Monday, March 26, 2012

“You Can’t Say That”: A Reply to Michael Fisher

Author: James Livingston

[Editor's note: Here is Fisher's original review. - TL]


Since I started writing Against Thrift in 2009, the typical response from my liberal and left-wing colleagues has been “You can’t say that!” I’ve heard it a hundred times by now. They mean it. They assume that consumer culture is, at best, the place where bad taste, bad faith, and bad manners rule with the permission of advertising—it’s redeemable only by recourse to the suspicious methods of cultural studies—and is, at worst, the place where conscience, commitment, and even common sense go to die. When I was a fellow at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library three years ago, one of my colleagues responded to the description of the project by saying, with no trace of irony or humor, “You’re the Devil.”

The book has been reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but not in the New York Times or The New Republic. It’s been reviewed in Bloomberg Business Week, but not in Dissent, The American Prospect, The Atlantic, or The Nation. Meanwhile I’ve written book-related op-eds for mainstream publications like Wired, the LA Times and the Christian Science Monitor, and been interviewed by NPR stations from San Francisco to New York. The last radio interview I did, however, was with John Batchelor at WABC, where his talk show colleagues include Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

How to account for this discrepancy? Is it a clear Left/Right divide, or just a difference between academic and middlebrow discourse? My argument on behalf of consumer culture makes no sense in the absence of my argument for a redistribution of income and a socialization of investment—and vice versa. Conservatives like John Batchelor and Leftists like Sasha Lilley at KPFA/San Francisco have grasped the connection between these arguments, and have responded with reasoned aplomb rather than astonishment. So the question becomes, Why is the liberal, academic Left so uniform in its views of consumption that its reflexive response to my defense of consumer culture is exasperation and dismissal (“You can’t say that!”), if not horror and disgust (“You’re the Devil”)?

You could say it’s a trade book with an incendiary title, so what’d you expect? Of course the middlebrow radio stations and the mainstream newspapers would pay attention—they need as much “provocative” content as they can get to attract listeners and readers—but you can’t expect serious journalists, intellectuals, and academics, typically liberals who are necessarily suspicious of finance capital, to entertain an argument that takes the universalization of exchange value (a.k.a. commodity fetishism) for granted, and that meanwhile treats advertising as the last utopian idiom of our time.

In these serious parts, it goes without saying that commodities are the enemy of the spirit; that consumer culture privatizes our experience and infantilizes our desires, thus precluding local community as well as progressive political action, not to mention the salvation of our souls; that advertising, the advocate of mindless consumption and the enemy of plain speech, puts everything up for sale, including our very souls; and that consumerism is clearly the most dangerous threat to the environment.


Actually, it doesn’t go without saying, and that fact raises a different question: why do we need to keep repeating ourselves? The same thing gets said over and over, as if hundreds of clerics were transcribing one master text—as if the critique of consumer culture is a reaction formation that has finally become a repetition compulsion. From Max Horkheimer to Paul Goodman, from David Riesman to David Potter, from Stuart Ewen to Juliet Schor, from Benjamin Barber to Jackson Lears, from James A. Roberts (an earnest marketing professor) to Kalle Lasn (the editor of Adbusters and a crucial inspiration of Occupy Wall Street), and—while we’re at it—from Robert Samuelson to David Brooks, the refrain never changes. It goes like this: Americans are the pliant products of a social pathology specific to the extremity of capitalism; they’re the willing subjects and the passive objects of a consumer culture induced by advertising and enabled by debt.

Like Christopher Lasch, who claimed thirty years ago that consumerism was the material condition of what he named the culture of narcissism—it was no longer an occasional personality disorder—these writers repeat the refrain because they assume it’s self-evident. Barber, for example, knows that his readers are already familiar with the master text, and so he never bothers to make an argument in Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (2007); instead, he reintroduces Lasch to an audience that might have forgotten him and proceeds directly to the requisite hyperbole: “Lasch’s account of narcissism resonates with much of what I will portray as the new capitalist ethos of infantilism. The ethos animating postmodern consumer capitalism is one of joyless compulsiveness. The modern consumer is no free-will sybarite, but a compulsory shopper driven to consumption because [sic] the future of capitalism depends on it. He is less the happy sensualist than the compulsive masturbator, a reluctant addict working at himself with little pleasure, encouraged in his labor by an ethic [not ethos?] of infantilization that releases him to a self-indulgence he cannot altogether welcome.” (51)

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Benjamin Barber, a political theorist by training, holds an endowed chair at the University of Maryland, and, according to the flap copy on his book, he “consults with political and civic leaders throughout the world on democratization, citizenship, culture, and education.” James A. Roberts is a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas; he’s not a communitarian critic of capitalism, and he’s never been to Camp David. But in a new book called Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy (2011), he explains the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic goods, cites Jean-Paul Sartre on the meaning of life—I am not making this up—and then reproduces Barber’s boisterous critique of consumer culture in prose that would put a ferret to sleep: “Compulsive buyers are preoccupied with the importance of money as a solution to problems and as a means of comparison. Like status consumers, they make purchases in an attempt to bring into balance the discrepancy between their identity and the lifestyle projected by various products. . . .But as compulsive buying becomes more severe in an individual, and more prevalent in our society, it causes serious personal, interpersonal, and social problems.” (102-3)

Is this strangled prose a kind of plagiarism? If I were grading Roberts, I’d have to consult my university’s guidelines under the heading of “permissible paraphrase.” But then I’d have to bet on a source, and what could I exclude from the database? Barber, a likely source, isn’t the author of the master text—his renunciation of argument is evidence of his own borrowing—he’s just another cleric with a pornographic imagination and a strong prose style. But if it’s not plagiarism, what is it, what do we call this borrowing? Is Barber’s purple prose convincing because it works at the level of rhetoric, where close observance of the conventions, speaking of pornography, permits but also requires the occasional flourish, that moment when the argument is completed not by reference to evidence but by the athletic effect of a perfect metaphor or a quick cut?

These plaintive questions, which I ask without irony, boil down to just one. Why do we—academics, journalists, artists, intellectuals, writers, editors, readers—take the master text for granted, so that the typical response to my argument on behalf of consumer culture is, “You can’t say that”?


Michael Fisher makes the question quite poignant in his smart, funny, and friendly review of my book. He has of course borrowed from the master text transcribed by Barber, Roberts, et al., knowing that the original was written, once upon a time, by high-brow fugitives from mass culture and learned critics of its industrial apparatus. But he has tried to translate that text, to transpose it into a new key, where we might read and listen differently. He’s not just reiterating; he’s riffing.

Fisher deftly summarizes the economic argument of Against Thrift, and, like most of the comrades on the Left who favor the idea of redistribution in the name of equality, he finds it convincing. But, again like most of the comrades, he labels it “hard-boiled” and “descriptive,” as in dispassionate and reportorial—as if my disagreements with every other explanation of the Great Recession are unimportant, as if I hadn’t chosen to argue against the conventional wisdom on the role of consumption in economic growth, as if my description of the current crisis (or any other description, for that matter) is not already an analysis with an accompanying policy agenda.

Fisher then makes a slow turn, from what he calls my “descriptive argument for why consumer culture is good for us” to what he calls the “normative argument.” At this point, the equally ancient distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goods makes a timely appearance, and it hereafter serves as sturdy rhetorical protection against the intellectual intrusions that follow. At the gates of hell, these metaphysical niceties have always served as prayerful homilies: when nothing else abides and your soul is at stake, you can always console yourself by writing a footnote to Plato. Ask P. G. Wodehouse.

“Thankfully, Livingston is not one to shy away from ambitious intellectual tasks (he likens himself to Galileo early in the book). In ‘Part Two: The Morality of Spending,’ he unveils his normative argument for consumer culture’s goodness, this time with respect to our souls, and tries to re-designate consumption, instant gratification, and instinctual satisfaction as intrinsic moral goods.”

Or do I? Is my language a “subtle pragmatist’s trick”? It is true, I have no patience for metaphysics. I’m a pragmatist through and through, and so I don’t see how any description of any phenomenon excludes or postpones a normative argument—that is, an actionable attitude toward the object of knowledge. I also don’t see how a distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic goods holds up under the condition we call modernity, or post-modernity, when the universalization of exchange value (“reification”) is complete. But I do show that it is only in the neighborhood of consumer culture—at our leisure, after hours and at play—that we learn to treat each other as ends in themselves rather than means to the ends of our incomes or careers. In this sense, I show that what comes of buying, using, and sharing goods is better for us than what comes of producing goods under the sign of alienated labor. It beats working.

Instant gratification or instinctual satisfaction—and how, pray tell, would we gain access to our instincts?—can’t be an “intrinsic moral good” in these terms, and I never claimed either was such a good, because we can’t know anything’s value, moral or otherwise, except in retrospect, as a moment in an unfolding semiotic sequence. In other words, value, moral or otherwise, is like truth: neither can be known until exchanged, unless represented. Here is how William James put the proposition: “Day follows day, and it contents are simply added. They are not themselves true, they simply come and are. The truth is what we say about them.”

And yes, it is true, I suggested in the introduction to the book that Galileo was my hero because he wasn’t a deep thinker, just a radical empiricist looking to demonstrate the new facts made visible by his telescope. It was my clumsy way of choosing history over theory. I said that “the telescope at my disposal compresses time rather than space,” and hoped readers would, as a result, understand the obvious limits of the project rather than attribute inordinate ambitions to its author. But I now want to make those ambitions clear, because no review of the book, including Fisher’s, and no interview about it, not even at Pacifica Radio, has yet revealed the scope or the implications of the argument.


I wrote this book in the hope of allowing us to see that consumption is the proper goal and the necessary limit of production. When it has been or becomes this goal and limit, the use values that consumers want can contain—not displace—the pursuit of exchange value, of wealth in the abstract. Money and credit, accordingly, can become means of exchange, not ends in themselves: the formula for capital (M-C-M*) can then give way to something like simple commodity circulation (C-M-C), something closer to the archaic yet real and pleasurable circuits of gift economies.

This seemingly utopian urge—this hope of mine—is actually validated by the measurable trends of recent economic history, the last hundred years of development. We can make consumption the goal and the limit of production. But to do so, to accept and act on my economic argument, is to interrogate what we mean by “character.’ The structure of our moral personalities is at risk in that interrogation, because the realization of desire we call “spending” and the deferral of gratification we call “saving” are both emotional achievements and material accomplishments. Max Weber and Sigmund Freud understood this social-psychological congruence, and tried, accordingly, to itemize the historical conditions of an ascetic or anal-compulsive character type that could systematically and happily abstain from the pleasures of the world. On the wings of the Owl of Minerva, they were explaining the Cartesian ego at the very moment of its dissolution.

It’s time that we followed their example—it’s time that we tried to itemize the historical conditions of new character types and the moral (not to mention political) horizons that become visible from their standpoint. But how? My procedure in Against Thrift was to begin with the economic history of the last hundred years as an indispensable preface to a defense of consumer spending and consumer culture. Redistribution was the least of my goals—it was just the first step, I thought, toward the imagination of a moral universe in which repression, denial, and delay of gratification are no longer the foundation of the social-psychological structure we recognize as “character,” and, consequently, in which any fixed boundary between inner self and outer world (the central conceit of modernity, according to Nietzsche) is erased.

So let me retrace my steps.

Private investment out of profits is an unimportant source of growth, and so the pursuit of profit as such is, as Keynes put it in 1930, a “somewhat disgusting morbidity.” It follows that the forced savings or deferred consumer choices that corporate retained earnings represent are worse than pointless, they’re destructive. It also follows that we don’t need to keep decisions about our future in the hands of those who think that the bottom line is a larger sum of exchange value—rewarding CEOS and traders with lower taxes and higher profits is a recipe for economic and moral disaster.

Let me put it as plainly as I can. The members of the investing class—we used to call them capitalists—are now as superfluous and superannuated as the European landed nobility had become by the late 18th century. They’re good for deep background, baroque settings, and self-parody if you want to write a novel or make a movie about a civilization that has already expired. Otherwise they don’t matter. Otherwise we need to get on with a future that excludes them except as public servants, as “humble, competent people, on a level with dentists,” according to the Keynesian designation of economists. We begin by redistributing income away from the 1%, toward the 99%.

What then?

We socialize investment because we need to—because we need to redefine profit to include the social consequences (the “externalities”) of investment, including the environmental consequences, and because the pattern of economic growth can no longer be determined by the insatiable needs of those who honestly believe that more money in the bank is the purpose of life and the insignia of success. That means we take responsibility for the future, or rather that we stop sacrificing the possibilities and pleasures of the present to a future held ransom by our own deference to an archaic economic model and an outmoded character type.

It means that we stop saving for a rainy day, and stop assuming that the inner-directed, anal-compulsive character is normal and, dare I say, normative.

Notice that our obligation to future generations is enlarged, not diminished, by this commitment to, and in, the present. But notice, too, that when we stop saving for a rainy day because we can, we have already begun to reconstruct our “character” in ways that move us beyond inner-direction and anal compulsion. In this sense, we have already begun to move beyond Protestant Christianity—that old work ethic—as the “deepest moral resource” of our everyday lives. So yes, of course, we have already begun to redefine individualism, the very nature of our selves, as soon as we ask who and what we’re saving for.


That’s what Against Thrift is about, this ongoing, incomplete, still inarticulate movement toward a new moral universe made navigable by the passage beyond what Marx and Marcuse called the realm of necessity, where hard work and emotional sacrifice add up to the cause of character and the price of civilization. Either way, in retrospect or prospect, it’s not a pretty picture—the future I sketch looks like hell itself according to Michael Fisher—but either way, we don’t have much of a choice in the matter. We can treat the differences between these pictures as moral possibilities that are real historical events and thus empirical problems, or we can continue to copy from the master text, which simply denies that consumer culture contains any possibility worth contemplating.

Fisher is of course correct to suggest that I am uninterested in “lasting salvation”—who except a dead man can tell us what that means?—and to label Christian faith as the moral adhesive of the civil rights movement. But I would insist that my godless project is in keeping with the social origins and import of this faith, indeed that it aims to complete what religion (and, in its own fashion, advertising) can only attempt. In the beginning, the criterion of need—from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs—regulated the disposition of the church’s economic, emotional, and doctrinal resources: you were your brother’s keeper, so charity wasn’t a choice. But as the church became a going concern in the post-republican, Hellenic world, the criterion of need became politically problematic. In the absence of ways to deliver the goods to everyone—in a world dominated by disease, hunger, and poverty—this criterion became local or eschatological, either the creed of communities that had withdrawn from the larger society, or, what is practically the same thing, the ideological correlate of faith in an impending apocalypse.

We still inhabit a world dominated by disease, hunger, and poverty. But withdrawal is not an option, not anymore, because we know how to deliver the goods to everyone: we know that scarcity, whether economic or emotional, is socially contrived and culturally enforced. We’ve long since solved the problem of production; we haven’t even begun with the problem of consumption because we’re so afraid of what it will cost us in the currencies that underwrite our “character.” We can finally afford to be our brother’s keeper—we can live by the ancient criterion of need, and, in doing so, we can live up to the original challenge of Christianity. We don’t yet know how because we’re still too afraid of the material abundance that enables consumer culture.

My purpose in writing Against Thrift was to lay these fears to rest—or rather to explain them, to myself among other adults made anxious by the extremities of very late capitalism. Michael Fisher understands that, I think, because he has refused to merely reiterate the master text that has allowed so many smart people to say the same thing about consumer culture without thinking, and without evidence. He never falls back into the parental moment when “You can’t say that” sounds like the appropriate response to bad taste, bad faith, or bad manners. Still, his review would suggest that I have only inflamed our fears of the future. That makes me nervous.


  1. If this is a fair precis of the book's argument, then I can't think of another author more poorly served by his title or his own short writings.

    The decision to redefine "consumer culture" in such a dramatic fashion, though, appears to be the fault of the author, and is a great barrier to understanding. "You can't say that" is, I suspect, largely a response to the aggressively humpty-dumpty language Mr. Livingston is using.

    I just finished reading Wallerstein's World Systems Analysis and am struck by some congruences, though I suspect they are more outgrowths of a similarly marxisant understanding of capitalism as a culture than anything else.

  2. Livingston's complete failure to confront the contradiction between his vision and the reality of climate change, environmental degradation, and resource depletion renders that vision complete fantasy, crackpot realism.

    Bill Barnes

    1. The customer is always right: Complete R Us, whether failure or fantasy. Thanks, Bill. The remarkable originality of your contribution to this debate is greatly appreciated. So, too, the sly reference to C. Wright Mills. I am both chastened and alarmed by your attitude, but I have nevertheless put in calls to Chris Hedges and Kalle Lasn, asking whether an internship at Adbusters might be available. Or would you prefer a byline, like, a column?

    2. James, I know you're not interested (though you ought to be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to people with much longer experience of the world than yourself), but if you want a clue as to where I'm coming from, and as to the reality you refuse to engage, you might look at William Barnes and Nils Gilman, "Green Social Democracy or Barbarism: Climate Change and the End of High Modernism," in Craig Calhoun & Georgi Derluguin, eds., The Deepening Crisis: Governance Challenges after Neoliberalism.

      Or show up for (at the ASA in Denver in August -- Erik Wright has put together a really terrific program))

      Session Title: The End of Real Utopias? Global Warming and the Prospects for Real Utopias

      Presider: Dr. Robert Brulle Drexel University

      Session Description: The consequences of massive environmental disruption due to global climate change challenges the very idea of real utopias. The ongoing and accelerating disruption of global climate change will render many utopian projects obsolete, and may challenge the very viability of global institutions and practices. Yet, we still cling to naïve notions of sustainability or other utopian visions that ignore the very real limits to the human project imposed by global climate change. The existing efforts utilizing the established political and economic institutions have failed, and the proposed solutions are utterly incommensurate to the scale of the problem. This session will explore the issue of global climate change, and what, if anything remains of utopian projects in light of our environmental situation.

      Dr. Kevin Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research

      Dr. Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, joint centre of the Australian National University, Charles Sturt University and the University of Melbourne.

      Dr. Sarah Soule, Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior and Professor of Sociology, Stanford University Soule_Sarah@GSB.Stanford.Edu

      Dr. J. Craig Jenkins, Professor of Sociology, Political Science & Environmental Science, Director of the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, Ohio State University

    3. Ah, William, so sorry, but it is simply impossible that your experience of this world is longer than mine. And what if it were? Respect for elders, is that what you want from me?

      You haven't read what I wrote in response to Michael Fisher's smart review, and you're never going to read the book, so I might as well state my position as crudely as I can, just so you'll have the Cliff Notes for future reference.

      Congratulations, you pissed me off.

      The apocalyptic vision you share with Chris Hedges and Kalle Lasn, among others, is more elitist and selfish and grotesque--and stupid--than anything on offer from the CEOs who want to sell you the future.

      The end of the world comes soon, you just know it in your bones, and so there's no point in trying to change it, right? Or rather, the end of the world comes soon because climate change is irreversible, according to the science, and that's that. Better to retreat from the world so conceived, let it be, and, come that distant morning when the sun doesn't rise, you'll know you were right, there was nothing left to change. Right?

      Fine. Stand aside, you let the world stay as it is, and ridicule the rest of us, who, on occasion, muster some hope, or faith, or whatever it is that lets us act on the conviction of things unseen, as Saul of Tarsus put it.

      On the morning after, you and your comrades will emerge from your bunkers and say, "Told you so." The rest of us survivors will already be telling improbable tales of endurance and transcendence. Before then, we'll be trying to change this world, where we still live. Maybe you could visit before it's gone.

      Oh, and what a panel. Thanks for that introduction to a very distinguished group.

    4. James, I believe none of the things you attribute to me. I haven't read Chris Hedges and I've never heard of the other guy. I'm a child of the movements of the 60s (by which time I was in graduate school - trained with Chuck Tilly)- take a look at my comment on the thread a couple of chunks down re the meaning of "radicalism" in the 60s. Rather than go on like this, either we should talk about substance rather than trade insults, or we shade take it private (I'm at -- though if all we're going to do is trade insults, I guess we've said enough).

  3. I must confess to my dismay with the reception that James Livingston's recent arguments have received here. I had worried that an earlier comment on a different post unfairly maligned historians by suggesting that they were so opposed to theoretical heterodoxy as to be unable to meet Livingston halfway; I am now feeling like perhaps my initial take wasn't too far off.

    There is certainly what to quibble with in Livingston's rehabilitation of consumption. I am currently writing a review essay that challenges many of Against Thrift's premises, particularly regarding Livingston's engagement with Marxism. Livingston has been arguing for a while that historians should recognize the early 20th-century transition from a political economy rooted in manufacturing/the labor theory of value to one based on consumption/marginal utility, some time early in the 20th century. I don't think that this is true.

    Nevertheless, Against Thrift is an important and frequently brilliant work. It deserves careful attention. It is certainly true that many of Livingston's arguments chafe against some of the "small is beautiful," anti-trust, and "good government" traditions that are the US Left's ambiguous inheritance from the Populist and Progressive Eras (and as such, as Livingston reminds us, are mostly products of the bourgeois reform--and not the working-class radical--imagination).

    Livingston's rejection of the politics of austerity (entirely in line with the last 20 or 30 years of European left thinking, and with much anti-IMF/antiglobalization critique), his criticism of remaining shards of New Left moralizing regarding the evils of consumption and embrace of working-class "pro-shopping" traditions (a mainstay of feminist labor history for the past generation, not to mention many strains of flamboyant radicalism from Baudelaire to Bataille to Benjamin to Big Bill Haywood), and questioning of the fantasy of a sinned-against "good capitalism" at the heart of the analysis of the otherwise heroic muckrackers Greider and Taibbi--all of these interventions are welcome challenges to conventional wisdom and spurs to a deeper and more root-and-branch understanding of the contemporary crisis. That's pretty good!

  4. Professor Livingston, if your still out there, how do you envision changing an ethic that might work on a macroeconomic scale but is much more questionable, let’s say difficult, on a micro level? Doesn’t one have to save for a rainy day or for a child’s college education? Will having “full consumption” (my phrase) make this unnecessary? That would be quite an act of faith (I’m thinking the end of the world cults giving up their possessions in anticipation of Armageddon). Governments can borrow or float bonds to pay off debts incurred from natural disasters, wars etc. The individual doesn’t always have that option. In a democracy one presumes that by changing the ethic one changes the politics so storming the bastille would have no benefit. With increased consumption could we expect increased constraint on products that pollute and pressure on the supply side to produce more…is there such a thing as runaway consumption? How would this affect our economic global bank, IMF, China? Thanks for putting up with random blog thoughts.

  5. Professor LIvingston, since you bring up climate change, you may be interested in my book that takes seriously the problem of climate changes from a left perspective that oppposes both left and right austerianism. It is a strongly empirical work, documenting from rigorous (and where possible peer reviewed) studies that the social causes of global warming can be traced to imposed inequality between classes, gender, nations, and racial/ethnic groups and races. It is called "Solving the Climate Crisis through Social Change" by Gar W. Lipow

  6. After reading both the review and response I have a few questions that I did not see addressed (perhaps the answers are in the book itself). What is Livingston’s definition of “overproduction”? How much, and of what, stuff does each person need? Is overproduction simply having more than substance levels of food and shelter? At what point does substance transform into abundance?

    Another question I have is what empirical evidence (other than the hamburger story) is cited in Livingston’s premise that increased consumption, particularly that of the instantaneous kind, increases happiness/contentment, in either the short or long run? Does Livingston use psychological surveys, MRI scans, experimental data or any other method? I have not seen much data in either the review or the responses. Is this a case of “you need to read the book”?

    Also, if “we know how to deliver the goods to everyone” what is the preventing mechanism for why we are not doing so today? Is it capitalism, and the very idea of thrift that Livingston is arguing against? Ultimately my question for this statement is, do we?

    And one last offbeat question, what is an “emotional good”?

  7. There are two excellent and fascinating comment threads on consumption at Doug Henwood's Facebook page. Livingston participates in both. Check them out.

    Comment thread on Jim's reply to FIsher.

    Ernest Mandel on consumption


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