, there are those at the top and those at the bottom. The type of consumers that inhabit the world today is not one dimensional; after all if everyone would be a happy consumer then the world would be a utopia. Today everyone wants to be a consumer but not everyone can be.

Our ability to consume divides us essentially in two groups - those who are good consumers or as Bauman (1998) calls them- the tourists, and those who wish they would be a good consumer- the vagabonds (Bauman, 1998). Both are consumers, however the consumer capacity of vagabonds is insufficient, they are thus a flawed consumer. Society renders them useless simply because they don’t consume enough. As a result their role in society is precarious (Bauman, 1998).

Social position is also determined by the freedom of mobility and freedom of choice that is given to good consumers. For the tourists, the world is their play ground they are not bound by time or space , not confined to a certain location, they can go on to explore the world at their own leisure and are equipped with all the tools to do so. This lifestyle is facilitated by the availability of high speed technology that allows them to forgo constrictions of space and time(Bauman, 1998). One can buy a ticket and be on the opposite side of the world in a matter of hours, follow their finances and the stock market on the go, conduct negotiation via video phones without being physically present. The lives that tourists lead are forever in the now, they are always on the go, always busy always running out of time (Bauman,1998).

The vagabonds are tied to a certain place or are forced to move to another place, mostly not of their choosing (Bauman, 1998). Their world is still locally tied, their movement is obstructed and thus they are not creating the changes rather are passive victims of them. This is made even more painful by the media that dangles the freedoms that the tourists posses. In their world, unlike tourists, the vagabonds have too much time with nothing to fill it with(Bauman, 1998). As Bauman (1998) puts it “the vagabonds do not control time and neither are controlled by it, all they can do is kill time as they are slowly killed by it”.

From the above it is obvious that one of the main differences between the two strata is that those at the top can leave the rest behind but not vice versa(Bauman, 1998)

Bauman (1998) uses the example of Agness Heller and her travel companion to exemplify the life of the perfect tourist –“home is nowhere and everywhere, foreign is no longer foreign, wherever she goes she feels at ease.”

Another great example of the tourist life is illustrated by Pico Lyer(2000), in his book Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home he describes people around him as global travelers with no home but constant journey. The technology, suitcases with priority tags, toiletries from a variety of hotels, the proximity of shopping malls, immigration offices, and restaurants with a range of foods from all over the world, all points to being constantly on the go (Lyer, 2000). Global corporate workers who have a life in every country and none at the same time, who carry around 5 spare ticket itineraries at any given time because they don’t even know where they are going to end up tomorrow(Lyer, 2000). The hubs such as Honk Kong and Singapore are perfect illustrations of how world today is more and more homogenized and made for the convenience of tourists. When you board a plane in one country and land across the world you find same shopping malls, same brands same duty free layouts, same products. One can find America in every country and every country in America(Lyer, 2000).

However, that is not the only life Lyer(2000) describes, amongst all the luxuries that are bestowed upon the tourist he describes the vagabond traveler as well. He describes the Philippinas that work as cleaning ladies in the houses of the rich Arabs in Dubai or wealthy Chinese in Singapore. He also mentions the sex industry that is present in global commercial hubs like Honk Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Dubai etc. Thus, when the vagabond moves it’s a different kind of movement all together, they might not have chosen or wanted to move but they see no other choice.

Bauman (1998) describes it perfectly when he says that “the tourists move because they find the world is irresistibly attractive, while the vagabonds move because they find the world within their reach unbearably inhospitable”. Therefore the tourists travel because they want to, the vagabonds- because they have to (Bauman, 1998).

Abolition of entry visas for some, but strict passport control is a clear example that illustrates the ease and hardships of travel depending on which group one belongs to. As the visas for the first world tourists are phased out, the passport control is very much enforced (Bauman,1998). It sets apart those for who’s convenience visas have been abolished and those who are perceived as unworthy, who should have not traveled in the first place. In that it has a great symbolic value (Bauman, 1998).

Some examples that illustrate this are that of Europe and Australia.

European citizens can travel within Europe without passport control, and may need no entry visas into most countries, if they do require one, the process is simple and instantaneous, same with citizens of other first world countries. A European citizen can come to Australia for 3 months on a working holiday visa and, needs not explain their reasons for coming. On the other hand those in the third world, one needs to provide elaborate documentation that they posses sufficient funds and don’t intend to stay long in the first world. Australia for example allocates countries according to assessment levels, from 1-6 , 1 and 2 being the first world and the rest being the third world, with level 6 being the poorest countries in the world. The difficulty and time involved in obtaining the visa rises significantly as you progress from 1 to 6. If a person belongs to level 1 or 2 they get their visa within 24 hours as opposed to level 6 where a year can pass.

Regardless of the different lives that they lead, Bauman, (1998) sees the tourist and the vagabond as two sides of the same coin. The Vagabond is an alter ego of the tourist, something a tourist is afraid of becoming and therefore scorns (Bauman, 1998). The one could not exist without the other, they need each other in a way that the vagabond wishes they were tourist and tourist prays he never becomes a vagabond (Bauman, 1998). Vagabonds make tourists appreciate their life much more by just being there and showing alternative existence. Every doubt, hardship or irritation, become bleak when the tourist is confronted with the existence of the vagabond (Bauman,1998).

Tourists and Vagabonds exist everywhere within each country and between countries. It is interesting to look at the relationship of vagabonds and tourists within the same country. The dynamic within a country is very much the same between the rich and the poor as it is between first world and third world. The rights and the position in society are given to those who are a good citizen, which today is synonymous with a good consumer. The governmental policy today is heavily influenced by large Multinational Corporation whose goal is to enhance the consumption by giving more rights to the consumers and leaving those who can’t consume enough, behind. In line with Barber (2008) the above divisions are based on the individual’s qualities as consumer and not the citizen.

Comodifying culture.

As previously stated the tourists of the world are global travelers, as such they are also not just the consumers of goods but experiences as well. Technological age has made the world a much smaller place, and in that the tourists are now not content by just their culture instead they are active collectors/consumers of experiences. Experiences can be modified reproduced and sold just like a product can. This means that experiences become the new commodities. Therefore, many cultures market their cultural artifacts in order to promote themselves (Firat & Dholakia, 1998). Every country has a version of its own PR campaign that is designed to attract tourists-consumers to come and spend money. Firat & Dholakia, (1998) describe it best when they state that greatness of cultural artifacts is determined mainly through their visual value, by the voyeuristic, tourist culture. Thus, if the culture found the way to translate these visual qualities into marketable experiences, it is provided with ability to extend its power and reach beyond its original borders (Firat & Dholakia, 1998). However, if the culture is not successful in comodification of their items, it will suffer and be delegitimized and ignored (Firat & Dholakia, 1998). As a result today, all around the world culture is not what we belong to anymore, but what we consume (Firat & Dholakia, 1998).

Failure to comodify ones own culture can lead to interesting and paradoxical consequences. Firat & Dholakia, (1998) illustrate this with Hopi Indians in North America and Altipano people of Peru. The former refused to comodify their culture and be a part of the market system, as a result they still ended up being consumers of the market system, however due to lack of marketable artifacts of their own culture they ended up in severe poverty. For the later - one of their cultural commodities got so sought after by rich well off consumers in other parts of the world, that they themselves cannot afford it anymore (Firat & Dholakia, 1998).

Here again, the consumerist society seems to leave behind those who refuse to abide by its rules.

Power of the consumer

A citizen is an individual whose rights, privileges and responsibilities are identified and preserved through political institutions, and who therefore is a subject of a nation state. (Firat & Dholakia, 1998). Today, this role as we knew it is diminishing, while our role as a consumer becomes more and more important (Firat & Dholakia, 1998). It is interesting to observe how the activities that we do as citizens are turning into activities carried out by consumers. During the elections we are addressed as consumers, with fast sharp sounding slogans like those of an advertising campaign (which it ultimately is). The tone of the address is oversimplified and does not require thinking, in other words we are seduced, sweet talked, and sold into carrying out our citizens duties (Firat & Dholakia, 1998). In addition to that, more and more eligible voters simply don’t bother to vote, seeing that there is no point to it, and expressing apathy towards their right and duty as a citizen that their predecessors fought for. On the other hand, we are all very eager and ready to be consumers (Firat & Dholakia, 1998).

Nevertheless, even if that is the case with consumers being the new citizens and corporations being the new governments, the main goal of a corporation is profit and that is ultimately in the hands of the consumers. It’s the voice of the consumer or, even better, a multitude of consumers that the most powerful corporations and governments listen to (Barber, 2007).

While as citizens around the world we all have different rights, as consumers we have the same rights and the same voice. What this means is that the consumer masses have an ultimate power over corporations if they wish to exercise it (Barber, 2007). Previous sections dealt with the negative effects of ever expanding consumerism on citizenship and public good. However there are ways in which modern society can promote civic/public good by working within the system (Barber, 2007). Although at present it seems like market is the only game in town there are ways to civicize both the demand and supply sides of it (Barber, 2007). In this way market is adjusted to work for the public good (Barber, 2007). That is, turning the economy that produces goods that are not needed into an economy that produces necessities and reasonable wants.

Boycotting is a powerful tool of the civic consumerism that uses consumer empowerment to achieve social goals (Barber, 2007). Boycotting a large company, for example, enables consumers to change corporate policies in order not to lose customers. Here the consumers are actually acting more like citizens utilizing the market to serve a social purpose, without relying on the state and legislation (Barber, 2007). Tactics such as boycotting are available to any minority who wishes to carry a political message across, regardless of righteousness of their cause (Barber, 2007). Once the companies feel enough pressure they much prefer to resolve it by self regulation then government intervention. Sometimes those self regulations can be just ink on paper, because unlike governments who have legitimate monopoly on force and can enforce laws, the self regulatory voluntary code enforcement depends on the willingness of companies to honor them. Nevertheless, again, through the power of boycott consumers have shown to be able to enforce these voluntary codes, where governments were unable to act (Barber, 2007). Furthermore, effective enforcement of these codes of conduct can bring a significant social change, especially in third world countries, where corporations would do as they pleased if left to their own devices. Seal of approval campaigns such as Dolphin- safe- tuna and Rugmark are good examples of effective enforcement that lead to policy change (Barber, 2007).

The boycott tactic is effective because citizens can forcefully push their agenda as consumers, “do what we want, how we want, or we won’t buy it” (Barber, 2007). Furthermore, they can boycott not only products but also services, and pretty much anything. This is exemplified by boycotts of segregated lunch counters- it was not what was on the menu that was protested (Barber, 2007).

However, even these oversights have been undermined by the neoliberal victories. What market has become is a device of private goods, which came to overshadow civic/ public ones (Barber, 2007). This is especially the case when the private and public demands are in contradiction, then the private triumphs over public, and effectively overpowering the sovereignty by vesting all the power to the private (individual producers and consumers). As Barber, (2007) points out institutions like IMF and WTO use free market mantra to fight civic consumerism. Bottom up consumer boycotts are often deemed top down national boycotts aimed at official protectionism by the global beurocrats who run these organizations, and are in fact considered illegal under most international trade and financial regulations enforced by international financial and trade institutions such as IMF and WTO(Barber, 2007). This effectively deprives citizens (and whole nations) of any recourses against the anarchy of global laisez fair economics. American state government has tried to impose restrictions (based on safety or other civic considerations) on imports from nations in violation of such standards (Barber, 2007). However, they failed & have been successfully sued under the free trade provisions, and compelled to abandon their civic agenda (Barber, 2007).

In response to this unruliness of the markets, frustrated consumers came up with ways to affirm rather than penalize companies (Barber, 2007). It is more effective to support companies whose products are regarded as worthy, rather than penalize companies whose policies or products are dangerous. It’s like positive reinforcement that encourages corporate responsibility and civic corporatism through profit. This tactic has produced a new breed of companies oriented on civic responsibility (Barber, 2007). For example, social investment firms that help consumers invest in companies with socially responsible profiles. In addition a few consumer product companies use marketing strategies in associating their goods with social issues and/or causes (Barber, 2007). For example, Benetton’s clothing range is quite plain, yet the advertising campaigns are quite compelling, drawing attention to a multitude of social issues (Barber, 2007). Even though it might be just a market ploy of using originality to generate more profit, they do raise awareness about these issues.

However, these marketing tricks sometimes can be confusing and contradictory(Barber, 2007). For example, Starbucks is known to annihilate small local café businesses around the world, yet it promotes strategies for conservation; or sells designer water in the first world to gather funds to address water crisis in the third world (Barber, 2007).

It is important to point out that the greed that is a prominent feature of free market and consumerist society can actually be turned to work in the favor of responsible social service. Corporations do understand that good citizenship pays. They’d rather modify their products and policies then lose customers. Thus it doesn’t really matter what the motivation is, whether its greed or good intentions, if buying designer water in the first world helps to solve water crisis or if new recyclable cups conserve 5,000,000 pounds of tree fiber, than it’s the positive civic outcome that counts.

Again this has limitation. Obviously being responsible is easy when it generates profit, however when there is no profit to be gained, it becomes problematic (Barber, 2007). Nobody wants to invest in things that don’t bring returns (Barber, 2007).

There are thus clear obstacles to the corporate responsibility because, ultimately ,as Barber (2007) puts it, the reality of every corporation competing in the global market is that the business of business is ultimately business, and the business of civic responsibility is the business of democratic government, for which business cannot be a sufficient replacement.

In the final analysis Barber (2007) argues that while responsible business can be extremely advantageous for advocating civic causes it can never match a strong citizen – sovereign democracy, with a strong government rather than self regulating companies.


In conclusion, it is possible to see how the advance of consumerism could contribute to the feeling of being left politically homeless in a number of ways discussed. For the vagabonds their existence is determined by their inability to consume enough and therefore they are rendered uselessness to the consumerist society. The policy of governments is heavily influenced by multinational corporations and financial institutions such as IMF and WTO, who can override policy and thus infringe sovereignty. The focus of the prevalent economic order is still very much free market, which tries to minimize state intervention as much as possible. It also promotes individual desires over the collective ones, which often do not equal. The culture itself is comodified and we no longer belong to a culture, we consume it. Finally, the tourists of the world seem to have moved past politics and single location, they are now more like global travelers with home everywhere and nowhere.

However, there is also proof that consumer awareness can be raised to promote public good, and when it’s done effectively it can work. It is useless to speak about consumerist society in black and white terms, as it is much more complex than that. Not everyone is equally affected by it, neither is everyone affected badly. Indeed, for some it has provided an opportunity never previously available in history. While for others, it has been a source of great inequality. But today’s society is not so different from those that came before it, just like the previous society, it would need time to regulate itself and adjust to the new world. One cannot expect for everything to be figured out straight away. As was discussed above, there are ways through which the people can return to the public sphere and influence policy. If enough awareness about an issue is raised the people will do something about it, we have the power should we chose to use it, and more and more are starting to realize it.


Z. Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1998. Chpt. 4 ‘Tourists and Vagabonds’.

B. Barber, ‘Shrunken Sovereign: Consumerism, Globalisation, and American Emptiness’, World Affairs, Spring 2008, vol. 170, no. 4, p. 73-81.

P. Iyer, Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home, Bloomsbury, London, 2000. Chapter 1 ‘The Burning House’ and Chpt. 3 ‘The Global Marketplace’, pp. 79-115.

F. Firat and N. Dholakia, Consuming People: From Political Economy to Theatres of Consumption, Routledge, London, 1998. Chpt. 8 ‘Global Consumption’.

B. Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2007, Ch