Obama and the Spectacle in an Era of Diminishing Consumption
Less Credit/Less Consumption
Consumption is down. While this might be a momentary hiccup, it could very well be the case that Western societies will have to “reset” and pull back on consumption levels for a long time to come. Much of the consumption literature has pointed to Western conspicuous and hyper-consumption as an integral ethic of modern society. We have been consuming well beyond our means by relying on debt to fuel our consumer economy, an unsustainable habit as credit markets have dried up. So what does it mean to pull back on consumerism, something, arguably, so central to our society? Does this leave a void? If so, what fills this void?
A Civic-Centered Spectacle?
One void that seems appropriate to discuss is that of the spectacle. The (increasingly distant) era of hyper-consumption was a time of the consumer spectacle (e.g., mega-malls, Las Vegas, etc), and when consumption is down we might expect to see different sorts of spectacles. Spectacles built around more modest, live-within-your-means activities. The green movement is, arguably, a spectacle in this way. Perhaps a more vivid example is the Obama campaign, inauguration, and early-presidency. Truly a spectacle. Has civic engagement, to some degree, replaced consumption in the realm of a shared ethos (as Benjamin Barber hopes)? Additionally, has civic engagement, to some degree, replaced corporate consumption as the site of the spectacle?
The Commodification of Everything
Of course, the picture may be less rosey than this. Corporate commodification and it’s hold on the Western spirit of consumption (as well as it’s near-monopoly of the spectacle) will not fall easily. In addition to generating their own spectacles, we might also see in this economic and consumptive downturn corporations commodify the very non- or anti-commercial spectacles mentioned previously (i.e., the green movement and Obama-style civic engagement). We are seeing corporations use the green movement to sell products -to the extent that some are questioning the greenness of the movement in the first place. On the Obama front, and this was very apparent on Inauguration Day in DC, Pepsi, Ikea and others have commodified the idea of Obama’s campaign. In the hyperlinks to the Pepsi and Ikea campaigns, as well as with the pictures above, we see that they are not just using his image or name to sell their products, but the very ethos of the campaign, such as “hope” or “change” (in the image above, note Pepsi’s word choice, font and even logo redesign). In this way, while Obama might represent a turn away from consumption towards civic engagement (he called for this, at least) and a turn away from consumer products as the site of the spectacle, this spectacle is still brought into the realm of the corporate. In an economy where branding is still important, ‘hope’ is ultimately used to sell soda. ~nathan
Read More: Consumers are Saving More and Spending Less
Outlines of a Critical Sociology of Consumption: Beyond Moralism and Celebration