Wednesday, August 30, 2006

'If we are to build a mass movement we must recognize that no individual decision, like rejecting consumption, can liberate us.'

I always have problems with the 'what sort of feminist are you?' discussions. It pisses me off that the form these phrases take 'anarcha-feminism', 'socialist feminism' 'liberal feminism' implies that feminism needs help ('liberal' is the adjective modifying the noun 'feminism'). But more importantly the feminist writing that I agree the most with is from the women's liberation movement. I sometimes get a bit embarassed by this - there's been very complex bodies of theory developed since the late 1960s/early 1970s, surely it's simplistic to prefer the ecstatically written, rapidly mimeographed writing of women who were finding their voices 40 years ago? But the women of the women's liberation movement, with their background in radical politics, focus on organising, and their eyes on total change, make sense to me in a way that very little else does. I'm not really talking about individual issues, I think the analysis of lots of issues have developed a lot in the last 40 years, but a vision of what being a feminist means, and what a feminist movement should be.

But whenever I doubt that I'm all about women's liberation, I find another article from that time that sums exactly what I'm trying to say (this one thanks to Bitch|Lab. Ellen Willis wrote a fantastic article about the problems with consumerist politics. It starts:

If white radicals are serious about revolution, they are going to have to discard a lot of bullshit ideology created by and for educated white middle-class males. A good example of what has to go is the popular theory of consumerism.

As expounded by many leftist thinkers, notably Marcuse, this theory maintains that consumers are psychically manipulated by the mass media to crave more and more consumer goods, and thus power an economy that depends on constantly expanding sales. The theory is said to be particularly applicable to women, for women do most of the actual buying, their consumption is often directly related to their oppression (e.g. makeup, soap flakes), and they are a special target of advertisers. According to this view, the society defines women as consumers, and the purpose of the prevailing media image of women as passive sexual objects is to sell products. It follows that the beneficiaries of this depreciation of women are not men but the corporate power structure.

First of all, there is nothing inherently wrong with consumption. Shopping and consuming are enjoyable human activities and the marketplace has been a center of social life for thousands of years.

The locus of oppression resides in the production function: people have no control over which commodities are produced (or services performed), in what amounts, under what conditions, or how these commodities are distributed. Corporations make these decisions and base them solely on their profit potential.

As it is, the profusion of commodities is a genuine and powerful compensation for oppression. It is a bribe, but like all bribes it offers concrete benefits—in the average American’s case, a degree of physical comfort unparalleled in history. Under present conditions, people are preoccupied with consumer goods not because they are brainwashed but because buying is the one pleasurable activity not only permitted but actively encouraged by our rulers. The pleasure of eating an ice cream cone may be minor compared to the pleasure of meaningful, autonomous work, but the former is easily available and the latter is not. A poor family would undoubtedly rather have a decent apartment than a new TV, but since they are unlikely to get the apartment, what is to be gained by not getting the TV?
and it ends
Furthermore, the consumerism line allows Movement men to avoid recognizing that they exploit women by attributing women’s oppression solely to capitalism. It fits neatly into already existing radical theory and concerns, saving the Movement the trouble of tackling the real problems of women’s liberation. And it retards the struggle against male supremacy by dividing women. Just as in the male movement, the belief in consumerism encourages radical women to patronize and put down other women for trying to survive as best they can, and maintains individualist illusions.

If we are to build a mass movement we must recognize that no individual decision, like rejecting consumption, can liberate us. We must stop arguing about whose life style is better (and secretly believing ours is) and tend to the task of collectively fighting our own oppression and the ways in which we oppress others. When we create a political alternative to sexism, racism, and capitalism, the consumer problem, if it is a problem, will take care of itself.


  1. The big tent argument I guess. Sounds like your tent might get so big and confused that it ceases to argue for real change. Or it does but has no idea what that change is.

    The central problems racism, sexism and capitalism are all very slipery beasts. You can prevent the overt displays (and we have done some of that in each area) but to really prevent them at all would require and incredible level of oppression (and maybe that is how it has to be).

    Racism is deep inside of every time you look a litle too long at someone who is good looking or turn away from a person with bad skin,

    sexism is deep inside of having a sexual preference and the acknowledgement of seeing a male or female person

    and capitalism is deep inside of the concept of doing somthing for people and expecting somthing in return (as opposed to doing somthing for society and getting somthign in return).

  2. Genius I disagree with your definition of racisim, sexism, and particularly capitalism.

    I ask that further commenters at least have some ideas of the differnce between what sort of action you think will create change and what sort of alliances you build.

  3. I am actualy trying to help here,

    I dont think you can get where you want to go (no matter how much action you organize or alliances you build) if you don't have a very clear model of what it is and how it would work, not against capitalism anyway. And as far as i can tell you don't.

    Anyway racism/sexism - presumably you can get together a group to fight lots of legal battles to push behaviour in the appropriate direction (make it clear every company will go to court every time it breaks a law or even looks like it might be).

    If you oppose capitalism first move I would have thought would be to campaign for capital gain taxes (try and slowly put them up to 100% !).

    As for alliances - anyone/organization who knows the law or anyone with any power regardless of what they actually believe.

  4. Anonymous8:37 am

    Agree with genius,

    Until you paint a picture of where you want women to be or how you will overthrow capitalism (plus describe how society will be functioning afterwards) you will be forever discussing the problems and never addressing the actions required to achieve your goals.

    If in your opinion consumerism is actually used to restrict women liberation what will the womens movement do to overcome this obstacle.

    Or is consumerism another theory to debate long into the night?

    This endless discussion on problems rather then solutions is what hinders the womens movement. (and many other organisations as well!)

  5. Anonymous7:46 am

    i don't know. there's some great theories out there already. sees to me people just don't bother to know what they are.

    it's like Willis. She wrote that long ago. She makes clear what we have to fight and it ain't wasting time worry about whether i buy lipstick or whatever.

    my friend, Doug Henwood, calls this hair shirt marxism: the idea that we should deny ourselves the pleasures of consumption as some kind of punishment against sins.

    it's not so much that it doesn't matter what folks buy. what is at issue is what will overthrow capitalism. well, the politics of consumption won't over throw it.

    boycotting everything but the barest necessities isn't going to do it. it can help push production in better places, but it's still going to be capitalism and consumption if we buy make up that hasn't harmed animals.

    in the end, the point is to have meaningful control over how we produce the goods we consumer. the opposition is between capital and workers, not between workers and consumers.

    what's sad, to me, is that willis's argument, as well as the arguments of many who made the same arguments at the time, were buried and marginalized.

    well, it's not sad. it happened because the ruling ideas of the age are very likely going to be the ideas that shore up the power of capitalism and stave off the crises and conflicts that can help us break apart those fissures and widen them via the social struggles we are currently engaged in -- the struggles and wishes of the age.

    anyway, MAia, just wanted to say thanks for all the great comments on the pandagon threads.

    the whole thing was *headdesk**headdesk* for me because i think people just want to silence the socialist/marxist perspective.

    i'm cool with the idea that theyw on't buy it. great. all kinds of feminismS. But christ, could we just get to a place where we're respected for having a serious, competing view that isn't about objective support of the patriarchy in spite of our claims?

  6. consumerism outright hurts you.

    they convince you to buy goods that you don't need thus making you pay more for the same happiness. So I suggest doing it ANYWAY regardless of if it furthers the cause.

    Besides what capitalism does is agregate your desires. As long as you are part of the consumerism side you are adding weight to the same thing you plan on fighting.
    A capitalist would say you apparently don't really want an end to capitalism because you want your hair done and your makeup on, and that you probably just dont understand what capitalism is when you are trying to fight it.

    I see two ways to overthrow capitalism -
    1) get almost everyone to stop using it (ie you really do have to stop buying things) this is what I call the "children of the corn" solution.
    2) the communist solution

    If there are any other solutions I'm interested to hear.

    One of the dangers of bridge building is that one of the guys you build a bridge with might have a clear and practical plan (for example a stalinist). thats all good jsut as long as you do prefer them to the status quo.

  7. Anonymous6:25 am

    Interesting that the only real option is communism. An option that will never get voted in.

    Can you imagine the communist policy adverts? Vote for us, we nationalise all businesses, utilities, service providers and personal property such as your house, car, boat, etc. And you will never vote for another political party as all but communism will be deemed illegal. Nor will you be able to travel to a democratic country as you may be brainwashed by capitalistic ideas.

    No, the only way you can overthrow capitalism is to have a revolution. I cant see any sign at all of that happening so capitalism is here to stay.

    Now the issue becomes how does one exist in this environment when one plainly hates the capitalistic system that much. Especially as the only known alternativve is so undemocratic and restrictive