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Non-Consumerism

Even in casual economics discussion, the word “consumer” often leads directly to the diametric terms “consumerism” and “anti‑consumerism.” Most participants, even those at the casual end, have definitions in mind for all three words—definitions that are often selective and incomplete.

We’ve dealt with “consumer” in prior installments, and how it is central to Analytical Consumer Economics in important and unique ways. The other terms have equally precise definitions here.

Consumerism is a slippery term because there are so many varying interpretations of what it means. Those views come from a full circle of viewpoints and thus conflict in essential ways. (One archaic definition even corresponds to what we now call “consumer advocacy,” which is completely opposite from current meanings.)

So what is consumerism? Let’s skip over the popular tropes and bland and useless dictionary definitions, and start with this one from a companion school of thought:

Consumerism is the idea that buying goods is the central engine of an economy, and that the purpose of a population is to spend money on goods.

You’ll note the lack of cliché or trope there about “buying too much stuff” or having 30 pairs of sneakers or a house full of expensive crap… those ideas are secondary to the core economic notion. The first clause is pretty inarguable and lies, in one form or another, at the core of most formal definitions. But the real key here is that second phrase: the idea that the very purpose of a population, of consumers, is to spend money on production. That harks back to ACE’s primary disagreement with conventional economic thought, in which consumers are rarely more than the end point for goods; a font of wealth that dissolves mountains of produced goods.

The above definition can be expanded to more clearly represent ACE’s viewpoint:

Consumerism is a socioeconomic system that fosters and demands maximum consumption of goods and services from all members of the population, survives only through continually increased consumption and enters failure mode when consumption drops for any reason.

(Both definitions courtesy Renegade Consumer.com)

A bumper-sticker version might be Buy or Die! Or: Spend it all, good consumers, because that’s why you’re here. Conventional economic minds get all warm and fuzzy when considering consumer actions in this way. Consuming consumers drive the economy, so consumption is good, more consumption is better and maximized consumption is… the minimum most economic models can conceive. And it’s staggering how many people, indoctrinated to believe such consumption is inherent to a healthy economy (not to mention their own wealth), agree. (Quick proof: ask pretty much any conventional economist what would happen if all consumers started saving just 10% of their income tomorrow.)

Examining the matter from the consumer perspective shows up some flaws in that thinking, which has resulted in the backlash generally referred to as anti-consumerism.

Anti-consumerism, in general, takes a range of stances that object to, discourage and even block this kind of fostered spending. But that’s misguided, past a certain point: something like teaching drunks safer driving techniques. The real problem with consumerism—and the real solution to it—lies with that “fosters and demands.” But the problem in between is that “anti-consumerism” is such a polluted term that the first step to any useful solution becomes a mighty leap of education, and it’s uphill from there. So we can live with educating newcomers to ACE as to the working meaning of both consumer and consumerism… but to bypass a vast and tedious hurdle, ACE avoids the term anti-consumerism in favor of the more focused non‑consumerism.

Non-consumerism is the right of consumers not to be sold to.

That’s the compact form; a less precise but perhaps more readily graspable form is a right not to be marketed at. But with the understanding that by “sold to” we mean the active verb form, or “targeted by marketing efforts,” let’s stay with the shorter version.

I’ll pause while the consumer goods profiteers, from Ron Popeil to every shareholder, reassemble their exploded heads. Done? You missed a piece. There, under the chair... got it? Good.

The idea that sellers, purveyors, makers have some kind of absolute right to sell (pitch, market) their goods to any consumer is perhaps the most self-serving bit of nonsense a majority of the population takes for granted. Which is really odd, because there is hardly a person among us who doesn’t hate telemarketers, TV commercials and billboards. More who decry online and store tracking and web advertising that follows us around like a snoopy neighbor. Some good number who actively try to avoid such marketing interference (using, unfortunately, techniques that are somewhere between voodoo, cargo cult and wishful thinking).

But few if any people—consumers—economic individuals—ever think, much less say, “Hey… you don’t have any right to do this to me.” No, we’re fully and deeply conditioned to accept it as their right by natural law, and that it’s our problem to keep avoiding. We have to ‘opt out’ instance by instance, day by day, against every occurrence from an infinite number of buttonholers, tie-grabbers and foots in the door—or a small number of such with infinite budgets. And opting out often boils down to the useless and aggravating “try to ignore it.”

Doesn’t that strike you as absurd, when you stop to think about it? We don’t have to ‘opt out’ of racial discrimination or sexual harassment or listening to the neighbor’s bad taste in music at 3 a.m., or any other form of being mugged. The idea that sellers—the entire spectrum from venture capitalists to shareholders to manufacturers to wholesalers to retailers to internet pitchmen—have some inherent, inviolable right to try to make us buy their crap is shockingly self-serving nonsense (and I’d rather use a stronger word there; supply your own). No, it has nothing to do with free speech or the free market or laissez-faire or sacred profit margins or any of the vague rights used to justify such behavior. And it has even less to do with your stalwart abilities to block, deflect, ignore and remain uninfluenced by those efforts… abilities you are likely greatly overrating, like being sure you could catch a bullet in your teeth or lift a car out of a ditch someday.

As economic individuals who form the very basis of an economy, we have the right not to be endlessly badgered about how we make our financial and economic decisions. And that’s what it is: it’s not the triviality of which brand of beer, peanut butter or potato chips we buy, it’s the massively important right to make our own economic choices, uninfluenced by those who seek to profit from us at almost any cost. (A cost the sellers rarely bear, share or even acknowledge, it should be noted.)

To compress a very, very large argument into a small space, this is not about “advertising” or even marketing itself, to a point. Making a market aware of a product’s availability and features is an essential part of a capitalist economy, even a very controlled and equitable one. But using behavioral engineering guided by almost limitless personal data to evade our judgment and whine, cajole, browbeat and pressure us into making economic choices, to invade every crevice of our lives and personal space to keep up the whining and pressure, and to strain to shape our very view of reality that we might become more profitable to the seller… that’s out of line, out of bounds and should be out of the question.

The essential definition of non-consumerism is the stance that no one, individual or multinational, has a right to oppress us in this manner.

Make no mistake; accept no self-serving argument from those who benefit. We have that right not to be sold to. We have a right to non-consumerism. And it’s a right worth fighting for.

—published on Quora, 28 Dec 2021

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