What is The Consumer Society?

The Richness of Exchange Values

Based on Marx’s theory of products’ exchange values, Baudrillard argues that exchange value is characteristic of every product of human activity. The consumer society rests on that exchange value and appears to be first of all rich in every aspect. Its richness is never unordered or chaotic, but always given within a network of objects in which every entity relates to the other.

We can often observe that products bare no hierarchy when situated in stores such as drugstores, press boots or supermarkets. The Playboy magazine can easily stand near a paleolontology treaty, a grocery shop near an art gallery, even though these micro-associations organize themselves as small worlds in which we are invited to live. That would not necessarily constitute an issue; what matters, though, is that they render impossible any articulation of distinctive elements within their own structure.

Consequently, when consuming, some sort of a miracle occurs, as the consumer enters a world in which reality stops being manifest and causes a certain “dizziness” of reality. What we communicate soon turns up to be nothing but signs which tacitly deny reality and share no knowledge whatsoever, but at most curiosity and ignorance. When the use of these signs reaches daily life (a system of interpretation itself), the silence which evokes our being at ease with things around us feels a vigorous need to continuously consume violence in order to remain alive.

The dynamics of growth are, therefore, quite similar to the status quo in which, practically speaking, a country’s health becomes more important than the effective population engaged in production. This can be easily observed in some of the extreme points of the growth, when the system depletes itself in a repetitive attempt to self-reproduce. That is when a “functional” consumerism is replaced by a “dysfunctional” one.

In order to survive, the social system in which we live generates myths that support the fact that it is only in the product circuit that life matters. But, Baudrillard argues, it is those products that are scattered that actually matter. The “useless” internal sectors ensure internal operability; they rest behind all figures and cannot be removed because of their use to the system. They are sectors such as poverty and unhealthy environments, present at every step one takes but never likely to disappear.

Scarcity And Abundance

Societies dissipate (i.e. consume more than necessary) because their way of consuming offers them the feeling of being alive and not just that of existence. Even the Potlach was based on a sort of rational destruction of things, knowing that spending on nothing becomes the act through which values and sense are born. The ambition to have more is, therefore, an ambition to destroy more and that is why, under the pretext of a “struggle for survival”, we struggle in fact for the power to cause destruction.

Dissipation signifies the wealth of society and the main form of its living. This is why we have stopped producing things following utility criteria and started creating on the basis of the ephemerality and death of all that is created. An example from our daily life would be the clothes of V.I.P.s, which are created with the purpose of being worn once and then thrown away.

Ritual destruction of life and matter is, thus, proof of some king of abundance rather than of scarcity. When production requires destruction and destruction is based on production, consuming comes as a middle-term between the two and allows things to be destroyed so that other may be created.

References:

Jean Baudrillard (1986), La societé de consommation, Paris, Denoël.

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