The left must stop treating the Working Classes like Consumer Drones

Guest post by Luis Enrique

Last Thursday, RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor gave a speech about corporate responsibility.

Consumerism relies on persuading us that we want and need to buy more stuff, indeed that we should feel unhappy because we haven’t yet got enough stuff. As Professor Tim Jackson has put it: “We buy things we don’t need with money we haven’t got to make impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about.

This is definitely something that attracts me more to the right than the left. Right-wingers are, I think, more likely to think people know their own minds and can be left to look out for themselves, whereas left-wingers are more likely to draw a line between themselves and everybody else, and regard the masses as manipulated by corporations whilst they themselves perceive what  is really going on.

Chris Dillow has come up with the very useful concept of: small truth big error, and I think this is an example of that. [1] I am not for a moment suggesting that advertising doesn’t work or that consumer excess does not exist, but I think that’s a small part of the story which gets blown up into everything.

I don’t buy things I don’t need with money I don’t have to impress people I don’t care about. I really don’t. And even if you could pore over my transactions and diagnose a few instances of blind consumerism, they would account for a tiny fraction of my economic life. And OK, I’m probably at the frugal end of things, and I’m sure people exist at the other end of the scale, but really I think this picture of people as hypnotised consumer robots is an offensive lie. [2]

Economists start by saying people have preferences over goods and services, and then go out and buy what they want, taking their budget into account. I like apples more than oranges, I buy apples more than oranges. [3] Now obviously our preference are rather more complicated that a static ranking – we experiment, we change our minds – but this basic conception, call it rational choice, is widely derided by lefties who think it’s much cleverer to regard people as helpless in the grip of corporate mind-rays.

Imagine for a moment that advertising did not exist except to inform people about products: “New: Levi’s blue jeans! Blue. Made out of cotton. $50.” would be a far as things went. And now imagine that people conform to the rational choice model and  simply buy what they want. How close would that world be to our world? Not identical – of course incorporating the full scope of advertising would change some things – but by how much?

In this simpler world, people would of course buy things they don’t need (what kind of psychopath thinks we should only buy what we “need”?). Kids would still want Sony Playstations because Sony Playstations kick ass. I would still hate those soft suede slip-on shoes that look like a cross between deck shoes and slippers because I am an inverse snob; the introduction of advertisements trying to persuade me they are desirable would not change a damn thing there.

Of course it’s true that advertising shapes desires, and I don’t want Coca-Cola shoving their sugar water down the throats of school children any more than you do. But I think it’s a big error to exaggerate that small truth and downplay people’s ability to make up their own minds.

I think this kind of thing helps explain the fact that whilst left-wingers see themselves as defenders of  working class people, a mystifying large proportion of  working class people dislike left-wingers so much they vote for a party whose economic platform consists of tax cuts for the rich.

Left wingers like to display how good they are at “understanding” the plight of the downtrodden, unlike those dumb right wingers. I suggest they try to understand what it feels like to be an X-Factor watching, Primark shopping, Playstation owning ordinary person, and to pick up The Guardian to find it oozing contempt for your choices, and have it explained to you how you can’t watch a fucking advertisement without obediently opening your wallet.


[1] It is also somewhat related to my clumsily-titled notion the fallacy of clever objections.

[2] My bet is that few of the people who like to crap on about consumerism and advertising think that it really applies to them: it’s those morons at the shopping mall.

[3] Economists don’t imagine that’s all there is to it. Many of them simply regard figuring out how preferences are formed as not particularly relevant to understanding inflation, or whatever they happen to be studying. In fact, economists are increasingly recognising the importance of social norms in determining economic outcomes.

6 thoughts on “The left must stop treating the Working Classes like Consumer Drones

  1. That attracts you to the right? Nah, listen to Marx: “Man makes his own history” – he doesn’t need no consumerist hotch potch! Are they words? Consumerism is not such a left/right divide, and as an enemy it should unite the Left with the small c conservatives somewhat. I wonder what motivates those who think advertising works on the scale which would make the masses appear like drones? They’re not political, they’re just animals. Such is the backbone of consumer capitalism.

    For what it’s worth, French Existentialism was born of the Left, and that privileges free will over the influence of external data. Over and above that, consumerism is just bad faith.

  2. Where do preferences come from then?

    “My bet is that few of the people who like to crap on about consumerism and advertising think that it really applies to them”

    I know perfectly well it applies to me. I try to use that knowledge to resist. I’m not entirely successful.

    I wouldn’t say that people are “helpless in the grip of corporate mind-rays”, but equally I wouldn’t reach for this “rational free will” bullshit, because it’s basically a religious belief with no empirical support (and indeed, quite a lot of empirical evidence to the contrary). People have behavioural repertoires, and they are conditioned by environmental factors. The ability to introspect your own behaviour and modify it is itself a conditioned behaviour, and it’s one that many people are not especially good at.

  3. Dunc,

    what happens, you get home clutching a new casserole dish you didn’t need? doh!

    You’ll notice that I didn’t attempt to refute the mountains of behavioral and psychological research, not to mention casual experience, to argue that people are literal manifestations of rational agents possessing preferences endowed at birth.

    here’s the difference. When I see somebody buy an apple, I think – that person wants and apple! I don’t think that person doesn’t really want an apple, they’ve been made to think they want one, and in a non-capitalist society free of all this relentless pressure to buy things, they’d not want that apple. Now, I know people get into frenzies of material desire and stab each other in the queue to buy iPads, or whatever, but mostly I think people buy iPads because they want one in the wanting an apple sort of way. Hey, I even bought one – I really like it (or maybe I just think I like it, eh?)

  4. Well, I think Tim Jackson was talking about conspicuous consumption. That is, all the stuff you need to buy just to fit in with your economic class. Clothes largely fall into this category.

    Ultimately it would be silly to buy clothes based on your own preferences (rather than your own estimates of other peoples’ preferences). Sometimes the demands of others that we buy things are codified in policy, or even law. Dress codes, mandatory lawn maintenance, and laws about keeping your house painted are examples.

    Apple computers are another example of conspicuous consumption. Apple understands conspicuous consumption and makes sure that the visual appearance of the computer or phone indicates how much money was spent on the item (and how recently). If you don’t have the latest phone, this will be visually apparent to others, thus forcing those who are concerned with displaying their own wealth to buy the latest phone every time it comes out.

    Cars, of course, are similar. Also watches, jewelry, purses, and so on.

    Are people concerned with displaying their own wealth? The answer, quite simply, is yes. That is their rational preference. But it’s the world around them that makes this rational. They might prefer, even more, a world in which they didn’t have to.

  5. PS. Of course people really do want the latest iPhone. Conspicuous consumption always requires a desirable item be consumed. Nevertheless, you can sell a lot of phones if you can make people ashamed to be seen using the phone they have.

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