The Unmanageable Consumer


Yiannis Gabriel & Tim Lang

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    In writing this book, we have been helped by many people who have encouraged us to collect our thoughts; or discussed all or parts of our thesis; or fed us ideas, papers and facts; or suggested avenues of reading and research; or all of those! Our thanks to them all, and in particular to: Richard Adams, David Albury David Barling, Walden Bello, Helen Bold, Eric Brunner, Martin Caraher, Liz Castledine, Charlie Clutterbuck, John Cousins, Ross Cranston, Guy Dehn, Martine Drake, Ignacio Peon Escalante, Jane Gabriel, Steve Fineman, David Gee, David Grant, Edward Goldsmith, Andrew Graves, Robin Grove-White, Rob Harrison, Corinna Hawkes, Nick Hildyard, Colin Hines, Aubrey Greenwood, Candido Gryzbowski, Uri Huta, Mika Iba, Michael Jacobson, Martin Khor, Richard Lamming, Simon Lang, Jerry Mander and all at the International Forum on Globalization, David McNeill, Angela McRobbie, Pradeep Mehta, Melanie Miller, Erik Millstone, Sally Moore, Geoff Mulgan, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Michael O'Connor, Hugh Raven, Geof Rayner, John Richard, Jeremy Rifkin, David Robins, Freida Stack, Frank Trentmann, Margaret Ubabuko, Andrew Ward, Lori Wallach, Tony Webb, Diana Whitworth and everyone in the world consumer movement we have talked and debated with over the years, too numerous to mention! Our thanks, too, to our editor, Delia Martinez Alfonso, and all the people at Sage.

    Preface to the Second Edition

    The Unmanageable Consumer was published in the mid-1990s, a period dominated by claims of the triumph of the consumerist West. In the midst of excitement about what was seen as an uncontestable hegemony of consumer capitalism, the book warned that ‘any triumphalism about Western style consumption is misplaced. The future of global consumption must remain the object of questioning on economic, cultural, environmental and moral grounds’ (p. 5). Unlike some, we felt that the 1990s was a ‘troubled time in the world’. Over a decade later, few would dispute that times are indeed troubled or that Western-style consumerism is facing and creating serious threats. These range from ecological crises such as climate change and resource shortage to financial and political uncertainties, including an escalating and still dangerous dependency on oil.

    The last 10 years have seen extraordinary social and economic changes that have reframed the nature of consumption worldwide. The emergence of China, India and other developing countries as huge consumer markets and producer hotspots has extended the reach of contemporary consumerism. Political realignments worldwide have spawned new outposts of consumption and new black holes of deprivation, while generalized uncertainty has tempered some consumers' appetites. Major technological innovations, notably the Internet, have turned many homes into retail outposts, while digital photography and MP3 players have revolutionized patterns of consuming images and music. Education and health provisions have become yet more commodified, with students and patients viewing themselves as consumers. At the same time, anti-globalization movements with an anti-consumption message have, at times, assumed centre-stage in politics, offering at least a glimpse of opposition to mainstream consumer capitalism. Overall, the last 10 years have seen a substantial expansion of consumerism into new areas, countries and homes, and an escalation of potential checks from environmental and political uncertainties.

    In the same period, academic writing on consumption and the accompanying fetishization of the consumer has sky-rocketed in new consumer-oriented journals and books. Cultural studies has dissected shopping malls as cathedrals of consumption and students of organization have focused on the limits of the ethos of customer service. Identity construction has come to be viewed increasingly through the prism of lifestyles. Choice, modelled on the affluent consumer experience, has become the central tenet of many political and ethical discourses. At the same time, there is an increasing awareness among academics of the ecological limits to the consumerist orgy, which are already alarming observers of climate change, raw materials and natural resources such as soil, water and air. In addition, there is the continuing sore of billions of people subsisting at a level of bare survival.

    When we originally wrote The Unmanageable Consumer, we put forward an unfashionable thesis. We argued that the notion of the consumer was an intellectually unstable entity, which summed up a central dilemma for late 20th-century capitalism – whether to treat people as controllable or free. We proposed, not least in the title of the book, that, in spite of the best attempts to seduce them, coax them or chide them, consumers consistently proved themselves unpredictable, contradictory and unmanageable – that they displayed many different faces and images. We also argued that far from disappearing from sight, work remained a fundamental part of people's everyday experience and that production and consumption were intrinsically interlinked through the deal pioneered by Henry Ford – alienating work in exchange for ever-escalating material standards. We observed that this Fordist Deal was fragile and could be dislocated by sudden events. We signalled some of the shortcomings of choice as a universal value, obscuring all others. We argued that citizenship is far from dead as a force in political arenas and that international relations could not be reduced to political deals aimed at improving consumer choice, by removing trade barriers. We anticipated the continuation of a viable critique of rampant consumerism, building on the legacy of decades of struggles against the impact of industrialization and widening social divisions and inequalities.

    Events in the last 10 years have strengthened our commitment to these arguments. An increasing number of academic voices are now challenging the political and ideological primacy of ‘the consumer’. The unmanaged and unmanageable dimensions of consumption signalled by our book are gradually gaining wider recognition, not least due to the urgency of environmental constraints. That said, in certain ways our analysis of future trends could be accused of having been premature. In particular, in our concluding chapter, we were perhaps too eager to discern signs of a twilight of consumerism which has yet to materialize. Indeed, it is accelerating in both developed and developing worlds.

    It is now time for some re-evaluation. Is consumer capitalism in the process of reinventing itself, in ways that transcend the crudity of mass production and mass waste? Are environmental and ethical costs finally being internalized into the prices of goods and services paid by consumers? Is the moral outrage against sweatshops finally curbing some of the worst excesses of consumer capitalism? Is quality of life assuming a greater prominence over sheer weight of amounts consumed? Our inclination is to answer all these questions with a qualified ‘no’. This new edition brings the book up to date, while leaving the essential thesis, scope and arguments unchanged. If anything, we believe that accelerated consumption poses bigger risks in the 21st-century than it did at the end of the 20th-century. The unmanageable consumer continues to pose many threats for the survival of the planet, social justice and human happiness. We hope that the account that we give here deepens engagement with the urgent policy debates on the containment of the negative aspects of consumerism, while enlarging and democratizing its positive aspects.

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