The Politics of Consumption: an Interview with Juliet Schor
Interview by Dennis Soron
In recent years, Juliet B. Schor has established herself as
one of North America's most prominent progressive analysts of consumer society,
and one its most engaging and creative advocates for post-consumerist
alternatives. Her intellectually incisive yet highly accessible work combines a
sensitive understanding of consumerism's cultural and psychological dynamics
with an awareness of its complex relationship to broader questions pertaining to
work, leisure, global inequality, and environmental sustainability.
Currently a Professor of Sociology at Boston College and an intermittent lecturer at Schumacher College in south-west England, Schor was formerly the Director of the Women's Studies Program at Harvard University. She is also a co-founder and current board member of the Center for a New American Dream, an organization whose mandate is to "help Americans consume responsibly to protect the environment, enhance quality of life and promote social justice."
Schor's many writings include two highly-acclaimed best-selling books, The Overworked American: the Unexpected Decline of Leisure and The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer. She has co-edited a number of influential collections, including The Consumer Society Reader (2000), Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the 21st Century (2002), and The Golden Age of Capitalism: Reinterpreting the Postwar Experience (1989). Her most recently completed book, Born to Buy: Marketing and the Transformation of Childhood and Culture, is slated to be released by Scribner in September of 2004.Photo: Permission provided by Juliet Schor
Aurora: You've argued that the U.S. economic boom of the 1990's was accompanied by the emergence of something you refer to as "the New Consumerism." Could you describe this phenomenon for us, and explain what sets it apart from older forms of consumerism?
Schor: I see the New Consumerism as being primarily driven by a shift away from what I call "proximate reference group comparisons in consumption aspirations" - that is, from the tendency to form one's aspirations about consumer goods and lifestyles by looking at other people near to oneself in terms of economic status. This inclination towards proximate comparison typified the "old consumerism" that prevailed during much of the post-war era, when the basic goal was simply "keeping up with the Joneses." To the extent that "the Joneses" represented neighbours and people of similar socio-economic status, this meant that consumer aspirations remained relatively modest in relation to one's actual income and life circumstances.
The New Consumerism represents a shift toward a vertical emulation process in which people are increasingly defining their consumer aspirations by looking to the lifestyles and consumption patterns of the top 20 percent of the income distribution - roughly speaking, those earning about $100,000 in US dollars a year or more. Of course, this process of vertical comparison and emulation also takes place within this top 20 percent itself. But the basic idea is that, in general, people today are more and more aspiring towards luxury and affluence, as opposed to an earlier era in which achieving a comfortable and decent middle-class existence was the more common goal.
Aurora: What are some of the broad social changes which have helped to give rise to this new type of consumerism?
Schor: I believe that there are three major factors that led to it. The first has to do with the changing distribution of income and wealth in recent decades. For over 25 years now in the United States (and you have likely witnessed a similar pattern in Canada), there has been a marked shift towards greater inequality in terms of the shared income and wealth going to the top 20 percent of the population. This process of upward redistribution has increasingly enabled those at the top of the socio-economic ladder to engage in all manner of luxury spending and conspicuous consumption. In turn, the escalating consumption norms of this affluent minority have affected the ways in which the great majority of people - the remaining 80 percent - look at the world and develop their own consumer aspirations.
The second factor has to do with the increasing role that the media has played in conveying enticing images of affluent lifestyles to a popular audience. During the '80s and '90s, there was a noticeable shift in the commercial media - in television in particular, but also in magazines, movies, and so on - towards portraying very upscale lifestyles as the cultural norm to which all people could or should aspire. The effect of this was only magnified by the fact that, in the same period, U.S. society also saw a marked increase in the amount of time that people were actually spending with electronic media on a daily basis. Consequently, as our levels of direct face-to-face interaction with real people have declined, our consumer desires and aspirations have increasingly become susceptible to the ubiquitous influence of celebrities and fictional characters on TV. To put it another way, our consumer desires have perhaps come to be determined less by our real-life friends than by the characters on "Friends" on TV.
The third factor I would quickly mention is the historical shift of middle-class women out of suburban neighbourhoods (where proximate emulation and "keeping up with the Joneses" were the order of the day) and into hierarchical workplaces in which they were exposed much more frequently to people of higher economic status, and hence became more likely to pick up new consumption cues from such people.
Aurora: You have suggested that much of the existing scholarship on consumerism has failed to fully appreciate the nature and scope of the historical changes that you've just identified. Along these lines, how would you distinguish your work from fashionable postmodern analyses which also engage with the symbolic aspects of consumer practices, approaching these as forms of fantasy, individual self-fashioning, or even political resistance?
Schor: There's one point of similarity between my work and such postmodern approaches, which is our shared interest in the role played by the electronic media in forming consumer desires and identities. But, where many postmodern thinkers focus almost exclusively on the symbolic sphere of the media and regard it as the main driver of consumer culture, I believe we need to complement this focus with close attention to other types of on-the-ground social interactions and social processes which structure consumption.
For instance, in contrast to many postmodernists, I think that consumption continues to be very much structured by class and socio-economic inequality - in terms of the forces that motivate people, the manner in which consumer desires are formulated, and the ways in which consumer practices actually work out on the ground. Obviously, this puts me at odds with approaches which see consumption mainly as a means for people to work out their personal fantasies or experiment with new identities in a way that is not connected with class. In the tradition of theorists such as Thorstein Veblen and Pierre Bourdieu, I believe that we can't really understand what our consumer practices are about without first considering the ways in which people use them to symbolically reproduce or elevate their class position.
Aurora: In developing an analysis of consumerism which is attuned to questions of class and economic structure, you've also pitted yourself against conceptual habits within neo-classical economics. Why is the neoclassical framework an inadequate one for understanding the dynamics of consumption in contemporary society?
Schor: The number one problem I would identify is that the neoclassical view considers consumption practices as being primarily about the relationship between a person and goods, in a non-social context. What gets left out is any notion of interdependent consumer preferences, something which provides the very backbone of Veblen and Bourdieu's work, and of many other sociological accounts of consumption. In the neoclassical framework, consumption is largely stripped of its social dimensions, becoming reduced to the question of goods and the functionality they provide to the individual. Thus, for instance, a consumer's desire for a particular piece of clothing is seen as relating to the simple warmth or protection that it provides, rather than to the complex range of social meanings invested into it. Of course, some thinkers have tried to adapt the formal neoclassical model to account for such social meanings, but these isolated efforts have not yet had much of an effect on the dominant tendency I've just outlined.
Another problem is that the neoclassical model tends to portray consumers as super-rational - non-impulsive, very much in command, and highly conscious of their own motivations. This leads to a serious mischaracterization of many aspects of individual behaviour in contemporary consumer societies. I think that we need a more complex psychological model to understand why people engage in consumer behaviours which are not strictly rational, and which are often accompanied by regret, dissatisfaction, and other negative emotional and financial consequences.
Contrary to common belief, people generally have a lot of denial about what is actually motivating them in their consumer choices. For instance, most people are not willing to own up to the extent to which status-seeking influences their consumer behaviour. Similarly, most people are unwilling to deal forthrightly with the issue of credit card debt - how much they take on in the pursuit of their lifestyle aspirations, why they take it on, and so forth. Such forms of consumer behaviour are really at odds with the rationalistic and individualistic assumptions of the neoclassical model.
Aurora: Moving beyond the level of individual behaviours and motivations, what are some of the broader collective consequences of our current patterns of consumption?
Schor: One thing worth mentioning is that the growing economic and cultural importance of maximizing private consumption has contributed to a gradual squeezing out of "publicness" in contemporary society. In today's world, public goods and collective consumption, public engagement and civic participation, all increasingly cede place to more self-centered and irresponsible forms of consumer behaviour. The canonical example of this is the rise of the SUV, a vehicle which American consumers have adopted at an incredibly rapid rate in spite of the fact that these vehicles are both extraordinarily degrading to the environment and very dangerous for pedestrians and people who drive regular cars. And yet what happened when reports on the dangerousness of SUVs started to come out? Americans went out and bought more SUVs. There is an aggressively self-interested and socially irresponsible dimension to current consumption patterns that I find quite troubling.
Of course, I think that the most urgent and pressing issue here relates to the ecological impacts of consumption, both in terms of the kinds of things that we consume and the scale at which we're consuming. Whether we employ ecological footprint analysis or other measures of overall material thoughput, it is clear that constantly accelerating rates of consumption in the advanced industrial world are having a devastating effect on the planetary ecology. In the case of the United States, for instance, 4.5% of the world's population is now consuming anywhere between 20 and 30 percent of the world's resources, and is thus ultimately responsible for a correspondingly disproportionate level of the environmental degradation now taking place across the globe.
Aurora: Following up on this point, could you comment a bit more on the ways in which your analysis of consumerism touches upon questions of international inequality?
Schor: If you think about the ecological issue, the international dimension is immediately obvious. From an ecological footprint perspective, the sustainable footprint on the global scale is somewhere around 2.3 hectares per person, I believe. Using this measure, the ecological footprint of the average American is around 10 hectares, whereas that of the average Indian is below 1. As this suggests, the problem today is not simply that the overall scale of the world economy is too large, but that the wealthy countries are consuming much more than their fair share.
In this light, when we talk about the need to cut back consumption and reduce the scale of the global economy in order to develop a more sustainable human relationship to the natural environment, questions of global equity should be at the forefront of this discussion. One obvious principle of global equity would be that every human being on earth should have the right to an equal share of the global commons. This implies that people in poor countries who pollute far less and degrade the environment far less than is sustainable should be able to increase their use of resources, raise their standards of living, and actually consume more. It also clearly suggests the need for serious reductions in the use of planetary resources by wealthy consumers in the West.
Aurora: In contrast to those who have tended to analyze consumption by isolating it from other spheres of social activity, you've insisted upon the need to understand the dynamic interaction of production and consumption, of work and leisure. Could you elaborate upon this point?
Schor: First of all, I should say that my emphasis upon connecting production and consumption is another thing that distinguishes my views from postmodern views. I have always felt that postmodern accounts of consumption devote little thought to where purchasing power actually comes from - presumably, it simply falls like manna from heaven. Unlike the postmodern and neoclassical approaches (which, by the way, I think share a lot of common ground), I locate the drivers of consumer society on the production side. This is quite different than arguing that people have simply been brainwashed into wanting a lot of stuff or that we are all just inherently consumers by temperament.
My argument is that there are systemic pressures within the production process, coming from the profitability strategies of employers, which translate productivity growth into greater output and increased incomes rather than shorter hours of work. This "output bias" (as I and others have called it) is built into the very logic of capitalist market economies, and requires constantly escalating levels of consumption to absorb the expanding output of goods and services. Basically, this type of system funnels income to people without giving them the option to work less or consume less.
Aurora: What are some of the broad trends in the sphere of work that have accompanied or even helped to fuel the rise of the New Consumerism?
Schor: If we look at the period of time following the second World War in the United States, we see a couple of decades of roughly stable hours of work, in which workers were getting real wage increases more or less proportionate to increases in productivity. Over the last 25 years, however, we've seen the emergence of a situation in which not only are workers not getting the option to reduce hours, but productivity growth is increasingly associated with longer hours of work.
As a consequence, we've witnessed a gradual ratcheting up of work norms, driven by employers in two ways. In the case of salaried jobs, the labour market has seen more people competing for a limited number of positions, and in these circumstances employers have simply been able to demand and get more out of employees. For hourly workers, the ongoing decline in wages has forced people to increase their hours of work simply to maintain their target level of income. On top of this, firms have also been demanding more and more mandatory overtime from such workers.
So, whether we look at it from the point of view of the average worker or the average household, what we have been seeing in American society is a really substantial increase in hours of work. This means not only longer average hours of work for each individual earner, but a greater degree of overall participation in the labour force, with a shift towards more dual earner families.
Aurora: What effects have these changes had upon the domestic sphere?
Schor: One thing that happens is that women who work more in the labour market cut back at home quite substantially. By some estimates, every additional hour at work in paid labour reduces unpaid labour in the household by half an hour. So, what results is either a dramatic decline in the direct production of household services such as meals and childcare, or overwork and burnout among women who are saddled with the burdens of both paid and unpaid work. In either case, I think that this trend has impoverished family and community life in some pretty important ways. Basically, the market sector has been cannibalizing the domestic sphere, sucking huge flows of labour out of the unpaid sector - labour that is absolutely essential to the preservation and reproduction of the social fabric.
Aurora: Aside from simply curtailing free time, how have the increased time-pressures faced by workers affected the nature or experience of leisure itself?
Schor: I'm not an expert on leisure time, but I would say a couple of things are important to underline here. One is that, all other things being equal, the more people work, the more difficult it is to create satisfying leisure time. One clear reflection of this is the established correlation between long hours of work and television-watching. As cross-national data suggests, the countries today with the highest average work hours are also those with the highest overall levels of television-watching.
When people are stressed out and exhausted, it is easier to engage in passive leisure activities such as watching television. When time is scarce, it is harder to commit oneself to more active types of leisure activity which, while they may be more personally satisfying, also require much more time and effort to carry through. The activities that give people the most joy and satisfaction - for instance, playing a musical instrument, participating in a theatre group, or practicing a craft or hobby - are generally those which require the development of what Tibor Scitovsky calls "consumption skills." Activities which require little prior skill and can be done immediately by almost anyone, such as surfing the Internet or shopping or watching TV, typically score lower in terms of real human satisfaction or what social scientists call "process benefits."
Aurora: In your work, you've consistently highlighted the fact that rising levels of material consumption among the general population in recent decades have not translated into a corresponding increase in felt satisfaction, quality of life, and actual well-being. Along similar lines, you've also stressed the inadequacy of a progressive political strategy oriented around simply maximizing the income (and hence consumption power) of working people. Could you discuss the limits of this traditional "income solution", as you call it?
Schor: I think the crux of why just getting more income will not ultimately prove to be really empowering and satisfying for the vast majority of people is that the satisfaction that we gain from income is largely relative once we get out of poverty. In the absence of any change in our relative social position, rising incomes and increasing levels of material consumption do not in themselves yield any significant increase in real satisfaction. To say that many of the benefits of consuming are relative rather than absolute merely reaffirms my earlier point about needing to understand consumption sociologically.
In this light, the problem with the conventional "income solution" traditionally put forth by the trade-union movement and other progressive forces is that it fails to recognize that inequality itself is as much the problem as low absolute levels of consumption. Union workers in the US, for instance, rank in the top 20 percent of the country's income distribution. So what is it that remains problematic for them? Well, they may find their work dull and unsatisfying, and have minimal control over its pace and organization; they may lack access to quality public services outside of the workplace; they may crave a greater degree of security in their job and in their livelihood. None of these issues are addressed by simple quantitative increases in income.
Overall, the problem with the income solution is that it doesn't deal with quality of life and the things which ultimately give people well-being. Equality itself, for instance, is a huge positive determinant of well-being. The more equal the community or society that people live in, the better off they generally are. Another key determinant of well-being is the quality of the social relations that people enjoy. If you have to work long hours to earn an income, then this will undermine the quality of your relations with your family, your friends, and your community. Income in itself doesn't provide most people with a great deal of meaning or satisfaction. Indeed, as psychological research has shown, those people who place the highest priority upon income and material advancement as a source of meaning and identity tend to score lower than all others in standard measures of emotional and physical well-being.
Progressives need an approach which addresses the root causes of the frustrations and dissatisfactions that people today feel. By failing to address such issues, advocates of the income solution have basically assumed that workers should continue to trade off autonomy on the job, meaning and empowerment in their daily life activities, free time, and all of those other intangible satisfactions, for more income and more purchasing power. As it turns out, the very things being traded away are those which actually provide well-being.
Aurora: While dissatisfaction with consumerist norms and values is fairly widespread today, it often seems that people can see few practical ways of combatting them other than making purely personal commitments to be more conscientious in their purchasing habits, to live more simply, to watch less TV, to recycle, re-use and repair, and so on. How effective is this kind of individualized response to consumerism?
Schor: Consumption is a social thing. It is a social activity and its meaning is social. Ultimately, the individual response is limited in the sense that there are not that many individuals who will go against the grain of the culture in a strong way. So, individual action needs to be complemented by a broader process of social and cultural change which can start to transform the dominant values of consumerist society.
One lesson learned early on by people interested in "downshifting" and "voluntary simplicity", for instance, was that their private rejection of consumerism could only really begin to have a significant effect when they started to coalesce into a social movement engaged in a wider collective struggle. To shift from one type of consumption regime to another, we need to work together to change our relationship to consumer goods, and to create different types of consumption which steer clear of the problems endemic to the private status-seeking consumer system we're now in.
In part, this will require a renewed community affirmation of non-status consumption - of public goods that we can all share in such as education, health care, parks, leisure time, arts and culture. These are actually the things that give people the most durable well-being, meaning and satisfaction, but which are getting crowded out in the escalation of private status-seeking consumption. To get all of these public goods, however, you need a political movement and political organization, because they involve governments and collective decision-making, and because we pay for them together as a social body.
Aurora: In The Overspent American, you focus your attention primarily upon middle-class and upper-middle class people who have grown alienated and dissatisfied with the work-and-spend cycle of the conventional consumer lifestyle. As you acknowledge, it is often the privileges enjoyed by this group - their financial security, their educational levels, the flexibility and autonomy afforded by their careers, and so on - which have actually enabled them to "downshift" into alternative ways of living which are less materially opulent but more personally satisfying. Is anti-consumerist politics, as some have argued, an inherently middle-class phenomenon?
Schor: This characterization is accurate in some ways, although I don't think that anti-consumerist politics is inherently middle-class. As a self-conscious political movement, it has indeed been composed largely of people that are white, middle-class and college educated. However, there are two additional things that need to be said which complicate this picture.
The first is that we can see other types of downshifting, and other critiques of consumerism, coming from different segments of the population. When I did polling on the U.S. population, for instance, I found very high levels of downshifting among low-income people. These are not simply people who ended up low income, but people who started out without high incomes and made voluntary cutbacks in their hours of work and their earnings for a variety of reasons - to take care of family members, to deal with health issues, and so on.
If we think historically, working class communities have also been important sources of anti-consumerist sentiment, of critiques of bourgeois values based upon alternative values such as solidarity and equality. I think that this sensibility still exists to some extent in certain working class communities. For example, when we look at the gap between people's incomes and their consumer aspirations, this gap is much higher among white, college educated, higher income people than among working class people. This points to a noticeable class difference in the extent to which consumerist values are held across the population.
A second point to emphasize is that the voluntary simplicity movement and other strands of anti-consumerist politics are largely concerned making it possible for all people to live a good life with a fairly modest level of income. Their basic political message is, "let's not have a world in which, in order to have a good education or get decent health care or have meaning or time in your life, you have to earn a ton of money." This brings us back to a point I made earlier - that low income people have the most to gain from a shift from private to public consumption, because it is they who will benefit the most from greater access to public goods outside of the market.
Aurora: In recent years, it seems that neoliberal politicians have developed their own rhetoric of "downshifting." To justify their assault on publicly-funded social programs, for instance, they argue that an over-generous welfare state has created a "culture of entitlement" which has inflated people's expectations, undermined the traditional ethic of frugality and hard work, and so on. In Canada, right-wing think-tanks have decried the "luxurious" lifestyles of welfare recipients, and have parsimoniously compiled lists of goods (from eye glasses, to televisions, to coffee and margarine) that should be considered "non-essential" for the poor. In this context, is there a danger that a progressive politics oriented around reining in artificial consumer needs might play into the wrong hands?
Schor: I think that this is a trap that may be easier to fall into than some people recognize. To avoid it, I think that you need to keep issues of distribution and equality at the forefront of our analyses, combining a critique of consumer culture with a critique of the way the market system works and the kind of outcomes that it produces. This is how you mitigate the danger of falling into the right-wing perspective, which focuses primarily on cultural factors and uncritically embraces the market system.
Unlike conservatives, who might superficially sound like they are saying something similar, I don't believe that people's expectations are being driven by some pathological culture of entitlement. I've always argued that the main problem is the profit-driven productive system itself and its connection to the consumption system. For conservatives, the market system and its outcomes are beyond reproach. If people are poor, it is because they are screwing up and not doing what they are supposed to do within the logic of that system. What I'm arguing is that the economic system itself is the problem. My focus on consumption is merely one part of my analysis and one part of my politics.
Aurora: It often seems that political appeals from the left are framed in terms of pain and sacrifice - summoning the masses to renounce their privileges and to relinquish their complacent comforts in the great struggle for a new tomorrow. In the case of anti-consumerist politics, critics such as Kate Soper have argued that this type of asceticism needs to give way to an increased emphasis on the positive (or even "hedonistic") pleasures of non-consumerist ways of life. What is your take on this?
Schor: I totally agree - although I would be reluctant to use the word "hedonism", which has some darker connotations to it which go beyond simple fun and pleasure. That said, I don't believe that a politics of sacrifice is appealing, and think that such a politics is ultimately bound to fail. I think that what we have to do is present a vision of a different way of living that is qualitatively better and more satisfying for people. This is not just a PR issue - indeed, I've been trying to argue for a long time that it is in fact the case that if we change the way we relate to goods, the kinds of goods we produce, and the way they're distributed, that we would be much better off.
To succeed, I think we need a positive quality of life vision that touches upon the concerns and frustrations of both middle class and low-income people. The kind of system we are in now is more brutal for poor and low-income people, obviously, but it is not serving middle-class people very well either. The fact that the system is ultimately undermining the well-being of both groups is what opens up the possibility of a political alliance in the future.
Dennis Soron was a researcher with the Neoliberal Globalism and its Challengers Project at the University of Alberta. He was also, among other things, a sessional lecturer with the Sociology Department at the University of Alberta, a faculty member of Athabasca University's Master of Arts in Integrated Studies, and the editor of the Parkland Post. He has since moved on, and is now working at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario.
Schor's Homepage at Boston
Featuring a brief biography, bibliographic information, full-text articles, course outlines, useful links, and more.
Center for a New American Dream
Why can’t we spend our way back to normal, October 2011, Time.com
The Center For Popular
This non-profit organization, of which Schor is a co-founder, provides economic literacy training to activists, educators, and other people working for progressive social change.
Schor sits on the Advisory Board of this non-profit organization, whose aim is "to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy."
Article published Winter 2004Updated March 2018
Soron, Dennis. (2004) The Politics of Consumption: An Interview with Juliet Schor. Aurora Online