The false individualism of consumerism

Consumer capitalism seeks to standardize, package and profit – at the cost of true individuality

For more than a century advocates have claimed the terms of freedom and individual liberty for themselves. A great number of authoritarian regimes that employed technocratic capitalist economies have proven this view wrong, time and time again, but still the vague idea of a emancipatory nature of capitalist economies permeates all western societies. Most strikingly present in the USA, the the idea of the individual as the only relevant measure in society can be seen all over Europe and beyond. And this thinking, whether explicit or implicit, has developed a reciprocal relation with the constructed image of consumer capitalism as the peak of human liberty. The individualist ethos, of course, has its roots in the thinking of the enlightenment and its antecedents and has helped bring about enormous advances, like human rights and more thoroughly democratic schools of thought. But not only is individualism limited in its applicability, but also is it massively inhibited by consumer capitalism, the economic ideology, that most claims to be individualist.

The individualism of capitalism expresses itself primarily through consumer decisions. The choice of workplace, which in many cases is basically just the choice of the employer and acceptance by the employee, gets also mentioned in this context, but it is dependent on so many external factors, that it is only as much a individual choice, as it is a bear’s individual choice to eat the salmon it caught or catch another one in the stream instead. People take what they can get, for the most part. The problem with consumer individualism should become obvious right away. It depends entirely on disposable income. While a rich person in a consumer society might have the choice to consume any (or all) products, available on the market, there is a large strata of consumers for whom consumption is a question of practicalities. The less income available, the less products can be afforded and even more will not be afforded because the consumers can’t afford to indulge themselves. That is to say: Consumer individualism is a profoundly western middle-class (formerly upper-class) idea. But the culture of western consumerism extends far beyond the vaguely defined boundaries of the middle-class of the global north. What is the choice between Apple and Windows for a Latin-American farmer? What is the choice of clothes brand to a Chinese factory worker? An unattainable dream at best, the denial of their individuality at worst.

The individualism provided by consumer decisions is not only exclusionary, but also profoundly hollow. Thanks to market mechanisms rare items (that are desired) will be generally more expensive than common items. But as soon as an item proves profitable replication usually sets in to participate in the profit-making, to the point where the supply approaches demand. That means, that consumer goods are either (artificially) rare and only available to the richest, or replicable at will and thus potentially available to everyone above a certain economic threshold. Being truly individual is thereby impossible for most consumers within the capitalist system. The consumerist individualism usually consists of distinguishing oneself from people with less available income. Glimpses of individuality can only be attained by spending vast amounts of money, obtaining desired items before they reach peak popularity or creating items individually, which usually happens in a non-capitalist mode of production (as a voluntary, self-directed activity in one’s leisure time, for example).

The way individualism within comparable economic circumstances is framed within consumer capitalism is usually as a matter of opposing tastes. Do you listen to rap or to metal? Do you drive a Volvo or a BMW? Do you get a cat or a dog? While these differing tastes may be partially traced to differences within individual personalities many of these decisions are tied as much to practical considerations and outside influences as they are to predisposition. All of the suggested options are readily available to everyone, based on income, and are pushed on the individuals by economic forces, that subside on providing them. Conversely none of the options involves creativity or proactive individual engagement. Many companies actually try to suggest that consuming their products increases individuality in the consumer. Slogans like “be different”, or “stand out” aren’t uncommon the space of modern advertisements. Those messages ring hollow, though, when broadcast to millions at a time, in order to encourage them to purchase the same product.

Individualism depends on diversity of identities, behaviours, modes of thinking. None of those can be acquired by spending money. Creativity, culture and community are the seedbeds of individuality, spaces that allow for diverse developments and open exchange. Capitalist structures, bound on extracting value and standardizing and marketing are in many respects opposed to the former. Individualism exists despite of capitalism, not because of it.


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