When the riots broke out in Tottenham this summer two very different stories leapt to mind. One was Jonathan Franzen's commencement speech tirade in which he warned a group of freshly minted BAs against, consigning themselves "to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources." He was warning them against being - "in the most damning sense of the word" - consumers. Franzen railed against the shallow narcissism of "liking" on social networks and triumphed the greater depths of real world "love" (giving the example of the un-commodifiable love of bird watching). "Sooner or later" he explained about love, "you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight."
Leave aside the question of what kind of douche-bag lectures college kids on the subject of love. What Franzen and every other critic of consumerism misses, and that its defenders miss as well, is that what is extraordinary about consumer culture is not it's obvious excesses, alienation, moral confusions, or shallowness (those traits are hallmarks of any and all human culture). What is extraordinary about consumerism is that consumers will fight, and fight hard. Americans were willing to risk nuclear war to defend consumerism; there are millions of Middle Easterners and North Africans ready to lay down their lives right now for an opportunity to take part in consumer culture.
Grand Theft Auto first person shooter; shooting a friend inside Gaddafi’s Palace
Dispelling whatever lingering doubt there might have been left, over whether or not he is a total douche-bag, Noel Gallagher blamed the UK riots on "TV and violent Video games." That is because they were consumer riots - those kids were "merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources." No one, as far as I know, has credited violent video games for sparking the Arab Spring, but a few weeks after I read Franzen's grumpy harangue I heard a young Libyan who had been trained as an architect and now found himself caught up within the Arab Spring and fighting as a rebel. Prior to the uprising his only experience with war was playing first person shooter video games online. He explained that while he was very good at killing people virtually, in real life he was finding it far more difficult to pull the trigger. He also explained that playing video games, one "makes friends," but that fighting in a real war he has only lost friends.
That young man's sacrifice is profound not narcissistic, "democracy" more easily explains away that his motives because it is high minded and therefore requires no further thought. "Consumerism" however requires that we consider what exactly we were dreaming of when, sometime in the wake of WWII, we stopped thinking of ourselves as citizens and began to imagine ourselves as consumers. The short answer is we were dreaming of a freedom far more radical than any democracy had ever offered its citizens - after all the socially repressive regimes of Iran and North Korea both justify their hold on political power by holding elections. Democracies are more often puritanical than not - consumer culture never is. Additionally there was a dream of bounty and equality more radical than either the capitalists or the communists had ever dreamed of - the industrialists promised luxuries for the few and the Party promised necessities to all; but neither ever promised everyone could have everything. The long answer is we were dreaming of Star Trek - long because I understand that that answer requires some careful explanation (Continue Reading).
Star Trek reboot (2009); Arab Spring (2011)