The Post-Consumer Society

From the hoarding of toilet paper to attacks on service workers, the pandemic has brought out an endless number of examples of how civil society in the twenty-first century may not be quite as “civilized” as previously thought. A casual scroll through any newsfeed reveals a wide selection of articles that both observe this phenomenon as well as seek to dissect it, usually by interviewing a psychologist, psychiatrist, or some other mental health professional.[1] The reasons for this “age of anger” are often attributed to a combination of pandemic restrictions, lack of mental health infrastructure and social media stimulation among other things. However, what if something more profound was taking place? What if there is a difficult-to-observe transformation taking place in the forces and structures that generate the current assemblage of power and its ability to regiment the lives of a large portion of the world’s population?

World order as it is currently constituted has been given many names, often depending on the academic or intellectual discipline of the observer. The term “liberal international order” is a common reference as is the term “neoliberalism” despite the lack of a widely shared consensus on what the latter term means. Political economists and some political scientists have used terms like “post-Fordism,” “late-stage capitalism,” “Washington Consensus,” “consumer society” and “globalization.” Those who come from a background of international politics may use terms “American hegemony” or Pax Americana. Whatever its label, the assemblage of structures and forces that make the world go around are not only under substantial strain, but also may be coming undone.

There are many academic metrics to support this hypothesis,[2] but the great “angering” of the population in the developed world may itself be the best evidence of the trends. More importantly, the countless examples of aggressive and anti-social behavior may also be read as the population’s inarticulate acknowledgement that certain privileges and benefits are slowly coming to an end. The phenomenon on the Internet known as the “Karen” speaks to this. “Karen” is the stereotype ascribed to at least a moderately wealthy middle class individual (usually a woman, though the term “Kevin” or “Kyle” is sometimes used for a male) who is in the habit of making a very boisterous and very public display of irritation and resentment due to unsatisfactory levels of service or low performance levels of a product or member of a service staff. The common demand/threat of the “Karen” is to “speak with the manager” on the assumption that the problem with the poor service or faulty product will be fixed once someone with a modicum of authority recognizes that a valuable customer is making a grievance.[3]

While the use of this term has its problematic elements,[4] the behavior that the meme describes hints at the unraveling of a number of assumptions among many who live in the developed world have taken for granted and are unwilling to let go. To get at this, perhaps it is useful to bring down one of the terms mentioned to describe the current (or passing) world order—consumer society. One of the hallmarks of the prevailing assemblage of power in the world was the creation of a large popular base, located mostly in the western world, of consumers spenders whose primary responsibility in the world economy was to purchase the vast output of the world’s capitalist economy. In the earlier days of this social phenomenon, writers like Thorstein Veblen noted an emerging leisure class practicing “conspicuous consumption” and John Kenneth Galbraith described the parameters of an “affluent society.” Guy Debord, in his own unique way, incorporated a mass media component to this trend, coining the term “the society of the spectacle” to describe how media platforms created a divine-like aura around mass produced consumer goods. Globalization took this package of consumerist ideas and made them the software for re-wiring the global economy, ensuring that all nations of the world be brought into the process of consumer production and that an expanded population be brought in to perform the consumer role (even if that number is still relatively small). In perhaps its most utopian expression, the globalization guru Thomas Friedman suggested a “golden arches peace hypothesis” existed where countries that open themselves up to the various elements of the consumer economy (as represented by the opening up of McDonald’s franchises in their country) did not go to war with each—thus implying world peace was possible once every nation of the world opened its own McDonald’s.[5]

Along with the material manifestations of the consumer culture went many fundamental ideas that provided an ethic for navigation. One of the most common of these was the notion of “the customer is always right.” It the abstract, such an idea is preposterous—people who use goods and services have only vague notions of what they want and very often will forget the details of an order between the time they made it and the time it is fulfilled. But the point behind the maxim is that a successful and profitable business operating in the consumer society must do everything they can to satisfy their client and to never introduce any negative emotions or displeasurable elements into their consumer transactions. The role of the consumer was so important in this schema that they became an agent completely free of any responsibility or morality within the context of the specific transaction. So long as they could pay for the service or buy the product, the expectation of some social virtue or moral reciprocity was completely waived.

This idea rubbed up against other ideas often and tensions and contradictions were never hard to observe. The seller of cars to needed to make sales over determining if the car (and the various add-ons thrown in) were necessary for the customer’s needs. The discount airline needed to cram as many bodies on board a jet rather than creating a cabin that was comfortable to sit in for several hours. Even here, though, consumer culture found ways to offer “premium services” at higher prices for those who did not want to face these contradictions.

For decades this prevailing ideology instilled in millions of consumers around the world an expectation that when it came to the items they bought and services they used, few things beyond the limits of time and space should get in the way of their satisfaction. If something did go wrong, it was the responsibility of the consumer to “speak with the manager” in order to let them know of the flaw in their operation and insist they correct the problem lest the patron not return in the future. And it was the responsibility of the manager or owner to take the complaint in good faith and do whatever was necessary to correct the shortcoming whether it existed in reality or not. The internet and social media hypercharged these activities. Sites like Yelp became a one-stop forum for all manner of consumer complaints (and occasional compliments). Business and stores that accrued even a small number of bad reviews could see a decline in their business and income. Operators of business from bed and breakfasts to quick serve oil change garages implored their customers to pay them high compliments on internet review sites and “like” them on Facebook. Conversely, highly empowered consumers could band together and sink a business with a wave of bad faith complaints because one member of their party had an experience that did not meet their expectations, no matter how unrealistic or disingenuous those expectations were. The experience of poorly delivered service could also be publicly condemned on platforms like Twitter, where hashtags built around a company or business’s name could bring the story of one unsatisfied customer to millions of people.

Analysts of varying stripes have critiqued the moral and philosophical flaws of this consumer oriented social mileau. However, what was never often questioned until very recently was the material sustainability of such a framework. What would be the consequences if the ability to produce the consumer abundance were to be disrupted or collapse? The efficiency of the operation reached such a high level by the early twenty-first century that such scenarios were unthinkable. Even events like September 11th didn’t seem to be much of a problem for the day-to-day consumer who didn’t live in one of the areas attacked. Indeed, George W. Bush himself admonished the consumer public to go out and do even more shopping in the wake of the attacks as a means to bring back “normality” and to stimulate the American (and global) economy that was decelerating a bit after the attacks. The effects of more homegrown tragedies, like mass shootings and natural disasters are also soothed with the tonic of consumer spending and mass media binging. [6] Such admonishments worked due to the fact that no matter how unpredictable one’s life or how dysfunctional the performance of core institutions, the system that delivered consumer bliss would never fail. The problem now, of course, is that the system is now failing and the ability of consumer culture to paper over the contradictions of the contemporary global assemblage of power is waning rapidly. A consumer society of cheap goods and media spectacle is giving way to a “post-consumer” society where shopping and media consumption can no longer provide its anesthesia-like effects. And, like the surgical patient experiencing the unpleasant symptoms of coming off anesthesia after an operation, many of the outbursts of bad behavior are symptoms of having to endure the pain of life without the comforts of the past. Floods and rising ocean levels will destroy favorite beaches and destroy oceanfront vacation property. Droughts and water shortages will shorten ski seasons and prevent the filling of back yard pools. Pandemics will require lockdowns and the closing of the large portions of the economy. Supply chains will be disrupted from any number of new problems not contemplated in decades past.

The age of anger amid the current pandemic may only be the first tantrum in an endless cycle of whining and whinging that will not subside until the culture of “the customer is always right” comes to an end.     


     [1] For example,  https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/08/a-closer-look-at-americas-pandemic-fueled-anger/

     [2] See Donald Sassoon, Morbid Symptoms: An Anatomy of a World in Crisis (London, Verso: 2021). 

     [3] An informal history of the “Karen” meme is here:  https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/karen

     [4] See  https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/08/karen-meme-coronavirus/615355/

     [5] Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York, MacMillan: 2012), 255.

     [6] https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/business/consumer-spending-as-an-american-virtue.html

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