By Camilla Cannon (Warren Wilson College)
In this paper, I will examine the relationship between the commodification of rebellious sentiment (specifically, anti-capitalist sentiment) in contemporary American capitalist culture and two modes of understanding power described by Michel Foucault: the juridico-discursive theory of power and the diffuse-productive theory of power. Specifically, I will argue that the over-simplification of power as primarily no-saying, centralized, and uniformly deployed—as posited by the juridico-discursive framework—generates simplified notions of “rebellion” which are easily co-opted by consumer capitalism because A.) such sentiments tend to focus more on symbolism than direct action and B.) despite the fact that such rebellious sentiments are perceived as being “against power,” they do not actually represent a threat to contemporary America’s dominant economic (consumer capitalist) systems of power. Finally, I will turn my attention towards the question of which forms of resistance, if any, can transcend the threat of commodification and actualize social change. I conclude that a true “spirit of rebellion” against consumer capitalist culture would emphasize decreased and thoughtful consumption, value actualization over symbolism, and recognize that since power is diffuse and productive rather than prohibitive and centralized, effective acts of resistance will be diverse, situational, and require critical problem-solving.
2. Juridico-Discursive Power vs Diffuse-Productive Power
Foucault contends that the mechanics of power have been popularly misunderstood throughout Western history. Specifically, Foucault identifies a mode of understanding power which he refers to as the juridico-discursive theory, which he contends is frequently encountered in political analyses of power and is “deeply rooted in the history of the West.” The juridico-discursive understanding of power is marked by three main assumptions regarding the mechanics of power:
- Power is a primarily “no saying” force. Specifically, power says “no” to pleasure.In this sense, power is understood to operate mainly through the issuing of prohibitions: “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not be promiscuous,” “Thou shalt not dress like a ‘freak,’” etc. Importantly, power thus understood is a negative force rather than a productive one. In this framework, systems of power do not strive to tell you what to do so much as what not to do.
- Power exercises “the logic of censorship.” The juridico-discursive theory posits thatsystems of power engage in censorship in order to “banish from reality” undesirable sentiments or behaviors. When particular words or concepts are censored (eg. homosexuality, pleasure, anti-government hostility) these concepts are scrubbed from the symbolic order and consequentially denied the right to exist. Importantly, this aspect suggests that power has a substantial stake in the content of the symbolic universe.
- Power operates in a uniform manner, or “in the same way at all levels.” This featureof the juridico-discursive understanding of power suggests that power is top-down, centralized, and legislative. In Foucault’s words, “it operates according to the simple and endlessly reproduced mechanisms of law, taboo, and censorship: from state to family, from prince to father. . . ” If the uniform nature of power is to be believed, then power is indeed comprehensive and pervasive; however, it is also centralized, predictable, and primarily prohibitive.
It is important to emphasize that Foucault believes that the juridico-discursive theory is an insufficient and downright misleading mode of understanding the mechanics of power. Foucault argues that contemporary power is not negative and centralized, as the juridico-discursive theory posits, but rather diffuse and productive. Two central tenets of Foucault’s understanding of power are as follows:
- Power is diffuse, and exercised from innumerable points. This feature of diffuseproductive power is a direct response to the juridico-discursive contention that power is centralized or emanating from a single place. In Foucault’s vision, there are many “powers.” In fact, power itself is not a substance or an institution; rather, “the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”4
- Power is productive. Foucault rejects the idea that power operates solely as an exterior, prohibitive force. Rather, relations of power are generated within social interactions, and often serve to construct particular kinds of individuals.5 Foucault explains this aspect of power in depth in Discipline and Punish. He contends that the various nodes of power an individual is subjected to over a lifetime (eg. school, hospitals, military service) employ discipline in order to achieve what Foucault calls “body docility.”6 This is the condition in which a body may be “subjected, used, transformed and improved.”7 In this context, “discipline” refers to repetitive, signalbased tasks designed to maximize an individual’s utility within a given social context. For instance, a schoolchild trained to open her textbook every time the teacher rings a bell has become a maximally obedient subject as a result of the bell-textbookopening disciplinary sequence.8 The sum of disciplinary subjection experienced by a subject transforms them into a docile body, a body which can be counted on to respond predictably and efficiently to particular learned stimuli. In this way, diffuseproductive power is able to “produce new gestures, actions, habits and skills, and ultimately new kinds of people.”9
3. Consumption-Based Capitalism as a Major Node of DiffuseProductive Power
My argument in this paper rests upon the conceit that consumption-based capitalism is one of the most individually formative and universally pervasive power systems operating in contemporary American culture. I will support this claim by highlighting the ways in which the mechanisms of consumption-based capitalism coincide with Foucault’s description of disciplinary power.
In contemporary American culture, one of an individual’s prime “utilities” is the rate at which they consume. Foucault argued that disciplinary power strove to maximize each individual’s utility as determined by the greater social system of which they were a part. For example, disciplinary power as inscribed upon a factory worker served to maximize the individual utility, (the “efficiency”) for the benefit of the power system (the factory.) Put another way, disciplinary power as inscribed upon the soldier was designed to encourage the individual utility “obedience” for the benefit of the power system “military.”
In 2013, individual consumption accounted for 71% of the nation’s GDP.10 This fact suggests that the current economic nodes of power have a stake in ensuring that each individual continues to consume at a high rate. Since the majority of the country’s economy is dependent upon consumption, it follows that an individual’s prime economic utility is the rate at which they consume. The disciplinary power exercised in the furthering of this goal is the ubiquitous subjection of individuals to advertising.
Incitements to consume have radiated into almost every aspect of an individual’s life. Foucault described disciplinary power as operating across two dimensions: space and time. Spatial power manifested itself in the careful assignment of individuals in space: the school child in her desk, the soldier in her barrack, the worker in her cubicle. Temporal power manifested itself in the implementation of time tables: every second of every day—for the schoolchild, the soldier, and the factory worker—was assigned a specific task to discourage moments of idleness.11 Together, spatial and temporal controls construct a reality in which the influence of a given power system is never absent; in this sense, power constructs reality.
Temporally, contemporary Americans spend much of their time either shuffling between advertising-imbued spaces or directly consuming advertising. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report concluded that the average American between the ages of 8-18 spends about 7 hours and 38 minutes a day consuming some form of entertainment strung across platforms; a seperate study found that, by 2015, the average American would spend 15 hours a day consuming media via mobile devices and home systems.12 Considering that most free Internet content is ad-supported, even when individuals are not consuming traditional advertising platforms such as TV or radio, they are most likely consuming advertising in the form of banner ads, product placement, or sponsored content. Consequentially, the daily “advertising timetable” of an average American might look something like this: 7:45 watch the news (commercials) as she gets ready for work; 8:30 listen to the radio (commercials) on her way to work; 10:30 browse the internet (banner ads and commercials); 12:00 watch a television show on Hulu (commercials) or Netflix (product placements) on her lunch break; 5:00 watch TV (commercials) with the family; 7:00 browse the Internet or watch television until sleep; play games and browse social media on her smartphone all day. In this scenario, a non-advertising temporal window is never opened up.
Spatial consumptive control manifests in two primary ways. First is the introduction of ubiquitous advertising into public areas; both the public urban sphere13 and the public American school14 have experienced a significant upsurge in ubiquitous advertising in the form of billboards, product placements, posters, and flyers. Additionally, incitements to consume have radiated into formerly private spatial domains: a 2013 Pew Research Center report found that 55 of Americans own smartphones, 61 own laptop computers, and 42 own tablet computers, all technological platforms which encourage highly individualized forms of media consumption. As Americans watch televisions in their living room, watch Netflix in their bedrooms, or scroll through Facebook in their cubicles at work, they are encountering incitements to consume in spatial domains once deemed private, making those domains essentially ideological.
The ubiquity of incitements to consume has succeeded in producing consumptive individuals. The purpose of disciplinary power is two-fold: to elicit predictable responses to learned stimuli from subjected individuals and to produce “new” kinds of individuals who are constituted by traits and behavioral patterns which are beneficial to the functioning of an existing power structure.15 In Discipline and Punish, Foucault provides an example of signal-based response in the form of a French schoolhouse in which schoolchildren are trained to perform certain tasks based on the number of bellstrokes made by the teacher. For instance, when the teacher wishes to end a lesson and direct the children towards a new reading, he will strike the signal once. In order to get a child to repeat a mispronounced word, the teacher strikes the signal twice in rapid succession. The purpose of this training was both to “place the bodies in a little world of signals to each of which is attached a single, obligatory response. . . ”16 and to produce constitutionally obedient subjects.
The ubiquity of advertising has similarly succeeded in creating individuals who both respond to a learned stimuli (advertising) with a predictable response (consumption) and also internalize the mandates of consumerism until those mandates become a constituent part of their personality. For instance, a 2004 APA report found that both product recall and brand preference can be strongly imbued in children after viewing a single ad for a particular product. The same APA report also concluded that the ubiquity of advertising led children to “develop the mindset that ‘you are what you buy.’ Material possessions become the source of judgment by others as well as the source of one’s own self-evaluation.” This trend was identified by the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse in 1965, when he wrote, “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.”
4. Juridico-Discursive Notions of Rebellion
Consumption-based capitalism as I have described it above does not fit into a juridicodiscursive understanding of power. Juridico-discursive theory contends that power is a primarily negative force, while consumption-based capitalism seeks to positively produce consumptive individuals. Juridico-discursive theory contends that power originates from a centralized location and operates in the same way at all levels and with the same “goal,” while incitements to consume reach individuals through a diversity of decentralized platforms and carry essentially competing messages (Buy Pepsi as opposed to Buy Coke). Finally, the logic of censorship suggests that power deals primarily in symbolism, seeking to scrub dissenting sentiments from language and culture so as to “annihilate” the opposition. However, consumption-based capitalism deals primarily with the generation of capital through the purchase of consumer goods. The symbolic content of such goods is of subordinate importance to the economic value created by the sale of physical products.
If the juridico-discursive understanding of power is accepted as truth, then finding ways to rebel against power is easy. If the main operation of power is prohibition, rebellion can be defined as engaging in prohibited activities (eg. premarital sex, “nontraditional appearance,” or anti-government sloganeering). If power is understood as having a large stake in the regulation of the symbolic universe, then the mere act of promoting dissident symbolism can be understood as a profound blow to power. However, if the mechanisms of diffuse-productive power, particularly its consumptive capitalist manifestation, are accepted as the primary mode by which power is exercised, then such notions of rebellion run the risk of essentially missing the point, and indeed dealing zero damage to the power systems which most thoroughly construct social life.
In History of Sexuality, Foucault wrote that the uniform aspect of the juridico-discursive understanding of power implied a centralized legislator (eg. monarch, parent, or teacher) from which prohibitions were issued.20 American cultural history has known two major legislators, or issuers of law: the Church and the State. Thus, juridico-discursive prohibitions as perceived in contemporary American culture pertain to those behaviors which both the state and the church either at one point condemned or continue to condemn: sexual freedom, drug/alcohol use, and individualistic expression. However, consumption-based capitalism issues only one prohibition: do not disengage from the consumptive apparatus. In this sense, it easy to understand why the largest music corporation in the world, Universal Music Group, is responsible for some of the Billboard Hot 100’s most sexually explicit drug-use-encouraging anthems.21 Similarly, the increasing sexualization of children’s toys22, the use of blatant sexuality in advertising23, and the implementation of “stoner aesthetic” into mainstream television and film can be understood through the lens of a general corporate indifference towards juridico standards of modesty and behavioral conformity. Simply put, economic power wants you to buy things, and does not care if the symbolic content of those things align with the prohibitive mandates of other power systems. The CEO of Universal Music Group does not care if you purchase a pop song about anonymous sex or a Christian rock song about abstinence, so long as each song cost the same amount to produce and the same amount to purchase.
This isn’t to say that declarations of sexual freedom or celebrations of drug use are not blows to very real and still-functioning power systems. They are. However, in keeping with Foucault’s description of power systems being multiple and competing, it is possible to rebel against one power system in a way which will benefit another power system. In his 2007 article “Why Jonny Can’t Dissent,” Thomas Frank pointed out that American corporations are not only unafraid of expressions of non-conformity but indeed have begun to incorporate such sentiment into advertising slogans: Burger King had “Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules,” Toyota had “The Line Has Been Crossed,” and Arby’s made use of the slogan “This is Different. Different is Good.”24 In the case of commercialized anti-juridico sentiment, symbolic expressions of individuality/dissent are not only irrelevant to the consumptive-capitalist system, they’re profitable. And, as I attempted to demonstrate earlier in my paper, there are very few Americans who are not largely shaped by and almost always in contact with said power system.
5. Commodifying Anti-Commercial Sentiment
It is easy to see why and how consumption-based capitalism is able to commodify antijuridical expressions of dissent. However, my focus in this paper is somewhat different: how do those same power systems manage to commodify anti-commercialist sentiment itself?
I argue that consumption-based capitalism is able to commodify anti-commercialist sentiment for two primary reasons: A.) such expressions of discontent do not pose a threat to the power system of consumption-based capitalism because of the extraordinary difficulty of actualizing social (specifically economic) change in contemporary American society; and B.) symbolic expressions of discontent are easily co-opted because they generally lack explicit calls to specific action and tend to remain in the cultural landscape long after the organizations in which said symbolism originated cease to be viable social forces. I will use two primary example to illustrate these claims: the retailing of goods with explicitly anti-corporate sentiment (such as Che Guevara tshirts at The Gap and “Fuck Capitalism” prints at Walmart) and the recent introduction of an Occupy Wall Street Visa Card.
In his 1964 essay “The Closing of the Political Universe,” Herbert Marcuse argues that the advent of the consumptive age brought about a nullification and invalidation of dissident political ideologies. The increased affordability and availability of consumer comforts such as televisions and automobiles conspired to “make servitude palatable and perhaps even unnoticeable.” Additionally, the automation of formerly drudging work (particularly manufacturing) and the assimilation of blue and white collar jobs made obsolete the Marxian vision of a dramatically exploited proletariat who could easily be viewed as “a living denial of his society.” In other words, the clear class opposition of former historical periods—in which a small percentage of the population enjoyed lifestyles of leisure while the majority toiled in undeniably grueling conditions—had been replaced with a less easily distinguishable social order in which a larger amount of the population than ever before was able to experience leisure and less drudgery in their working lives. With the absence of clear class opposition, the possibility and appeal of systemic economic rebellion was obscured.
What is particularly salient about Marcuse’s observation in the context of today’s society is that the psychological effects of this shift are still evident despite the drastic increase of income inequality which has occurred since the essay’s publication. Between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275% for the top 1 percent of American households, and just under 40% for the largest 60 percent of American households.27 Additionally, the Council on Foreign Relations reports that, “in 1965, a typical corporate CEO earned more than twenty times a typical worker; by 2011, the ratio was 383:1.”28 Income inequality is also exacerbated by the fact that, since 1965, the federal minimum wage has increased by a mere 580%29 (from $1.25/hr to $7.25/hr) while inflation has risen by 2287%30, meaning that it has become increasingly difficult over this time period for minimum-wage workers to afford goods and services. Although it is possible to speculate that this dramatic increase in income inequality may result in a future pushback against capitalism, the fact that income inequality was able to worsen so substantially over a 50-year period without widespread public counteraction is a testament to the efficacy of the process of the psychological obfuscation of the possibility of social change described by Marcuse. In other words, despite the rapid proliferation of income inequality, a subversion of the economic order which facilitated such inequality remained unimaginable.
Contemporary American society is also marked by a narrowing of the possibility of substantive political change through traditional legislative channels. In 2010, it was determined that the Democratic and Republican parties shared 48 top donors, 45 of which were corporations. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, “the majority of these corporations donate about the same amount of money to both sides with five corporations giving exactly 50%.”31 In the context of a political climate in which prospective elected officials must rely on large infusions of capital in order to compete in elections, it follows that officials dependent upon corporate contributions would be loathe to pass or propose legislation which would threaten said donors once in office for fear of losing reelection support. With the passage of such Supreme Court decisions as Citizens United v FEC32 and McCuthcheon v FEC33, which reinforced the rights of unlimited and anonymous corporate electoral contributions, the role of big money in politics seems set only to increase. Thus, while the Democratic and Republican parties may differ on social issues such as gay marriage or immigration, each party has a similar track record of failing to pass legislation which would address economic issues such as income inequality, caps on executive pay, and greater corporate transparency.34
The cumulative effect of the psychological obfuscation of the appeal and possibility of rebellion described by Marcuse and the literal narrowing of options in American politics is that the horizon of possibility for the average contemporary American citizen does not include a subversion of the consumer capitalist order. In other words, the citizens can’t imagine it and the politicians can’t actualize it. This pervasive improbability of substantive economic change helps to explain why corporations are unthreatened by the dissemination of explicitly anti-commercial sentiment via consumer goods. Most individuals exposed to such symbolism will neither be able to imagine nor desire a subversion of the current capitalist order. Even if these individuals were moved by such symbolism to pursue a modification of the capitalist order, they would discover that the nation’s political system is currently largely incapable of actualizing such change.
A good example of such commodification of anti-capitalist sentiment is the sale of Che Guevara tshirts at the Gap. Che Guevara was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary who advocated for, amongst many other things, the redistribution of wealth, a violent overthrow of the ruling economic classes, and the implementation of a communist economic order.35 The Gap is a multinational, billion-dollar corporation which paid its CEO $18 million36 in 2013 and operates a number of sweatshops around the world where its workers, many of whom are children, are paid roughly $100 a month.37 Gap, Incorporated is dependent upon the maintenance of an economic order which is largely the opposite of the kind Guevara advocated for, and yet featured t-shirts displaying Che Guevara’s face in its stores for many years.
This disparity clearly stems from the fact that the symbolic content of the goods sold by The Gap is of subordinate importance to the monetary value generated by the sale of such goods. If the CEO of the Gap thought that the dissemination of Che Guevara’s likeness would lead to the violent overthrow of the ruling classes and the implementation of a communist economic order, she presumably would not have consented to sell such shirts. In a similar example, in 2013, Walmart’s online store was selling faux-Bansky “Fuck Capitalism” prints. Although the prints were eventually removed from the website, the willingness of the company to promote such anti-capitalist sentiment illustrates the fact that the mere dissemination of anti-corporate sentiment is not considered a threat to corporate power by corporate power. The true value of the Che Guevara tshirt or the “Fuck Capitalism” print is not the symbolic message contained within, but the profit gleaned from the sale of such a product. Furthermore, the mere fact that individuals are purchasing such goods demonstrates that the objectives of consumption-based capitalism (increased individual consumption) have been achieved.
The commodification of anti-corporate sentiment is also facilitated by the easily coopted nature of dissident symbolism. Juridico-discursive power gives the impression of dealing in symbolism; however, as we have established, the currency of diffuseproductive capitalist power is not symbolism but capital, and symbolic content is largely interchangeable and irrelevant so long as it is attached to a marketable object. Because of the difficulty of actualizing social change, symbolic representations of discontent are often the initial and longest-lasting cultural contribution of a given dissident group. Additionally, such symbolic representations often lack explicit grievances or directives, erring more on the side of piquing interest and articulating an aesthetic of resistance. For instance, the Occupy Wall Street movement did not succeed in alleviating American income inequality, changing the structure of the financial industry, or bringing about greater corporate transparency. However, long after the abandonment of Zuccotti Park, there is a wide variety of Occupy Wall Street merch available for purchase in stores and online, ranging from hats to coffee mugs to bumper stickers. Emblazoned with mottos such as “We are the 99%,” or “Thought Criminal,” these products reference a horizon of new social and economic possibility, but the products themselves do nothing to summon such a horizon. The business which manufactured the Occupy Wall Street mug presumably makes its money by installing diverse symbolic content on identical mugs: “We are the 99%” one week, “What Would Jesus Do?” the next week, “Springfield High Boosters Club” the week after that. This is of course not to say that the substantially positive gains made by the Occupy Wall Street movement are moot; rather, the application of slogans originating in the OWS community to highly marketable consumer goods demonstrates the ease with which anti-commercialist sentiment is co-opted for the ultimate continuation of consumption-based culture.
A prime example of the pliability of symbolic expressions of dissent is the introduction of an Occupy Wall Street Visa Card. The Occupy Wall Street Visa Card was envisioned by the Occupy Money Cooperative, an organization with roots in the original protests which seeks to “provide fairly-priced, member-managed, and non-predatory financial products to the 99%.” In order to actualize this goal, the Cooperative believed that it would be necessary to partner with an existing and well-established finance company. According to the group’s directors, The Occupy Card will be on an innovative platform that is integrated with the Visa platform. Your Occupy Card will be accepted everywhere Visa is.39 Importantly, this card (which is still in development) would display both the Visa logo and a representation of one of Occupy Wall Street’s logos, in addition to the word “Occupy.”
Now, it is important not to oversimplify the OWS Visa Card as a blatant attempt on the part of a few of the original protestors to cash in on their association with the movement. This card would offer some features that traditional debit cards do not; for instance, there would be no upfront cost for obtaining the card, and ATM withdrawal fees would be slightly lower than with other traditional cards.40 However, my focus is not on the relative merits of the card, but rather the implications such a card holds for the relationship between dissident symbolism and the power system of consumption-based capitalism.
The OWS card presents an opportunity for Visa, a multinational financial industry firm, to expand its brandscape by integrating the symbolic language of a dissident group founded largely in an attempt to check the power and influence of multinational financial industry firms. The comparative “improvements” of the OWS card over traditional debit cards allows Visa to claim to be “part of the solution” to the problems of widespread inequality and corruption which the Occupy Wall Street movement originally accused Visa and their fellow financial firms of being a part of. More importantly, however, the integration of OWS symbolism into the Visa brand marks a subsumption of anti-capitalist sentiment into the capitalist order. In his book One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse observed, “Such modes of protest and transcendence are no longer contradictory to the status quo and no longer negative. They are rather the ceremonial part of practical behaviorism, its harmless negation, and are quickly digested by the status quo as part of its healthy diet.”41 By bringing symbolic expressions of anti-capitalist sentiment “inside” itself, consumption-based capitalism further narrows the horizon of possibility in contemporary American life by eradicating the “outside” towards which such expressions were hinting, thereby nullifying the revolutionary potential of said symbolism.
6. The Obfuscation of Diffuse-Productive Power
The most dangerous aspect of a juridico-discursive understanding of power is not that it facilitates the co-optation and ultimate nullification of dissident sentiment, but that it distracts from the true nature of diffuse-productive power. In History of Sexuality, Foucault states, “Power is tolerable only on the condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.”42 By promoting a juridico-discursive understanding of the nature of power (think back to that “Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules” Toyota slogan from earlier), the diffuseproductive mechanisms of consumption-based capitalism obscure their true nature as instruments of power and constrain the individual’s ability to conceptualize a different mode in which power would be exercised. If an individual is unable to recognize the nature of the power by which she is subjected, the ability to resist such power is stifled.
Additionally, the co-optation of anti-capitalist sentiment facilitated by the juridicodiscursive understanding of power closes off the possibility of a life outside of consumptive capitalism. In an essay discussing the ways in which “higher culture” had become subsumed by “material culture,” thereby narrowing the imaginative range of the contemporary industrial subject, Herbert Marcuse remarked, “The vamp, the beatnik, the gangster. . . perform a function very different from. . . that of their cultural predecessors. They are no longer images of another way of life but rather freaks or types of the same life, serving as an affirmation rather than negation of the established order.”43 If consumption-based capitalism succeeds in attaching all symbolic expressions of dissent which hint towards the possibility of a life outside capitalism to marketable goods, then the symbolic outside towards which those expressions were hinting will cease to exist.
The obfuscation of diffuse-productive power is not only relevant for individuals wishing to subvert the current capitalist order, however. Between 1975 and 2013, the percentage of disposable personal income taken up by household debt for the average American rose by 61%. In that same amount of time, the percentage of the nation’s GDP taken up by individual consumption rose by 10%.44 This suggests that the disciplinary mechanisms employed by the power system of consumption-based capitalism (subjection to ubiquitous advertising) have succeeded in producing individuals so constitutively consumptive that they continue to consume at increasing rates despite their corresponding increasing indebtedness. In this sense, it is important to understand the ways in which the diffuse-productive mechanisms of consumptive capitalism operate upon each of as an individual in order to interrogate the motivations behind our own consumptive habits and hopefully avoid placing ourselves in a position of financial precariousness as a result of them.
7. Possible Paths of Resistance to Consumption-Based Capitalism
In his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, the American sociologist Daniel Bell states, “The one thing that would utterly destroy this new capitalism is the serious practice of deferred gratification.” I agree with the gist of Bell’s argument: capitalism as it is practiced in our country today is sustained by individual consumption, much of which is geared towards the gratification of specific desires. Thus, a serious decrease in the rate of individual consumption would be the main pillar upon which a true movement of rebellion against consumption-based capitalism would be built. However, given that consumption-based capitalism has been shown to operate across a variety of platforms in diverse ways and rely upon the maintenance of a narrow political universe in order to exploit dissident symbolism, effectively resisting such a system is not always as simple as “don’t consume.”
I contend that, in addition to decreased individual consumption, there are two necessary components to any effective resistance to the power system of consumption-based capitalism: a reliance on diverse and situational problem-solving, and a valuation of political actualization over symbolism. The necessity of diverse and situational problemsolving is illustrated by the many forms which resistance to consumption-based capitalism can take.
For instance, let’s consider three individuals with a craving for chocolate cake. The first individual is aware of the productive capacity of consumption-based capitalism, and decides that her desire for chocolate cake has been constructed as a result of her lifelong exposure to ubiquitous incitements to consume. This individual decides to resist consumption-based capitalism by not purchasing a cake at all. The second individual is also aware of the productive capacity of consumption-based capitalism; however, her resistance takes a different form. Since this individual is aware of the fact the majority of advertisements which most American are subjected to are advertisements for corporate goods or services, and that this prevalence of corporate advertising makes it more difficult for small businesses to stay afloat. Thus, the second individual in our example decides to buy a cake from a small, local business which has recently been struggling to survive in a corporate-dominated landscape. A third individual, concerned primarily with the prevalence of sub-standard wages, identifies which of her local bakeries pays their employees the most reasonable wage and decides to purchase her cake at that establishment. In each of these scenarios, individuals wishing to resist the power system of consumption-based capitalism took particular dissident actions based upon which aspect of said system they considered most worthy of resistance.
Finally, resisting consumption-based capitalism would require both dissident groups and specific individuals to value actualization of social change over symbolism. This is not to say that dissident symbolism has no place in the cultural landscape. Of course symbolism is a necessary kind of shorthand for the communication and introduction of complex and critical ideas. However, actualization of social change must be valued over the dissemination of symbolism for two reasons. First, the commercial dissemination of dissident symbolism is made possible by the continuation of a narrow political universe; thus, an organization which has more success in finding commercial platforms for its symbolic content than actualizing its social mission is not challenging the status quo, but rather contributing to it. Second, the pliability of symbolic content, as demonstrated throughout this paper, necessitates both a loose relationship on the part of dissident groups to specific symbolic representations and a willingness to denounce a given symbolic representation once said symbolic representation has been successfully co-opted as a third-party marketing tool. This willingness to “let go” of particular dissident symbolism should not be read as an acquiescence on the part of dissident culture to the co-optive abilities of consumption-based capitalism. Rather, a stark valuation of actualization over symbolic particulars should be read as an affirmation of the existence of a realm outside of consumption-based capitalism. Were this revaluation of actualization to be accomplished, the theoretical benefits would be two-fold: the narrow political universe which facilitates the co-optation of dissident symbolism would be subverted, and an alternative, non-symbolic, and ultimately more formidable currency of dissidence would emerge outside the domain of the co-optable.
In conclusion, the juridico-discursive theory presents power as centralized, prohibitive, and essentially predictable. As a result, juridico-discursive notions of rebellion are uniform, positive, and easily defined. However, an examination of the ways in which an individual is subjected by various power relations reveals that these exercises of power are diverse, complex, and often unexpected. Thus, a strategy of resistance to consumption-based capitalism would be one which embraced the difficult task of vigilance, flexibility of approach, and the valuation of economic action over symbolism.
- Ad Age. “Infographic: Meet America’s 25 Biggest Advertisers.”, July 2013. <http://adage.com/article/news/meet-america-s-25-biggestadvertisers/242969/>Accessed May 9, 2014.
- American Psychological Association.APA Task Force on Advertising and Children: Psychological Issues in the Increasing Commercialization of Childhood.
- American Psychological Association.Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.
- Bell, Daniel.The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 1996.
- Billboard Hot 100. http://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100 Accessed March 29, 2014.
- Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, “McCuthecon v. FEC” April 2, 2014. https://www.brennancenter.org/legal-work/mccutcheon-v-fec Accessed March 19, 2014.
- Cisneros, Noel. “Gap Sweatshop Videos Cause Uproar.” ABC News. November 1, 2007. http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/business&id=5732845 Accessed March 29, 2014.
- Congressional Budget Office.Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007. October 25, 2011.
<https://www.cbo.gov/publication/42729>Accessed May 9, 2014.
- Corporate Accountability Coalition.2012 Congressional Report Card.
- Farnham, Alan. “Coming Soon: Occupy Wall Street Visa Card” ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/Business/occupy-wall-street-plans-offer-debitcard/story?id=20434580 Accessed March 28, 2014.
- Forbes Magazine. “Glenn Murphy.” 2013. http://www.forbes.com/profile/glennmurphy/ Accessed March 29, 2014.
- Foucault, Michel.Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
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