Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul by James Livingston

Everyone knows that when it comes to personal and public finances saving is good, spending is bad, and that investing in the future is always better than satisfying one's desires in the present. Many people who agree on little else would surely be able to come together on the basis of these righteous and time-honored principles. The enduring value of the Protestant ethic that Max Weber identified as the "spirit of capitalism" - hard work, planning, self-denial, and all the rest of it - is as self-evident to most people as the observation that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

If you're one of those people, James Livingston is here to smash your most deeply held beliefs and assumptions.

In his new book Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul, Livingston, an historian and cultural critic at Rutgers University, seeks to make the case for a radical program based on "less work, less thrift, more leisure, and more spending" (x) to overcome the economic and spiritual malaise that afflicts our society.

His argument runs along two tracks: economic and cultural. In contrast to the vast majority of economists, he argues that sustainable growth does not depend on private investment based on corporate profits but rather expanded consumption. Instead of giving tax cuts to the supposed "job creators" that we hear so much about in our political discourse, incomes should be redistributed toward higher wages for working people. His cultural argument is grounded in a defense of consumer culture, a stance that places him at odds with not only many people on the political and cultural Right but also many of Livingston's erstwhile comrades on the Left. In contrast to those who complain that this country "doesn't make things anymore" - a lament that is just as much moral as it is economic - Livingston argues that consuming goods is just as complex a moral act as making them. For him work as such "is less important than, say, buying and driving a car, or choosing and wearing that little black dress." (x) Whereas even the best and most fulfilling kinds of work are going to entail some degree of alientation and drudgery, it is in the world outside of work - and particularly in consumer culture - where freedom and self-realization becomes possible. Perhaps most radically, especially coming from a person of the Left, Livingston makes the claim that advertising (the perennnial target of Adbusters, the cultural magazine widely credited with helping to spark the Occupy Wall Street movement) "speaks the last utopian idiom of our time" (xi)and should therefore be defended.

The book has received a good deal of attention from the media, so while you're waiting to receive your copy it won't be difficult to familiarize yourself with the basics of his argument. Your first stop should be Livingston's blog, Politics and Letters, which has lots of other good stuff besides materials pertaining specifically to the book.

Also, check out his October 2011 op-ed in the New York Times ("It's Consumer Spending, Stupid") as well as his recent appearance on the excellent radio show Against the Grain.

I'm looking forward to spending the next two months reading and debating this provocative book with all of you!

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