American intellectual historians are no strangers to argument. But few have been as defined by contrarianism as James Livingston. Where others have mourned the early twentieth century defeat of the Populists and the Wobblies, he has made a career extolling the radical potential of the corporate order which emerged at the same time. He has hailed the volunteer army as an outstanding example of progressive politics, and defended John Dewey’s World War I hawkishness against Randolph Bourne’s tragically heroic opposition. In his first non-academic book, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul, Livingston argues that a bias against consumerism mars not only academia but American moral common sense more generally. “We’re afraid,” he writes, “that we consume too many resources, that we save too little of our incomes, and that meanwhile we produce almost nothing of real value.” Americans are neurotic about our consumption, he claims, and his book is the therapy that can help us get over it.
But why is thrift a habit we need to break? Livingston’s argument has both economic and cultural aspects. Like other Marxist analysts, including David Harvey and Robert Brenner, he explains our present crisis as the result of “huge shifts in income shares away from labor, wages and consumption toward capital, profits, and corporate savings.” Productivity gains in the last few decades have gone almost entirely to the rich. Their surplus profits, lacking profitable avenues for investment, are channeled into whatever bubbles are at hand. He goes farther than others in claiming that the reinvestment of profits is no longer even necessary for economic growth. This argument is difficult for non-specialists to evaluate, but Livingston documents his case with graphs showing a growth in GDP despite declining net investment. He argues that the superfluity of private investment licenses us to tax and redistribute corporate profits without fear of destroying our economic future. Instead of generating crises, our social wealth can underwrite a reduction of working time and an expansion of income and leisure for workers.
According to Livingston, our unfortunate economic orthodoxy is bound up with anachronistic moral commitments. He accuses most Americans, left and right, of being stuck in a mindset from the 1890s, one that favors production, work, and restraint over consumption, leisure, and indulgence. The tendency to attack bankers through moralistic categories, the anti-monopoly faith in small business, nostalgia for the “real economy” of manufacturing jobs — all this, he argues, is a Populist hangover inadequate to the present moment. Opposition to consumer culture is fundamentally rooted in the conviction that moral worth comes from socially productive labor, not parasitic prodigality. These beliefs made sense in a time of scarcity. But now that our productive advances have made widely shared abundance possible, the demand that consumer culture be checked is a demand for unnecessary privation.
What to make of all this? Livingston, who elsewhere summarized the historic mission of the Left as “FUCK WORK,” is unmistakably part of a venerable tradition stretching from Paul Lafargue’s “The Right to Be Lazy” through Ellen Willis’s “Women and the Myth of Consumerism.” Whatever one makes of the details of his economic argument, the two main points — that we have the productive capacity to reduce working time and expand leisure, and that our present crisis can be explained by the maldistribution of income — will be agreeable to most leftist readers. And yet, gazing at the rack of almost identical collared shirts gracing Livingston’s cover, these readers might ask themselves why he is so intent on defending the culture of capitalism?
One answer is that he’s only kind of doing that. A key moment comes halfway through the book, when Livingston appears to yield some ground. To those who accuse advertising and consumer culture of the “crapification” of American culture — pointless product differentiation, advertisements for unhealthy food, etc — he concedes that this is an “ugly process.” He maintains, however, that the remedy leads through the center of consumerism, not away from it. Properly dialectical, but what does he mean, exactly? “The obvious solution is to redistribute income,” he writes, so that no one will have to eat fast food for lack of a Trader Joe’s in their neighborhood. This is a good socialist answer, one that avoids moralizing the politics of consumption by blaming the victims.
But the nature of Livingston’s defense is revealing. He doesn’t contest the “crapification” charge, or urge poor people to give in to the libidinal desires they’ve discovered through McDonald’s billboards. Instead of defending actually existing capitalist consumerism, he defends the promise of a future which will feature consumption alongside “redistributing income and socializing investment” — bringing it under popular control so it can be driven by social concerns rather than mere profit. (It is only fair to note that Livingston might object to this distinction by reiterating his position that “capitalism and socialism are complementary, not mutually exclusive, modes of production.” Lacking the space and expertise to address this more fully, I can only echo the historian Howard Brick, who has doubted whether Livingston and his mentor Martin Sklar provide a “means for critically assessing the recipe of the [capitalism-socialism] mix.” In Against Thrift, Livingston speaks of the need to socialize investment as if it hasn’t happened, so I feel comfortable distinguishing a present and future consumerism.)
Understanding the book this way makes it easier to swallow, but it undercuts the force of its contrarianism. How many left critics of consumer culture would leave their indictments unrevised in the face of the radically different social and economic conditions Livingston proposes? He positions his book as a lonely dissent from “the celebration of craftsmanship and small business that still animates Marxism, existentialism, phenomenology, Populism, and the American Dream.” But painting with such a wide brush obscures differences within the body of criticism of consumer culture, and exaggerates the distance between Livingston and his interlocutors. There are surely some — members of the Catholic Worker, perhaps, Wendell Berry, or the later Christopher Lasch — who would frown upon Livingston’s collectivist vistas because of objections to a “riotous standard of living.” But just as common are those who share the goals of reducing work and increasing living standards, but remain critical of the consumer culture we currently possess. It’s possible, for instance, to prefer leisure to hard work but still worry about the way consumerism functions in a wildly unequal society. You might accept Livingston’s point that there’s nothing a priori immoral or unnatural about the way advertising awakens new desires, but as long as poor people have to sate these desires through borrowing instead of a guaranteed minimum income, it’s easy to look disapprovingly at the manufacture of need.
It’s also possible to worry that elements of actually existing consumer society block the path to a more democratic and more affluent society. Livingston drafts Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer into their familiar roles as elitist killjoys, tracing much subsequent anti-consumerism to the influence of their mandarin distaste. In fact, they were fierce left critics of the “pathos of productivity.” Adorno labeled anti-consumerist Thorstein Veblen a “Puritan” whose “criticism stops at the sacredness of work,” and Max Horkheimer’s refused to criticize those who preferred “privacy and consumption rather than production” since “in Utopia production does not play a decisive part.” Livingston is not mistaken in opposing his position to theirs — they certainly had no great love for the consumer society of their time. But they shared Livingston’s basic premise that increasingly productive human societies could and should abolish the economic discipline of work. Faced with the uncomfortable reality, however, that late capitalism had “made not work but the workers superfluous,” they naturally became deeply skeptical of the dominant culture, and searched its institutions — including consumerism and advertising — for explanations of what had gone wrong. They may have reached unusually dour conclusions, but they are typical of many leftists insofar as their objections to consumerism have nothing to do with small business or craftsmanship.
Livingston does address the argument that consumerism is a barrier to social change. Citing the role consumer demand played in the Civil Rights sit-ins and the Eastern European democratic revolutions of 1989, he argues that identities and solidarities based in consumption can therefore be powerful forces for reform. But when he tries to apply this model of consumer-driven social change to his most provocative claim — consumerism is “good for the environment” — he falls regrettably short. This is an important point, and not just because it occupies a third of the book’s subtitle. For most of Livingston’s potential audience, I suspect, the ecological limits to consumption are the hardest to imagine overcoming.
His brief defense, presented in only seven pages, rests on the old distinction between use and exchange values. Since consumers are concerned with specific use values, he avers, the standpoint of consumption offers the best “alternative to the endless accumulation of exchange value” presently threatening our planet. As a historical illustration, he argues that the “foodie” movement of recent decades offered a compelling consumer-driven challenge to industrialized agriculture. If corporations had their way, we’d eat bad things that are bad for the environment, so long as they are profitable. But the discerning confidence of Michael Pollan readers (backed by effective consumer demand) reshaped the production of food in line with their demand for quality use values.
This argument won’t quite satisfy those concerned that our present level and style of consumerism is bad for the environment. It counts on redistribution to enable all consumers to become as discriminating as middle-class foodies, and on the socialization of investment since the “endless accumulation of exchange value” will continue as long as finance capitalists can make a lot of money moving numbers around. But even assuming his political and economic goals can be met, Livingston has not quieted every doubt. The climate impact of higher incomes — and even of democratically controlled investment — is indeterminate. With more money to spend, won’t people will fly more, and buy more meat (food revolution notwithstanding, after all, beef consumption continued to climb until the recession made people too poor to buy so much)? Why couldn’t a democratic public prove as bad at accounting for long-run externalities as private corporations have, perhaps by voting themselves a huge gas subsidy? As leftists, we should not abandon increasing the consumption of use values as one purpose of income redistribution. But, contra Livingston, a real tension does exist between this goal and another — keeping the planet livable.
There is another common argument Livingston doesn’t addresses, though he anticipates it. “We know without thinking,” he writes in a summary of the conventional wisdom he aims to dispute, “that [consumer goods] already contain a barbaric history of exploitation — ‘Made in China,’ the label says.” Having mentioned them on the second page of his introduction, Livingston ought to return to the human beings whose daily labor makes it possible to talk about a “post-scarcity” situation in the United States. Maybe he thinks that the Chinese need only to bide their time until they too pass through the stage of industrial discipline into the realm of consumer freedom, or maybe that enfranchised American consumers will use their organized power to demand better conditions for their overseas enablers, just like they demanded better food. But the question remains unexamined, much like a related issue: can the whole world sustainably match the level, not just of current American consumption, but of the increased American consumption Livingston calls for? I’d sincerely like to think it’s possible, but it’s not self-evident. Without addressing consumption in its global context, Livingston leaves himself open to the charge of ethical particularism — socialist consumerism in one country, as it were.
Some will be tempted to write off Livingston’s vision of a consumer society slouching toward Utopia as reconciliation under duress. He is so eager to talk back to pessimistic cultural critics that he can sound uncannily optimistic. In a country where a guaranteed minimum income failed even in the 1960s, when a labor movement and inner-city rebellions forced the issue, it is far from obvious how we might today begin to articulate the demand for less work and more pay. Livingston gives us little guidance on this point, noting only that he believes in a kind of cultural “war of position” following the examples of (for all their differences) Antonio Gramsci, Vaclav Havel, and W. E. B. DuBois. But there are worse things for the Left than optimism, and it’s a mistake to demand a tactical roadmap from a quick-moving and light-spirited brief. It’s also unfair to accuse Livingston of complacency, given his enthusiastic participation in Occupy Wall Street and the injuries he sustained at the hands of Bloomberg’s army.
It’s hard to deny Livingston leaves some absolutely crucial questions dangling. But he draws exactly the right line of antagonism for the present moment: between the austerity class and those who demand for each of us the respectable standard of living our socially-produced wealth already allows. If Against Thrift helps carry this analysis a little further into the American mainstream, leftists — even those with serious and justified reservations — will owe James Livingston some gratitude.