Zygmunt Bauman, Consuming Life

Bauman argues that a consumer society means not that people are preoccupied with consumer goods at the expense of meaningful work, or even that consuming has become most people’s idea of meaningful work, but that it is a society in which all agents are commodities, consumer goods.

Under whatever rubric their preoccupations would be classified by governmental archivists or investigative journalists, the activity in which all of them are engaged (whether by choice, necessity, or most commonly both) is marketing. The test they need to pass in order to be admitted to the social prizes they covet demands them to recast themselves as commodities: that is, as products capable of catching the attention and attracting demand and customers.

This fits in with an attention-economy analysis of society, as well as an analysis that focuses on neoliberalist governmentality pushing social change and changes in prevailing forms of subjectivity. Thrust into precarity, we must spend increasing portions of our consciousness on self-marketing for survival, for social recognition, for reassurance that we won’t be excluded. The attention economy recasts us as consumers of one another, precluding other forms of association. The consumer society justifies itself by redefining freedom as a kind of personal development — the opportunity to measurably improve your value on the various markets that have begun to supplant family, friendship, community and other social relations (or reshape them in the image of markets). Social relations are characterized as exchanges, and personal traits as both capital and commodities.

Bauman argues that capitalism is reproduced by reproducing the wage relation — labor bought by capital. For this to routinely occur uninterrupted, labor must be “attractive” to capital: It must be well groomed and compliant, dependably instrumentalized. It must be perpetually recommodified. Once upon a time, the welfare state took partially responsibility for this, helping people become presentable to capital as potential workers (skilled, fed, socialized, etc.). Neoliberalism has made this the individual’s responsibility. The result, Bauman claims, is that labor starts to become less desirable-seeming, competition in the labor market intensifies, and atomistic individualism is thereby reinforced. The risk of being a “zero-marginal-product” worker has been shifted to individuals, who fight amongst themselves in a zero-sum game.

So the overall task of sustaining the saleability of labour en masse is left to the private worries of individual men and women (for instance, by switching the costs of skill acquisition to private, and personal, funds), and they are now advised by politicians and cajoled by advertisers to use their own wits and resources to stay on the market, to increase their market value or not let it drop, and to earn the appreciation of prospective buyers….

Shifting the task of recommoditizing labour to the market is the deepest meaning of the state’s conversion to the cult of ‘deregulation’ and ‘privatization’….

In the society of consumers no one can become a subject without first turning into a commodity, and no one can keep his or her subjectness secure without perpetually resuscitating, resurrecting and replenishing the capacities expected and required of a sellable commodity. The ‘subjectivity’ of the ‘subject’, and most of what that subjectivity enables the subject to achieve, is focused on an unending effort to itself become, and remain, a sellable commodity.

LinkedIn and Facebook and so on make for obvious vectors for this ideology — providing preformatted spaces and networking mechanisms with which to sell oneself. Personal branding and competitive identity-making both reinforce the naturalness of individualism, of the individual self as a kind of property belonging to oneself. Proving you are an individual amounts to protecting that property, proving its existence, establishing the claim to that latent self-capital. To forgo the personal identity as brand begins to feel like a forfeit of capital rather than an attempt to preserve autonomy, to escape economic determinism. We end up rejecting subjectvity that is not monetizable, self-construction that is not sold out as a prerequisite.

Bauman coins the term “subjectivity fetishism” to describe the means by which we lose sight of our self-construction — this permits every subject to believe itself unique and autonomous though all our built out of the same commodities and brands.

Bauman connects this self-commoditization and self-exploitation to the pursuit of fame for its own sake. The preoccupation with celebrity is a manifestation of the attention economy’s primacy in our efforts to imagine our economic viability, our economic survival. It reflects the personality training we all must submit to in order to qualify for work in tightening labor markets, in which more and more jobs have affective/service components. Bauman wants to link the attention economy to consumer society directly; fame is simply necessary self-commodification, to fit into the social world made entirely of consumer-commodities. This leads to “social deskilling” — necessitates treating others as objects for instrumental use. Thus is born the convenience ethic that rules consumerism — consumption efficiency (and the resulting acceleration of exchange and consumption) trumps the complexity of mutual social relations, collaborative identity, etc. Better to consume others, count up their attention, than to make something together with mutual, reciprocal attention. Relations in consumer society can only be conceived as an exchange — a “contract in our mutual interest,” as the Gang of Four song goes. Noninstrumental human contact registers only as a nuisance.

Thus consumerist subjectivity makes love more or less impossible by precluding the emotional effort it requires in favor of mutual manipulation and quid pro quo exchanges.

Love, we may say, abstains from promising an easy passage to happiness and meaning. A ‘pure relationship’ inspired by consumerist practices promises that passage to be easy and trouble-free, while rendering happiness and meaning hostages to fate – more like a lottery win than an act of creation and dedicated effort.

Chapter one differentiates between consumerism and consumption, with the former defined as an ideological condition in which consumption becomes people’s reason for living:

We may say that ‘consumerism’ is a type of social arrangement that results from recycling mundane, permanent and so to speak ‘regime-neutral’ human wants, desires and longings into the
principal propelling and operating force of society, a force that coordinates systemic reproduction, social integration, social stratification and the formation of human individuals, as well as playing a major role in the processes of individual and group selfidentification and in the selection and pursuit of individual life policies. ‘Consumerism’ arrives when consumption takes over that linchpin role which was played by work in the society of producers.

Buying things replaces doing things as a chief source of one’s self-concept. But Bauman needn’t set this up as an opposition, as a replacement. Consumer societies are ones in which the nature of work has changed to embrace consumption as a form of labor. They are societies in which life is organized around consumption as work rather than leisure. This organization manifests as an overriding concern with personal identity as conveyed through commodities functioning as signifiers. Self-fashioning permits consumption to become productive, creating semiotic value for the panoply of commodities (goods and services) brought to market. The suppression of class and rise of the more amorphous status as the indicator of where one is in the social hierarchy also allows consumerism to thrive, as it becomes the means of attenuating subtle shades of distinction through consumption tastes and the modes of expressing/publicizing them.


One thought on “Zygmunt Bauman, Consuming Life

  1. Bernard

    Ecological considerations could bring another element in consumer subjectivity and the question is also how they could rearrange the consumerist model. See also Y. Rumpala, “Sustainable consumption” as a new phase in a governmentalization of consumption », Theory and Society, 2011.


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