I passed a very pleasant journey to Cornwall and back reading Zygmunt Bauman’s Consuming Life. Defintely best at the beginning, and I can’t help a sneaking suspicion that the book might have been stronger as an essay, but nevertheless I got a lot from it…
His basic argument is that we have moved from a producer society to a consumer society (where we are defined by our shopping basket rather than by our work) – what he calls ‘liquid modernity’. As part of this transition, we not only become consumers, but also necessarily commodities ourselves: constantly marketing who we are in the quest to be seen, as ‘invisibility is tantamount to death’ (here he quotes Germaine Greer). He believes we are in the grip of a subjectivity fetishism.
I was really struck by a number of the consequences he outlines of this view of the world. First, a consumer society is not defined by what it buys, but instead by what it wastes (quoting Italo Calvino talking of one of his invisible cities: ‘it is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, bought, sold that you can measure Leonia’s opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new’). The spectre of the satisfied consumer is terrifying: when satisfied we don’t want to buy any more, we are no longer seeking to market ourselves in a world where trends are ever-changing to keep us shopping.
Second, he writes at length about the commodification of intimate life – a theme I’ll be returning to once I’ve got a moment to blog about Arlie Russell Hochschild’s work on this. Our relationships become as dispensable as the things we buy – and this pattern is reinforced by the way we find our friends now (online dating etc etc).
Third, he kicks back against the internet, and all those who herald it as the dawn of a new era of connectedness, instead seeing it as a force that drives us towards this commodification of the ‘Other’.
The move to liquid modernity sees the denigration of the qualities of solidity, durability and security: ‘a liquid modern setting is inhospitable to long-term planning, investment and storage; indeed it strips the delay of gratification of its past sense of prudence, circumspection and, above all, reasonability’.
It also heralds a new understanding of time and meaning. Whereas before meaning was derived by progression through life, Bauman believes we are now operating in ‘pointillist’ time, where each of us have to create meaning out of the many choices we make everyday. Melancholy, in these terms, is being overwhelmed by the possibilities of all this choice, to the point of withdrawing from the act of choosing. This argument in particular resonated very deeply with me and my own sense sometimes of not being able to move for the possibility of missing something. It feels like there’s never a straight road, only a never-ending series of forks. Maybe the art of living in these terms is learning to live with perpetual uncertainty. As he says, ‘making oneself, not just becoming, is the challenge and the task’.
I wonder what all of this might mean for our politicians. Where does it leave Gordon ‘Prudence’ Brown? What does it mean for Miliband’s claim that we all seek ‘security’? And will we ever have a crop of politicians daring enough to question the supermacy of a consumerist society, and ask whether there might not be an alternative? But maybe it doesn’t matter what politicians say or do anyway:
The true carrier of sovereign power in the society of consumers is the commodity market.
Postmodernism isn’t the rejection of coercion, but instead represents a more subtle set of tools by which we are coerced. The power to act has moved from politics to the markets, and with that politicians lose their place as the arbiters and the rule-makers of the game.