Cornucopia Isn’t Consumerism

Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992

Jesse Lemisch and Naomi Weisstein

WE’RE RED DIAPER Babies and New Leftists, and we grew up thinking that having too many pairs of pants was wrong. We expected our comrades to share this belief, as do ordinary, decent change-your-pants-on-Sunday folk. But every once in a while, it seems, the people betray and abandon us, leaving us marooned, angry, crying.

Look at what they’re doing to us right now in the USSR—or have they changed its name, too?—and Eastern Europe: a bunch of, let’s face it, fascists and anti-semites, or at best, people without consciousness, hyped up on Western rock and other excrescences of decadent capitalism in its final stages, looking for stuff: king-sized beds, cars with too much power, large-screen color TVs, stereos and CDs, glossy magazines, motorized cameras, day-of-the-week designer jeans, athletic shoes, all kinds of food—stuffed olives, curried salmon mousse, chocolate molded in the shape of automobiles—Pizza Huts and Baskin Robbins, with their thirty-one flavors. For God’s sake, who needs thirty-one flavors? Next thing, they’ll be wanting MN It’s consumerism run wild. Better they should have stayed Communists.

Bread, Roses and the Communist Ethic

We don’t speak of these things from afar. We’re experts. We were in Moscow in 1978 (and Lemisch returned there in 1991). “How many shoes you have in America?” they asked us. “How many suits? How many rooms in your house?” From questions like these, it wasn’t that hard to read the future. We could see what was coming.

Ourselves, we like to live plain and simple. So when we went to the Beryoska hard currency shop, we bought hats made out of white rabbit (In those days, we didn’t yet know that rabbit hats were fur-crime.) Our hats really looked great, and they were warm and practical. In the USSR hat hierarchy, rabbit is low status, and it’s nothing showy like beaver or mink. We told ourselves that we wouldn’t have gotten them if they hadn’t been warm and practical, but, inside, we knew that we had yielded just a little bit to an urge like that of the Russians who wanted our jeans, but didn’t really need them. The hoods on our army surplus parkas were good enough. We didn’t really need these hats.

When we returned home—we lived in Buffalo in those days—we went to a movie at the Classics of Left Cinema Series at the university. (We slunk into the auditorium, having been absent without excuse from performances by Pete Seeger and Holly Near while we were in Moscow.) The movie was nothing frivolous, you understand, but rather something realistic and with good politics. It was “The Little Farm in Yakutsk,” which we had seen four or five times before on dates at the old Red Stanley in New York City, but this was the uncut version.

You remember, it’s from the period of the Khrushchev thaw, has a little bit of a love theme, but it isn’t too personalistic. Also, it’s black and white, which is the only kind of movie we go to see. (We’re hoping that Jane Fonda will straighten out Ted Turner and keep him from “colorizing”—can’t stand that word—any more of the great B&W classics.)

Since it was cold that night in Buffalo, we wore our rabbit hats. As we came into the auditorium, we noticed that the entire university left had come to see the movie, and they were all sitting together, taking up fully three rows. It looked funny to us to see them in a crowded cluster, since the rest of the place was empty. From his seat in the last of the three rows, a professor of American history saw our hats and boomed out:

“You went to Russia, and all you could do was CONSUME!!!”

We were really embarrassed. As we said, the whole university left was there (except for the most advanced group: they had a policy against movies). We quietly took off our hats, our eyes looking downward. Then we sat on our hats. When we got home, we put them away. When we moved to New York a year later, we unpacked them and used them from time to time, but we never wore them again when we went to see “The Little Farm in Yakutsk.”

Inside, we never stopped loving our white hats, though we stored our love of our hats in what Freudians used to call the “unconscious.” (Years later, Lemisch had a dream in which he pursued a mugger who stole his hat, the mugger killed him, and they wrote on Lemisch’s tombstone, “Il est mort pour son chapeau.”)

A few days after the embarrassing event at the film series, we were at home, taking turns reading aloud to each other—along with seeing “The Little Farm in Yakutsk.” This is our major amusement. We don’t watch TV. We were reading the brilliant and multitalented German poet/essayist/critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s 1970 essay, “Constituents of a Theory of Media,” because it consists of twenty-two numbered points, and that’s the kind of writing we like best. First, one of us would read point one; then, the other would read point two; and so forth.

Just about half way through, at point eleven, Enzensberger talks about our hats. Well, not directly, but it’s clearly about our hats. He says: ‘An all-too-widely disseminated thesis maintains that present-day capitalism lives by the exploitation of unreal needs.”

We read that, and thought about our hats. Of course, our hats had come from Communists, not capitalists. But we knew that, with the hoods on our parkas, we really didn’t need these hats. It was a clear case of unreal needs, and we had always known it, despite our efforts to justify our hats as warm and practical. Guilt-ridden and ready to admit that we had never needed to have these hats on our heads, our ears perked up when we noticed that Enzensberger was saying that there was something wrong about the idea that capitalism exploits unreal needs: he says that this is “an all-too-widely disseminated thesis.” We began to feel guilty about feeling guilty.

“The attractive power of mass consumption,” Enzensberger continues, “is based not on the dictates of false needs, but on the falsification and exploitation of quite real and legitimate ones without which the parasitic process of advertising would be ineffective. A socialist movement ought not to denounce these needs, but take them seriously, investigate them, and make them politically productive.”

This was a major step in our enlightenment and our break with the puritanism of the left, a puritanism that cuts much of the left off from the authentic longings of most of humanity. As we read Enzensberger, the phrase “Bread—and Roses, Too” bubbled around in our brains, and we began to think that left attacks on consumerism had lost touch with the important idea contained in that phrase. Passing over the knotty question of the essentialism implied by the notion of “real human needs,” shouldn’t socialists try to identify and satisfy, rather than ridicule, human needs for both bread and roses?

Enzensberger goes on: “The electronic media do not owe their irresistible power to any sleight-of-hand but to the elemental power of deep social needs that come through even in the present depraved form of these media.” He takes the focus away from the falsified presentation to the real needs below, and opens the door to understanding that these needs, far from being depraved in themselves, convey a kind of utopianism:

“Precisely because no one bothers about them, the interests of the masses have remained a relatively unknown field, at least insofar as they are historically new. They certainly extend far beyond those goals that the traditional working class movement represented powerful themes emerge that are utopian in nature…

“Henri Lefebvre has proposed the concept of the sptade—the exhibition, the show—to fit the present form of mass consumption. Goods and shop windows, traffic and advertisements, stores and the world of communications, news and packaging, architecture and media production come together to form a totality, a permanent theatre, which dominates not only the public city centers but also private interiors … The swindle these festivals perpetrate is, and remains, a swindle within the present social structure. But it is the harbinger of something else.”

Enzensberger’s next sentences should, if properly understood, help us to make contact with real people in the real world:

“Consumption as spectacle contains the promise that want will disappear… The need—it is a utopian one—is there … Consumption as spectacle is—in parody form—the anticipation of a utopian situation.”

And: “Socialists and socialist regimes which multiply the frustration of the masses by declaring their needs to be false, become the accomplices of the system they have undertaken to fight.”

Enzensberger helps us to understand the collapse of Communism—the material just quoted above is, in effect, an extraordinarily accurate prediction, nineteen years before 1989. And in 1991, we saw Albanians lured to Italy by television commercials featuring cats being served dinner off silver trays. We scorn and dismiss such people at our risk. By sensitizing us to the underlying utopianism of such behavior, Enzensberger leads us towards a path that will help to build a future left.

Before looking at the kind of left we can build on the foundation of Enzensberger’s insights, let’s first inquire a little into how we got so puritanical. Why does the left see the reasonable and legitimate quest for cornucopia as nothing more than “consumerism”?

We’ll speak for ourselves, as children of the Old Left and participants in the New Left. Although these two movements were different in many ways, we do feel that they resonated with each other in their scorn for material goods and in straitjacketing personal conduct.

The Old Left. The culture of folk, with its music and dress, conveyed clear messages as to what was “authentic” and what was not. Are we wrong to think that it was possible, in the old days, to recognize Communists by their dress? Ill-fitting peasant dresses, bandannas, lumberjack shirts, workingmen’s caps. A group takes on a sartorial identity, and this can express a variety of things such as solidarity and playfulness. It can also make a useful social point, as for instance when radical feminists used to dress tough—Weisstein still has her Granny Stomper MightyFoots—conveying a message of opposition to gender dressing.

But the point that the Communists wanted to make, that they were dressing like the people, was lost long ago, and they were left with a suppression of variety, novelty and adornment in dress. Fashion—may we use the word?—was anathema, and with that rejection a lot of joy was lost.

Deeper down in Stalinism were notions of social utility and efficiency that may have been in part (and only in part) appropriate to a modernizing USSR, but contributed to the development of confusion about the place of roses in people’s lives. It might make sense to speak of this complex as the Communist Ethic.

Fundamental to the Communist Ethic, the permafrost beneath the tundra of anti-consumption, was a denial of emotions. American Communists often subordinated the personal to the political with damaging effects on their interior lives. People reporting terminal illness felt obliged to subordinate their personal nightmares to a public political schedule (“How can we speak of cancer while capitalism’s atrocities continue?”). People under intolerable pressures were told to “redouble your efforts.” In phrases like that we hear the heroism of much of the behavior of American Communists; we also hear a distance from their inner selves which increased their distance from other people. Many parts of the left have long refused to credit those human needs which theory or expediency has deemed unacceptable, and have assumed that if those needs were not acknowledged, they would just go away.

The New Left. Of course, we broke with the Old Left. And hard politicos though we may have been, we could not escape being, just a little bit, druggies and hippies. And, to tell the truth, we love color TV. But, even in parts of the New Left, the Communist Ethic lived on, in equally stern albeit different dress codes, such as the cult of the blue workshirt, and in the continued attribution of authenticity to the imagined culture of the folk.

This complex has outlived the New Left We also find it in the graphics of left publications and in important left experiments in television. The dominant contemporary media aesthetic—glossy, electronic, colorful, fast-moving—is suspect, by the left’s puritanical standards. A sea of print is virtuous. A hand-lettered sign is virtuous, and public-access television graphics which expose the capitalist hype of MW by their deliberate amateurism are virtuous. “Militant amateurism, Virginia Blaisdell has called it. But why shouldn’t we, and the people to whom we wish to speak, have color, excitement and design?

Enzensberger also discusses this phenomenon. In Paris in 1968, he writes, “the reversion to archaic forms of production was particularly characteristic. Instead of carrying out agitation among the workers with a modern offset press, the students printed their posters on hand presses … The political slogans were hand-painted; stencils would certainly have made it possible to produce them en masse, but it would have offended the creative imagination of the authors … the comrades take refuge in outdated forms of communication and esoteric arts and crafts….”

And the lingering effects of the Communist Ethic are still there in our sometimes poignantly limited notions of utopia. In 1968, the two of us were the lunatic fringe of what came to be called the James Weinstein Mass Socialist Party. We were token New Leftists/Feminists in this organization (which instead became the journal Socialist Revolution; later, when it came out that they had never really believed in revolution, re-named Socialist Review). Since the party needed a founding statement, and we were its soft-headed crazies swinging in our superstructural monkey bars, we were assigned to write the section on values and utopia.

We drew into this process two other movement people with political backgrounds like ours, who contributed good material. But one phrase has always stood out in our memories; their draft spoke of people’s right—get this, this is speaking of utopia, the brightest future imaginable—to “decent housing and adequate food.” Bread, just enough, and no mention of roses.

Nonetheless, there were indeed important elements of truth in the New Left critique of consumerism. The habits associated with consumerism use up natural resources at an alarming rate, and in various ways distort the structures of third world economies, impeding their diversification, keeping wages low and strengthening monoculture and the production of materials for the dominant economies. Even our garbage has reached catastrophic proportions.

And as the New Left further pointed out, social relations in America are impoverished. There is little community, little loyalty, few meaningful collective struggles towards common goals, and fewer and fewer free concerts. Much of our shallow contact with each other is competitive. We live in an enraged, invidious, relentlessly competitive society, and possessions become another weapon in our struggle to win out, or at least to stay in the game. The competition for the possession of goods further isolates us from one another. The goods become a measure of our worth to others and our worth to ourselves.

In addition, because we are so socially impoverished, lacking in the joys which come from social interaction, possession of goods becomes one of the few joys we can handle. Love relationships, which might bring us joy, are so patriarchal and fucked up that they often quickly turn to nightmare, violence, and hatred. We are getting worse and worse at being able to make ordinary human contact. So in the pursuit of joy, we are thrown back on the essentially solitary possession of goods, and it becomes obsessive and addictive.

(A few years back, a doctor friend of ours saw us wearing our white hats. He yawned, “Oh, I used to have some of those, but now I have a Griffin 200 XL.” “It’s a hat?” we asked in unison. “No,” he said, “it’s a combination hat and car.” “That’s nothing,” said his lawyer friend, “I have a 300 XL which has a self-ejecting unit as well.” By now, inexperienced as we may have been at this kind of thing, we had nonetheless caught on to the ways of competitive consumerism: “Oh yeah,” we said (again in unison), “we used to have a Snark Five Million with a hat, a car, a self-ejecting unit, a potty and a vibrator! But we decided to get back to basics. We’ve changed our whole life style.” Defeated by this sideways swipe, they looked at us in consternation. Inside, everybody felt bad.)

But the problems of consumption just mentioned arise not so much out of consumption itself but rather out of the context in which consumption takes place. If there is nothing else in our lives, if the vehicles for satisfaction of social needs are inadequate, then in such an environment most of our social joys are attained, by default, through consumption. No wonder it becomes an obsession.

In the absence of solid plans to change the world, New Left-influenced parts of the left and feminism in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties have, as Amy Kesselman puts it, focused instead on “individual behavior, placing a swollen emphasis on the political implications of personal behavior.” (While we have every reason to be enraged at the hypocrisy of the present right-wing assault on “Political correctness,” we do know that some of these notions have roots in the policing of personal behavior in more process-oriented parts of the left and feminism.)

The critique of consumerism needs to be seen partly in the context of this political vacuum: “In the absence of real political activity, Kesselman says, “people on the left fear that once we start wanting things, the system will get us, so staying pure becomes a substitute for politics.”

So, where does this all leave us? We said that Enzensberger shows us a path that will help to build a better left. The contemporary left needs to think more seriously about the different meanings of consumption for different groups. For instance, what is the special role of consumption in women’s lives?

In the contemporary stereotype, women are always surprising their husbands with hats and other purchases made while they fulfill their genetic predisposition to shop till they drop. Associated with this stereotype is the equally mythic notion that women buy and spend more than men. But it should be noted that shopping does take on instrumental values distinctive to women. Stores are among the few public places where women’s right to go is unchallenged. What a relief to escape to a store, one of the few places where one can partake of what little community there is in this country, while being perceived as playing a socially positive role.

It’s time to reconsider the positive functions of shopping in women’s lives, even the much maligned suburban mall. Just as consumption has a special role in women’s lives, we need similar analyses of its meanings for minorities, workers, children, adolescents and others. We should expect to find that it means different things to different people, and we should build political analysis and activity accordingly.

At a time when something that called itself socialism is in ruins in part because it provided neither bread nor roses, more than ever we need to revive and reconsider the joy surrounding both material and spiritual cornucopia. This society, economically more advanced, can indeed produce both (although it presently gives them to the few and keeps them from the many).

For the left, this means moving beyond a socialism of poverty, scarcity, efficiency, and utilitarianism to a socialism of abundance and joy, a socialism that makes real the pursuit of happiness. There’s nothing wrong with loving your beautiful white hat.

© 2020 Against the Current

January-February 1992, ATC 36