Do you hate consumer culture? Angry about all that packaging, all those commercials? Worried about the quality of the "mental environment"? Well, join the club. Anticonsumerism has become one of the most important cultural forces in millennial North American life, across every social class and demographic. Sure, as a society we may be spending record amounts of money on luxury goods, vacations, designer clothing and household comforts. But take a look at the nonfiction bestseller lists. For years they've been populated by books that are deeply critical of consumerism: No Logo, CultureJam, Luxury Fever, Fast Food Nation. You can now buy Adbusters at your neighborhood music or clothing store. Two of the most popular and critically acclaimed films in the past decade were Fight Club and American Beauty, which offered almost identical indictments of modern consumer society.
What can we conclude from all this? For one thing, the market obviously does an extremely good job at responding to consumer demand for anticonsumerist products and literature. But how can we all denounce consumerism yet still find ourselves living in a consumer society? The answer is simple. What we see in films like American Beauty or books like No Logo is not actually a critique of consumerism; it's merely a restatement of the critique of mass society. The two are not the same. In fact, the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for the past forty years.
That last sentence is worth reading again. The idea is so foreign, so completely the opposite of what we are used to being told, that many people simply can't get their head around it. So here is the claim, simply put: Books like No Logo, magazines like Adbusters and movies like American Beauty do not undermine consumerism; they reinforce it. This isn't because the authors, editors or directors are hypocrites. It's because they've failed to understand the true nature of consumer society. They identify consumerism with conformity. As a result, they fail to notice that it is rebellion, not conformity, that has for decades been the driving force of the marketplace.
Over the past half-century; we have seen the complete triumph of the consumer economy at the same time that we have seen the absolute dominance of countercultural thinking in the "marketplace of ideas." Is this a coincidence? Countercultural theorists would like to think that their rebellion is merely a reaction to the evils of the consumer society. But what if countercultural rebellion, rather than being a consequence of intensified consumerism, were actually a contributing factor? Wouldn't that be ironic?