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Too Much Economics
A response to "The New Politics of Consumption" by Juliet Schor

 

Michèle Lamont and Virág Molnár

IN The Morality of Spending, Daniel Horowitz shows that generations of American social critics have addressed the perils of changing patterns of consumption.1 Such critics, according to Horowitz, understood the consequences of these patterns, but were limited in their vision of the social meaning of consumption by their moralistic outlooks. Juliet Schor's essay offers well- intentioned suggestions about how to revive this tradition of social criticism. But her economistic point of departure severely constrains her own alternative.

To be sure, Schor's economic perspective conveys important insights. She focuses our attention on the tension between a growing polarization of income and the upscaling of consumption in American society: as desires grow, fewer people have the means to afford what they desire; the result is a general decline in Americans' sense of well-being. The Good Life is increasingly defined in terms of upper-middle class standards, which can be achieved by but a few. The cost of failing is rising, at least in psychological terms.

This starting point is extremely fruitful and addresses what we consider to be one of the main conundrums of contemporary American society: with social citizenship defined in terms of consumption, and with disposable income rising for few and falling for many, how can the majority of the population maintain a sense of self-worth? This problem is becoming more salient not only in the United States, but all over the world, as the market--and more broadly neoliberalism--become the dominant organizing principles of social life.

Schor's past and current writings have appeal largely because she takes as a point of departure the very economic theory that has become common-sense knowledge in contemporary American society. What she writes resonates with the folk theories of the "average-educated-reader" about how the world works. But economic theory is also the source of the main shortcomings of her contribution--shortcomings that, in our view, plague the details of her diagnosis and solution. Her challenge to consumer society does not go beyond the classical critique of the economic theory of consumer behavior.2 This limitation prevents her from fully comprehending the complex meanings that various groups attribute to consumption. Paradoxically, it also prevents her from offering solutions that truly transcend the idea that "money is a key to happiness." Finally, her understanding of the role of consumer movements, and of progressive intellectuals in them, is marred by an unconvincing voluntarism.

Schor criticizes the economic theory of consumption for assuming, for example, that consumers are rational. She offers rich evidence that this and other assumptions are unfounded. However, her description of what guides consumption is generally framed in individual terms. The implicit model she uses remains an economic one--that of a single individual entering a shopping mall and choosing among goods to maximize the investment of his or her resources, with the primary goal of accumulating goods to gain status. The definition of status itself is not treated as a problem and social relations enter the equation only through the determination of individual preferences (via the impact of reference groups).

An alternative, more cultural, model would frame consumption as a social act--shopping, for example, is often done with a friend or family member and with someone else's needs in mind.3 And it would not define consumption in opposition to leisure, as shopping itself is often considered a pastime. Finally, it would examine the full range of definitions of status and worth that people adopt, and their articulation with socio-economic status in particular.

The dominance of an economic model in Schor's argument is also apparent in her failure to systematically differentiate between the meanings given to consumption by members of different classes and races. Her many examples privilege a specific upper-middle class stance by claiming that conspicuous consumption is primary: as always, Newton prevails over Roxbury. But to address the upscaling of needs, one should differentiate carefully among the understandings of consumption by upper-middle class, working class, and poor people. For this last group, meeting basic needs is often primary. For the American working class, quality of life is often defined in terms of the defense of personal integrity and dignity, as well as in terms of consumption.4 For the upper-middle class, the goal of maximizing one's socio- economic status de facto frequently goes hand in hand with the construction of a morally meaningful life and the pursuit of self-actualization. Finally, for blacks as opposed to whites, consumption is often the key to a positive collective identity.5 Moreover, the logic of conspicuous consumption is different for black urban youth and residents of the Upper East Side. Marketing specialists have identified the urban youth market as one of the fastest growing market segments, and these consumers do not emulate the taste of the white upper-middle class--while Schor implies that everyone emulates this group.6

The impact of economic theory on Schor's thinking is also apparent in the alternative she offers. She proposes to replace an exclusive focus on individual private consumption with a focus on spending differently (i.e., by investing in public consumption, buying free time, and saving). However, interviews suggest that individuals who strive to keep the logic of profit and social-position maximization from dominating their lives do so less by finding new ways to spend and by reducing the importance of spending in their lives than by centering their attention on other spheres and activities: intimacy, creativity, morality, religion, education, and the arts, for example.7 This does not mean that consumption is peripheral to people's identity. But how one relates to what one consumes is as important as what one consumes. In other words, the cultural framing of consumption is not as stable as Schor implies; in fact, the spending patterns of the upper-middle class have less legitimacy than she grants them, as goods are always multivocal, even for low-status groups.

Finally, Schor invites us to rejuvenate consumer movements by developing a "New Politics of Consumption" that aims in part at encouraging people to "welcome initiatives which reduce the pressure they feel to keep up with rising standards." An unrepentant voluntarism underlies this proposal. Schor emphasizes changes in private consumption practices--personal restraints--as the solution to our conundrum.8 Taxing luxury products is also offered as a viable strategy. Instead, we submit that change is more likely to emerge from gaining a better understanding of how people develop a sense of self-worth and define a worthy life, and using that understanding to sharpen the messages progressive social movements offer. Well-intentioned scholars such as Schor need to frame alternatives to market-driven lives by looking beyond consumption. Indeed, dignity, personal integrity, and self-actualization are often achieved through meaningful relationships with others, instead of through things. If social membership is so often defined through consumption in American society, alternative bases of membership remain available and must be explored.

These criticisms should not distract from the importance of Schor's contribution in alerting us to the urgency of the situation: she is among a handful of economists, including Robert Frank, who attempt to bring back the social into the narrowly path-dependent worldview of economists. But she clearly does not go far enough, and an effective tactician she is not. We may need a broader understanding of status to reach more convincing alternative paths to limitless emulation and conspicuous consumption. n ______________________________________________________________________________________

1 Daniel Horowitz, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875-1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

2 Schor constantly uses economistic jargon and metaphors in her essay. For instance, she writes about "markets for the alternatives to status or positional goods," the "market for public goods," the "market for time," the "underproduction of public goods," and the "underproduction of leisure."

3 See Daniel Miller, The Theory of Shopping (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998).

4 Michèle Lamont, "Above 'People Above:' Status and Worth Among White and Black Workers," in The Cultural Territories of Race: Black and White Boundaries, edited by Michèle Lamont. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press and New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).

5 See, for example, Virág Molnár and Michèle Lamont, "Social Categorization and Group Identification: How African Americans Shape their Collective Identity Through Consumption," in Interdisciplinary Approaches to Demand and Its Role in Innovation, edited by Andrew McMeekin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming).

6 Schor makes the same mistake as Bourdieu in subsuming the tastes of the dominated groups to those of the dominant class. For instance, in The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (New York: Basic Books, 1998), she suggests that Americans mostly watch entertainment television that offers white upper-middle-class life as a model (e.g., ER, Friends, and LA Law). In fact, the preferences of whites and blacks in television watching preference have been diverging in recent years.

7 When Schor discusses alternative life strategies, she tends to downplay the non-economic aspects of these activities. For instance, she describes work as an oppressive activity tied to money-making, while in fact it is often thought of as a realm of self-actualization. And though she writes that "large majorities hold ambivalent views about consumerism: they struggle with ongoing conflicts between materialism and an alternative set of values stressing family, religion, and community," she does not go beyond these mentions, and explore the content of these values. Nor does she say how building intimacy, for example, could act as an alternative source of worth and/or status.

8 Schor advocates personal restraints as a form of "collective response" to consumption. Though she suggests it is wrong-headed to believe that "a pure act of will can resolve this issue," she does not provide any alternative to voluntarism.

Originally published in the Summer 1999 issue of Boston Review

 



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