the new moral seriousness
The moment when the twin stars of consumerism and Christianity converge seems the proper time to reflect on the intensified assault, building for years now but perhaps peaking in this one, on the conscience of the American consumer.
From the mortgage crisis and its mutant offspring to global warming, the consumer (sometimes universalized with phrases like ‘our culture of excess’ or some such) is painted as the ultimate bearer of responsibility, a PR campaign masquerading as empowerment. The notorious Time cover from 2006 managed to contain differences in class, consumer demographics, and less directly, the difference between politics and shopping, in the reflective image of a computer screen that then erased them with the anonymous Time reader’s own concerned face. From the slightly Orwellian consolation following Your replacement by Vladimir Putin in ’07: “It’s still Your world, after all. They just pretend to run it.”
This year, a series of crises has been presented to audiences in the old fashioned way, via a colorful cast of characters who are supposed to be exaggerated versions of ourselves, personifications of our sins, products of our actions. There’s the greedy Wall Street trader, heroic grassroots President-Elect, and, riding off into the sunset, the symbol of ‘our’ confusion made flesh, the Great Fly himself, enabling a clean break with the past through his obvious inadequacy not only before the future Commander-in-Chief but next to his whole awe-inspiring list of ‘failures’ as well. Given the reams of academic and popular criticism leveled at televised politics, a point I don’t see often is that the significance of these characters rests on an underlying sense of community, and it is probably this imaginary ‘connection’ between spectator and ideal object that gives even the most shocking media events their aura of rightness and inevitability. ‘Humanizing’ someone on television only makes them superhuman; subjection to masters and idols is taught at the same time and in the same way as complicity with their ‘excesses.’ Who says gods don’t walk the earth?
Though you will never hear anyone famous say this, blaming consumer capitalism on the consumer is like blaming industrial capitalism on the factory worker. Strong, independent people (in their capacity as pundits) don’t admit things like this. In our capacity as shoppers we are forced by marketers, monotheists, activists, and psychoanalysts to acknowledge that all our habits have meaning. Strong, independent people don’t allow that meaning to belong to others. ‘Our choices must reflect our values.’ The conscious consumer of today purchases organic produce, locally grown if possible, eats little to no meat, rides bicycles or takes the bus instead of driving her hybrid, practices energy conservation, avoids clothing manufactured in sweatshops, donates to nonprofits, crafts perfect counterarguments to TV news according to blogs, checks the reviews for movies before (or instead of) going to see them, and reads serious literature. Immediately to her left is the raw vegan urban farmer who buys nothing and doesn’t shower, immediately to her right is the prototypical meat-eating liberal. As Joy Williams so elegantly put it back in 2000, “concern is the new consumerism.”
This is of course not politics but morality. Much like social welfare, environmental reform has largely been left to charity and individual choice, a policy that’s had about the same level of success. Against the worst predictions of global warming the individual absolutely cannot make a difference. Even significant groups of people buying some stuff instead of other stuff amounts to little more than changing the channel — if politicians and capitalists feel it’s necessary to make major alterations in the way they do business, they will, but they vastly prefer to direct popular will toward preselected compromises (hybrid cars, Barack Obama, socially critical superhero movies, etc.). It’s an illusion that choosing these ersatz solutions is progress, that it will somehow lead to future change. Progress is whatever forced the inadequate concession to even be presented. Our identities are indeed at stake in choosing between several bad options, but unfortunately the fate of the world is not.
But this is how we’re shown the world. TV news stories and the entertainment based on them are presented as so many allegories of shopping — whether in the form of the uncontrolled binge (mortgage crisis), or moral dilemmas where the complexities of each ‘choice’ between who to bomb and who to bail out are packaged as a compelling commodity, allowing for more efficient debate and betting on possible outcomes, the finished product a charming fable about ignorance, crisis, shame, and redemption that can be repeated forever. The philosopher’s question: what is morality when the dominant organization of social life is immoral, is answered in America with every scandal, talk show confession, the official response to every latest atrocity. American morality consists of retrospectively judging individuals based on how willing they were to act against their interests, or refuse to take advantage of their privileges, in light of some now obviously bad outcome. Call it ‘pragmatic Puritanism.’ In order to destroy their unions, the auto industry is labeled ‘corrupt’ because with full government support it suppressed green alternatives and refused to ‘modernize.’ That Wall Street is evil because its employees refused to regulate themselves, or refused to not pursue the best interests of their investors by any legal means, helps relativize the Treasury and Fed’s bank consolidation assistance program. And American consumers are evil because we buy what we’re sold. The worst sin of any individual in this situation is not greed but conformity, and attacks on this or that are so vicious because everyone knows it, and we know why, too.