Excerpted from the forthcoming book Renegade Consumer: The Battle for Your Economic Freedom.
Beyond the valid but separate movements we’ve just outlined as being what the renegade consumer movement is not, there are a number of ideas and practices that at first blush seem to be closely allied with anti-consumerism. A closer look shows that many are not only unrelated, but actually counterproductive and possibly illusory.
The best of them accomplish trivial or unnecessary goals; the worst merely make the participant feel good without accomplishing anything of worth. These honey traps should be assiduously avoided by renegade consumers and kept out of anti-consumerism efforts, no matter how earnest and sincere their proponents.
The touchstone for judging whether or not a collateral effort is truly aiming for any of the same goals as those of renegades is that anti-consumerism is not about saving money, getting things for free, minimalism or “getting back” to some prior and likely imaginary state of paradise. It is not about individual or factional gain at the expense of letting the rest of society rot. The goal of the renegade movement is to minimize and eventually eliminate the idea that the cycle of consumption is the purpose and driving force of our lives—no more, no less and no other.
With that in mind, let’s look at some common practices that are often aligned or confused with anti-consumerism but should be distanced by renegades. These ideas consist almost entirely of playing the consumerist game from a different chair, a practice that accomplishes nothing. Those that have valid ideas at their core are marginal solutions whose efforts accomplish little—making them deadweight, at best, to the active renegade.
The Illusion of Frugality
There is nothing wrong with being a frugal person or living a frugal lifestyle; frugality or thriftiness is in many ways an admirable trait. There are not enough resources on Earth to give everyone a lavish lifestyle, or even a modest Western-level one, so those who voluntarily live within small boundaries of consumption are to be lauded. Furthermore, a full grasp of anti-consumerism is likely to make a person more frugal, perhaps much more so, and the lowered spending inherent in adopting the renegade philosophy could be characterized as frugality. But frugality itself need not be a requirement for renegades.
Being “frugal” or “thrifty” is by its nature tied to the amount of money a person spends, which may or may not correlate with how much they consume. A frugal person can be just as driven by the cycle of consumption as the most frenzied credit-card junkie. He or she may spend little, but buy much and for the same wrong reasons and with the same negative impact on their future. Advocating frugality may be the most benign of illusory solutions, but it is well to remember the distinction between frugality and anti-consumerism, and keep each in its place.
The Illusion of Minimalism
Minimalism is often allied with frugality, but can be even more contrary to anti-consumerism than a mindset of simple penny-pinching. It is the mirror companion to frugality, and subject to a mirrored limitation: a person could live life with an admirably small number of possessions that represent any number of truly excessive expenditures. I have repeatedly encountered interviews or profiles of some famous person who has rejected all the extensive trappings of wealth they once flaunted, and now lives in a simple 500-square-foot Park Avenue condominium with no more than a half-dozen tailored outfits and a single Piaget watch. Less-lofty, less-extreme cases are legion, such as junior executives who make the big leap to a corner office (or a rural “campus”) and celebrate by rebuilding their cluttered, status-symbol-ridden lives along the minimal lines of just one Mercedes and a few Armani suits, hanging in a vast, nearly empty modern mansion.
Minimalism as an artistic stance is one thing, and not really our concern. Professed minimalism as a lifestyle or economic position might be, but is all too often a pose, an affectation of lifelong over-consumers… that is, it’s just a phase they’re going through. Having few possessions or making few acquisitions does not necessarily reduce your level of fostered consumption.
As unlikely as it may sound, it is possible to be frugal, and minimalist, and consume at a level well outside renegade ideals. Conversely, while it would represent a special case, it is also possible to spend a significant amount of money on a large number of things, and still completely conform to the renegade viewpoint. Just as with frugality, minimalism and anti-consumerism can share a number of concepts, but renegades should understand that the three are not the same thing.
The Illusion of Coupon-Clipping
Closely related to frugality is the world of the coupon-clipper: the person who buys every item on sale or at a discount, whether it’s via snooping the back corners of a store, cutting out coupons, collecting discount codes or just bargaining over every purchase. Many coupon-clippers, especially those who are part of a group or an acolyte of a bargain guru, believe they are rampant foes of consumerism; some even believe they are striking a blow against greedy manufacturers and retailers.
They’re not. They’re just playing the consumption game from a different position. Saving money on crap doesn’t equate to value or confer virtue. In many cases, the only reduction is in the retailer’s profit, meaning that the manufacturer, importer, wholesaler et al. neither knows nor cares about a few buyers’ discounted end price. End sellers that discount goods are willing to shave their profit to increase the number of sales, and to draw in customers that will likely buy more than the discounted goods. The wholesaler was still paid the same amount for the goods, as was, likely, the manufacturer.
It’s important to consider the place of coupons and similar discounts in the larger scheme. Items that consumers buy in what sellers regard as sufficient quantity and at acceptable prices are rarely discounted or issued coupons. Coupons are issued to foster sales of slow-moving items, loss leaders, perishables approaching off-sale dates, premium items and new products. Coupons are used to move goods that are not moving sufficiently fast by themselves. In many cases, this should be a red flag for renegades: why is the product not selling on its own merits?
Where a sale price, coupon or rebate originates from the manufacturer, it’s done as part of a marketing campaign with that intent of moving goods that are not moving quickly enough, or to foster acceptance of a new or changed product battling for market share. In other words, the discount is no real benefit for the consumer, but is yet one more for the makers and sellers. Far from being a blow against consumerism, most coupons lead to more consumption and often greater overall spending.
The further problem with coupons is that they are most often for mid-list and premium brand items. The buyer could buy a generic, store-brand or bulk product for less than even the discounted cost of the upper-tier product. Since many consumer products in upper tiers or presented as premium are only there because of their superior marketing (and not because they are in any genuine way “superior”) the buyer isn’t really saving anything at all—just overpaying a little less for goods they may not need at all.
Coupon-clippers, especially those who have fallen into groups under the sway of gambits like “extreme couponing,” aren’t fighting consumerism in any way. What they’ve fallen for is yet another marketing shuck inducing them to consume more.
Saving money on purchases is an unalloyed good, but buying a single unneeded product because it is discounted is contrary to renegade goals, as is buying any falsely “premium” product at a higher price, no matter how much lower that price is than a nominal retail one. If it’s not a product you would buy at regular price, buying it with a coupon means the hustlers got you again.
The Illusion of Rebates
Rebates are an extreme and peculiar form of coupon-clipping that come and go in seller popularity. Most rebates are deceptive, unnecessary or a scam—if not all three. Offering a rebate instead of a discount lets stores and manufacturers offer seemingly lavish savings, but with multiple catches and often a final irreversible gotcha.
Rebates are most often issued by manufacturers, not wholesalers or retailers. The manufacturers could just as easily issue a coupon or a straight shelf discount, but that means work and loss of profit for everyone in the sales chain. The end seller is responsible for managing the coupon or discount credit in their payment cycle, which costs them time and manpower and often a small net discount or fee for the privilege. It can also reduce the margin and profits at interim stages of the sales chain, something wholesalers and other middlemen rarely appreciate.
A manufacturer rebate means the manufacturer, wholesaler, jobber and store receive full payment and profit for the item. It also means the state or local government gets their full measure of sales, use or VA tax from the sale. Paying full amount also enhances the entire selling chain’s sales totals, including the manufacturer; in accounting, rebates are often charged against marketing costs, not against product sales.
A rebate must be processed by the end buyer, which offloads the effort onto individuals. Not only must the buyer pay full price at the store and the full amount of sales tax, but other costs (shipping, delivery, and finance charges) are often proportional to the purchase amount. Then it’s up to the buyer to fill out a rebate form, which are often models of inefficient and inconvenient design, with tiny writing spaces, voluminous rules, and details like being printed on slick paper unfriendly to pen writing. Then the buyer must ensure that they have the form, any proofs of purchase, a properly copied and marked sales receipt, an envelope—which often must be addressed with a very specific coded delivery address—and a stamp.
The seller, the wholesaler and the manufacturer are all done with the process and have the satisfaction of having sold another product at full retail price. The buyer paid that full price, and put in fifteen to thirty minutes or more of work preparing the rebate submission, and paid the ancillary costs of sending it in, and is now rewarded by waiting weeks—four, six, ten or more—to get their rebate funds. If they are lucky. (That is, if they remembered to do all of this at all, and within the short submission window before the offer expires.)
Any mistake in the submission process, and either nothing further will be heard from the rebate processor, or the material will come back—possibly too late to resubmit. All the rules are in the sellers’ favor and even the most careful and conscientious submitter is likely to make some mistake that will invalidate the process. There is rarely any second chance or appeal process; you either get it right or get nothing back. Since some significant number of buyers will never submit the rebate, or end up unsuccessful in claiming it, rebates can be misleadingly lavish. A shelf discount of $10 would have to be given for every sale and would reduce sales totals up the chain; a lavish-seeming rebate of $35 will foster yet more sales but may be paid to only one-third of buyers, resulting in a lesser aggregate discount and higher profit for the manufacturer.
So the sales chain, manufacturer, collectors of taxes and fees and post office all benefit; only those few who successfully claim and receive their rebate share in the rewards… and not as much as they believe. Sometimes the net cost of the rebate submission exceeds the value of the time put into it, even when figured at a minimum wage level. Some goodly number of buyers who bought the product because of the rebate but do not end up claiming it are even bigger losers.
You then have to remember that removing the proof of purchase from the product package—be it a UPC panel, a special tab, or a unique part of the labeling—makes the item non-returnable. If it breaks the day after the rebate is submitted, there is no store return or exchange option. The buyer will have to work through the manufacturer warranty or replacement program to get a new item—and has no choice but to get another like the one that broke, instead of returning it for another selection. (Or, with acquired renegade wisdom, for no net purchase at all.)
At the final end of the process, a rebate check is mailed to the buyer, who will need to be alert for it, as such mailings are the smallest, grubbiest, least-valuable-looking items in the day’s mailbox haul, virtually unmarked as to sender or content. They deliberately look like the most tiresome form of junk mail. Some good number are likely thrown away unopened and the rebate thus never claimed. Only those buyers who kept copies of every item and a meticulous log of submission have a chance of claiming a ‘lost’ rebate… and that’s if the manufacturer and rebate processor do not have an absolute time limit on claims, which most do.
A recent development is issuing rebates on a prepaid debit card. Besides all the other problems, this means that the rebate must be spent, rather than saved. It is possible to get cash value from such cards but not without effort and sometimes not without added costs. The odds of the card being lost or forgotten mean a reduction in the return to the consumer, and using it for spending means that all of the purchases can be tracked, generating yet more valuable consumer data as part of the price.
Rebate junkies swear by the process, but it doesn’t take much renegade insight to see that the process is completely biased in favor of everyone but the subset of successful recipients of the rebate. Even when successfully claimed with minimal hassle, the process has primarily benefited the sales and marketing process. There may be select cases where a large rebate requiring modest effort and offered on favorable redemption terms makes the outcome an exception, but in general… renegades don’t rebate. Reject the process, buy equivalent products at a better net price, and send the consumer abuse of rebates to the marketing dustbin.
By all means, renegades should use any coupon or discount available… but never to buy a product they would not otherwise buy on its own practical and economic merits, and only after consideration of the real costs, including the common gambit being suckered into sharing yet more invaluable personal marketing data in exchange. Saving a few dollars for the wrong reasons (or for a higher net cost than those savings) is never a worthwhile alternative.
It is important to keep in mind that spending is spending and consumption is consumption, no matter how much of a bargain it’s made out to be. In the end, even the most generous coupon, rebate or other “exchange discount” represents playing the consumption game by the seller’s rules and for the seller’s benefit, not for the consumer’s… and most certainly not for the renegade’s.
The Illusion of Scavenging
Another group that commonly identifies itself as anti-consumerism is the reuse/recycle movement, which includes scavenging of discarded or abandoned resources down to simple dumpster-diving. Groups such as the “Freegans” and this approach are to be lauded for reusing materials that would otherwise be destroyed or bulk up landfills, and for extracting usefulness (such as energy) from discarded waste. However, freelance and individual scavenging for furnishings, building materials, clothes and even food are too small scale to have much impact except for the individuals involved, and the scale of such efforts is inherently limited. Freegans and similar groups have elaborate philosophies that espouse many of the same general goals as the renegade consumer movement, but base it on a practice that is unsustainable for more than a precious few and a vaguely defined future without money or capitalism. They are as genially and willfully blind to reality as the “back to the land” movement that preceded them.
More elaborate reuse efforts such as turning lumber mill scraps or used vegetable oil products into fireplace bricks, methane, methanol and bio-diesel fuel have greater potential for meaningful impact but are often limited by the availability of the raw materials; the waste may be voluminous on a small scale, but producing a few hundred gallons of diesel fuel from local refuse is unlikely to be a world-changer. As satisfying and ethical as it may be to forestall some of the waste caused by the consumption cycle, these practices do nothing to slow or stop it and present no real alternative to consumerism. They are entirely parasitical, and require the “host body” of consumerism’s discards to even exist. The intent behind these efforts is good, even noble; the efforts themselves are often laudable; but none can be called anti-consumerism, even in the broadest sense.
The Illusion of Parasitism
Beyond scavenging, there are other movements that consider themselves anti-consumerism but on examination are revealed to be outright parasitism. Some go beyond the scavenging model of taking what has been discarded and move on to unmitigated theft—of goods, of electrical, telephone and cable TV service, etc. A good many of these thieves see themselves as “liberators” or somehow ethical because they are stealing from greedy corporations and utilities. They’re not; they’re just pirates and pickpockets. The founder of the Freegans actively advocate tactics such as shoplifting, con games and employee theft, which pretty well invalidates them as “liberators” and firmly brands them “parasites” instead.
The same is true of those who “liberate” intellectual goods such as music, movies, e-books and software. It may be true that software makers overcharge, film studios release their products in the most profitable ways and the entire music industry is corrupt… but there is nothing on earth that entitles consumers to their products on whatever terms they choose to take them. It is no more a part of the renegade viewpoint that it is ethical to steal products from their makers than it is okay for the manufacturers to manipulate consumers. In fact, it’s a good case for the renegade position that consumers are being manipulated into wanting these products beyond all sense, individual will or purpose, if the consumer’s attitude is that their acquisition is paramount, even at the ethical and criminal price of theft.
These individuals are not anti-consumerism; they’re just parasites, changing nothing while giving industry and law additional reasons to control our choices. (The rising use of digital rights management and the like is not for consumer benefit, but would not exist did consumer theft not exist.) Where they are not parasites, they are simple thieves. Renegades are neither. The correct action when a seller’s terms are unreasonable is to shun the product altogether… and then make as big a noise about that stance as you can.
The Illusion of Posturing
Most illusory solutions are based on good intentions and sustained by an ignorance of their lack of real effectiveness. In most cases, the practitioner believes he or she is doing good things towards worthy goals. Many will be wedded to those beliefs, but most will eventually yield to convincing arguments and a better understanding of how the cycle of consumption really works. They are renegades in waiting, ready to be turned from non-solutions to effective effort.
However, there is a much more egregious and counter-productive form of false anti-consumerism, best summed up as the intellectualized sport of posturing. It is regrettably widespread and often proves resistant to correction because the proponent already has a firm grasp on all the (wrong) answers.
The least level of posturing might be that of fashionable ad-hating. Besides missing the point, as even a fledgling renegade should understand by now, the contradictions between what glib ad-haters decry and their own consumption habits are often shockingly obvious. It’s not really about hating ads and “ad culture”; it’s a class judgment rooted in a superior and disdainful belief that only stupid and gullible people buy the mass-market products the ad men tell them to. This is nearly always coupled with the ad-haters’ belief that they buy their possessions free of any outside influences and are impervious to marketing and other consumerist influences. Outside observation often shows that such influences are quite evident in the haters’ lives, sometimes to a greater degree and with more excess than the “sheeple” they disdain.
This attitude often ratchets up into what might be called false anti-consumerism, marked by frequently use of the word “consumerism” with almost total disregard for what it actually means. In the poseur vocabulary, it becomes a sweeping term for anything vaguely related to consumption that doesn’t jibe with the speaker’s opinions. It again takes no sharp eye to see this as another class judgment. The proponents of this attitude are just as driven by marketing and as hell-bent on consumption as any random consumer; they have merely fallen for the fallacy that the way they’re doing it is superior. They are not even proto-renegades, since they are blind to the real causes and effects of—and even the presence of—the overall cycle of destruction. In their lingo, “consumerism,” like much recent use of “liberal” and “right” and “socialist,” becomes nothing more than a code word for “not making the same choices I do.”
The pinnacle of anti-consumerism posturing is groups that take these attitudes to a formalized public level, or even publication, with the most notable being AdBusters. To many, the AdBusters group, magazine and website represent the advance guard in the battle against consumerism, the shock troops bravely taking on the crushing forces of advertising, marketing and consumerist excess. I see them a little differently. Without putting too fine a point on it, AdBusters and its kin are irrelevant poseurs, focused on entertaining their choir with rote speeches about the awfulness of ad culture and creating ever-more elaborate posters and art—ads—for their annual celebration of “Buy Nothing Day.” For twenty-five years they’ve sat in a closed circle, virtually unknown and wholly ineffectual, more concerned about being mutually well-thought of than actually accomplishing anything outside of the group.
The AdBusters crowd is convinced that their hip, sharp “culture jamming” is breaking down the wall of consumerism and undoing the work of ad agencies and corporate culture-shapers everywhere. They are in fact more relevant—barely—as a graphic arts guild feeding ideas into commercial creative than anything else; AdBusters magazine is often shelved next to Advertising Age in commercial art and advertising firms. So much for sticking it to the Man.
What AdBusters failed to appreciate is that MAD magazine created and thoroughly exploited the possibilities of the satirical ad at the height of the “mad men” culture of the 1950s—thirty years before AdBusters’ formation. They further failed to notice that comedian Stan Freberg extended the satirization to television—and began its co-option—in the early 1960s, and did so in the service of notable anti-consumerist cultural revolutionaries like Heinz, General Mills and Pillsbury.
The notion of satirizing ads to deconstruct and devalue them had become old hat even before Freberg made a brief art form (and a personal fortune) from it; the self-satirical ad has been an agency staple ever since. Even Freberg’s 1967 attempt to satirize airliner crashes on behalf of a troubled airline, regarded as one of the worst ad campaigns of all time, couldn’t kill the species or even drive it from consumer view for long. It’s not possible to watch commercial television or skim any mainstream magazine without seeing a satirical or self-mocking ad; viewers laugh and nod admiringly at the gutsiness of the seller… and buy the product. The notion has become so thoroughly co-opted that true satirists are left without targets. Which has not stopped AdBusters—magazine, website and acolytes—from firing blanks for three decades.
Their remaining attempt at connection to the real world is “Buy Nothing Day,” the day after U.S. Thanksgiving on which they elaborately convince each other, and hardly anyone else, to not spend any money. Their efforts have so far failed to change this day’s status as the single biggest shopping day of each year, and the impact is probably even less given that even adherents of the Day simply spend money the other 30 days or so of the ever-expanding gift-shopping season.
In the end, AdBusters’ “culture jamming” is self-referential and very nearly self-cancelling; it is the notion’s own gears that are jammed.
I don’t mean to completely dismiss AdBusters as an organization, nor their history of efforts or anyone who has participated in those efforts. But they are an all-too-common example of a public group that seizes prime ground on an important issue and then does what is easy and makes them feel good, rather than what is useful, necessary and much harder. They have absorbed and misdirected much of the feeble grass-roots anti-consumerism sentiment for almost a quarter-century, without a single significant result. All I can say their direction is that I wish they’d grow up, shut up or put up. When they bring something more than Pantone color books and old Dave Berg clippings to the battlefield, we’ll talk.
The Parable of the “Broke Sophomore”
At the heart of most expressions of posturing, posing and adbustering seems to stand the stereotypical “broke sophomore”: that familiar individual who is nearly penniless in his college or pre-career days and thus a fierce champion of economic equality, rent control, free software, unlimited network bandwidth and free distribution of music, and an equally ferocious opponent of wealth, profit, capitalism, advertising… and consumerism.
It is sourly amusing to track these individuals into later years, when suddenly their own innovations and creative endeavors are fiercely protected against piracy to ensure their entirely justified profits, and those profits are spent on a lavish but of course culturally-sensitive lifestyle… all the while still striking that tired anti-consumerist pose.
Anti-consumerism has drawn more than its share of fakers and poseurs over the decades. The touchstone for identifying formerly broke sophomores in all their guises is that “consumerism” is to them a window-dressing word. They are not truly against consumerism; they are against only the parts that don’t appeal to or benefit them. They typically have no awareness of the cycle of destruction and greater issues involved; it’s all about “bad ads,” successful products that aren’t theirs and stupid people. They dismiss the power of the hustlers and reduce influence and cultural pressure to trivialities that affect only the gullible… meaning anyone not at their Starbucks table.
The difference between poseurs and renegades is that poseurs talk about these things with no understanding of the real problem and with no useful action taken—sometimes no action at all. They have no intention or chance of fixing things because they do not understand what is actually broken. In the end, their posturing is little more than guilt-assuagement, attention-whoring and intellectual masturbation, and we’ll leave them to it until they choose to be part of the solution instead of part of the precipitate.
The Illusion of Consumption Advocacy
In the preceding essay, we looked at consumer advocacy just long enough to establish that it’s not any part of the renegade movement. There is more to consider about consumer advocacy in the overall spectrum of anti-consumerism, beginning with this: Consumer advocacy as it is practiced in the U.S. media is perhaps the worst of false approaches to anti-consumerism; while the message is often tepid, its ubiquity and reach gives it immense influence.
The term “consumer advocate” covers a wide spectrum, from professionals working in the highest political corridors to poorly ghostwritten local newspaper columns. For every advocate at the level of say, Ralph Nader, who has spent a professional life working on behalf of consumer rights, including the promotion of protective legislation and other systemic improvements, there are a thousand newspaper, television, magazine or syndicated consumer advocates to whom the term “anti-consumerism” is either meaningless or refers to making sure people buy the right dishwasher soap. There are also self-designated consumer advocates in specific fields—autos and food being two obvious examples—whose efforts are impossible to distinguish from straight-out flacking for manufacturers.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am excluding the professionals working at the legislative or regulatory levels, who probably never ran a hair mousse comparison test in their lives. “Consumer advocate” here refers to the legions of media-based consumer advocates who recommend one product or service over another, based on opinion, experience and hopefully at least a modicum of investigation and testing. Some are nationally known; others are barely known within the circulation of the free weekly shopper for which they write. Whatever the level, product comparison and testing is a valuable service to the community of consumers, whether it’s a casual one-on-one shootout between vacuum cleaners or the sort of continuous, comprehensive, scientifically-grounded testing and evaluation done by Consumer Reports. As long as it is reasonably competent and honest—neither of which is assured by media independents, especially those on television—product and service evaluation is useful, necessary and a way to help ensure value received for money spent. But it is not, in any way, anti-consumerism.
For one thing, few consumer advocates will consider a “none of the above” option in their presentations. Advocates begin with the assumption that consumers will buy one of the tested products, and focus exclusively on helping readers or viewers choose the “best” or “right” one. To some degree, their assumption is true; few of us would read an article on, say, the best vacuum cleaner or window air conditioner if we weren’t already seeking to buy one. However, no matter how valueless and unnecessary a whole category of product might be, consumer advocates do not consider it their place, much less their duty, to say “You know what? Don’t buy any of this crap.” The closest any ever get to that position is to begin with a slightly deprecating, “If you have to have one of these…” and then go on to obsess over minor differences as if they mattered.
Much worse, from the renegade perspective, are shopping advocates who begin with the assumption that consumers are going to spend their money on something and feel compelled to direct their purchasing like some kind of shopping assistant. They aren’t confined to recommending a best purchase within a preselected product range; they think they are helping by pointing to ways to spend money when the poor consumer can’t think of a thing to buy.
It is a certainty that most consumer advocates are pro-consumerism and certainly pro-consumption; for all their concern over which product to choose, they are at heart in the business of promoting all three. They are “ethical advertisers”—they likely don’t think the latter word applies, but they pride themselves on the former because they are not bound to shilling a single brand. The only difference between them and the marketing departments of each product is that they commit the sin of promoting competing products.
Many would likely express pride in their huckstering (hustler is probably too strong a word here) and feel they are promoting a healthy economy through “sensible” purchases, never once thinking they are cheering on the cycle of destruction. I’d like to think that there is some number of them who would be in tune with the renegade message, especially if it ever occurred to them that they are as fully empowered to say “Buy nothing” as they are “Buy that one.” Empowered… and ethically obligated. They need only think through what “ethically” really means.
The Illusion of Cute Anti-Consumerism
Organized but misdirected efforts like AdBusters represent only a small number of ineffectual foes of consumerism. There is a much larger body of nominal anti-consumerists who don’t necessarily talk among like minds or subscribe to a fixed policy (or AdBusters magazine). They share a similarly weak and misdirected attitude, but in place of a fixed hatred of ads and “ad culture,” their approach might be summed up as minimizing consumerism until it’s tame and nonthreatening.
Their notion of consumerism refers to those silly people who come home from the mall with two pairs of shoes when they only went for one, or buy far too many Christmas presents, or snap up every new gadget as soon as it appears on the market. Certainly there are people who do these things, but limiting the notion of “consumerism” to these narrow practices almost entirely misses the point. It focuses on trivial, even cute elements of the problem, and is once again a kind of consumerism that others do—never the observer. Confining the notion of consumerism to petty excesses, whether your own, those of someone you know or to some generic swath of others makes it easy to dismiss the renegade position. To those who “already know” that consumerism is a mere social peccadillo, arguments that it is one of the most serious issues facing the world today sound crazy. The cute crowd dismisses such notions by filing them with extreme politics, bizarre medical claims, conspiracy theories and paranormal beliefs.
The journey from this ingrained misunderstanding to the renegade viewpoint is a difficult one; as soon as those newly engaged hear the word “consumerism,” the blocks fall into place—the wrong place. Getting the message across becomes a long exercise in patience and frustration; not until a “cutie” can be brought to understand that the term means something very different from shopping-trip excesses will they be ready to grasp the more serious aspects of the problem. In this, those who think of consumption as “cute” are in much the same category as those who insist they are happy wallowing in fostered consumption.
This predisposition to misunderstand the term consumerism is one of the biggest hurdles the renegade movement faces. The crowd of these misbelievers is the “everybody” who already “knows” the wrong interpretation, fostered by cultural inertia and the overt efforts of the hustlers.
As with other words that have taken on hardened, inaccurate or biased meanings, the solution might be to create a new word that can carry the message with fresh vigor. Unfortunately, all those I’ve been able to think of are lifeless, limp or silly… so our target remains consumerism. It’s a linguistic dog in a manger; we must tame it and turn it back to our purposes. The proper path for that is to create a simple, believable and understandable dogma around the term that can be easily stated and evade the mental shielding around its common interpretations. Creating and expounding such a clear and undistorted image of consumerism’s devastating cost is a core goal of the renegade movement, and something I have attempted to do with every page of this book.
To reach and convince the cute crowd, we must advance the idea that consumerism is not cute; it’s a junkyard dog that will bite your fingers off if you try to pet it. Or even if you ignore it.
The Illusion of Absurdist Arguments
Let’s wrap up this list by discussing a more general category of “non-solution”: arguments against the renegade perspective that, like those above, stem from illogical or indefensible positions or are based on flawed—or deliberately distorted—perceptions of the issues.
I will say straight out that I believe the thesis of this book is correct, and that the renegade perspective is valid. I believe we have been pushed into a corner as a society, a culture and an economy by a concerted effort to make maximized consumption, and in turn maximized individual earning at any cost, the very basis for our individual and collective lives. I believe there is a better path for us all, and that it is essential to take a stand against this titanic effort to use most of Earth’s intelligent life to no better end than to generate wealth for some minority of it.
It may seem redundant for me to make such a statement; clearly I would not be writing this book, or organizing the center of the effort to implement its ideas, and generally putting my personal and professional life on the line to do so did I not believe in the truth and importance of what I was saying. However, in the course of researching and validating this material, I have read a number of loosely related works whose authors seem to be putting their readers on—who are making, with a straight face, the most absurd and nonsensical claims about the role of consumers. It is pop scholarship in the post-Saturday Night Live era; for all the valid elements there seems to be a need to put on the dear, dear readers and see which of them are smart enough to get the joke, or to laugh with peers in the Philosophy department lunch room about the ones who didn’t.
I have used humor throughout this book because a little levity does just that: leavens and lightens the heavy and often unpleasant truth. Giving you, the reader, a little chuckle as part of outlining some truly dreadful way we are economically abused lets you draw a breath, shake off the gloom, and put the information in perspective. I assure you, though, that at no point am I deceiving you, playing with your perceptions or leading you on for amusement.
Some arguments against the renegade viewpoint and the idea of consumerist excess as a detrimental thing are sturdy and sensible and anchored in solid socioeconomic beliefs. The proponents believe by the best of conventional reasoning that they are right and we are wrong. We should be both ready and glad to meet these opponents in intellectual combat. I maintain that many such arguments, however well-reasoned and bolstered, are wrong because they are anchored in economic principles developed and maintained to benefit the existing order; in that mindset that regards consumers as mere depositories for sales. The renegade inversion that places consumers at the apex of the economic pyramid confuses and invalidates most economic verities, making the conventional viewpoint the absurdity: in that flawed view, that companies and flow of wealth and economic exchange are what matter, not these… these damned people.
At the other end of the spectrum, the illusory solutions above are simply another form of absurd or nonsensical argument; their proponents, not seeing the full picture, think these partial or misdirected efforts negate the problems. Surely saving money at the cash register, scavenging discards or skewering J. Crew’s latest ad campaign will fix things… and when all else fails, the “cute” crowd can simply laugh away the notions.
It is in the middle ground where we find contrary arguments of a particular stripe that seem superficially valid but disintegrate under scrutiny. They are not unique to this narrow debate, but can be found across the spectrum of disagreement. These are absurdist arguments, which often share an important identifying characteristic. While they are not always examples of the reductio ad absurdum fallacy—reducing a point to trivial, meaningless or absurd conclusions—they almost always begin by selecting a case far outside the norm and presenting it as common or even universally representative.
For every point made in this book and every synthesis of ideas that shapes the renegade viewpoint, it is possible to find an extreme case and reason backwards to undo that claim. The simplistic world of formal debate and the “one flaw” basis of modern U.S. trial law would have us believe that a single loose thread makes a tapestry valueless. Uncounted thousands of lawyers have made their careers (and fortunes) finding “loose threads” by which to undermine an inarguable body of evidence. The very idea that one flaw outweighs everything else has become ingrained into a distorted notion of “critical thinking.” In absurdist arguments, if a case on the fringes of the topic can be found or thought up that does not support the central theory, the triumphant conclusion is that the theory must be wrong.
Which, of course, is usually nonsense… is absurd. The rare case of someone who is thrown from a car and survives the accident with minor injuries does not invalidate the theory that seat belts save lives. The occasional case of someone who survives being “dead” from drowning in freezing water and can be revived with no lasting effects does not mean humans can stop breathing for very long. Just because some people have no room in their budget to reduce their consumer spending does not mean that the vast majority of Western world consumers are not overspending because of fostered consumption; the evident nonsense of someone trumpeting their minimalist (but million-dollar-per-year) lifestyle does not mean consumerism is a phantom.
Nearly all issues dealing with a range of possibilities or a population of individuals are subject to an uneven distribution, usually some form of the bell curve. No matter how you list or rank or order data points, the majority will fall within a common center, with fewer and fewer examples tailing off to each side. Age, height, weight, salary, minutes of daily exercise, frequency of eating ice cream, annual visits to a mall, miles driven for pleasure… these and uncountable millions more of data sets will show a bell-shaped distribution of varying proportions—some quite tall and narrow, where the data fall within a small range; others wide and shallow or even lumpy across the middle, where the data are more distributed. But with few exceptions, there will be a tail to one side or both where the data points fall far from the center.
Choosing such far-flung points—yes, some people do eat two gallons of ice cream a day, or drive only five miles a year, or visit malls every single day—and constructing an argument that this anomalous instance represents the whole… is absurd. It is also, unfortunately, common. Renegades need to learn to detect, deflect and demolish these narrow, absurdist arguments.
Critical thinking as a whole is essential to the renegade viewpoint, and is something no longer taught well in schools. Renegades must learn to use critical thinking in dealing with… well, everything, really. It’s not an optional life skill, whether it fits in our battered and blindfolded curricula or not. It is especially important for renegades to master the basics, because most of the resistance and counterarguments they will encounter in trying to reorder their lives along renegade lines, and promote the stance to others, will be absurdist ones that will yield to the smallest nick of the smallest critical sword… if it is sharp enough.
The problems that the renegade viewpoint and movement face are serious and complex and above all, real. They are also shrouded in misdirection and misunderstanding. It is essential that renegades, individually and collectively, not get stymied by or tangled up with illusory solutions and absurdist arguments. The war against entrenched thinking and traditional economic interpretations—both as wrong as any naïve coupon-clipper’s beliefs—will be hard even without the distractions of such sham battles.