Austerity Is Bad for Us and No Fun (Part 2): James Livingston

The subject is consumption versus production and these are the questions we begin with: Does consumption remove us from material reality, or from rational activity with others?

Is production better for us in either sense? Is consumption all that is passive, silent and selfish? Is work the true habitat of the genuine self, as almost every philosopher since Martin Luther has claimed, so that it must be the site of any attempt at social change or individual redemption?

My uniform answer to all of the above is, “No, goddamn it,” and I say this loudly, “in thunder” as Herman Melville heard Nathaniel Hawthorne’s voice in the wilderness. The work that nourishes our souls is almost always a form of consumption or sacrifice we indulge when at our leisure: It’s not the work we do for wages, for the boss, for the person with the paycheck; it’s what we do in our free time.

The “soulcraft” that Matthew B. Crawford refers to in “Shop Class as Soulcraft” is what keeps us alive; it’s the producing that’s freely given for irrational, unprofitable purposes. Most acts of consumption are motivated and saturated by sensuous pleasures that rightly get excluded from acts of production. In other words, most acts of consumption place us in a world dense with sensation, difference and surprise -- a material, but fluid, world that responds to our touch, a world that won’t be standardized.

Turned Inside Out

As consumers, we need not master these worlds as producers of goods must do: We can take them or leave them. Acts of consumption tend to socialize, rather than isolate, the participants because these acts are normally less instrumental than acts of production: They don’t privatize your experience; they turn you inside out.

On the one hand, when you’ve finished that restaurant meal or worn that expensive dress or bought that Christmas gift, what you’re left with has no exchange value, no price you might quote as if it were still for sale; you aren’t aiming to profit from what you’ve eaten, used or bought. You’re no better off except in ways that the market can’t calculate because when the transaction is completed, there’s no check you can cash as payment for services rendered or as compensation.

What you’ve done could be called sacrifice because you’ve used something up; you’ve spent what had been saved by somebody, probably you, but if it’s someone else, your pleasure is no less. When you’ve finished that meal or worn that dress or bought that gift, on the other hand, you’ve made yourself part of an economy -- you’ve exchanged goods and expended resources -- but not so you can accumulate assets; for unless you were dining alone, your purpose has been to renew or create circuits of feeling among friends, lovers, associates, acquaintances or family.

In terms of economic theory, you’ve done something pretty useless -- or rather something that can’t be measured except as expenditure. You measure the profits or dividends from these transactions as solidarity, togetherness, or community rather than monetary gain that is yours alone. So they place you in the vicinity of archaic -- but still vital -- gift economies, where excess and expenditure, even sacrifices, are normal.

Acts of production, at least as organized by the market and experienced as socially necessary labor, are almost never means to social ends. The monetary recompense you receive for the work you’ve done gives you legitimate access to a share of the goods others have produced. But it doesn’t bind you to anybody, certainly not to the employer or the customer who has just paid you.

Let’s Shop

All right, then. Let’s go shopping, eat a meal, and see how it feels, materially speaking. At that point, we might be able to gauge both the social and the spiritual dividends of consumption. Nobody shops alone. You may go by yourself, and buy things only for yourself -- no gifts, no frills -- but still, you’re never alone.

But eating is different, right? This is a private matter, because it’s just you and the food you’re digesting. But what went into the cooking? Shopping first, in the stores -- probably plural -- where the cook found the ingredients, held them in his or her hands, smelled them, maybe peeled back some of their layers. Then the preparation, mainly the chopping and the arrangement of the raw materials -- including the oils and the unguents and the liquids, in a sequence that would make sense of the kitchen’s space -- the timing of the meal and the unpredictable desires of both cook and consumer. And then, of course, the actual cooking takes place.

There is nothing passive about this process, except my voice in describing it, and it is so deeply embedded in the particularity of the ingredients -- their sight, their smell, their weight, their feel, their taste -- that to call it a material reality would be laughably redundant. These ingredients are separate things, to begin with, but they’re transformed by the work of the cook: the things themselves aren’t a fixed externality; they’re moments in a fluid world that is nonetheless profoundly material.

This making, this cooking, is socially necessary labor, but only in the sense that the work you do at your leisure creates a local society by extending the circuits of emotion, effect and purpose you want and need as a normal human being. That is the secret of work that Crawford discovered: the purloined reality on display here is the soul craft -- the moral life -- that is more legible, and more attainable, in consuming and serving goods than in the strenuous life of producing goods through manly exertion.

Real Work

Crawford cites the “intrinsic satisfactions” of full engagement in real work -- these are what the philosophers call internal goods, the moral qualities we acquire and recognize when we do something for its own sake, like play ball with abandon but forget the final score. Then he writes, “It may be telling that it is leisure activities that come first to mind when we think about intrinsic satisfactions -- athletics, for example, or hobbies that we enjoy. Such activities are ends in themselves, and we pursue them without anyone having to pay us. Conversely, with work, getting paid is really the main point.”

Just so, I would say. While we’re at our leisure, engaged in acts of consumption, from buying expensive clothes at Barney’s and exchanging gifts with loved ones, to eating good food prepared by friends or strangers, we glimpse the utopian edges of everyday existence -- because now we can look past the pathos of productivity, because what we’re accomplishing has no measure in the scheme of values we call the labor market, because we’re not getting paid for what we’re doing. We’ve evacuated the realm of necessity, the place of work; now we’re treading on possibility in the province of hope.

In consuming goods, we’re sacrificing, rather than saving, resources, so we’re resisting the urge to accumulate, and learning to forget the lessons of frugality: We’re teaching each other that extravagance and exuberance and generosity are what we love about ourselves. It beats working, anyway. Our goal is not to improve ourselves by changing the way we work, but to work less; we want to reduce the scope of necessary labor in our everyday lives.

And we have at last reached the point in human civilization where we can afford to do so. When we can put aside the Protestant work ethic that has informed our lives, when we understand that consuming goods is better for us than producing them and when we understand that the profit motive is a prehensile anachronism, an anal compulsion, a disgusting morbidity, we’ll be able to understand that a redistribution of income away from profits and toward wages will prevent another Great Recession. What is more important, we’ll be able to navigate and map a new ethical environment.

(James Livingston is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of four books. This is the second excerpt of a two-part series from “Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture Is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul,” just published by Peruses Books. The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1.)

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