Fresh audio product
Just posted to my radio archive web page:
April 28, 2012 James Livingston, author of Against Thrift, speaks up in favor of the consumer culture as a liberatory thing
April 21, 2012 Gar Lipow, author of Solving the Climate Crisis through Social Change, on the politics of averting climate change • Edward Luce, author of Time To Start Thinking, on American decline
The audio files have been there since the Friday before their broadcast on KPFA. But sometimes I take time to update the web page. Subscribe to the podcast (instructions are on the web page, or do it via iTunes here), and you won’t have to wait for my often-tardy HTML updates.
I’ve only listened podcast, but Livingston’s thesis seems to be troubling on a couple of levels.
First, who are the “savers” that need to become more profligate and learn to love satisfying their desires? Other than the American petit bourgeoisie/shopkeepers, I can’t think of anyone here (our ‘ruling’ elite is profligate to the point of disgust –see any issue of ‘Forbes Life’–and everyone else hasn’t been saving money for years) –is he thinking of the non-Protestant Chinese? If he means that Americans shouldn’t be so schizophrenic about their consumption (DO IT, but then feel guilty), that’s a different point.
Second, relatedly, as so often happens, he steps into the realm of philosophy without realizing the complexity of the issues involved over hedonism and its variants: do I satisfy a pleasure now, damn the later pains (e.g., his hamburger parable versus e.g. heart disease later–or should the Chinese spend spend spend and they’ll deal with abject poverty in retirement later)? Do other people and their desires matter (a desire for a cheap iPhone versus the desire of the worker for a better wage)? What if satisfying my desire harms others? Do the desires of the whole outweigh the desires of the few (e.g. good roads and schools versus the desire for lesser taxes)? What about higher pleasures (reading a good book) versus lower (e.g., a one-night stand)? There are so much more.
Finally, Mandeville (and Keynes too I believe) were more interested in the workers and peasants sharing in the high culture of the bourgeoisie (good art, poetry, opera, nice furniture and clothing, good food, leisure) than being able to satisfy their whim for a good burger or a new smartphone.
I’m not Livingston of course, but I think I can help explain/defend his points. In general you’re making a lot of the (wrong) assumptions about sacrifice and protestant work ethic in your questions. It’s important to stress that these are not purely moral considerations – they rest on inaccurate knowledge about where investment and improvements in living standards actually come from. This is why there is so much historical evidence at the beginning of his book – to destroy the foundation of the dominant ideology behind what people (like you) say and think. On to the rebuttal….
1. Who are the “savers”?
a) american consumers, who have been until very recently saving and spending much less in the face of the recession. After 2008 Americans (even those with jobs!) have been spending much less on luxury goods and when they do shop, using downscale retail chains like Wal-Mart. On a more general level, for hundreds of years American have never been comfortable with being active consumers of high-quality things. Yes we like to shop, but only for good deals (ie cheap crap – Wal-Mart has always beat Saks Fifth avenue in the mind of the average American) – and rarely in debt. Yes over the past few decades Americans have got themselves deep in to debt, but most (about 60-90%) bankruptcies are caused by medical expenses or sudden layoffs- the image of the credit card abusing shop-a-holic binging on flat-screen TVs is much more rare in real life than you would think.
b) The American Rich, who themselves are quite miserly. Relative to their income and wealth, the rich simply don’t consume, donate, or invest much at all. The Walton family, for example, wouldn’t be caught dead partying or buying anything more extravagant than the occasional mansion here and there. Yes, hedgefund hotshots and the like buy cool stuff like jet-ski’s and yachts, but for the most part the stuff you see in Forbes Life is seen by the rich as an *investment*. They plan to sell those multi-million dollar condos off one day! The overwhelming majority of what they extract from the rest of us is saved in insurance plans, trust funds, or investments in property. In fact, the rich have to find increasingly risky and unproductive places to put their money (which inevitably ends up doing damage to the economy) precisely *because* of the lack of outlets for investment.
c) The american government, which (relative the the rest of the industrialized world) spends very little on services for it’s own population, and until recently avoids going in to debt to invest in the economy. Restriction on spending and being “prudent” so completely dominates the discourse on government spending in this country its amazing.
By the way, I know you meant “non-protestant Chinese” as a throwaway line, but in fact most Asian cultures are quite austere, even ascetic, and bear a striking resemblance to the protestant work ethic. It would not at all be a refutation of Livingston’s argument to find the same irrational ideologies in other Asian industrial economies – I think Japan is a case in point. Livingston’s policy recommendations (redistribute income, embrace consumer culture, socialize investment) would be every bit as applicable in Japan as the US in my opinion.
2. Livingston addresses every argument you make about hedonism in the book. He realizes that what he is saying is so deeply heretical and offensive to large chunks of the American political scene, and so he is very careful in building his argument.
a- Hamburgers don’t cause heart disease in a vacuum – the lack of free time (because we all have to work, work, work) to exercise, the lack of regulation of meat products, and the lack of healthy and tasty alternatives for 99% of the working class population 99% of the time play a much bigger and more important role. And guess what? Every single one of these things would be addressed by his policy proposals.
b – “Abject poverty in retirement” should be blamed on the lack of a humane and decent pension system. Why should anyone have to save money for their old age at all? We don’t expect parents to have to save money for their future children’s education do we? We don’t guilt parents who refuse to stockpile enough cash to get little johnny through K-12 as “hedonists” do we? Why should the elderly be any different? Children are too young to work, and thus decent humane societies provide for some of their needs socially. There is no excuse for a society as rich as China’s – let alone ours- to not care for those in old-age. Either elderly care should be factored into the employment contract (pension) or socialized as an investment (social security and the like). Either way, the “hedonism” of the consumer culture has nothing to do with it. If anything, retirement is a kind of hedonism that we should all embrace. Perhaps as productivity rates increase, and societies become more humane, the retirement age can be brought lower and lower, until we all can be more free for a bigger chunk of our lives – but that ain’t gonna happen until we socialize investment and free ourselves from the “don’t work don’t eat” protestant work ethic mentality.
c- The desire for the Iphone is precisely what gives the average Chinese hope for the future. If it weren’t for the american high-tech consumer culture, Chine would be Afghanistan (where wages are lower, living standards are awful, and women are utterly subjugated). My desire for a ever bigger and bigger music library (itself a personally created and sustained mixture of classical and jazz – themselves products of the consumer culture in Europe and the Americas, and acquired by me through the consumer culture today) to be crammed into a 500$ machine has ALREADY made the lives of the Chinese working class much better. You’re aware that Chinese wages are over three times Indonesia’s right? That the average Chinese worker has a living standard far above virtually all of Africa right? And the Chinese living standard continues to improve, especially as China itself is developing its own consumer culture. China isn’t the giant concentration camp leftists and most of the mainstream wants to believe. And part of the reason why is because of the consumer culture – my “hedonism” in desiring a smaller and better mp3 player. It’s precisely that hedonism that gives China its massive trade surplus, its rising wages, and its newly industrialized cities. To the extent the conditions of the working class could be improved in China, my hedonism isn’t to blame. If everyone stopped buying high tech goods from China tomorrow, the Chinese working class would be much, much, WORSE off, not better.
d – “What if satisfying my desire harms others? Do the desires of the whole outweigh the desires of the few (e.g. good roads and schools versus the desire for lesser taxes)?” You’re misunderstanding the entire these of his argument. This is not a defense of pleasure in the abstract, it is a defense of *consumption.* In fact, the refusal to consume can involve a lot of pleasure (something Livingston point’s out at several points in the book).
Consuming does not generally do any harm to anyone else. The vast majority of environmental damage is done in production of commodities, not in purchasing and using them. Environmental regulation should be focused in the productive sphere, not blamed on the consumer culture. Good roads and schools are of course,a kind of consumption – exactly the kind that the modern day Hoovers and Hayeks want to restrict! If you want better roads, better schools, prettier public spaces, and cooler stuff – Livingston is on your side, not against you.
Part 2 is coming, where I will address your supposed hierarchy of pleasures (and your apparent disdain for no-strings-attached sex), your misunderstanding of Keynes, and the more general and deeper point that embracing consumer culture doesn’t necessarily mean literally buying more stuff.
– Richard Schroeder