The argument against thrift

During economic hardship, we need to save less and spend more -- and rethink our relationship to consumer culture

Published December 1, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

    (<a href=''>Ye</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Ye via Shutterstock)

This article was adapted from the new book "Against Thrift", from Basic Books.

We’re the most affluent people on the planet, us Americans — our choices among foods, ideas, clothes, schools, and destinations are almost without limit — and we love to shop. But we also know that consumer culture is bad for us. How come? In a word: excess. We’re afraid that we consume too many resources, that we save too little of our incomes, and that meanwhile we produce almost nothing of real value. We’re afraid that we can’t observe any limits on our consumption of goods, so that every substance, even food, begins to feel addictive, and every urge, even sex, begins to feel compulsive. When armed with credit cards, it seems, we’re unwilling to defer the immediate gratification of our desires, and we’re thus unable to “save for a rainy day.” We’re also afraid that we’re mere cattle — herded by corporations and “branded” by their admen. We’re especially afraid that consumer culture is making us fat.

So, yes, we love to shop, most avidly between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Still, we know that in the long run, consumer culture is bad for the economy, the environment, and our souls. We sometimes express this split in our personalities by complaining about the “commercialization” of Christmas, typically when we’re fighting crowds of last-minute shoppers. More often we apologize to ourselves, among others, for buying things we didn’t really need, or for indulging a child’s ad-induced desire for a molded plastic toy that will never decompose. Complaining or apologizing, we’re divided by very different orders of feeling. On the one hand, we experience the pleasure of buying, using, and giving away the things on the shopping list. On the other, we know without thinking that the same things already contain a barbaric history of exploitation — “Made in China,” the label says — and foretell an ugly future of mountainous landfills.

But consumer culture is actually good for the economy, the environment, and our souls, among other things. First, sustainable economic growth doesn’t require more saving by households and more investment by CEOs, bankers, traders, and fund managers. In other words, more consumption is the key to balanced growth in the future. That’s right: we need to save less and spend more. Just to begin with, a much larger dose of consumer spending is absolutely necessary to prevent the kind of economic catastrophe that still racks the domestic and international economies. That new dosage requires a redistribution of national income away from profits, which don’t always get invested, toward wages, which almost always get spent. This new course of treatment does more than invert the supply-side cure for our economic ailments — cut taxes on profits, let private enterprise prevail! — because it assumes, in view of the historical record, that profits won’t be productively invested. That’s right: higher profits almost never lead to more investment, more jobs, and more growth. In fact, there’s no demonstrable link between private investment and economic growth, so cutting taxes on corporate profits is pointless at best and destructive at worst. We might as well stop pretending that there is such a link.

Second, consuming goods is as morally complex and significant as producing goods. Making things — the work that requires tools and skills and time — is no more meaningful than buying and using things. In fact, work as such is less important than, say, buying and driving a car, or choosing and wearing that little black dress. (It turns out, in any event, that the kind of work we typically imagine as the obvious alternative to The Mall is what we do at our leisure, after hours: it’s already taken up residence in the neighborhood of consumer culture, where you don’t get paid for what you produce.) Consumer culture doesn’t siphon political energies and fragment social movements by “privatizing” experience: instead it grounds a new politics by animating both new solidarities and new individualities. In the same spirit, advertising — the headquarters of consumer culture — speaks the last utopian idiom of our time because it urges us to create identities unbound by work. I can’t explain the downside of thrift — or the morality of spending — unless I first convince you that the Great Depression and the recent economic crisis are comparable events, both of them caused by an excess of profits and a shortage of wages, or too much saving and not enough spending. It’s a hard case to make because everyone knows how and why to defer gratification. All adults — not just parents — have a powerful psychological urge to put their desires on hold, and that urge makes us receptive to the notion that we’d better be saving more and spending less, just like all the mainstream economists and reputable journalists keep telling us to. We know what will happen to our bank accounts, our waistlines and our marriage vows if we stop listening to their insistent voice of reason.

Even so, we’ve reached the point where we have to confront our fears about consumer culture, because the renunciation of desire, the deferral of gratification, saving for a rainy day — call it what you want — has become dangerous to our health. To heal ourselves, we need to spend more freely, to live less anxiously, more easily and generously, with ourselves and with Nature. (I, for one, don’t believe that there’s much left of Nature — merely planting crops changes the chemical composition of the original soil — but I’m willing to entertain the possibility in the name of an inhabitable environmental future, and, I think consumer culture is a promising path to environmental integrity.)

To save is to withhold earned income from what would otherwise be spent in consuming; to invest is to place that income where it will show a profit, produce a surplus: both acts reveal and develop an emotional capacity — or a psychological disposition — to delay the immediate gratification of spending on consumer goods. We praise this emotional capacity as foresight when it balances present desires and future needs; we condemn it as miserliness when it sacrifices the enjoyment of the present to the compound interest of the future. Either way we look at it, the question is how to make the distinction between our real desires and our genuine needs concrete, measurable, and useful. What emotional or psychological armature is required by the choices that follow?

These are the questions that any defense of consumer culture must raise. And they’ve now become pressing, practical questions for Americans as they grapple with the causes and consequences of the Great Recession — as they decide whether more saving/investment or more consumption is the cure for what ails the economy, and as they decide whether emotional frugality or expenditure is the proper structure of their souls. So when I urge Americans to save less and consume more as the solution to the economic problems they face, I’m also urging them to be less thrifty in the broadest sense, to withhold less and desire more, in view of the material abundance at their disposal. I’m urging them to see that saving for a rainy day — treating this life as austere probation for another — is a soul-crushing emotional trap as well as an economic dead end.

Marx showed that all commodities have two properties, a use value and an exchange value — a particular, subjective, mostly material meaning on the one hand, and a placeless, objective, monetary meaning on the other. Every commodity raises, or just is, a question that divides our attention: what is this thing good for, and what is its price? (The exceptions to this rule are of course paper money, the not-thing that’s valuable only if you can use it as a medium of exchange, and credit, the future tense of paper money.) Marx also showed that before the advent of capitalism, the consumption of goods was both the goal and the limit of production. He called that situation “simple commodity circulation,” and diagrammed its crucial circuit as C-M-C, where C stands for commodity and M stands for money.

At this stage in the development of markets, the point of producing and selling goods was not to accumulate ever more exchange value, more money in the bank, but to acquire just enough use values, just enough material goods, to validate your accustomed way of life. When capitalism emerged, labor itself became a commodity — now you had to buy the right not to die of starvation by working for wages — and the “formula for capital” reversed the relations of simple commodity circulation. The new formula looked like this: M-C-M1, where money, exchange value, wealth in the abstract, became the premise and the purpose of goods production, while use values—particular, material things, even human bodies — became the means to more exchange value, more money in the bank, rather than ends in themselves. The “cash nexus” accordingly became the site of every transaction, and consumption gave way to accumulation as the proper goal of the good life.

Students of Marx have invariably deployed these distinctions — between use and exchange value, or between simple commodity circulation and the formula for capital — to indict consumer culture for the crime of commodity fetishism. By this he meant what follows from our uniquely human ability to treat a chair, say, as both a particular, material thing, right here and now, and a symbolic property that transcends its local function and shape.

It’s when we endow dead matter with transcendent meanings that objects begin to stand in for sentient beings and the fetishism of commodities becomes the norm. Here’s how Walt Whitman explained this weird process: “When the minted gold in the vault smiles like the nightwatchman’s daughter, / When warrantee deeds loafe in chairs opposite and are my friendly companions.” But unlike almost every student of Marx, Whitman didn’t stop there; he went on to announce that he would craft poems from commodities: “I intend to reach them my hand and make as much of them as I do of men and women.”

When you buy a car or a jacket or that little black dress, you don’t expect to profit from it. In fact you know it becomes less valuable, except to you, the moment you buy it. In this sense, your purchase of consumer goods constantly reinstates the archaic circuit of simple commodity circulation. In the same sense, your purchase has removed the object of your desire from the domain of commodities: its significance no longer includes its price, even when others recognize how much it cost you, because everybody knows that if you put it back on the market, you’ll get less than you paid for it. Where the commodity once divided your attention between its price and its purpose, between its exchange value and its use value, the thing you’ve bought now has only a use value: it’s been “defetishized” by your purchase.

So consumer culture is a practical limit on the accumulation of wealth in the abstract; it resists the restless, expansive formula for capital, which sacrifices enjoyment in the present to the compound interest of the future, always in the name of growth. It urges us to acquire use values rather than exchange values, to save less and spend more, but it doesn’t sacrifice the future in the name of present enjoyment. In fact, it teaches us how to produce and preserve the things our children might want or need—the things they might use.

Adapted from "Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture Is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul," by James Livington (Basic Books, 2011)

By James Livingston

James Livingston is a professor of history at Rutgers University -- New Brunswick, where he has taught since 1990 on American economic, cultural and intellectual theory. He has received fellowships from the Smithsonian Institution, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He is the author of four previous books and is a regular contributor to the History News Network. He lives in New York City.

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