Excerpted from the forthcoming book
Renegade Consumer: The Battle for Your Economic Freedom.
This site has been written with continual references to renegades—those of us who see consumerism for the danger it is and have chosen to stand opposed to it, with a goal of ultimately eliminating it from our social, economic and political systems.
Individually, we are renegade consumers.
Collectively, and with growing organization, we are the renegade movement.
So, what does that all mean?
The renegade movement seeks a better life and future for everyone by establishing individual freedom from economic dominance. An extension of that aim is a restored right to individual privacy, where tracking and data accumulation for commercial exploitation is restricted or prohibited. The goal could be defined as a world in which we are all allowed to make our own economic choices, uninfluenced by those who wish to use us as their economic underpinnings. We’re not a resource to be exploited to fill corporate coffers. We’re not lab rats to be analyzed, controlled, coerced and manipulated into making us happily shovel our lives into those coffers.
We are individuals. We are people. And now we are renegades.
The Renegade Consumer Manifesto
It is important that “renegade” never be seen as the opposite of “realist”; renegade consumers must be as realistic and pragmatic as possible while maintaining our different, deeply contrarian viewpoint. Such a movement needs to stand on a formal declaration of purpose.
The Renegade Movement: Independent
With that formal stake in the ground, let’s move on to a broader definition of the renegade consumer movement and what it stands for. Much of this is repeated elsewhere on in the book, but it will be worthwhile to summarize the renegade movement in plain, practical terms. Let’s begin with a couple of definitions that extend from the manifesto:
The goal of the renegade consumer movement is a better life and future for everyone through individual freedom from economic dominance.
The renegade position is that no one has a right to economically exploit buyers of consumer goods, especially not through social and cultural conditioning that fosters unnecessary spending.
I believe that anyone can hold and support these ideals, regardless of other beliefs or principles. I believe this position to be inarguable, to the degree that it should be embedded in all national law. While we will never rid ourselves of individuals who will take every advantage they can find, even at the expense of any other individual or population’s well-being, we can take a stand against the legalization, institutionalization and acceptance of such exploitation. We have a right to economic self-determination, free from coercion, deception and manipulation. We demand its inclusion in our social contract, and its enforcement therefrom.
Those who cannot believe in such a right likely believe the opposite: that they have a right to dominate and exploit anyone they can, anyone they regard as weak, stupid, malleable or confused; that is, someone who deserves nothing more than domination and exploitation. Any seller whose smug guiding principle is caveat emptor, and any observer who believes that all failures of consumer commerce are the buyer’s fault are on the other side of the barricades from renegades. They can stay there as they are ringed by revolution, until their understanding expands past profit and loss to the human side of economic issues, or until they are obsolete and irrelevant.
Because the cycle of consumption touches on all areas of modern life, the renegade movement addresses just as wide a spectrum of issues. The difference between us and the many parallel and collateral movements is this:
The renegade movement sees consumerism itself as the problem to be addressed, and believes that most other socioeconomic troubles are consequences of its existence.
Consumerism—the out-of-control cycle of consumption—is the root cause of many of the world’s problems. It is not a symptom or side effect of those or other problems. Where consumerism is not the direct cause of an economic problem, it is often fuel on that problem’s fire. The cycle of consumption—of destruction—must be broken if we are eliminate the world’s other economic ills, and the social and political ills that stem from gross economic imbalance. The renegade consumer movement stands apart from efforts that see the problems differently.
The Renegade Movement: Apolitical
I believe that consumerism underlies all political ideology, barring perhaps some at the very fringes. There is no need to draw partisan lines in the movement or goals, because the problem, and the solution, is the same for all.
Being a renegade is not a political stance; the renegade movement is apolitical.
Of course—and especially in this era—there will be those who can see the world only through a polarizing political filter. They will categorize renegade principles and aims in political terms, and will do so mostly to dismiss them out of hand. It may be easier to find resonance between the renegade position and the more socially liberal end of the political spectrum, because of the shared principle of putting fundamental individual concerns over those of commerce. More conservative social positions are not necessarily anathema to renegade thinking, but traditional and conservative economic thinking may be. We have no regard for political and socioeconomic positions that regard the accumulation of wealth as an absolute right subject to no concerns for how it is acquired and incurring no obligations to the socioeconomic body that produced the wealth. Such thinkers will find their place on the far side of the barricades and the same future of irrelevance.
In the long run, there will no doubt be political division over renegade practices and goals, but prejudging the idea, principles and goals as being driven by political assumptions is simply wrong. Politics will become an important tool in implementing the changes renegades seek, but the problems those changes address underlie and span the defined political spectrum. We may see the rise of a parallel renegade-oriented political movement, but this one cannot afford to take on the artificial polarization that has crippled so many other areas of social and economic effort. Would-be renegades must leave their predefined politics at the door.
The Renegade Movement: Encompassing
Taking the renegade position is necessarily motivated by ethical, social and community concerns, but renegades are not driven by or allied with any existing religious or ethical movement.
The renegade movement places the economic rights and well-being of the individual ahead of all other economic and social concerns.
It is easy to conflate some statements of renegade goals with religious or ethical principles of minimalism, self-sacrifice, charity and the like, but the shared aspect is concern for the individual, not a creed. There need be no conflict between being a renegade and being a believer in any religious or ethical system; at least, none I can think of. All who understand the renegade position and aims are welcome.
Those who hold one of the more complex and involved religious stances might be limited in how they interpret and apply renegade principles, but the basic position of “living for more than oneself” that is fundamental to many belief systems can only be a strong pillar supporting a renegade stance. Such pillars apply only to the individual renegade who maintains them, though, and not to the renegade movement itself.
The Renegade Movement: Economically Divergent
One front where the renegade movement runs head-on into a superficially similar area of thought is economics. Consumerism is a child of economics, if not something more intertwined and fundamental. The issues that concern the renegade movement could be discussed in conventional economic terms, and in fact frequently are—but usually from the reverse position of trying to calculate how to get people to consume more, and more efficiently, that the whole virtual machine might run at ever-increasing speed.
Economists are eternally modeling this machinery according to their self-devised rules and are motivated on every level to craft improvements and fixes that will keep it humming along at top speed… with “speed” invariably translating to maximized and continually growing consumption. This encapsulated, self-defined approach and goals places the whole field of traditional economics in opposition to the renegade viewpoint.
To put it more clearly in renegade terms:
Economics is the most common way to view the wasteland of consumerism, but its assumptions and approach make it irrelevant to the renegade viewpoint.
It’s an old trope that you should never give the problem of overpopulation to a mathematician, because his or her solution would be to shoot any surplus number of people. Simple; elegant; effective… and entirely a solution within the tools of mathematics. (Too bad about the individuals involved, though.) If you view renegade concerns through the prism of economics, a number of tools for changing the consumer economic landscape become available… but like the mathematician’s machine gun, most economic solutions are “cold equations,” and do not take individuals into account. In all but fringe economic theories and calculations, individuals are mere engines, cogs or units—nameless, nearly valueless and as disposable as bullet casings.
This is why we can’t look for solutions from the field of economics; while our views of the problem may overlap, our interpretations are completely at odds. Their practices and solutions serve only to make the situation worse, from the renegade viewpoint. Their goals are at the opposite end of the spectrum. The renegade movement is about individuals, and its goal is building a world that places the greatest possible value on individual economic freedom. Economics has no solutions in that area; it can only see the world in theoretical terms with the intent of shaping and controlling people as economic elements. In traditional economic theory, consumers can be no more than nameless, numberless and virtually unconsidered recipients of “sales.” The evolutionary biologist and the family physician see a sick individual with different eyes… and in much the same way, so do the economist and the renegade. The economist sees a factor in the calculations; the renegade sees an illness demanding a cure.
No: the renegade movement is not about traditional economics any more than it is about marketing (or, as have been many ineffectual predecessors, about advertising). Economics and marketing are closed fields, circular and self-referential, creating their own precepts and then shaping their direction and results accordingly. They are internally consistent in logic but externally irrelevant to individuals.
The renegade movement is about individuals and a world that is shaped to be best for them—and then at best accommodating to larger economic entities. We don’t care to debate economic theory when the issue is the ethics of individual freedom. This is why renegades reject economic arguments entirely when choosing goals and acts; of course most of them are contrary to “sound economic principles” because those principles exist to serve the cycle of consumption, and sound loudest when the cycle is extracting the maximum value from the individuals involved. Of course renegade goals are contrary to “good business practice” because business is the intersection of economics and marketing. Economics will be a part of the world produced by the victory of the renegade movement… but its working theories will have to be based on principles other than a world that forces individuals to consume as much as they can.
Accommodating the Renegade Spectrum
When I outline the keystone renegade principle of reducing and eliminating excess spending driven by fostered consumption, one of the most common counterarguments I receive is that not everyone has personal spending they can eliminate. “What about someone barely scraping by?” the question usually goes. “What are they supposed to stop spending on?”
It’s a valid question. Were it to be left unaddressed, it would be a serious challenge to the foundation of renegade philosophy. That makes this is a good place to examine the differences in the renegade economic spectrum and define some differences in the way individuals and families might set their renegade stance.
I maintain that anyone, anywhere on the socioeconomic spectrum, can be a committed and effective renegade consumer. The specifics of how they implement renegade principles will vary, and the results will necessarily be proportional to household income… but every consumer can “go renegade” and see benefits from it. As with so many other things, the distribution of effectiveness will form a bell curve, with the greatest range of action and the greatest potential change in the wide middle. But let’s start with a look at the excessively large short end of the economic spectrum.
Poor But Prepared
For the foreseeable future, renegades will fall across a wide socioeconomic spectrum and those on the low end of the bell curve will have little financial margin to implement renegade principles. If your income barely keeps you fed and sheltered, talk of cutting unnecessary spending is somewhere between irrelevant and cruel.
That does not mean there is no place for the renegade mindset among this lowest economic tier. A renegade stance can and should be considered as a valuable option at this level, and it can hold the key to a better future for all those trapped by the poverty line. If you are in the bottom economic tier, you are positioned to set better goals than catching up with your financially-irresponsible neighbors. Your success does not need to be measured by the acquisition of goods; you do not need to acquire the habit of spending for its own sake. You are in a better position to understand the renegade message and begin shaping your life around it than are those more conventionally “successful.” As you pull yourself up through job and education opportunities and selected assistance, you can apply your increased financial flexibility to what really matters, and not to consumer excesses. Your precious income can be better spent, day by day, than in trying to reach the level of consumerist excess you have been programmed to desire.
The mindset of the poor is often self-destructive, not in small part from the frustration of being unable to afford all the glittering crap marketed to them—a fearsome itch they are unable to scratch. This drives them to poor life choices, often involving crime or hazardous employment, because the desire to acquire those goods trumps common sense even more strongly than it does for those lucky enough to be able to scratch their fostered itching.
There is not room here to outline an entire working plan for those at or below the poverty line; I can only assure you that if you are poor, the renegade movement may be your most powerful and rewarding path. That path for the working-poor renegade boils down to two hard words: live poor. Live within your constraints and marshal every scrap of your resources towards a genuinely better life, not a more crap-laden one. Don’t blow money you cannot spare on shows of “success.” Set aside anger at wealth in general; don’t engage in acts of pulling the world down to your level that will gain nothing. Both of those attitudes are self-destructive, not equalizing. Grow, however slowly, into a satisfied renegade; make every increase in income and every economic advantage count.
The poor are perhaps even more easily seduced by the lure of easy acquisition at the highest costs—monthly plans that add up to shocking totals, high interest loans, furniture and appliance “rentals” that slowly crush wallets… who better to benefit from renegade thinking? Who can better understand that crap does not make life worthwhile, and that there are better directions?
The Economic Center
If there is a general economic term I dislike more than disposable income (see The Myth of Disposable Income in Part 2), it is middle class—a slippery, deceptive and universally misleading designation that probably does more to derail socioeconomic discussion than any other. Like “rich” and “poor” and “liberal” and “conservative,” the label “middle class” is tossed around with abandon by all levels of those discussing social and economic issues. What all those terms have in common is that everyone knows what they mean… but hardly any two people share the same definition. The speaker is confident he or she understands the term; so is the listener. However, the phrase is so loosely defined that what the speaker or writer meant may or may not be even a general overlap with what the listener or reader inferred. Both go away satisfied they exchanged a viewpoint, when in reality their ships passed in the night, smug in their isolation.
It is not so much that there is casual misunderstanding about the meaning of the term “middle class” as that it seems to have been deliberately used by many to produce just this degree of false agreement of consensus. When a politician says this or that action helps or hurts “the middle class,” to whom is she referring… exactly? Too many times a slippery and undefined use of the term conceals volumes—exactly what socioeconomic bracket is helped by a tax cut or housing program or loan program said to benefit the “middle class”?
As with disposable income, I reject the use of the term middle class in renegade discussion as being such an ambiguous term that it hinders understanding and progress. I would prefer that speakers and writers define the group they mean by more precise and less ambiguous terms. If we must have a general collective term for all those between poverty and affluence, those who live lives with some degree of comfort but have to work to maintain them, let it be the center.
However we name it and define it, though, that middle ground between rich and poor is the most fertile and productive region for renegade concepts to take root and change our collective future. It represents a substantial majority of the population who both earn enough to be selective in their spending and are targeted thoroughly enough to be among the most deluded consumers. The center knows they have more economic worlds to plunder, and they are goaded to keep trying. Unlike the poor, who can only dream about more acquisition, the middle has enough money to keep fueling the most foolish attempts to buy the next level of comfort, style, satisfaction and respect.
It is the center that has fallen hardest for the message of consumerism; they are the most deeply enmeshed in its purported benefits and convinced not only that it is a worthwhile lifestyle, but the only meaningful one. They have neither the vision of the many possibilities that come from looking up at the stars nor the extended grasp of enough wealth to fund a genuinely alternate life plan. They are trapped in the illusion that just so much more work and earning will feed their insatiable desire for crap.
They are wrong, of course, but may have the hardest time coming to terms with the renegade philosophy because it is so absurd and alien to their indoctrinated effort. As those who have most fully committed to consumerist excess, they have the most to gain from abandoning it. Furthermore, as the class that spends the most, in aggregate, on fostered consumption, it has the potential to have the most effect against the predations of the hustlers. The center—the “middle class” almost no matter how you choose to define them—represents both the potential backbone of the renegade movement and those most in need of its success.
Wealth to Burn
Above the broadly-defined center of the economic spectrum is what we can only call the wealthy renegade: one who understands and supports the movement’s aims but has no personal need to reduce spending to remain reasonably assured of lifetime wealth. This group may have the most difficult time of all with renegade principles and action because they seemingly can have it all: the acquisition madness of the center, financial grasp that reaches all desires, and an ingrained sense that self-indulgence is what personal economics is all about.
On the other hand, the wealthy end of the socioeconomic spectrum often shares frugality and a sense of buying for value with the lowest tier. They do not need the artificial status and gratification of the crap the center prizes. They are far less affected by the vast majority of consumer marketing efforts. In some ways, it may be easy for the wealthy to grasp the principles of the renegade consumer movement and apply it firmly to even a limited range of personal spending.
The real place for the wealthy and often accordingly powerful within the renegade movement is as models, spokespersons and examples—as people expected to practice an ongoing form of potlatch, pointedly avoiding it speaks volumes. As people with power in directing and controlling organizations and companies, using that power to influence business decisions in a renegade direction is uniquely valuable to the movement. As people expected to exploit the world around them for their amusement and benefit, refusing to do so will prove the value of the renegade ideals.
While we’re considering relative values, I think we should dismiss the notion that consumer spending should be naturally regarded as proportional to income. Specifically, such ideas as that spending $5, $20 and $50 for a pound of coffee across the three tiers is a reasonable notion—especially in the aspect that the wealthy are somehow entitled to spend multiples of lower-tier prices just because they can afford it.
There are perhaps some areas of personal, family and consumer spending where the proportion of wealth to cost can be allowed to make a difference, but the differential should never be used as an excuse to spend unnecessary amounts on anything. A $5 coffee every day is just as big a waste of money for a trust-fund beneficiary as a McDonald’s employee.
The renegade movement has many tiers of aims and goals. Some are immediate, simple and obvious. Others will depend on a cascade of social and cultural changes that seem likely to me but are by no means guaranteed. One, put simply, is that if we make widespread reductions in the sheer competitiveness of consumer spending, there will be greater economic and cultural support for the indigent and the poor. When we stop measuring our lives and success by how much crap we have, perhaps we won’t think so little of those who have less… or none. But yes, I will concede that such a change is a ways off and will require many other idols to fall in certain ways.
What I cannot emphasize enough here is that the renegade movement must remain dedicated to its narrow set of goals, holding onto its slim sheaf of ideals and working towards its best vision of the future. In a decade we can revisit the picture and perhaps expand the renegade role… but until then, we must remain focused.
The Method of Our Madness: Social Nullification
You’d have to be a casual and disinterested reader indeed to have reached this point without one question growing ever-larger in your mind: How?
It’s all well and good to outline the abuses and the damage done by consumerism. It’s interesting to explain the ways the hustlers and marketing-industrial complex gang up on the consumer to feed their bottomless greed. And it’s perhaps inspiring to say that it’s time to fix all this broken economic road we tread. But how—how to do so—that’s a valid question.
There are and will be many tactics and methods. I’ve sketched a few so far, and there are more details to follow in this part of the book. From an individual and small-group perspective, the short answer is “will”—willpower, will to stay on target, will to exert increasing group force to change the fabric of our society and economy. But will and effort and force have to be applied to something or they are wasted, so what’s the target for all this sound and fury?
What we’re seeking to effect is social and cultural change, so the target is society—all of us, those who continue to participate in this frantic, broken, demeaning economic cycle. No amount of regulations, rules and law will change the game, any more than limits on advertising to children or nutrition statements had much net effect on those markets. We have to change the mindset of our culture, one or a few at a time, until we have created a social mass that has enough force to carry the attitude to the limit. We have to make excess consumption unappealing; make consumerism a practice shelved with racism, slavery, clear-cutting and buffalo hunting.
There is an avenue to this social change, and techniques that will exploit that channel, that can be collectively termed social nullification. Social nullification is what happened to Prohibition—far from eliminating alcohol from society, society turned around and attempted to drown itself in booze.  Bootleggers were pillars of the community, and celebrities; people who previously were nondrinkers indulged; with all alcohol sales and service being illegal, there was no regulation of the nightclubs, speakeasies and drugstore sellers. The social body responded to Prohibition like a national infection, and turned itself into antibodies to destroy and repel it—and in thirteen short years they destroyed one of the strongest social movements in modern history.
Prohibition isn’t quite a parallel for the consumerism cycle of destruction, but it gives us a model for how to attack and repel it. We need to marshal our culture into an amused loathing of the practices, so that it becomes fashionable, au courant, fun to mock the efforts of the hustlers and reject them. Consumerism has been forced onto us by exploiting a weakness in our beliefs. We seek to destroy it, but it is self-protecting, self-repairing, adaptable and pervasive. Only by marshaling widespread social disdain and open opposition can we negate it, nullify its effect on our world. Social nullification is the lever by which renegades will tip the balance back in favor of the individual.
 I am indebted to Daniel Okrent’s marvelous Last Call, perhaps the best history of Prohibition yet, for bringing this obscure term to my attention.