The Myth of Affluenza or Why Consumerism is not a Disease — Towards a Meaningful Ecopolitics of Consumption


In the 1990’s America experienced a wave of popular writing on consumerism of which the flagships were The Overworked American by Juliet Schor, Luxury Fever by Robert Frank and Affluenza–The All-Consuming Epidemic by John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor. In these writings American consumer capitalism was presented as a treadmill in which people overwork in order to overspend, with deleterious consequences both for themselves and for society at large. This literature, and in particular these flagships, have been appropriated by Clive Hamilton and Richard Deniss of The Australia Institute in their book Affluenza–When Too Much is Never Enough. The book differs, however, from its sources in two important respects: firstly, the critique of consumerism developed from these American models is posited as a basis for reviving a left politics with a real alternative to contemporary consumer society. Secondly, a psychological explanation is sought of what drives the consumerist cycle of work-and-spend, hence requires correction if consumerism is to be overcome. The first objective explains the second: Hamilton and Deniss provide their psychological account of consumerism because if it is right, then consumer society requires a radical transformation. And the claim that society requires radical transformation is an essential feature of a seriously left politics.


In the 1990’s America experienced a wave of popular writing on consumerism of which the flagships were The Overworked American by Juliet Schor, Luxury Fever by Robert Frank and Affluenza–The All-Consuming Epidemic by John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor.1 In these writings American consumer capitalism was presented as a treadmill in which people overwork in order to overspend, with deleterious consequences both for themselves and for society at large. This literature, and in particular these flagships, have been appropriated by Clive Hamilton and Richard Deniss of The Australia Institute in their book Affluenza–When Too Much is Never Enough. The book differs, however, from its sources in two important respects: firstly, the critique of consumerism developed from these American models is posited as a basis for reviving a left politics with a real alternative to contemporary consumer society.2 Secondly, a psychological explanation is sought of what drives the consumerist cycle of work-and-spend, hence requires correction if consumerism is to be overcome.3 The first objective explains the second: Hamilton and Deniss provide their psychological account of consumerism because if it is right, then consumer society requires a radical transformation. And the claim that society requires radical transformation is an essential feature of a seriously left politics.

In this paper, I will argue that this critique and explanation are deficient. Furthermore, I will attempt at least to intimate how a better account of consumerism and its causes might be given. This will indicate how better to proceed in developing the kind of critical theory sought by Hamilton and Deniss, one which could both contribute to revitalising left politics and intimate how better to shift consumption in a more sustainable direction.

§ 1: Consumerism according to the Australia Institute

Hamilton and Deniss believe that Australia and indeed all other advanced capitalist countries are afflicted by an epidemic of overconsumption. In recent years Australians have splashed out on “plasma-screen TVs, air conditioning, personal computers, second bathrooms, mobile phones and, increasingly, private health insurance and private schooling for children.” (Affluenza, p.7) Indeed, not only have Australians been buying ever more of such things, they have increasingly bought towards the upper, more costly end of the product range for these goods and services. In this sense, Australia’s consumption binge has become a binge on luxuries, precisely luxury fever. Moreover, this buying has in many cases become so compulsive that people have overstretched their budgets and slipped into debt–something made possible by the ready availability of credit from banks, non-banking lenders and credit card providers. Australia’s consumption binge is thus a debt binge as well: “Contrary to popular belief, the accumulation of consumer debt is not the result of poorer households being forced to cover living expenses: it is the result of wealthier households splashing out on luxuries.” (Affluenza, pp.73-74)

Such pigging out on luxuries–on renovating and furbishing our ever larger houses, on personal indulgences such as designer sunglasses, exotic holidays and SUVs, on pampering our pets with things like Hero dog fragrance, on spoiling our children with “groovy blankets, burp cloths and change mats in the funkiest fabrics” (Affluenza, p.33)–is, think Hamilton and Deniss, a pathology, indeed “a collective psychological disorder.” (Affluenza, p.6) For this reason, they borrow the term ‘affluenza’ from the American PBS documentary in which the term was first used. (Affluenza, p.7) Affluenza, they say, is “a condition in which we are confused about what it takes to live a worthwhile life” and it involves a failure “to distinguish between what we want and what we need.” (Affluenza, p.7) More accurately, it consists in an inability to guide our behaviour and to constrain our desires by a recognition of what we objectively need, as opposed to what we subjectively want–both in the cognitive sense that we find ourselves unable to distinguish between true needs and mere wants; and in the volitive sense that, even when we do distinguish correctly, we find ourselves unable to act accordingly. But what has caused this inability? In the first instance, the hegemony of neo-liberal ideology, which has convinced us that higher consumption is

the road to a better society. All the market-based reforms in the last two decades have been predicated on the belief that the best way to advance Australia’s interests is to maximise the growth of income and consumption. (Affluenza, p.7)

But they also identify a deeper, more general cause. Borrowing ideas drawn ultimately from Higgins’ theory of self-discrepancy,4 they claim that “our actions are driven by a desire for ‘self-completion’, the theory being that we seek to bring out actual self into accord with our ideal self, or who we wish to be.” (Affluenza, p.13) The advertising industry exploits this feature of human selfhood. It creates in the minds of consumers the belief that those who live a certain desirable life style consume such and such goods or services. Thereby advertising has exploited the symbolic function undoubtedly played by the consumption of luxury items, e.g., display of status to others, etc.

But these days the advertising industry has advanced even further. It now sells, not the goods or service itself, but the act of consumption itself. This is now represented as a socially recognised symbol of success and status whose display will bring with it the benefits, both psychological and material, which go with being regarded as successful and of status. In consequence, the act of consumption becomes at least a necessary condition of happiness. All in all, modern advertising indoctrinates wide ranges of consumer into believing that consuming such and such goods and services is a constitutive part of living a life socially acknowledged as successful and of status, hence a life which is happy. Hamilton and Deniss now confidently assert that

(t)oday almost all buying is to some degree an attempt to create or renew a concept of self. We complete ourselves symbolically by acquiring things that compensate for our perceived shortcomings. A vast marketing infrastructure has developed to help us manufacture ideal selves and to supply the goods to fill the gap between the actual and the ideal. The marketers understand much better than we do how we want to create an ideal self. As the CEO of Gucci says, ‘Luxury brands are more than the goods. The goods are secondary because first of all you buy into a brand, then you buy the products. They give people the opportunity to live a dream.’ (Affluenza, p.13)

Naturally, the diversion of so much income into private consumption must have serious public consequences: we find that “there is not enough money left to fund investments in hospitals and schools.” (Affluenza, p.4) Yet so convinced are we that self-contentment comes through the social recognition brought by conspicuous consumption that we merely bemoan the sorry state of public goods and services. “(T)oo fearful to change [our] behaviour in any meaningful way” (Affluenza, p.152), we refuse to countenance the levels of taxation needed to address “funding shortages for hospitals, schools, universities and public transport” (Affluenza, p.3)

We want better public services but seem unwilling to forgo more income in the form of taxes to pay for those services. Australia does not have a public health funding crisis: it has a flat-screen TV crisis. (Affluenza, p.4)

It is indisputable that levels of private consumption and debt have risen significantly, particularly over the last twenty or so years and particularly in advanced capitalist societies. But what about the explanation Hamilton and Deniss give of this fact? Evidently, this explanation makes strong claims about the power of advertising and, more generally, about the way production relates to consumption. On this account, producers can, through marketing, steer consumers. But are these claims correct?

§ 2: The Demonisation of Advertising

It is crucial to the explanation Hamilton and Deniss give of contemporary luxury fever that advertising possess a significant capacity to manipulate consumer desire and behaviour in predictable ways. So they are committed to what Roberta Sassatelli has called productivism.5 This is a conception of the relation between production and consumption which construes it on the model of production itself: the producer can shape consumer response to the product in the same sense in which the producer shapes the product. This conception permits one to see advertising and marketing as institutions, not for ensuring communication back and forth between consumer and producer, but for shaping consumer demand to fit producer supply.

This view of how production relates to consumption, with its concomitant view of advertising and marketing as institutions of control, has been endorsed by many, e.g., Adorno and Horkheimer, J. K. Galbraith and Vance Packard.6 But it is, as Roberta Sassatelli points out, empirically dubious:

(T)he power relations [built into] the link between production and consumption are less deterministic and more fragmented than those envisaged by manipulation theories. Indeed, conceived as an arena of power, the link between production and consumption is essentially a complex, ongoing interaction meditated [sic.] through various institutions and embedded in a wider social environment. (Sassatelli 2007, p.77)

As an example of the fundamentally unpredictable, hence uncontrollable two-way interaction which characterises the relation between producers and consumers, we may take the introduction of the Vespa motor scooter into Great Britain in the late 50’s and early 60’s. The manufacturers sought, through their advertising, to sell it as “an elegant and comfortable female vehicle.” (ibid.) But the Vespa succeeded primarily when it was autonomously appropriated by the mod youth subculture, dominated by young male social climbers. The mods seized upon the Vespa as a way of asserting their refined and aestheticised masculinity against the image asserted by their motorcycle riding, leather-jacket wearing Rocker opponents.7

This illustrates a general point about how advertising and marketing work: Typically, advertisers and marketers cannot succeed by imposing anything on consumers because typical consumers are sufficiently autonomous to be able to give products functions and meanings of their own, in a fashion completely independent of, and unanticipated by, advertisers and marketers. Precisely for this reason, advertisers and marketers more amplify and reinforce than create trends, which tend to come initially from consumers themselves. For this reason, too, the fundamental stance of advertising and marketing is that of reading the market, in an effort to anticipate the moves of a fickle beast, much as a rodeo rider attempts to anticipate the moves of his bucking mount. Reading the market is not something one would need to do if one could literally manufacture wants in the manner of productivist theories of consumption.

Curiously, Hamilton is aware of this autonomy: he mentions the appropriation of Chupa Chups by adolescents and young adults. Chupa Chups are a lolly on a stick first produced for children in Spain in 1958. But they have become cool accessories for adolescents and young adults because of the rave culture: apparently, sucking on a Chupa Chup counters the jaw clenching caused by taking Ecstasy. A symbolic meaning has thus been autonomously imposed on a product by a consumer market unintended by producers or marketers. There is no way producers or marketers could hope to anticipate such autonomous imposition of meaning by consumers. And the fact that consumers have this autonomy shows that the stance producers and marketers take towards consumers when attempting to impose whatever meanings they do intend products to have is not one of control, but of anticipatory second-guessing, in other words, of reading the market. Precisely for this reason, advertising campaigns and brand success are costly, unpredictable affairs.8

Hamilton mentions a related feature of this consumer-imposed symbolic meaning which further undermines the idea that advertising and marketing are instruments of control: it is important not to suck on one’s Chupa Chup too ostentatiously, for then one is merely trying to be a cool user of party drugs without really, i.e., authentically being one. This reveals, admittedly in a perverse way, that the character possessed by many forms of consumption as displays of self and identity is not always to be decried as ‘inauthentic’ but is rather precisely the opposite: such displays of self can be genuinely authentic in the sense that an individual skilfully appropriates and adapts the conventional cultural symbols in order to display unique individuality, in order perhaps to mock the culture, indeed occasionally to exert a certain mastery over it, as in the case of trend-setting.9 Georg Simmel had already pointed to such phenomena in his reflections on the dandy.

Such empirical falsifications intimate how fundamentally productivist conceptions of how production relates to consumption misunderstand the consumer. The uptake of the Vespa in Great Britain and the adult use of Chupachups show that the consumer is always a participant in such and such a form of life, sub-culture or social practice and is addressed as such by marketers. The point of advertising is to offer the consumer means of participating in such and such social interactions, with all the powers of judgement or even practical wisdom such participation requires. Advertising thus presupposes that normal consumers possess some normal degree of control over this participation, hence over the means by which this participation will be realised. The picture of the consumer as manipulated by advertising and marketing ignores the act of consumption itself in order to focus on the act of informing the consumer about possibilities of consumption–as if the consumer were not primarily someone interacting with others in the conduct of some social activity, but rather someone receiving information about products, for example, watching television or reading a magazine, all activities one can undertake alone. Thereby the fact is obscured that while consumption might, like any social activity, assume unfree form, it cannot be simply the implementation of another’s will since, as a form of social interaction, it involves the consumer bringing to bear a power of judgement which cannot be reliably predicted.

§ 3: Beyond Productivism and the Manipulated Consumer

If, then, we are to find a sense in which consumption in late modern capitalism is consumerism in a sense warranting the reprobation Hamilton and Deniss heap upon it, we must think differently about the relation between producer and consumer.10 In particular, we must suspend an assumption shared both by those who, like Hamilton and Deniss, construe consumers as manipulated; and standard economic and rational choice theorists, who see producers as simply responding to free consumers. This is the assumption of individualism: what makes consumption consumerist must lie in the nature of individual acts of consumption themselves.

In this regard, the conception of consumer society developed by Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) provides some useful clues. According to Baudrillard, consumption in late or rather postmodern capitalist society is a semiotically driven process in which the function of goods and services is incidental–not, of course to the consumer, but to the character of the act of consumption as consumerist. As far as this is concerned, what matters is the symbolic meaning possessed, the identity expressed by the act. Postmodern consumers exist in an orgy of signs which constitutes them as what they are, namely, destined to consume in such a way that they are continually differentiating themselves from others by acting out, in their own, distinctive, personalised way, the general types or styles signified by types of consumption–see Baudrillard 1998, p.86 and p.92.

It is therefore ontologically guaranteed that the postmodern consumer will consume. This does not, however, fix how it will consume, that is, how it will choose. Here a surface-level difference to Hamilton and Deniss emerges: we know, says Baudrillard,

how consumers resist particular precise injunctions, how they rove over the gamut of objects with which they might fulfil their ‘needs’, how advertising is not all-powerful and sometimes induces opposite reactions, and what substitutions there can be between one object and another to meet the same ‘need’ etc. In short, at the empirical level, a whole complicated strategy, psychological and sociological, cuts across the strategy of production. (Baudrillard 1998, p.74)

Evidently, Baudrillard is making the same empirical point as that already made above against Hamilton and Deniss. Individual acts of marketing do not coerce, they merely invite and entice. In the clamour of things crying out to be consumed, advertising merely makes the voice of an individual product louder.

It might therefore seem as if Baudrillard were acknowledging the autonomy of the consumer. Yet on closer inspection it becomes clear that he denies this autonomy more radically than Hamilton and Deniss. The postmodern consumer is a mere functional element within the whole, with the role of choosing from the wide range of offerings served up to it, thereby keeping things ticking over–see Baudrillard 1998, p.85f. As the ego consumans, it is condemned to consume, however it ultimately chooses to consume. This points to the crucial difference from Hamilton and Deniss: in order to assert the thoroughly constructed character of the postmodern consumer, Baudrillard distinguishes clearly between individual acts of consumerist consumption and consumerism itself. This latter, he says, “is a system which secures the ordering of signs and the integration of the group: it is therefore both a morality (a system of ideological values) and a communication system, a structure of exchange.” (Baudrillard 1998, p.78)

What Baudrillard means by this emerges in his critique of J.K. Galbraith’s claim that “(n)eeds are … the fruits of production” rather than given prior to production, as standard economic theory assumes. According to Baudrillard, Galbraith misunderstands his own critique, this precisely because consumers constantly thwart, in unpredictable ways, the strategies of marketing. At the level of individual acts of production and consumption, needs cannot be fruits of production. “The truth is, not that ‘needs are the fruits of production’, but that the system of needs11 is the product of the system of production.” (Baudrillard 1998, p.74) Consumer society is, thinks Baudrillard, a system distinguished by a tendency towards the proliferation and differentiation of desire. Just this makes its consumption consumerist. That is, across the board consumer desire tends towards ever more diversity, complexity and refinement.12 In the first instance, desires proliferate, as increasing numbers of readily accessible new goods and services arrive on the market. An example would be the increase in the kinds of device one has in houses these day. In the second instance, established desires become more differentiated, as social practices become more sophisticated and complex. Thus, dinner at home with friends morphs into a dinner party at which one explores some exotic cuisine, something itself made possible by the increasing diversity of produce at the supermarket, the increasing number of cook books and cooking shows, and the availability of the appropriate cooking utensils.

Crucially, as a property of the entire system, the proliferation and differentiation of desire has non-psychological, structural causes. Baudrillard speaks here of a “structural logic of differentiation” (Baudrillard 1998, p.89) “which produces individuals as personalized, that is to say, as different one from another, but in terms of general models and a code, to which, in the very act of particularizing themselves, they conform.” (Baudrillard 1998, p.92) This is not to be understood as the postulation of any psychological drive, of any “‘need of the individual to differentiate himself’ as one more element in the repertoire of individual needs.” (Baudrillard 1998, p.92) No, this logic of differentiation is precisely structural and, he adds, it comes first, i.e., prior to all psychological needs or wants. Baudrillard then goes on to give a semiotic account of what this logic of differentiation is.

Unfortunately, this account is very obscure. Moreover, it suffers from a defect characteristic of much writing on consumption: it attempts to find some one cause of distinctively consumerist consumption–in Baudrillard’s case, the “structural logic of differentiation.” Such endeavours invariably founder on the protean character of consumerist consumption. Nonetheless, he has already given us two useful ideas: firstly, there is the idea that contemporary consumer capitalism is characterised by the proliferation and differentiation of desire. Secondly, there is the claim that this has non-individual, non-psychological structural causes. I will clarify and elaborate these in the next section.

§ 4: What is the Proliferation and Differentiation of Desire and What causes It?

So what is the proliferation and differentiation of desire? What are its structural causes? At the end of the Second World War, the American economy faced a problem. During the war it had developed a massive productive apparatus which, because America had suffered little wartime damage, could not now turn to postwar reconstruction. The solution was to turn, on a scale never seen before, to the production of consumer goods and services. This was feasible because labour had already begun to wrest significant rises in disposable income from capital. One could thus rely on there being demand for the extra goods and services–demand grounded in the presence of quite ordinary first order desires for convenience, comfort, cleanliness and entertainment, and the obvious functionality of cars, fridges and television sets.13

This turn to the production of consumer goods and services transformed the American economy into one able to flourish by maintaining and elevating the living standards of all key economic groups. There emerged for the first time an economy which did not rely on holding down the living standards of some such economically necessary group, e.g., the working class, slaves, etc.14 Just this is the emergence of consumer capitalism. And consumer capitalism flourished spectacularly, spreading around the world–this because it is so good at solving the problem of absorbing capital.

Now the initial post-war phase of consumer capitalism, from the end of the war until the seventies, during which consumer goods and services were initially rolled out, is not yet characterised by the proliferation and differentiation of desire. It is imprecise to describe the problem of absorbing capital as solved by the creation of new demand. One can create new demand by extending existing markets, that is, simply creating new buyers. Or one can create new demand by creating new markets entirely. So the problem of absorbing capital is solvable not just by extending existing markets but by creating new ones, that is, whole new subsystems of producers, products and consumers.

This permits us to understand the shift in patterns of consumption from the seventies onwards, once the consumer society had become so saturated with consumer goods and services that white goods manufacturers, for example, began to have problems maintaining turnover because everyone had already got their relatively long-lived fridges. For now the role of consumption changes: it shifts from maintaining and extending demand to maintaining and extending the number of markets.15 Just this is the emergence of distinctively late or postmodern consumerist consumption. And this, the proliferation and differentiation of markets, is the proliferation and differentiation of desire.

Crucially, what has both enabled this shift and been reinforced by it is the penetration of everyday social practices by a diverse range of ideologies which enable or intensify the commercial exploitation of them. One such ideology is the idea of self-realisation. One has always renovated or extended the home for the usual reasons: the roof is leaking, the children need more room, etc. But now the social practice of home renovation and extension gets colonised by the idea of self-realisation: in addition to fixing the leaking roof and giving the kids more room, it is also, and is also marketed as, an opportunity to beautify the home. And of course beautification is a form of self-realisation for many. Similarly, one still invites friends around for dinner because one enjoys their company, wants to be sociable, etc. But now it is also, and is explicitly sold as, the holding of a dinner party at which one tries out a new cuisine, experiments with new cooking utensils, and acquires and exhibits new culinary skills.16

Similarly, practices of child-rearing get colonised by the idea that it is a technical skill for which there can be accredited experts. Lydia Martens relates how, in response to the decline in the extended family and at least perceived time poverty, experts have leapt into the breach once filled by parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts.17 Interestingly, this has non-commercial origins, having been first promoted by a welfare state concerned to improve child-rearing practices. These days, however, it is maintained and amplified by commercial interests concerned to sell baby products. Such interests host annual baby shows, have child-rearing experts on the payroll and engage in advertising designed to sell ever more sophisticated baby food, baby wear, children’s toys, child-rearing manuals and the like.

There are other examples of the ideological colonisation of social practices through which these become dependent on markets created explicitly for them. Thus, there is the idea that reality is full of scientifically certified risks or problems of which certain everyday practices need to be more cognisant. Contemporary household cleaning practices are permeated by the idea that there are numerous sources of dirt which need to be kept in check. Similarly, sexual practices have become susceptible to the idea that they are afflicted by a number of hitherto undiagnosed treatable pathologies, e.g., PED (penile erectile disorder) and FSD (female sexual dysfunction).

Note that in each of these cases advertising plays a different role, such that it makes no sense to speak of its doing some one sinister thing to consumers. Advertisers are careful not to fear-monger in the case of child-rearing, this because they know that their market is savvy and suspicious–for which reason baby food companies now hard-sell their powdered baby milk in the Third World, alongside tobacco companies selling cigarettes. By contrast, fear-mongering is more prominent in ads for cleaning products. Where everyday behaviour is the target of commercially motivated medicalisation, advertising is often directed to prescribing doctors rather than to consuming patients. This underscores a point already made: viewed simply as a relation between individual producers and individual consumers, advertising is a hit-and-miss affair, more a costly scatter-gun tactic than a diabolically clever means of getting the consumer to conform to the producer’s will. But at the individual level of producer-consumer relations hit-and-miss is all it needs to be. For when a social practice is colonised by some such idea as that of self-realisation, it becomes receptive, not so much to producers and their messages, but to the products themselves, in their greater number, quality and sophistication. In other words, it becomes receptive to novelty, fashions and fads. And so it becomes an opportunity for creating new markets for new products, or for the refinement of existing markets through the refinement of existing products–precisely the proliferation and differentiation of desire.

Crucially, on this account the causes of this consumerist proliferation and differentiation are located in the structure of everyday social practices, not in the psychology of consumers. For these practices are seen as permeated by certain shared beliefs, such as that household environments teem with dangerous bacteria, which facilitate the proliferation and differentiation of desire. In no sense, then, does one need to postulate any drives or desires other than ordinary first-order ones. Crucially, too, this account provides a structural explanation of this proliferation and differentiation without insisting on any single cause. Thereby it respects both the protean character of consumption and marketing and the empirical point that individual producers cannot and do not control individual consumers.

But perhaps most crucially, this account preserves the rationality of consumers and their consumption. In all cases, this is construed as a relatively exoteric, rational response to how reality is perceived to be. One may disagree with this perception of reality, for example, the idea that households teem with dangerous bacteria. But if a person does believe this and believes what advertising tells them about the functionality of their cleaning products, then their exorbitant use of the same is a rational response to a perceived problem. There is no postulation of hidden psychological drives whose realisation consumerism distorts. So it is wrong to describe such over-consumption as a disorder. Much contemporary consumption certainly is excessive and morally reprehensible but it is misdescribed as affluenza; it is not a disease.

§ 5: Consumption and ‘Authentic’ Being-a-Self (eigentliches Selbstsein)

But does this appropriation of Baudrillard require us to follow him in rejecting all talk of ‘authentic’ selfhood, such as we find in Hamilton and Deniss? No, it does not. True, we must not psychologise. That is, we must not naively presuppose commonsense, pre-philosophical notions of selfhood, the good life, true needs etc., and then postulate some drive for the same whose realisation consumerism persistently distorts. Rather, we must proceed from what is implicit in our appropriation of Baudrillard: the character of consumers as perhaps misguided but nonetheless moderately rational. And this does, I believe, provide a basis for developing a modest notion of ‘authentic’ selfhood, one according to which ‘authenticity’18 is fully optimal, hence fully realised rationality. One can then characterise ‘inauthenticity’, i.e., sub-optimal realisation, without resorting to metaphors of pathology and on this basis identify a sense in which the consumerist life style might become sub-optimal–in which case it may be criticised not simply because of its external consequences, e.g., diversion of resources from social goods to private enjoyment, but because of what it is. A radical critique of the consumer society then becomes possible.

In the Metaphysics of Morals Kant writes,

Conscience … is not something one could acquire and there is no duty to acquire it; rather, as an ethical being, every human being has conscience originally in himself. … So when one says: such and such a person has no conscience, one [merely] means by this: this person is not troubled by the deliverances of conscience. (A 38; my translation)

So according to Kant conscience is essential to self. Indeed, elsewhere in this passage he declares it to be practical reason itself, holding out to the self what its duty is. But why might conscience, and thus an orientation to the ethical, be essential to selfhood?

It is misleading to describe consumers simply as participants in a social practice. For insofar as they as in a particular social practice, they are also so to speak on their way out of it. That is, they primarily exist as passing through social roles, hence social practices, according to whether the specific circumstances make it either ethically or prudentially required to assume this role rather than that. If, for example, the fire alarm should ring, we would immediately stop the seminar and follow the instructions of whoever is fire warden, who only now acquires these powers to order us around. To be in a social practice is to be keeping an eye out for when it is time to stop participating in the practice and move into another, or perhaps into no other at all. This context-sensitive watchfulness is constitutive of such participation and indeed of self: if one of you should suddenly collapse and yet I continue on without rendering assistance, then you would wonder what was wrong with me. And if I did this persistently, across a wide range of roles and contexts, you would start to doubt whether I was a self-conscious subject at all.

So I want to say, without being able to argue properly for it here, that the capacity to mediate the requirements of social roles with the idiosyncrasies of the situation is constitutive of being a self.19 Crucially for current purposes, I also want to say that this capacity fundamentally implicates ethical notions. Some indication of the argument for this latter claim is necessary: Firstly, being a self requires a radical context-sensitivity which truly brings one into a situation in all its potential uniqueness, that is, permits one to see what this particular situation requires in a fashion which does not consist solely in the blind activation of habitualised behavioural routines or inference from previously acquired general propositions. This is at least an essential element of what Aristotle meant by practical wisdom or phrónesis,20 the capacity to determine “rightness with respect both of the end, the manner, and the time.”21 Secondly, ‘phrónetic’ openness to the situation in its potential uniqueness is a form of conscientiousness: the non-defective exercise of practical wisdom requires a complete watchfulness, that is, a watchfulness with regard not just to the context but to self. In other words, it implicates a being-on-one’s-guard both against overestimation of one’s capacity to understand the situation and against the various forms of self-deception to which one might be inclined. And so it involves something akin to self-limiting, indeed inherently precautionary Christian humilitas. Thirdly, conscientiousness implicates a sense of self respect; only a self who has an effective sense of its moral worth, both in the sense of what this worth actually is and what it would ideally be, can exercise the self-discipline of conscientiousness–in which case it has a conscience and thus a relation to the ethical.22

The claim that conscience is essential to selfhood will provoke an obvious objection: if it were true, one might argue, then psychopathic selves such as Ted Bundy would not be possible. Since such selves obviously are possible, the claim must be false. But the objection rests on a misunderstanding. The claim is not that all selves must be conscientious, hence possessed of an effective sense of moral worth and conscience. The claim is made merely of selves in the fullest sense, i.e., those selves whose existence is presupposed by the existence of selves such as Ted Bundy, much as a lie only exists as an exception to a general pattern of truth-telling but not conversely. This can be confirmed empirically: Ted was chameleon-like in his sense of self; he could be, or rather could appear to be, whomsoever his current interlocutor seemed to him to want him to be. But such a self has no effective, that is, motivating sense of self-respect. Indeed, such a self has no sense of self-respect or self-esteem at all. Bundy had a capacity for moral judgement, he could tell right from wrong; in this limited or restricted sense he had a conscience. But his moral judgements left him unmoved, he lacked moral sensibility, i.e., the capacity to be moved by the moral to feelings of admiration or by the immoral to feelings of outrage. In short, he lacked conscience in the full affective sense which entails a capacity for feeling moral satisfaction in one’s own virtuous deeds and, more to the point in this particular case, shame and guilt in the face of one’s own vicious deeds. Precisely for this reason Bundy’s existence required the existence of selves who could be troubled by the deliverances of conscience since it is only by learning from such selves that the capacity for moral judgement develops at all.

Now if the notion of self-conscious, rational selfhood is bound in the manner suggested to notions of self-respect, conscience and the ethical—if, in effect, rational agents are as a rule although of course not always moral agents—, then one may embed another Kantian notion in the ontological deep structure of self and rationality. This is the idea of the most perfect good, understood as that felicitous condition in which desire and the requirements of ethics harmonise with one another. We have a strong intuition that that condition is better in which those who do right do well.23 According to Kant, this is because the self is inherently oriented towards such a condition—not as something which is morally required of us—there is no moral duty to realise the most perfect good—, but rather as an ideal articulating that condition under which beings essentially subject to ethics exist optimally as beings essentially subject to ethics. So to the extent that such beings do not exist in such a condition, it is emancipatory for them, that is, constitutes a counterfactual condition of optimal existence as what they inherently are which is implicit in their actual condition.

Crucially, the idea that the self, simply in virtue of being an entity capable of responding rationally to reality, is inherently oriented towards some condition as that in which it exists optimally, intimates Aristotle’s notion of living well. For living well is precisely that optimal condition towards which human beings, as distinctively rational animals, are inherently or ontologically oriented. So we can use Aristotle in order to elaborate Kant’s idea. According to Aristotle, the good life is not just virtuous but happy: “possession of virtue seems actually compatible … with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he [like Plato and Socrates] were maintaining a thesis at all costs.”24 Yet as the good life, it is at least virtuous. It is in fact a condition of felicitous balance between one’s own satisfaction of desire and that of others, such that both get their legitimate due.

Aristotle describes this condition as sophrosýne, i.e., temperance or moderation. Importantly, he finds the word sophrosýne appropriate because he thinks it is etymologically connected to the word phrónesis, i.e., practical wisdom. This connection highlights a crucial property of temperance: it is not just brought about by practical wisdom, it sustains it also. Temperance, says Aristotle, “… preserves one’s practical wisdom.”25 It is thus a condition which sustains one as rational, hence belongs constitutively to the ideal of well-functioning rationality. It is therefore a condition under which people flourish, not simply as human beings but as rational ones. As such, it is a condition of ‘authentic’ existence as a self, ‘authentic’ in the sense of being fully or properly a self—eigentliches Selbstsein.26 Moreover, it is inherently motivating in the sense that those subject to it will be prepared, once they recognise a conflict between their patterns of desire and their understanding of what ethics requires, seriously to investigate whether either of these can be modified or altered in order to bring the one more into line with the another. Rational animals, thinks Aristotle, would prefer to do the right thing rather than not, provided, of course, that it does not hurt too much. And they will make some adjustment to their patterns of desire to do this.

This readily yields a sense in which the proliferation and differentiation of desire might be, or at least become, intrinsically bad for us. For it makes life faster, more fragmented, more competitive and more complex. Thereby it exacerbates tensions between what is rational long term and what is rational short term, between what is rational collectively and what is individually so. For example, moving around town by car is, for familiar environmental and social reasons, less rational than using public transport. Yet one might have no choice because daily activities have become so numerous, time schedules so fragmented. Similarly, as managements respond to increased speed, competition and complexity, they standardise work practices and make them ostensibly measurable. As a result, institutional disingenuity emerges, where people simply ‘tick the boxes’, thereby alienating responsibility for performing well to the systems of evaluation watching over them. Meanwhile, individual and collective behaviours become increasingly teased out into one-dimensional relations of means to ends, i.e., rationalised in Max Weber’s sense. Instead of entertaining people at a social function by having someone play an instrument, one loads up a CD player. Thereby the act of entertaining people loses its character as an opportunity for someone to exhibit their talent, thereby achieving recognition as contributing something worthwhile. Last but not least, one has so many choices and each choice is so complex that one is overwhelmed and falls back upon simplifying routines.

Note a crucial feature of the sense in which these features are intrinsically bad: they make it rational for us to short-circuit the exercise of practical wisdom, simply for the sake of getting by. So the theoretical framework sketched here allows one to see consumer society as potentially one in which the rational perversely becomes the irrational and vice versa. This is a result one would expect of a truly critical theory. Similarly, this framework allows one to identify what a more rational system of production and consumption would look like–slower, less complex overall but also more regionalised, such that goods and services do not flow with equal ease between any two points, in which the rate of technological change does not overwhelm people, and in which only those technologies are introduced which fit well with existing systems, hence do not tear the social fabric in rapid, unmanageable ways. These latter are all conditions which optimise for the exercise of reason qua practical wisdom. Crucially, they are also, I would argue, conditions which optimise for sustainability. So this framework explains the sense in which an emancipatory politics and a politics of sustainability coincide.


Baudrillard, Jean The Consumer Society–Myths and Structures, trans. C.T. London: Sage Publications, 1998

Campbell, Colin “Consuming Goods and the Good of Consuming”, in Ethics of Consumption–The Good Life, Justice, and Global Stewardship, edited by David A. Crocker and Toby Linden, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998, pp.139-154

de Graaf, John, David Wann and Thomas Naylor Affluenza-The All-Consuming Epidemic San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2001

Dittmar, Helga “The Role of Self-Image in Excessive Buying”, in I shop, therefore I am, edited by April Lane Benson, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 2000, pp.105-132

Frank, Robert Luxury Fever Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997 Hamilton, Clive “What’s Left?–The Death of Social Democracy”, in Quarterly Essay, Issue 21, 2006

Hamilton, Clive, and Richard Denniss Affluenza–When Too Much is Never Enough, Crow’s Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005

Heidegger, Martin Platon: Sophistes, Marburger Vorlesung aus dem WS 1924-25, GA 19, hrsg. von Ingebord Schüßler, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1992

Higgins, E. Tory “Self-Discrepancy: A Theory Relating Self and Affect”, in Psychological Review, Vol. 94, No. 3 (1987), pp.319-340

Martens, Lydia “Creating the Ethical Parent-Consumer Subject: Commerce, Moralities, and Pedagogies in Early Parenthood,” in Sandlin, Jennifer A., and Peter McLaren (eds.) Critical Pedagogies of Consumption, London: Routledge, 2010, pp. 180-192

Sassatelli, Roberta Consumer Culture–History, Theory and Politics, London: Sage Publications, 2007

Schor, Juliet, The Overworked American–The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, New York: Basic Books, 1991


  1. This book was based on two documentaries produced by de Graaf and Vivia Boe and broadcasted on PBS in 1997–see

  2. The only thing comparable to this is the attempt made in the 70’s and 80’s by the Aarons-Taft Communist Party to develop out of Italian Marxism and the New Left generally a non-Stalinist and indeed non-Leninist form of socialist theory and practice to the left of the only two forms acknowledged by Hamilton, viz., social democracy and democratic socialism.

  3. Neither Schor, de Graaf et al. nor Frank embed their critiques of consumerism in a project of reviving left politics. Nor do they provide any justification or endorsement for the strongly psychological account which Hamilton and Deniss give of what drives consumer society. In fact, Schor and de Graaf et al. provide no well-developed account of these drivers at all while Frank’s account is non-psychological–so much so that he dismisses heightened acquisitiveness and greed as more than a contributing factor to a heightened cycle of work-and-spend–see Frank 1997, p.37. Frank works from the notion of a luxury good as defined by retail trade associations, namely, “as goods in each category exceeding a given price threshold, such as $200 for a pair of shoes … .” (pp.18-19) He then tracks how spending on such goods has risen greater than overall disposable income.

  4. See Higgins 1987.

  5. See Sassatelli 2007, pp.75-78. Sassatelli is following Baudrillard–see Baudrillard 1998, pp.71-75.

  6. In fact, the particular version of this productivist concept to which Hamilton et al. subscribe seems to bring them close to Galbraith and, within Critical Theory, to Erich Fromm.

  7. See

  8. This points to the real reason why marketing budgets are always so high: not because producers and their advertising agencies are ruthlessly concerned to boost sales no matter what, but because promotional success is so hard to achieve and so fickle, so much so that creating and maintaining market share positively requires these vast sums. Moreover, they have no choice in this matter: in a consumer capitalist market place awash with products and populated by large numbers of consumers, the information flows between producer and consumer have to be institutionalised in a specialised industry of marketing and advertising.

  9. Colin Campbell (in, e.g., Campbell 1998) makes much of this point.

  10. One way to think differently about this relation would be to revert back to the notion of consumer sovereignty implicit in much conventional economic or rational choice theory. On this conception, producers are one-sidedly shaped by the demand emanating from autonomous consumers. There is no need to rehearse here what is wrong with this conception.

  11. The notion and indeed the terminology of a ‘system of needs’ (System der Bedürfnisse) is to be found in Hegel, who speaks of “the direction of the social condition towards the indeterminate proliferation and specification of needs, means and enjoyments, which … has no bounds … .” (Hegel 1970, § 195, pp.350-351) Here Hegel also identifies this with luxury.

  12. Whereby Baudrillard and, importantly, to some extent even Hegel, attach no great important to the distinction between need and mere wants. The distinction can be made but carries no great theoretical significance since the system of needs creates both needs and wants; both are cultural and historical products–which is not to deny, of course, that both rest upon the fact that at some level of description humans can be said to need the same kinds of thing as animals, hence in this sense have ‘natural’ needs.

  13. Thus far there is no need to postulate wants artificially created by advertising in order to explain the creation of demand. A special advertising effort is needed to get consumers to prefer this brand of car, fridge or television set over that. But it requires no recondite psychology in order to explain why consumers find cars, fridges and television sets as such desirable.

  14. This is not to say that all economic oppression was done away with.

  15. Note that this is in effect to say that the functional role of consumption has become explicitly what it always was implicitly.

  16. We see here, I think, the real meaning of Baudrillard’s claim that the notion of use-value, of function, is irrelevant to understanding the consumerism of postmodern consumer society–see Baudrillard 1998, p.91f. He is not absurdly suggesting that the postmodern consumer is no longer interested in the use-value of things. He is merely insisting that its use-value or function is irrelevant for an understanding of how consumption plays its role in the overall postmodern capitalist economy, thereby keeping this latter ticking over.

  17. See Martens 2010.

  18. ‘Authenticity’ actually a rather inept but perhaps unavoidable translation of the German word Eigentlichkeit. The German word captures the formal character of the condition, that is, its character as not privileging any substantive life style, much better.

  19. In order to show this properly one would have show, in an exercise in what Kant calls transcendental philosophy, that self-consciousness is only possible for a participant in social practices, not the least linguistic practices. One could then draw upon the claim just made participation in a social practice must be understood as implicating the capacity to move out of it as the situation requires, in other words, that that participation in a social practices presupposes the capacity to move between them in rational response to the particularities of the situation.

  20. This is indeed phrónesis and not merely techné. Techné is certainly creative and never just the mechanical application of rules. Nonetheless, as an ‘art’, it is a teachable ability whereas practical wisdom cannot be taught, at least not in the same way. Rather, phrónesis is primarily be acquired and improved, if at all, through experience. As Aristotle himself says, “practical wisdom is a virtue and not an art.” (NE, Bk. VI, Ch.5, 1140b25)

  21. NE, Bk VI, Ch.9, 1142b27.

  22. We see here, incidentally, why Heidegger claims, rightly in my opinion, that for which reason Heidegger rightly says that in the notion of phrónesis Aristotle glimpsed the phenomenon of conscience–see Heidegger 1992, § 8, H 56.

  23. It is a condition in which the just prosper–see Psalms 1:3.

  24. NE, Bk. I, Ch4, 1095b33-1096a2

  25. NE Bk. VI, Ch.4, 1140b12. Aristotle reaches the conclusion that temperance sustains us in our practical wisdom, hence our rationality, on the basis that the word sophrosýne is etymologically to the word phrónesis. In a personal communication Rick Benitez has told me that Aristotle’s etymological claim is false!

  26. See