ESSAY: Renegade Boundaries

Excerpted from the forthcoming book Renegade Consumer: The Battle for Your Economic Freedom.
The greatest handicap a movement can have is trying to take on too much—to become so encompassing and take up battles on so many fronts that every action becomes diluted and ineffectual. The range of issues touched by consumerism is both vast and deep; without limits on what we try to address, the renegade movement would rapidly spread into the thinnest and least effective layer possible. Only by focusing our energy and efforts will we ever effect change.

The renegade movement requires clearly drawn boundaries to limit our scope and differentiate us from related efforts. We must maintain a defined position with respect to collateral issues and other movements seeking major social, economic and cultural change. This begins by avoiding connections and alliances that will blur our focus, and extends into defining a long list of things the renegade consumer movement is not.

Separate But Equal: Renegades & Collateral Efforts

The renegade movement is just one of many efforts positioned to oppose a conjoined slate of global ills: consumerism, corporate greed, economic oppression, careless and uncaring product manufacturers, unequal distribution of wealth, exhaustion of global resources, loss of individual privacy and freedom, and more. However, most movements that consider themselves anti-consumerist to one degree or another come to that stance from other positions. Whatever their primary focus—social, economic, ecological or political—their tendency is to view consumerism as a symptom of their targeted ill and not an ill in itself.

The renegade position may be unique in considering that consumerism itself is the problem. The out-of-control cycle of consumption is what needs breaking in order to restore our economic freedom, sustainable future and full range of social-political-cultural choices. The problem is not rampant exploitation of global resources; we are exploiting those resources because of the insane cycle of consumption. The problem is not wealth inequality; our individual prosperity has become erratically distributed because some vast number of us have been conditioned to consume at all cost, enriching fewer and impoverishing more in the process. The problem is not loss of personal freedom; we have sold much of our personal liberty for the right to buy a tsunami of crap. Battling those and other collateral issues directly can only be to the good… but they are not the renegade’s fight. They cannot be, not if we are to make progress on our own front, the battle I sincerely believe to be the primary one, against the root cause of nearly all our modern ills.

The renegade consumer movement has few disagreements with the sincere and committed groups in this vast coalition. An organization working to correct the monstrous imbalances of wealth distribution probably has much the same long-term goals as we do. The groups concerned with our increasingly disturbed biosphere seek many of the same fixes we do. Watchdog groups calling foul on ever-greater intrusions into personal privacy fear and oppose the same dark future as us. We stand in support such collateral efforts, but we each must fight our own part of the war if any significant battles are to be won. A victory for one is very often a victory for all.

The renegade movement does not require exclusivity from its participants. Many renegades will find themselves in positions to ally themselves with collateral movements. There is no reason an individual cannot be a renegade consumer and a proponent of these other efforts, as long as the endeavors remain separate. I mean in no way to discourage renegades from shouldering whatever they see as their share of such efforts; I suggest only that it is a mistake to mix them on any larger scale. Alliances between the renegade consumer movement and other efforts, even on a small and ad hoc basis, will need to be highly selective. Such combinations of interests would appeal only to some subset of participants, and it is essential that the renegade ranks contain every person they can. We cannot afford to merge our efforts with ideas or aims that would unnecessarily alienate any potential renegade.

Besides the differences in focus and aim, the renegade movement differs from many collateral efforts in scope. We aren’t about finding marginal or narrow solutions for a select few; we are a total-war, big-fix movement. We aren't advocating ways to live a radical life on the fringes of “normality”; we are out to reorder the notions of normality. We may march in the same direction as many others, but in the end, renegades march to their own beat and in their own parade.

One way to continue this discussion would be to list some good number of specific efforts, movements and organizations that are collateral but separate. The simpler and more comprehensive approach to differentiating the renegade movement is to list more generally what we are not.

Renegades: Not Rebels

The renegade movement is not composed of “rebel consumers.” It is painful to do so, but the renegade movement specifically distances itself from all prior “rebel consumer” groups, efforts and movements. None have been effective. None, in my opinion, have seen the problem clearly enough to ever be effective. All have bogged down in misdirection and misunderstanding. Their followers are welcome to go renegade, but prior dogma and diktat should be left at the door. The renegade movement is a fresh start on the task.

The problem with most groups that have formed around the idea of anti-consumerism is that they have followed one of two unworkable paths: they opted to be much too extreme or much too feeble. The first direction typically fails to dissociate consumerism from other socioeconomic excesses, so the solution for overconsumption is to burn down the entire socio-political system. The renegade approach is to use every tool, every lever and every socioeconomic weapon at hand to force change from within; pulling down the temple of our major institutions serves only those with nothing to lose.

The other direction seems to define consumerism as “things cost too much”—perhaps more clearly stated as “there are products the rebels can’t afford”—so the solution is to do away with those products. Another form of weakness was outlined in the previous essay: taking on far too wide a field of issues and thus being unable to bring force to any of them. There are other forms of both extremism and impotence in “consumer rebellion,” but the common element is that they do not see the core problem—the cycle of fostered consumption—and thus expend their efforts tilting at windmills, railing at advertising, organizing coupon drives, trying to set fire to marble foundations or trying to change everything at once.

Renegade consumers are rebels… but with a cause. We deflect the term “rebel” only because it has been so grossly overused as to have lost all meaning in this context.

Renegades: Not Consumer Advocates

The renegade movement does not have shopping advice for you. One of the worst misunderstandings of anti-consumerism—worst because it is so common—is believing that it’s about buying better products, or worse, “better shopping.” A number of groups have taken “anti-consumerism” as a label for their crusade to get people to buy better products, or at least avoid worser ones. Anti-consumerism is not consumer advocacy à la Consumer Reports, newspaper consumer help columnists or the old David Horowitz Fight Back! TV program. What consumer advocates do, with little exception, is deal with promised and actual product quality. They may test a slate of products to determine which one exhibits the best qualities, or challenge an advertiser’s claim by testing it under independent conditions, but it is exceedingly rare for them to dismiss a whole class of product on any grounds. They take what they believe to be the ethically neutral position that it’s up to consumers to determine need or desirability; their job is simply to demonstrate which of a comparison set is “best.” In this, for all their self-professed neutrality and independence, they may as well be on the payroll of any large consumer goods producer; they are just as religiously promoting consumption, only from an ecumenical viewpoint. “Buy the best,” they trumpet… but be sure to buy is their consistent implication.

The renegade movement takes an almost opposite position. We want people to buy only things that are, in the end, worth the wealth exchanged for them. That’s close to what Consumer Reports wants, but we also want people to buy only those things that are justifiable in an absolute sense, things that are necessary and bring genuine improvement and quality to the buyer’s life, and not things (collectively or specifically) that they have been brainwashed into believing are necessary or worthwhile. Most consumer advocates avoid such questions because they are enmeshed in the cycle of consumerism and unable or unwilling to take any ethical stand contrary to it. A better or best piece of crap is still crap.

It is worth noting here that “buying for value” is very much a renegade virtue, and that the consumer product review and testing services play a useful part in finding that value. But anti-consumerism means “none of the above” is not just an option, but the preferred choice—the choice to try and invalidate—when considering any consumer purchase. Let only an overwhelming weight of need, purpose and value counter the basic position of “don’t buy it”… but then buy the best value you can.

Renegades: Not Financial Advisors

The renegade movement has no financial advice for you. No investment tips, market strategies or wealth seminars. You’ll need to make your own decisions about managing your finances within the renegade framework of ideas.

It is an integral part of the renegade position that planning for a long and financially-balanced life is essential, and making wise decisions with your wealth during your prime earning years is a part of that planning. Beyond that basic exhortation, how you manage your money is up to you and any skilled and knowledgeable adviser you select. Many aspects of the renegade viewpoint can be used as a guide—for instance, it would be questionable to invest heavily in makers of consumer goods, especially those with zero ethical considerations beyond profit, but it’s still your choice.

Renegades: Not a Political Movement

The renegade movement is entirely apolitical and should remain so. We established this in the prior essay, but it’s worth addressing from a slightly different perspective here. This is one of the most important boundaries in that the problems of the cycle of consumption and their root causes underlie the entire political spectrum; there is nothing to be gained by allying ourselves with any political theory, party or platform. Most of the goals of the movement and the issues involved are resistant to legislation and legal influence, which is all politicians can offer beyond empty rhetoric. The renegade movement should remain outside of all political action until, and unless, specific propositions or laws that promote renegade ideals come to the ballot. Those rare cases should then be supported on a thoroughly nonpartisan basis.

It is possible that rising influence of the renegade movement could lead to a political party adopting or forming itself around the renegade tenets; such undiluted political muscle would be an asset. It is more likely that renegade tenets will be cherry-picked to expand the appeal of a political platform, and renegades are advised to use all due skepticism in accepting such tainted fruit.

Renegades: Not Socialists

It is worth making the specific case that the renegade movement is not socialist, and does not espouse socialism. It has been fashionable in recent years for the conservative spectrum to smear this s-word onto every government and public action they dislike. The renegade movement has no intent to rouse specifically socialist thinking or actions in pursuit of its goals.

That does not stop the renegade movement from valuing the rights of individuals over those of corporations, commerce or any exigencies of national economics. We believe business and commerce must operate with respect for individuals, and not with the socially-, economically- and governmentally-sanctioned attitude that we are elements to be exploited or engines to be harnessed. This opposition to business being allowed to exercise the untrammeled rights of naked greed is certainly not taken from the conservative end of the political spectrum… but it’s not socialism, either.

The goal of the renegade movement is to break the back of the consumerism cycle, which will necessarily involve economic consequences for businesses and entities that are dependent on the frantic pace of the cycle. We hope to execute this change through education, enlightenment and social adaptation, but at some point, state and national laws to establish and enforce certain points of change will be necessary. Those laws will be no more socialist than the ones that established Social Security, labor laws and a variety of civil rights—once again, all changes that favor the individual over the corporate and institutional and were once tagged “socialist.”

Renegades expect to be called a lot of names by the marketing-industrial complex, consumer business entities and other hustlers. We’ll accept any that are accurate. Socialist isn’t one of them.

Renegades: Not Anti-Capitalism

The renegade movement is not anti-capitalism. Nor is anti-consumerism in general, especially when, as we define it, it’s separated from other contrarian economic theories. Capitalism is the most proven economic model on Earth, and all other systems tend to slide into emulations of capitalism no matter how rigidly maintained their contrary tenets and dogma. It seems likely that it’s a natural condition of humanity to use the resources one can accumulate and control as tools to increase individual wealth, often increasing the wealth of those who participate as well. While cooperation may build barns, capital builds nations.

It is only when this practice turns into exploitation of other individuals, or is limited by law or class access to some subgroup of the population, that capitalism is a bad model. Consumerism is exploitation. Consumerism is almost entirely an excess of capitalism. However, that unbridled capitalism is a fast highway to consumerist excess does not make capitalism the problem, and strangling capitalism will not lead to a meaningful reduction in consumerism.

It is a false argument to claim that opposing consumerism is opposing capitalism on the basis that it’s unfair to prevent any entity from exploiting economic strength. In such a view—pretty much the currently popular one—creating a product of questionable value and then using any means at hand to get the population to buy as much of it as can be sold should be the right of every economic entity. The renegade position is that this is not so—economic exploitation is economic exploitation, and the pro-capitalist seeking to gain must do so without infringing on the much more important right of individuals not to be manipulated and exploited.

Put another way, capitalism functions under many constraints—labor laws, product safety laws, taxation, etc.—and the renegade view is that it can function just as well under limits on its ability to sell crap to people, whether those limits come from law or custom. We have a fundamental right not to be manipulated, coerced, tricked, shamed and pressured into making poor economic decisions. Demanding that the economic system honor that right is not opposition to capitalism.

Renegades: Not Anti-Materialism

The renegade movement is not anti-materialism. This is a fairly radical stance among the spectrum of movements and ideologies that are anti-consumerism; many begin with the belief that too many personal goods or possessions is bad in and of itself, and use that idea to decry consumerism. As contrary as it may seem, given our implacable hatred of the destruction caused by consumerist excess, we simply don’t believe that having things is bad, devalues your life or makes you a bad person. The notion that goods and possessions are bad stems from ethical and religious dogma, usually to the effect that if you are concerned with earthly things, you can’t be properly focused on spiritual concerns. (Or the possibly more justified notion that if you’ve taken more than your share, you should feel guilty about it—an idea that has a thousand qualifying and arguable variables.) Most of this thinking is simply a weak-minded inversion of the hustlers’ soothing mantra that only a maximum amount of acquisition leads to salvation.

To all of which we say: nonsense. Having few or many personal possessions, enough goods to fill a large house or only those that fit in a knapsack, is a matter of personal preference and an index of individuality. Hating and opposing consumerism in no way leads to a basis for judgment of those who have different material values. The balance between materialism and any spiritual or ethical alternative is entirely the choice of the individual.

Which is not, in any way, to say that renegades approve of gross material excess. There is a point at which accumulation of material goods and property exceeds any possible rationality about its acquisition, or sensibility in trading personal wealth for goods. We believe that most renegades will learn to be far less materialistic because they understand the nonsense that drives people to acquire more and more for the sake of the consumption cycle. Learning that such desires are largely artificial and implanted by sellers to serve the seller’s needs, and not the individual buyer’s, leads to the ability to be quite happy without a mountain of crap.

But that happiness is entirely relative, and if one renegade’s pile looks like excess to another, the latter’s sparse lifestyle may look like self-indulgent minimalism to the first. So it is a firm statement, and position, that the renegade movement is not anti-materialism. If renegades take up and use the overall sensibility we’re trying to purvey, their pile of possessions will be appropriate to the other aspects of their lives.

Renegades: Not Anti-Wealth

The renegade movement is not anti-wealth. If anything, we are strongly pro-wealth: in the modern world, wealth is what sustains our lives and carries us across life’s difficulties. The ability to afford comfort and convenience on a daily basis, to replace needed tools and possessions when they fail or are lost, and to obtain personal and family services when they are needed is a worthwhile goal. Personal wealth is what brings these things, as well as the ability to continue them when income is no longer available. We strongly encourage the growth of personal wealth—but we seek to redefine meaningful levels of wealth with other personal values in mind.

We are opposed to the predations of consumerism that reduce personal wealth without returning anything of value. We despise an economic system that unceasingly prods individuals to earn as much as they are capable of, simply to fuel more consumption. We are at a time in history when every adult that wishes to work should be able to, and should be able to earn a comfortable income that is not eroded by endless wasteful spending. Real wealth is the ability to earn a living, and prepare for a future, without expending every minute and drop of sweat maintaining an insane, fostered—goaded!—level of consumption.

A position on wealth is often tightly linked to a position on class. Without getting too far into deep and murky waters, the renegade movement is not about class warfare. Every socioeconomic level is paying the price for the cycle of destruction, however better the wealthier, upscale or “one percent” class might seem to be for it.

In the end, the renegade movement may lead to much smaller incomes, gained by far shorter work weeks, that are still sufficient to maintain a comfortable lifestyle and build that essential wealth for future needs. The only wealth we are anti– is that of those who incessantly incite us to consume specifically to enhance that wealth, which is often already beyond any conceivable need for enhancement.

Renegade One