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When Consumerism Overtakes the Consumer

Among the many experiences that have become universal following the advent of globalism in the 21st century is the use of mass-communication devices. Almost every single person today possesses a phone, television or a radio – anything that can connect you to a large network of people. Unsurprisingly, these devices are not purely for people to communicate with each other and have begun to get filled with personalized, ‘influential’ content targeted at communities and individuals. The impact of such content is considerable, but this article will focus on how it affects and shapes the identity of individual consumers. More specifically, it will highlight how the pandemic put consumers in the unique position of being isolated with these communication devices, exacerbating the influences of personalized ideas and images on a consumerist society.

To understand it better, the framework of the current consumerist society must be discussed. As it promotes the continual overconsumption of material possessions, it must exist within an economic system that allows for the constant production of these consumables. That economic system is capitalism, and it dominates a large portion of the world. Essentially, it is a system in which all means of production are privately owned for profit, and the government exercises no control on the flow/ownership of capital. Most of today’s capitalist countries have some degree of government control. Overall, a consumerist society is central to capitalism, in that it requires everyone to overconsume (above their basic needs) a variety of goods to create profits. 

Consumerism is relatively new – it first became common almost a century ago, and has only become more extreme and widespread since then. It becomes essential then to define its specific characteristics, and for this, we turn to critic and philosopher, Frederic Jameson, who in his 1983 essay titled “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” wrote: 

“at some point following World War II a new kind of society began to emerge (variously described as postindustrial society, multinational capitalism, consumer society […] and so forth). New types of consumption planned obsolescence: an ever more rapid  rhythm of fashion and styling changes; the penetration of advertising, television and the  media generally to a hitherto unparalleled degree throughout society; […] these are some  of the features which would seem to mark a radical break with that older prewar society.”

With this now in mind, we can begin to look at identity and consumer society. First, we look into the theory of identity used by Jameson in his essay – psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s “mirror stage.” It describes an infant’s identity forming process, drawing from observations made by Charles Darwin and Henry Wallon. Briefly, this theory describes what happens when infants begin to recognize themselves in mirrors, between 6-18 months. Lacan claims that this is the first time the infant identifies a separate self (himself and external image of him in the mirror). This separate self is called the ‘Other’ by Lacan, and states that it is inherently different from the infant because it has a sense of unity, unlike the infant’s uncoordinated body and undefined self. The infant hence idealizes this reflection, creating an ‘Ideal-I’ which is a part of its identity that it strives to become. As Terry Eagleton in his book “Literary Theory: An Introduction” put it, this Ideal-I creates a “fictive sense of unitary selfhood by finding something in the world (Other) with which we can identify.” According to Lacan people form (and dissolve) such ‘Ideal-I’s based on external objects and people for the rest of their lives.

Jameson and others use this as the basis of understanding identity under consumerist society. Specifically, they define a consumer society as being driven by people identifying with an endless number of external objects. The permeating role of media and advertisements ensures this, as it promotes consumption by portraying increasingly desirable, ‘unitary’ images for people to identify with and hence buy products and chase achievements (like promotions, buying a house) to realize these identifications. A positive relationship is established between the rate at which such influential images are distributed and the rate at which individual consumers create Ideal-Is (identities to become) and shed them, as trends change. 

In the context of the pandemic, this brings about an important dynamic. Suddenly, for many people, their entire world consisted of the online/broadcasted media that Jameson talks about. Within this same 2-year time span, advertisement and influential ideas became visibly more salient on media – consider social media becoming more branded, content-focused, or YouTube adding even more ads to videos, or the numerous wide-scale media-driven political movements. Using the positive relationship mentioned before, we can expect that being isolated with an infinite amount of influential content led to an unprecedented level of temporary Ideal-I/identity formations – and hence, consumption activity must have increased to satisfy these identity changes. Except it didn’t, because the world also faced an economic downturn during this time.

To highlight the extent of how the downturn has affected consumption, there have been rising levels of unemployment, consumer saving, and household debt and decreases in consumer spending. In India, 1.5 million jobs were lost in August alone and household debt has reached all-time highs with debt increasing by 57.3 billion dollars from March 2020 to March 2021. In the US, debt increased 1.1 trillion dollars between late 2019 to November 2021 and spending fell 12.6% from April 2020-2021, coinciding with increased consumer savings (which were much lesser for low-income groups than high-income ones).

The pandemic was able to hence widen an existing chasm, between the endless number of things that people are told to be, consume and do, and their struggle to afford and access these things. For identity, this meant an inability to fulfill the so strongly internalized and heightened (during the pandemic) habits of consuming. To discuss how this affected the consumer, this article considers two generalizations of consumer groups under the pandemic.

The first type of consumer overspent (proportionally to the increase in media/advertising) during the downturn, while experiencing hits to their income, employment, or increases in debt, which affected their savings, their financial assets, their credit score, and/or their purchasing power. The other broad category of consumers spent less than they did before and saved, despite facing the same level of media and advertising as the first group. While the first group includes people who were in a comfortable financial situation pre-pandemic, the second group consists of individuals who either already were in a vulnerable financial situation (lower-income) or were at risk of one (middle-income).

The outcomes of the pandemic on the identities of people under these groups over the past year can hence be discussed. For the first group, the impacts may be long term, because they have gone from stable to unstable financial positions while increasing consumption. This could be a cause for increasing levels of debt (which were reported above).  This group’s consumer identity is also affected in terms of financial recovery. As Erving Goffman in “The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life” discusses, well-manufactured identities are required under capitalism for success. Identities in this group may no longer be well-manufactured due to the dissociative effects of financial strain, which then impedes them in achieving their prior financial success, and thus makes it increasingly difficult to recover and become the consumers they were before the pandemic. This irreparably widens the aforementioned chasm between the externally-satisfied consumer identity (Ideal-I), and the actual consumption/purchasing power of the individuals.

The second group, presumed to have mostly maintained their pre-pandemic financial situation, are affected in more temporary but important ways. Their consumer identities are affected even more than the first group’s, because they are being constantly reminded (more often than before) during the pandemic of just how much they can’t afford, or even imagine to purchase or become. This most notably involves financial stability, growth, and a better standard of living. This group is hence hypothesized to be linked to the proponents of recent resistance movements like Lying flat. The lying flat movement is a movement that emerged in China in mid-2021, and includes Chinese workers rejecting old, low-paying work models, and encouraging a ‘low-desire’ life to combat the inaccessibility of what is advertised to them. A similar movement became famous in the US, where labor shortages in minimum wage (among other) jobs were incredibly high as people began quitting their jobs in protest for better pay, better treatment, and a less work-centered life. Both these movements can be considered the result of the anger of the second consumer group, who has had to face the widest chasm between purchasing power and Ideal-Is. 

The second group’s impacts are temporary because these movements may be somewhat short-lived and small-scale, as people still require income to survive, despite the low pay and terrible conditions. This group is however important because it is capable of subverting consumerism, and encourages people to no longer form identities based on targeted media and advertisements, and to not over-consume for temporary identity satisfaction. Biao Xiang, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford, says about these movements: “people realize that material betterment is no longer the single most important source of meaning in life.”

This article concludes that the pandemic was a time during which Jameson’s theories on consumer society and identity became relevant, due to the heightened influx of media and advertisements capable of shaping consumer identity and choices. Combined with an economic downturn that affected spending, Jameson’s theories can be used to understand two distinct groups of consumers post-pandemic, one of whose impacts are long term detriment to finances and identity, and the other’s being anti-work movements to protest against the working conditions that keep them from affording the ever-increasing advertised ideas and products, and the temporary subversion of consumerism.

Fiona is a first-year at Ashoka University, planning to major in economics. Her interests lie in microeconomic theory, and the impact of economic systems on the individual.


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