Consuming Life, Zygmunt Bauman: A Summary of Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Collateral Casualties of Consumerism

The concepts of collateral damage and collateral casualties have become a central part of political discourse.

The concept of collateral damage is that when harm occurs as an unintended consequence of an action, then the person doing that action cannot be held legally or morally responsible. The divorcing of the two is fundamentally about encouraging a kind of moral blindness towards the victims.

One tool which the politicians have in their box to justify collateral damage is the difficulty of measuring the likely amount of it for any given conflict – It is as if by not calculating the likely ‘collateral damage’ (or at least not publicly sharing the calculations) then this is what enables the claim of unintentionality to be justified.

Bauman now argues that collateral damage occurs not only in the realm of military involvement but also in the extension of the market into more and more spheres of social life – and the ultimate form collateral damage here is the commoditisation of daily life…

In the words of J. Livingstone, ‘the commodity form penetrates and reshapes dimensions of social life hitherto exempt from its logic to the point where subjectivity itself becomes a commodity to be bought and sold in the market as beauty, cleanliness, sincerity and autonomy.’

Arlie Russell Hochschild argues that the consumerist invasion into personal life has lead to the ‘materialization of love’:

Exposed to a continual bombardment of advertisements through a daily average of three hours of television (half of all their leisure time), workers are persuaded to ‘need’ more things.

To buy what they now need, they need money. To earn money, they work longer hours. Being away from home so many hours, they make up for their absence at home with gifts that cost money. They materialize love. And so the cycle continues.

For the top tier of knowledge workers, who spend long hours at work, employers go out of their way to make work environments homely, and one may experience a sense of home in workplace (albiet with your love relationship in your actual home kept going by commodities) – Whereas for the lower tier of workers, they are subjected to the very worst of Capitalism — Long working hours and insecure contracts, and not enough time to maintain meaningful relationships at home – and so for them, neither work nor home provides emotional anchors for these people.

The search for individual pleasures articulated by the commodities currently offered, a search guided and constantly redirected and refocused by successive advertising campaigns, provides the sole acceptable substitute for both the uplifting solidarity of workmates and the glowing  warmth of caring for and being cared for by nearest and dearest inside the family home and its immediate neighbourhood.

Politicians who wish to reinstate family values should think hard about the fact of the consequences of living in a consumer society – where people are trained to afford other people no more respect than the consumer goods they consume (who exist solely for our pleasure and which need replacing every two years).

The Underclass is the collective victim of the progress of consumer society.

The Term Working Class implies a people who have a useful function in society, the term lower class implies a society on the move – the lowest class being at the bottom of a ladder which it might climb. The term underclass belongs to a different image of society, one which is not hospitable to all, and one in which belonging is achieved by denying and excluding rights to certain others – and this group of others in consumer society is the underclass.

The underclass is seen as wholly cut off from the class system, a no-class, which threatens to undermine the class based order of society. This is just how the Nazis described the Jews.

According to H. Ganns, the underclass describes a wide variety of people – the workless poor, illegal immigrants, single mothers and drug addicts.

What all of these have in common is nothing, except that they are flawed consumers, they have no market-value – they cannot take place in the game of consumerism. They are conceived as an overall drain on society, like weeds who only drain from the beautiful garden, and thus the rest of us would be better off if they did not exist. They are largely conceived of (constructed?) in terms of the dangers they pose to the rest of us.

However, there is one useful function the collectivity of the underclass performs – As a source of moral panics – as a place to which we can attach the cause of our our fears – even though in reality these fears (or anxieties) are endemic to the rootlessness of consumer society itself.

The poor of society (and not necessarily just the unemployed) are useless because they cannot perform their principle duty – they cannot consume! They are thus outcasts, but they do not find solidarity as this, they experience this as loners and do not expect to be helped or find a collective way out.

So where is the place of the poor in the consumer society? In short, it is out of sight – either indoors, in ghettos, or in prisons, and mentally we are made ethically blind to them through the rewriting of their stories – from deprivation to depravity – it is their fault that they are poor.

The problem here is that once you remove a section of the population from moral consideration, they become collateral in solving society’s problems – Violence can thus be justified as a means of exterminating them, as happened with the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Nazi violence was committed not for the liking of it, but out of duty, not out of sadism but out of virtue, not through pleasure but through a method, not by an unleashing of savage impulses and an abandonment of scruples, but in the name of superior values, with professional competence and with the task to be performed constantly in view.

I think Bauman’s point is that we are doing to the poor in this country what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s – writing a discourse which removes them from ethical consideration and then makes their eradication a procedural duty.

A society unsure of its own reproduction is besieged by demons of its own making – For the order building societies of the past those demons were the revolutionaries who wished to build different orders, for the consumer society of today, its demons are those who cannot consume. The problem with this is that the more the consumer society progresses, the bigger the gap grows between those who are able to consume and those who want to consume and cannot. This is simply the logic of the market.

In consumer society the ultimate goal seems to be being happy through consumerism, which means always to be doing something, always to be consuming something (in other words the goal is the avoidance of boredom) – A busy life full of consumption is a measure of success and happiness – and thus people are compelled to do so. The problem is is that there seem to be no limits to the number of things you can consume, no limits to the number of things you can do – the goal posts keep moving, there is no end!

For the poor this a real problem because they are able to listen to messages about things you could be doing (from the evil advertisers) but are unable to participate, this can breed frustration and all sorts of other negative consequences.

The disarming, disempowering and suppressing of hapless and/ or failed players is also an indispensable supplement to integration through seduction in a market-led society of consumers.

Prison is the primary means by which this is done – the means through which society now exorcises its inner demons – and these demons are cast as ending up there because of their own fault, not because of society. And the harsher the punishments can be, the more effectively those demons are exorcised.

Bauman now traces the common usage of the term ‘The Underclass’ differentiating between Gundar Myrdal’s usage of the term in 1963 – when he used it to mean the coming threat of structural unemployment in the context of increasing productive efficiency – here being a member of the underclass was something over which individuals had little control – it was a failure of the organisation of society to provide sufficient jobs for people.

He contrasts this to the usage of the term by Ken Auletta – who argued that being a member of the underlcass in the early 1980s in America was not a matter of poverty, but of actively opting out of normative values – it was a choice to be feckless – However, his study was based on a highly unrepresentative sample of people from one training centre, in which you had to be an ex convict to gain a place – And here Bauman questions the lumping together of of all the various categories of people into one class.

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