Consumerism isn’t only about deal-addicted Black Friday shoppers swarming a department store. Consumerism infects through imposing market mindsets; it reduces decisions to market choices, will to purchase-power. Politics doesn’t escape it. Internet-enabled communication granted voters a newfound power, but this will only produce negative results in a system of political consumerism. An insight from Matt Taibi on the market of politics.
The power of choice
We feel powerful. When we wake up, we greet an endless number of Keurig cups of coffee and infinite feeds of content scrolled through our phones. This is the neutered power of consumerism. This is a society based on markets. Neoliberalism has privatized much of what could be public. Purchases feel like substantial decisions and markets feel like communities. In a society where most paths are decided for you–not in the dystopian manner of government-assigned jobs but in the common sense manner of pursuing a career that will grant you money and supply products–life is realized at the point of purchase.
Ethical consumerism is impossible
Consumerism is easy to dismiss. Most of its proponents, it seems, are too young to have faced pragmatic reality or too idealistic to have realized they face it. The point of addressing consumerism is not to convince people to choose better, but to show how a limited conception of choice has constrained imagination.
When Taibi says that
Everything we do is a consumer choice now, from picking our shoes to an online streaming platform to a presidential nominee
he is describing the way people approach decisions. There is no good or bad decision to be made but rather a framework that needs to be defied.
In political consumerism, the most common defiance is to call for a bigger market. There are genuine positives to considering a system with more than two parties but often, this call is simply for a more competitive market. Occluded, is the demand that the system that involve greater democratic participation. People only want a Libertarian and possibly a Green party to make the current parties sweat.
Political consumerism is reaching a frenzy online. Drawn by partisan purchases, people are fleeing to algorithmically, hermetically sealed filter bubbles. Consumerism asks for an investment of identity, time, and emotion as well as money. Purchases aren’t merely trades but require promise and expression. This requires the politician to act not like an advocate for policies but as a proxy for consumer demand. When we finally developed the technology that expressed that demand, Taibi notes its effects:
the very first place where we spent our newfound freedom and power was on the campaign of the world’s most unapologetic asshole.
Trump is merely a symptom of political consumerism. When we cede the power of our will to the limitations of market-based thinking, we can only make choices among what the market provides for us. In this model, we are passive. In this model, we delude ourselves into feeling powerful by making demands as customers. This has a reactionary logic but if power is going to be reclaimed rather than merely bartered with, we will need to question our instincts. If power comes easily, it won’t be lasting.
In a perverse way, Trump has restored a more pure democracy to this process. He’s taken the Beltway thinkfluencers out of the game and turned the presidency into a pure high-school-style popularity contest conducted entirely in the media. Everything we do is a consumer choice now, from picking our shoes to an online streaming platform to a presidential nominee. The irony, of course, is that when America finally wrested control of the political process from the backroom oligarchs, the very first place where we spent our newfound freedom and power was on the campaign of the world’s most unapologetic asshole. It may not seem funny now, because it’s happening to us, but centuries from this moment, people will laugh in wonder.
Matt Taibi in Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus