Ishay Landa
Original publication:

The Negation of Abnegation: Marx on Consumption (2018)

84 minutes | English

Appeared originally in Historical Materialism 26.1, 2018, pp. 3-36.

This essay revisits Karl Marx’s understanding of consumption, in an effort to rescue it from the overshadowing legacy of critical theory which has construed Marx as inveighing against false needs. It is argued that Marx regarded the expansion of needs entailed by capitalism in a generally favourable way, but saw capitalism as a system yoking use-value to the imperatives of profit accumulation, hence limiting and subjugating the consumption of the masses. While Marx’s position was radically different from conventional anti-consumerism it is equally incompatible with complacent affirmations of ‘the consumer society’ in that Marx at all times aimed at a revolutionary change which will transform consumption both quantitatively and qualitatively. Marx’s views are first discussed as expressed in the perennially-cited text, the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. The second part moves on to examine the further evolution of Marx’s ideas as found in later texts, particularly the Grundrisse.

The author would like to thank Dana Kaplan and Eran Fisher, as well as the anonymous reviewers of Historical Materialism, for their useful suggestions and commentary on an earlier version of this paper. [1]


Ubiquitous Invisibility

In theoretical confrontations with consumerism, Marx’s position is a most peculiar one: he is omnipresent, yet, at the same time, imperceptible. So much has happened in the field of consumer studies since its incipient days [2] and yet seemingly little which does not ultimately confirm or dispute Marx’s seminal insights on consumerism, from the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Different as they may otherwise be, both those inspired by Marx and his critics are essentially united in seeing him as a formidable early adversary of embryonic ‘consumer society’, whose arguments need either to be endorsed — by those critical of said society — or negated, at least transcended — by those more favourably disposed toward it.

In the works of critics of consumerism, who remain by far the predominant group, Marx still looms large as a mostly unchallenged father figure. There are few essays, books, or anthologies addressing or introducing consumer society and culture which do not pay homage to Marx, often positing his thought as the point of departure of their inquiries. I will provide just a few examples. One anthology dealing with ‘the consumer society’, published by Blackwell, opens its selection of 28 contributions from major theorists of consumption past and present with two foundational items from Marx, which are said to represent both his philosophical and economic thought, namely a discussion of estranged labour from the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and the chapter on the fetishism of commodities from the first volume of Capital. This choice is justified, the editor explains, since it is ‘within the specific logic of capitalism, and to no considerably small extent within Marx’s analysis of this logic, that many of the debates about consumption have been framed and understood’. [3] At this point, two additional claims are made which are the bread and butter of this kind of literature: firstly, Marx is presented as a fierce critic of consumption under capitalism, and this not primarily on account of scarcity or inequality, but because it is existentially deficient, alienating and de-humanising. Paraphrasing Marx’s position, it is claimed that ‘we live in a world of phenomenal forms, materials which, in their estrangement from us, may indeed “satisfy” certain material or biological needs but cannot hope to connect with our existential and ontological “essence”.’ [4] Secondly, and no less characteristically, there occurs an almost seamless shift from Marx himself to subsequent authors, normally associated with the Frankfurt School, who are said to have further elaborated on Marx’s preliminary critique of consumer alienation. In this case, the author is Herbert Marcuse: ‘The understanding implied by Marx and made explicit in the quotation from Marcuse that commodities represent non-essential dimensions of our species-being is formally captured in the concept of “fetishism”.’ [5]

A similar move is discernible in the work of the American sociologist and outspoken critic of consumerism, Juliet B. Schor, whose studies are undergirded by the Frankfurt School’s conviction that capitalism is all about a deleterious mass-inculcation of ‘false needs’, as forcefully encapsulated in the title of one of her books: ‘The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need’. [6] The anthology of texts on the consumer society she jointly edited properly begins with Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s quintessential ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’, which is introduced as ‘drawing on Marx’s theory of alienation in the workplace’. [7] Roberta Sassatelli’s wide-ranging exploration of consumer culture, while not referring mainly to Marx, is heavily indebted to him. ‘According to Marx,’ she approvingly claims, ‘in capitalist societies consumers no longer understand what is and isn’t of use to them, and they end up consuming commodities whose only utility is to enrich those who organized their production and circulation.’ [8] From there she proceeds to outline the way such insights were taken up and further refined by the Frankfurt School.

Marx has indeed been so heavily ‘Frankfurtised’ that some commentators can afford to move effortlessly from Marx to critical theory. According to Eva Illouz, for example, Marx’s ‘critique makes at least four analytically distinct claims: commodities have thoroughly pervaded the fabric of human relationships, they mystify consciousness, they debase the nature of human needs, and they are obstacles to any project of self-liberation. Critical theory has extended this critique to the phenomenon of global mass consumption.’ [9] This passage is followed by an endnote. Consulting it, one finds reference not to Marx, but to Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and Erich Fromm. [10] What is more, two endnotes further down, the following remark is inserted: ‘It should be noted that Marx himself saw capitalism as a revolutionary force with emancipatory powers.’ [11] In this literature, ‘Marx’ thus functions as a shorthand abbreviation for critical theory. In order to discover more about the views of ‘Marx himself’, one is advised to read the footnotes very attentively.

In the following example, Marx is entirely subsumed under ‘Marxism’, which is represented as an integral part of a tradition profoundly hostile to consumerism and even to prosperity as such: ‘a reinvigorated critique of consumerism in the West […] sits squarely within a broad critical tradition — taking in both Marxist and liberal theorists as well as ecological thinkers — that views the commodity affluence of western modernity in overwhelmingly negative terms.’ [12] Other works offer a more nuanced understanding of Marx’s position, in which oscillations are detected between affirmations of the productive achievements of capitalism and critiques of consumer culture. More often than not, however, emphasis is placed on the latter aspect. [13]

Conversely, this exegesis of Marx as a forerunner of critical theory habitually goes unchallenged by those writers endeavouring to furnish a less-condemning perspective on consumption. The result is that such renewed appreciation of the subject matter is presented as an overcoming of Marx and his successors. The latter are taken to task for a dogmatic repudiation of the consumer society and/or a productionist bias which has reputedly long forestalled any effort to acknowledge the significance of consumption as a sphere relatively autonomous from production. Thus, in the very opening page of one such book, the need is affirmed to move away from Marx in order to do justice to the complexities of contemporary consumption: ‘But now the majority of the populace have access to the ever-growing consumerist fruits of the productivist tree, and so perhaps it is time to stand Marx on his head and claim that consumption, not production, is the central motor of contemporary society.’ [14]

The work of the British anthropologist Daniel Miller, probably the most salient representative of this attempt at a re-evaluation of consumption, while hard to define, ultimately exhibits a similar trend to present Marx as an obstacle to be surmounted. For instance, in one of his recent works, he conducts a colloquium between three fictive discussants who are meant to represent the main approaches to consumption within academia: Mike, a ‘Green’ thinker; Chris, in the Marxist ‘Red’ corner; and Grace, an anthropologist. Mike and Chris are united in strongly condemning consumption, while Grace, clearly the closest to Miller’s own perspective, must attempt to persuade them to embrace a more sophisticated approach and qualify their entrenched anti-consumerism — which by the end of the book she largely achieves, although apparently with greater success as far as the Green interlocutor is concerned, while the Marxist one seems somewhat less impressed. [15] To be sure, Miller often equivocates on the question of where exactly the difficulty lies: with Marx himself or with the Marxist tradition. At times, he gives the strong impression that the latter is the case as when he claims that he ‘writes this polemic not as a Marxist, but as someone who believes that “Marxists” in the end failed the challenge Marx set them’, namely that of developing a dialectical analysis, rather than a static one. [16] Such promising qualification notwithstanding, Miller frequently, and as it happens even on the page from which I have just quoted, charges Marx himself with a productivist prejudice which has made the prospect for future efforts to ‘acknowledge consumption’ a daunting one. [17]

This broad overview of approaches to Marx and consumption would not be complete without mentioning the neo-Marxism which turns to Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony rather than to the Culture Industry matrix, as its main source of inspiration and mediation of Marx. This route, taken most significantly by the Birmingham school of cultural studies and its salient representatives — Stuart Hall, Angela McRobbie, Paul Willis, and others — has admittedly led to more satisfying results. Yet whilst commendably recuperating something of the dialectical vision Marx originally offered and which the Frankfurt School reduced to indignation and despair, the Birmingham-school line of neo-Marxism tended for its part to forget that Marx’s dialectics had a revolutionary goal, and was meant not only to represent capitalism and its striking contradictions but to transcend it. So while the Frankfurt School deplored the alleged fact that revolution has become impossible, hence frequently adopting a politics of resignation, the Birmingham school seemed often to imply that revolution is not, or no longer, necessary, entailing a reformist politics of a typically neo-Keynesian character. As plainly stated by Daniel Miller, whose work evinces many affinities with the perspective of cultural studies: ‘I am not advocating an alternative to capitalism.’ [18]

So far we have dealt with Marx’s ‘omnipresence’ in studies of consumerism. We must now turn to elaborate on his ‘invisibility’. For it is my contention that the Marx attaining such a prominent status is essentially an impostor, or a dummy. Assuming Marx’s identity, his actual function, whether consciously intended or not, is to keep the genuine Marx out of sight — even if, as we have had occasion to witness, he sometimes makes a fleeting appearance in footnotes, in between the lines, or in qualifying remarks. The upshot of this strange manoeuvre is that Marx is defeated twice: first by his admirers, then by his critics. The purpose of this essay is therefore to allow him to confront both. I hope to show that, unlike the critical theorists who accuse capitalism on account of consumerism, and the ‘culturalists’, if so they may be called, who see in consumerism a reason to approve of capitalism, Marx enables us to do something radically different: challenge capitalism in the name of consumerism[19]

Two Cities, Two Manuscripts

In order to think about Marx’s approach to consumption, it is useful to focus our gaze on two main texts, both published posthumously, and both dealing extensively with matters pertaining to consumption under capitalism. Both, one might say, have played a crucial role in the formation of our understanding of Marx yet have done so in diametrically opposed ways: the first text has been ever-present; the second, by contrast, has facilitated the common notion of Marx as a forerunner of the Frankfurt School by remaining conspicuously absent. The first, and much-cited text, was written in Paris in 1844: the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts; the second, largely-suppressed text (as far as the topic of consumption is concerned) was written in London in 1857–8: the Grundrisse. Tracing the differences between these two texts, with occasional reference to other writings, will allow us to clarify the need for a revaluation of the widespread image of Marx as a critical theorist avant la lettre. Marx’s notion of the fetishism of commodities and its familiar reading as an anti-consumerist cipher will not be discussed in this paper for the simple reason that, as many who use it to criticise consumerism in fact admit, it does not deal directly with consumption and can, at most, be extrapolated to that area. [20]

Paris: The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

Let us start in 1844 Paris, when Marx is 26 years old at a very early phase of his career, some four years before writing The Communist Manifesto. The ‘Paris manuscripts’, as they are sometimes called, have become a canonical reference-point in discussions of ‘the consumer society’. They have inspired and served to stamp a Marxist seal of approval on a whole brand of literature disparaging consumerism. And it cannot be doubted that several passages, at least when read in isolation, do give credence to such an interpretation. Notable among them is the following, perennially-invoked passage, where Marx unleashes a critique, eloquent and fierce in equal measure, of the selfish and ruthless mechanisms underlying capitalist commerce and its harmful and degrading consequences:

Under the system of private property […] [e]ach person speculates on creating a new need in the other, with the aim of forcing him to make a new sacrifice, placing him in a new dependence and seducing him into a new kind of enjoyment and hence into economic ruin. […] [T]he expansion of production and needs becomes the inventive and ever calculating slave of inhuman, refined, unnatural and imaginary appetites — for private property does not know how to transform crude need into human need. […] No eunuch flatters his despot more basely or uses more infamous means to revive his flagging capacity for pleasure, in order to win a surreptitious favor for himself, than does the eunuch of industry, the manufacturer […]. [21]

Elsewhere, the cynical, self-centred and conspicuous consumption — to use the term anachronistically — of the idle rich is scathingly portrayed:

There is one form of extravagant and inactive wealth, given over exclusively to pleasure, the owner of which is active as a merely ephemeral individual, rushing about erratically. He looks upon the slave labour of others, their human sweat and blood, as the prey of his desires, and regards man in general — including himself — as a futile and sacrificial being. He arrogantly […] propagates the infamous illusion that his unbridled extravagance and ceaseless, unproductive consumption is a condition of the labour and hence subsistence of the others. [22]

Or consider the following acerbic commentary on the rudimentary popular pastimes which capitalism permits and fosters:

Just as industry speculates on the refinement of needs, so too it speculates on their crudity. But the crudity on which it speculates is artificially produced, and its true manner of enjoyment is therefore self-stupefaction, this apparent satisfaction of need, this civilization within the crude barbarism of need. The English gin-shops are therefore the symbolic representation of private property. [23]

Such views, and there are comparable passages in the 1844 text, appear to entirely warrant Don Slater’s succinct summary of Marx’s verdict on consumption under capitalism, based on this text: ‘So much for consumer culture.’ [24]

But are things so simple? In reality, even if we were to approach the 1844 manuscripts in isolation from the subsequent development of Marx’s thought and assume that they were Marx’s last and most authoritative text, rather than one of the first and most provisional, we would still need to read them very selectively to fit their author into the mould of critical theory. For far from straightforward and univocal, the manuscripts are in fact polyphonic and ambivalent concerning the way consumption and capitalism relate to each other. This conceptual richness finds its expression in many insights powerfully defying the pessimistic reading of consumption later espoused by critical theory. Critical theorists argue, recurrently in Marx’s name, that consumption is integral to capitalism and compliant with it, and hence typically prescribe a disengagement from consumption as a radical remedy. A crucial aspect of Marx’s analysis, however, already in 1844, involved accentuating the ways in which capitalism runs against consumption, limiting, stifling and subjugating it. Far from seeing renunciation of consumption as a viable solution or a political rallying cause, Marx was concerned to show how it is in the nature of capitalism itself to foster such renunciation. This is so much the case that in order to make the Marx of the manuscripts a crusader against consumerism he needs to be interpreted in an extremely partial manner, which is indeed what happens.

This can be illustrated by having a look at Erich Fromm’s influential reading of Marx as a critic of consumerism, and showing how such a reading is obliged to misapply Marx’s contentions, occasionally to the point of capsizing them altogether. It is important to clarify that I by no means impute to Fromm any dishonesty or suggest a conscious manipulation of the facts on his part; my aim is simply to address the objective results of his interpretation. In an essay on Marx’s humanism, written in the early 1960s, Fromm took issue with twentieth-century communism for accepting what he presumed to be the goal of capitalism: enlarged production and consumption — ‘The aim of society, for Marx, is not the production of useful things as an aim in itself. One easily forgets, he says, “that the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people”.’ [25] Placing this sentence in its actual context, however, clarifies that Marx’s real point was to attack the wish of some economists to produce merely useful things in the sense of necessities, as opposed to luxuries, things that are beautiful, gratifying, fashionable, etc. Say and Ricardo, Marx claims, ‘forget that it is use which determines the value of a thing, and that it is fashion which determines use; they want only “useful things” to be produced, but they forget that the production of too many useful things produces too many useless people.’ [26] Marx argues against their prudence, and reminds them that extravagance propels industry forward, whereas moderation is economically stagnant, and hence creates ‘useless people’, people without employment. A statement against the theory of necessary, basic needs, Fromm transforms into one against superfluous needs.

To be sure, Marx equally refuted the opposing school of bourgeois economists, represented by Malthus and Lauderdale, who have defended luxury: but he considered them inconsistent defenders of luxury, inasmuch as prodigality runs against the imperative of capitalist accumulation. One finds adumbrated in the 1844 manuscripts a theory of capitalism as a system of limited consumption, which will be further developed in Marx’s later writings: ‘This science of the marvels of industry is at the same time the science of asceticism, and its true ideal is the ascetic but rapacious skinflint, and the ascetic but productive slave. Its moral idea is the worker who puts a part of his wages into savings.’ [27]

Fromm’s general thesis was based on an allegedly Marxist dichotomy — ‘to have or to be?’ [28] — whereby having means consuming, and being means refraining from doing so, beyond the minimal level required to rescue humanity from ‘the abysmal poverty which interferes with a dignified life’. [29] In the lines concluding his 1961 essay, Fromm recapitulated what he believed was the concept of man located at the very heart of Marx’s philosophy: ‘The man who is much, and has little; the man who is rich because he has need of his fellow man.’ [30] A very similar point was expressed, a little later, in the 1968 protest slogan, ‘The more you consume, the less you live [consommez plus, vous vivrez moins]’. Again, this appears to be a simple reformulation of 1844 Marx: ‘The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have.’ [31] And yet Marx’s real aim here was to defend consumption, not chastise it. He indeed contrasted ‘being’ and ‘having’, but the act of consumption was decidedly part of being, as opposed to having. ‘Having’ for Marx here meant abstaining from consumption, it meant ‘accumulating’ and ‘saving’. This becomes evident when the sentence is read in its context:

Self-denial, the denial of life and of all human needs, is [political economy’s] principal doctrine. The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume — your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the more you store up of your estranged life.

Pace Fromm, being and having in Marx are not mutually exclusive propositions, for if you want to be, you clearly have to have. This throws into vivid relief Marx’s true contrast: capital accumulation, on the one hand, against being, living, and consuming, on the other hand. While Fromm was entirely justified in drawing attention to the deeply humanist commitment of Marx’s theory and its emphasis on rich and satisfying social relationships and free human development, he gave this humanism an ascetic bent which was fundamentally alien to Marx, even in 1844. Notice that of the twelve activities Marx here mentions, six clearly involve consumption (eating, drinking, buying books, going to the theatre, going dancing, going drinking), five are artistic, intellectual and emotional activities (thinking, loving, theorising, singing, painting) and one is a sporting-recreational activity (fencing). It should be clear, moreover, that many of these latter activities (with the — partial — exclusion of thinking, loving, and singing) are impossible without the necessary wherewithal (in capitalism) or useful things (in communism): one can hardly fence or paint, for example, without first obtaining brushes, canvasses, helmets, swords, and the like.

That Marx’s humanism by no means anathematised consumption is evident from the discussion shortly preceding the previous citation, where Marx defends increased workers’ consumption and ‘multiplication of needs’ in defiance of the capitalist tendency to severely restrict both. ‘By reducing the worker’s needs to the paltriest minimum necessary to maintain his physical existence’, Marx argues, ‘the political economist declares that man has no other needs, either in the sphere of activity or in that of consumption. […] [A]ny luxury that the worker might enjoy is reprehensible, and anything that goes beyond the most abstract need — either in the form of passive enjoyment or active expression — appears to him as a luxury.’ [32]

The attempt to expunge materialism and abundance from Marx’s social vision is symptomatic of a very extensive literature, drawing one-sidedly upon the 1844 manuscripts: ‘one-sidedly’ indeed in the two senses which we highlight in this paper, namely that the manuscripts are virtually the sole source cited to represent Marx’s position and, moreover, that they themselves are selectively read. A recent example is an anti-consumerist book written by three authors, in which the 1844 Marx is cast as a prescient critic of ‘the all-consuming epidemic’ which is baptised as ‘affluenza’. [33] The father of historical materialism is presented as a thinker concerned with reducing production and consumption so that they correspond to a set of — very basic — ‘real material needs’, [34] and who downgraded material aspirations in favour of spiritual ones. ‘Marx’s goal’, it is asserted, ‘was never a materialistic one.’ [35] The authors believe that Marx can be an ally in their campaign to trim down not just the workers’ working hours, but also their consumption. They invoke him to re-define ‘wealth as disposable time’, in a way which disposes of all but the most minimal material requirements: ‘Of course, Marx understood that human beings must have enough wholesome food, decent shelter, and protective clothing. Mass production, he believed, made it possible for everyone to achieve these ends.’ [36] Marx’s vision is demoted to a system of material disregard and paucity of needs, more properly befitting the animal minimum: ‘wholesome food, decent shelter, and protective clothing’. Notice how humble are the demands put on capitalism: humans should have a ‘shelter’, as if they were dogs or horses, a shelter which moreover need simply be ‘decent’, rather than, say, spacious, comfortable, agreeable. There is apparently greater force behind the certainly true claim that capitalism makes people work long hours, and that for Marx disposable time was the prerequisite of freedom. But even this scarcely amounts to a powerful challenge to capitalism: many under capitalism do not work; among these, a significant part does obtain the human/animal minimum of material provisions, at least in the industrialised countries: they get food, shelter, clothing. Plus, they get plenty of disposable time. Clearly, however, these are not the blessed of the earth. This paraphrasing of Marx as a champion of minimally-equipped idleness runs into all the paradoxes which Sean Sayers has dissected in his excellent, Marxist critique of those, like André Gorz, who envision the abolition of work, rather than its transformation, as the goal of radical politics. [37] It also runs against Marx’s less than admiring characterisation, in The Poverty of Philosophy, of a society that looks to free time alone as its utopia: ‘In order that this new right to loaf might be not only relished but sought after in the new society, this society would have to find in idleness its highest bliss, and to look upon labour as a heavy shackle from which it must break free at all costs.’ [38]

This point should not be misunderstood: it is entirely justified to stress the value of disposable time — available for the purposes of self-development, recreation, rest, artistic activities, and so on and so forth; there is nothing wrong in pointing this out as an indispensable component in Marx’s idea of a better society, and underlining the shortage of such free time under capitalism. But this is by no means the core of the argument put forward by the authors of Affluenza. For them, emphasis on freed time is rather employed to conceive a false dilemma between wholesome wealth of time and harmful material wealth (echoing the way Fromm problematically pitted humanism — in itself a worthy cause — against prosperity). The former kind of wealth is thus less meaningful in itself, as much as it serves as a foil to the latter kind. For Marx, however, no such dilemma existed, for he clearly believed humanity ought to enjoy both kinds of wealth. He disowned any radicalism which is based on ‘a preconceived minimum’ and a ‘return to the unnatural simplicity of the poor’. [39] ‘Atheism and communism’, he likewise asserted, do not mean an ‘impoverished regression to unnatural, primitive simplicity’. [40] As early as The Holy Family, pleasure — in close proximity moreover to industrial advance — was celebrated as central to the materialistic heritage precisely inasmuch as it presages socialism: ‘There is no need for any great penetration to see from the teaching of materialism on the original goodness and equal intellectual endowment of men, […] the great significance of industry, the justification of enjoyment, etc., how necessarily materialism is connected with communism and socialism.’ [41]

In conscripting the Marx of the Paris manuscripts to the ranks of anti-consumerism, another de-contextualisation of the text needs to be accomplished, i.e., the elimination of the social circumstances under which Marx was writing and a subtle but crucial conversion of the classes whose habits are being taken to task. Marx was writing in the context of a society in which consumption above a fairly limited minimum was restricted to thin social layers. Hence his critique at its most caustic targeted, not even the middle classes, as much as a freeloading elite of idlers, cynics, and debauchees, ‘inactive wealth, given over exclusively to pleasure’. As far as mass consumption is concerned, Marx in 1844 highlighted its blatant insufficiency. Far from preaching restraint, he was therefore urging an increase in workers’ consumption, a quantitative and qualitative upgrading. By contrast, ever since the 1950s anti-consumerism has addressed what John Kenneth Galbraith famously referred to in 1958 as ‘the affluent society’ of the industrialised West. And it is precisely against such mass consumption, that of the average consumer, that critical theory and similar strands of literature are preaching. Generally speaking, it is not the sybaritic spending of the super-rich which attracts attention, but rather that of the average Joe and the ordinary Jane. Consumer society is being rejected as a system of fairly horizontal and egalitarian consumption — or so at least it is perceived. As a result of this shift in those classes whose consumption is censured, the modern critique often reflects class snobbery. This elitist agenda, true enough, is usually implied rather than expressly stated, but on occasion it is given free reign even in texts vouching for a radical criticism of capitalism. Consider the following neo-aristocratic lamentation on the part of the Belgian situationist Raoul Vaneigem, writing on the eve of the 1968 student uprising:

[T]he imperatives of consumption have so democratized the need to display power, that the symbolic force of wealth has been lost. Under the dictatorship of consumer goods, money melts away like a snowball in hell […]. Consumer goods encroach on the power of money. […] From blue blood to the power of money, from the superiority of money to the power of the gadget, the nec plus ultra of Christian/socialist civilization: a civilization of prosaism and vulgar detail. A perfect nest for Nietzsche’s ‘little men.’ [42]

Marx’s passionate defence of the worker’s entitlement to consume, recurrent throughout the 1844 manuscripts, is usually elided in the anti-consumerist literature. One example of Marx’s position will have to suffice:

The greater his activity, therefore, the fewer objects the worker possesses. […] The estrangement of the worker in his object is expressed according to the laws of political economy in the following way; the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume […]. It is true that labour produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the workers. [43]

This passage is also useful for tackling the inadequacy of another interpretive move which is typical of the attempts to subsume the young Marx under critical theory, namely the effort to de-materialise Marx’s social vision, decouple it from the centrality of material production and consumption, and present it as concerned mainly with overcoming spiritual and cultural alienation. Alienation, in fact, is often presented in this tradition as a condition attendant upon material abundance, which comes at the price of a spiritual malaise and loss of purpose amidst a ghostly universe populated by fetishised commodities. Marx, however, detected alienation not so much in the world of objects, but from such objects; alienation affected the worker primarily as a result of her enforced separation from the objects of production, owned by the capitalist, and from the enjoyment of the consumer product. The worker was seen both as an estranged, subjugated, producer and as a constrained, deprived, consumer; exploited labour and restricted workers’ consumption reinforcing each other. Objectification, much decried by critical theorists, was consequently first and foremost the result of such worker-consumer dispossession. Marx asks the reader to scrutinise ‘objectification, […] the production of the worker, and the estrangement, the loss of the object, of his product, that this entails.’ [44]

Attaining material empowerment is therefore central to Marx’s thought as early as 1844 (which is by no means to say that he then — or at any later point — narrowed his project to the merely material or believed that increased possession of goods is the sole purpose of revolutionary struggle). The whole concluding part of the Paris manuscripts, in fact, reads like a resolute effort to redeem the objective dimension of human existence, to insist on humanity’s corporeal, natural and productive activities, against the one-sided elevation of subjectivity and consciousness which Marx imputes to Hegel and his disciples. Marx was keen to rebuff the philosophical accusations against objects and objectivity as something inherently alien to humanity, enslaving or degrading. He wanted to defend the world of material production and consumption, the world of goods, as a fundamental sphere of human activity, perhaps the major arena where humanity has historically empowered and ennobled itself. Here, although the language is somewhat different and more abstract, one glimpses the Marx who famously celebrates industry and production — even, indeed especially, in their bourgeois form — from The Communist Manifesto. ‘An objective being’, Marx affirms, ‘acts objectively […]. It creates and establishes only objects because it is established by objects, because it is fundamentally nature.’ [45] As if in anticipated response to an entire elegiac literature lamenting the overshadowing of the human by the material, the ever-growing significance of things for humanity, Marx saw fit to underline precisely the natural, unavoidable and indeed advantageous character of such materialism. The objects of the human being’s drives, he goes on, ‘exist outside him as objects independent of him’. Yet to this state of things he attributed no demeaning or disempowering significance. Quite the contrary:

[B]ut these objects are objects of his need, essential objects, indispensable to the exercise and confirmation of his essential powers. To say that the human being is a corporeal, living, real, sensuous, objective being with natural powers means that he has real, sensuous objects as the object of his being and of his vital expression, or that he can only express his life in real, sensuous objects. [46]

As a complement to the celebration of Marx in the tradition of critical theory as the forefather of the theory of reification, it is high time to juxtapose an understanding of Marx as equally the great critic of the theory of reification, inasmuch as the latter has lapsed into a non-dialectical opposition between humans and objects. In Marx, objects, qua manifestation of human needs, work and ingeniousness are humanised, while humans are no less objectified, retrieved from the prison of the pure spirit: ‘A being which is not itself an object for a third being has no being for its object, i.e. it has no objective relationships and its existence is non-objective. A non-objective being is a non-being.’ [47] Marx’s struggle against specific forms of estrangement typical of capitalism should not be confused with a negation of materialism, for in truth, as already said, Marx saw estrangement from goods as a major obstacle which communism needs to conquer. In several places, moreover, Marx anticipates his future view of history by seeing bourgeois estrangement not simply as a calamity but also as a necessary precondition for the progress towards a qualitatively better society. Human self-realisation as a species-being, Marx says, this time agreeing with Hegel, ‘is only possible if he really employs all his species-powers — which again is only possible through the cooperation of mankind and as a result of history — and treats them as objects, which is at first only possible in the form of estrangement.’ [48] Private property is therefore a conduit to a communal one: ‘The meaning of private property, freed from its estrangement, is the existence of essential objects for the human being, both as objects of enjoyment and activity.’ [49]

Nor should we lose sight of the social significance of Marx’s approach: in stark contrast to so many of his successors, who have appealed to him in confirmation of their elitist social theories and epistemologies, lamenting mass obduracy and inanity, Marx’s theories were conceived in fundamental opposition to the arrogance of many of the Young Hegelians (Bruno Bauer, notably). These thinkers had embraced a doctrine which has ‘reduced the whole process of history to the relation between the rest of the world, which comes into the category of the “masses,” and itself. It has assimilated all dogmatic antitheses into the one dogmatic antithesis between its own sagacity and the stupidity of the world’, etc. etc. [50] That such comments against ‘the critical Christ’ of the nineteenth century do not completely lose their poignancy when confronting the critical theorist of the twentieth century does not, I trust, require further elaboration. [51]

Our Parisian sojourn close to completion, and before moving on to London, can we safely conclude, then, that a close reading of the 1844 manuscripts evidences no common denominator with those later works which have so heavily drawn upon them to denounce consumer society? Such a conclusion would bend the stick too far. It cannot be denied that the overall portrait of consumption under capitalism painted by the manuscripts is indeed uncomplimentary. Consumption by the rich, unsurprisingly, is passionately attacked; capitalist ingratiation and ruthless product promotion is forcefully exposed in ways which still resonate with consumers’ experience more than 170 years later. Mass consumption, for its part, though defended in principle, is seen as virtually non-existent above a level very close to the biological minimum, and to the limited extent that it does exceed such a level, as sometimes crude and barbaric. The manuscripts contain a moral condemnation of capitalist cynicism, a realistic exposure of the way it engenders scarcity, and a defence of expanded consumption and of the legitimacy of material pleasures. Certain passages in the 1844 manuscripts can be read as if they were simple anticipations of critical theory, but only in isolation, and forcing the vibrant operations of the dialectic to a standstill.

London and the Grundrisse: A Turning Point that Never Was

In the mystery story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes draws the attention of a Scotland Yard detective to ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’. When the surprised detective remarks that the dog did nothing during the night, Holmes famously responds: ‘That was the curious incident.’ [52] Mutatis mutandis, this response aptly captures the curious impact of the Grundrisse on consumer studies: ever since its first publication in 1939 it did — nearly — nothing. In contradistinction to the omnipresent Paris manuscripts, the Grundrisse has been effectively marginalised. To get an idea of the differential treatment received by these two texts within the literature on consumption, it is useful to consult again The Consumer Society Reader published by Blackwell. As will be recalled, this collection begins with two excerpts from Marx, from the 1844 manuscripts and from Capital. But, perhaps with a hint of a guilty conscience, the editor notes that ‘it may seem rather odd, at first glance’ that neither of the first two contributions deal ‘directly with consumption’. [53] This selection of texts is justified, however, on the grounds that Marx’s analysis of capitalism has impinged on the debates on consumption and is hence indispensable. In a shortly-following footnote, however, we are suddenly informed that ‘Perhaps the most systematic discussion of consumption in Marx’s entire work is found in the Grundrisse.’ [54] And the obvious question is: why, then, not rely on Marx’s statements which do deal directly with consumption, from the Grundrisse? To do so, however, would entail a paradigm shift in so-called Western Marxism. For the Marx who writes there is not only different from the proto-Adornian thinker to whom we have become so accustomed; he is rather his opposite figure in nearly every respect. Let us therefore permit the Grundrisse to finally bark.

The Grundrisse appreciates capitalism dialectically, as a mode of production in which progress and reaction, abundance and scarcity contradictorily interlock. To the extent that capitalism encourages working-class consumption, expands needs, etc., Marx is appreciative of its contribution. And his critique is based mostly on the assumption that such consumption remains chronically under-developed in capitalism. The reason for this dialectical play of pushing consumption down while simultaneously boosting it up, is the fact that the capitalist has a very different relationship with the workers whom he encounters at his factory, as opposed to those he meets at the marketplace:

[E]ach capitalist does demand that his workers should save, but only his own, because they stand towards him as workers; but by no means the remaining world of workers, for these stand towards him as consumers. In spite of all ‘pious’ speeches he therefore searches for means to spur them on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire them with new needs by constant chatter etc. [55]

Stopping here, this can be construed as conventional leftist pessimism, emphasising the inculcation of false needs, etc. But the immediately ensuing remarks dispel any such notion. ‘It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour’, Marx adds, ‘which is an essential civilizing moment, and on which the historic justification, but also the contemporary power of capital rests.’ [56] This terse statement attests the full import of the shift from the moral perspective of Paris to the more fully dialectical appreciation of London. Compared to the 1844 position, what has changed is not the moral appreciation of the capitalist per se: he remains the self-same ingratiating eunuch so vividly described almost fifteen years earlier. What does come into the picture, vitally enriching it, is a sort of Mandevillian awareness of the fact that, regardless of his subjective intentions or even despite them, ‘malgré lui’, the private vice of the capitalist produces here a public benefit. In 1844 there was no hint that the capitalist might generate, however involuntarily, a civilising effect. His was a merely corrupting, corrosive role. In 1858 capitalism is no longer reduced to a villainous figure pure and simple but is portrayed as a paradoxical character that calls consumer society into being, but forces it to assume a submissive position vis-à-vis its accumulating master.

Marx, like his self-proclaimed followers, sees capitalist production as a force which enlarges and develops human needs, indeed that creates myriad new needs in order to further commodity consumption. Yet for him this does not present a reason to chastise capital but precisely to acknowledge its merit. In expansion of needs Marx consistently identifies one of the main ‘civilising aspects of capital’, a turn of phrase which in itself would suffice to cast a heavy doubt on subsequent appropriations of Marx for pessimistic cultural critiques. Marx agrees with his followers in the description of the phenomenon itself, but only to sharply differ from them when it comes to the estimation of its effects. Where they denounce cultural decline, Marx generally sees a mark of progress; where they notice barbarism, Marx perceives civilisation. Consider the following observation, split in order to permit analysis:

Production thus produces not only the object but also the manner of consumption, not only objectively but also subjectively. Production thus creates the consumer. Production not only supplies a material for the need, but it also supplies a need for the material. […] Thus production produces consumption (1) by creating the material for it; (2) by determining the manner of consumption; and (3) by creating the products, initially posited by it as objects, in the form of a need felt by the consumer. [57]

The author seems to be talking here like a respectable, well-trained ‘Marxist’. [58] He affirms the linkage between capitalist production and capitalist consumption, and points without hesitation to its far-reaching significance, which encompasses both objectivity and subjectivity. Yet this is a merely descriptive convergence; for as soon as we add the axiological dimension into the account, the way Marx assesses the value of the phenomena he discusses, we see that he declined ‘Marxism’. For it is not implied that such linkage disqualifies consumption under capitalism, turns it into a harmful, barbaric or inhuman experience. Far from it, the process signifies improvement. ‘Hunger is hunger’, Marx tells us in the sentence immediately preceding the above quotation, ‘but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth.’ It seems evident that Marx regards the first kind of hunger as one more properly human, not less so. And the further commentary also implies the ascent of culture and its refinement, not its eradication or degradation: ‘As soon as consumption emerges from its initial state of natural crudity and immediacy […] it becomes itself mediated as a drive by the object. The need which consumption feels for the object is created by the perception of it. The object of art — like every other product — creates a public which is sensitive to art and enjoys beauty.’ [59]

Expansion of consumption and a universal ‘development of needs’ is a salutary movement; that it is bound up with capitalist production, as Marx fully recognises, says nothing against it. On the contrary, this is where Marx identifies the ‘great historic quality of capital’. [60] Elsewhere, Marx underlines ‘the great civilising influence of capital’, driving beyond ‘all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfaction of present needs’. [61] Marx further credits capitalism with what might be called a democratisation of luxury, with transforming items erstwhile reserved for elite consumption alone into necessities, consumed by the masses:

The greater the extent to which historic needs […] are posited as necessary, the higher the level to which real wealth has become developed. […] [T]he transformation of what was previously superfluous into what is necessary, as a historically created necessity — is the tendency of capital. […] Luxury is the opposite of the naturally necessary. Necessary needs are those of the individual himself reduced to a natural subject. [62]

Nothing is therefore further removed from Marx’s understanding of consumption at that stage in the development of his thought than the standard complaint against the way capitalist production engenders ‘false needs’, makes us want what we do not need. In the Grundrisse, Marx did not simply refrain from making such an accusation; he vigorously attacked its logic, identifying its elitist, sanctimonious and bourgeois nature. ‘Artificial need’, Marx states, ‘is what the economist calls, firstly, the needs which arise out of the social existence of the individual; secondly those which do not flow from his naked existence as a natural object. This shows the inner, desperate poverty which forms the basis of bourgeois wealth and of its science.’ [63] The proliferation of needs which occurs under capitalism is thus a quintessentially emancipatory moment, a token of human enrichment and socialisation, but also a development which owes little to the subjective intentions of the bourgeoisie, whose members in fact oppose its logic and would prefer to arrest it. Hence the bourgeoisie rather stresses the ‘artificiality’ of socially produced needs, taking as its yardstick humanity’s natural scarcity, its ‘naked existence’. That Marx posited the notion of ‘false needs’ within the bourgeois horizon, casts an unflattering light on those subsequent generations of readers who have made such ample use of this term. Its ‘critical’ ambition notwithstanding, the theory of ‘false needs’ is firmly rooted, according to Marx, in bourgeois ideology. The false-needs matrix might in fact be said to be immanent to capitalism, where one need only is seen as genuine: the need to accumulate. Accumulation is consumer society viewed from the vantage-point of capitalism proper. Hence the ritual grievances of neoliberals with regard to the excessively high standard of living of the people, who have given in to inflated wages, luxury and indulgence, preaching the need on the part of wage-earners to ‘tighten the belt’, work harder for less recompense, if The Economy is ever to recover. Under capitalism — to employ Freud’s terms — the pleasure principle of the masses must be strictly subordinated to the reality principle of the sublimating elite.

From a capitalist standpoint the consumer is at bottom a dupe, albeit a valuable one, impoverishing himself while enriching others. In the second volume of Capital Marx made this point very clearly with regard to ‘the exponents of the Mercantile System’ who insisted ‘that a capitalist nation should leave the consumption of its commodities and consumption in general to other more stupid nations, while making productive consumption into its own life’s work. These sermons are often reminiscent in both form and content of analogous ascetic exhortations by the Fathers of the Church.’ [64] But given the general capitalist subordination of use-value to exchange-value, this vantage-point is by no means merely mercantilist. It informs capitalist ideology far more broadly. For limitations of space the example of Adam Smith will have to suffice. This formative thinker distinguished rigorously between ‘the principle of expense’ and ‘the principle of frugality’, and regarded ‘every prodigal […] a public enemy, and every frugal man a public benefactor’. [65] ‘Capitals’, he stated, ‘are increased by parsimony, and diminished by prodigality and misconduct’. [66] For Smith, too, unproductive consumption, enjoyment of use-value, is ultimately a misconduct. Yet without such bad behaviour, without prodigality and expense, industriousness and parsimony would be in vain. The point, and here Smith reproduces the mercantilist schemata, is to make sure as far as possible that consumption comes from without, from other nations. Smith therefore unfavourably compared Paris — whose vast trade is undertaken mainly to indulge ‘its own consumption’ — with London, Lisbon, and Copenhagen, whose advantageous situation ‘fits them to be the entrepôts of a great part of the goods destined for the consumption of distant places’. [67] The good patriot, Smith made clear shortly thereafter, is not simply that citizen who refrains from consuming foreign products, but he who in general consumes very moderately and seeks rather to encourage production for the consumption, by implication, of prodigal, foolish, foreigners. [68] If, going along with Marx’s similes, we think about capitalism as replicating the ascetic morality of the Fathers of the Church, it must nonetheless be recognised that, in opposition to the Church’s proselytising mission, whose aim is to universalise its creed, capitalist asceticism thrives rather on preserving and expanding a large enough pool of unenlightened, prodigal heathens. Christian virtue excoriates ‘sin’; capitalist virtue profits from it.

What capitalism is by definition refrained from doing is to endorse the point of view of the consumer proper, of use-value understood as a goal rather than a means. It must always — considered morally, culturally, philosophically, psychologically and aesthetically — take its stand against, as Smith put it, ‘the passion for present enjoyment’, [69] even as it exerts itself to capitalise on it. [70] ‘The cult of money’, Marx affirmed, ‘has its asceticism, its self-denial, its self-sacrifice — economy and frugality, contempt for mundane, temporal and fleeting pleasures; the chase after the eternal treasure.’ [71] Marx elsewhere claimed that ‘the accumulation of wealth’ is always the true goal of capitalist production, its prime motivation, and when the capitalist ‘enjoys his wealth’, even conspicuously so, this is done ‘with a guilty conscience, with frugality and thrift at the back of his mind.’ [72]

Capitalism doubtlessly regards the consumer as a target, and when leftists religiously repeat and broadcast this insight, ground their claims on the exposure of the countless false needs and ephemeral pleasures which capitalism caters to, they do not turn it into a radical critique of capitalist logic. On the contrary, they reproduce it, with the frequent upshot that, uncannily closing ranks with capitalist ideologues, they come to disdain the thankless dupes they hoped to enlighten, and predictably end up ‘throwing insults at those they have come to save’. [73] Marx’s position, as I see it, sets forth a radically different challenge, namely to defend the point of view of the consumers, justify their ‘depravity’, rescue it not so much from capitalist temptations but from capitalist defamation and instrumentality, and in doing so to point beyond capitalism, exposed precisely as a system of (ethical) anti-consumption. In that respect, Marx’s is a fundamentally Hegelian move, which embraces as intrinsically valuable the expansion of needs entailed by the bourgeois mode of production, as Hegel did in such works as System of Ethical Life (1802–3) or Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820), thereby transcending the narrowly instrumental perspective of political economy. In contradistinction, however, to Hegel’s ultimate accommodation to bourgeois society, which left its fundamental contradictions merely camouflaged by the supposedly conciliatory mediation of the state, Marx held that only a different societal form might genuinely resolve its contradictions, the dilemma of consumption not the least among them.

Marx and the Capitalist Limits on Consumption

For Marx, the fundamental point to be made against capitalism was that of restraining the consumption of the masses and yoking it to the relentless logic of profit accumulation. Under capitalism, Marx ascertains in the third volume of Capital, the ability of society to consume ‘is determined neither by the absolute power of production nor by the absolute power of consumption but rather by the power of consumption within a given framework of antagonistic conditions of distribution, which reduce the consumption of the vast majority of society to a minimum level, only capable of varying within more or less narrow limits.’ [74] This forms the recurring gist of Marx’s censorious analysis of capitalist consumption from, at least, the mid 1850s onwards: ‘The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses, in the face of the drive of capitalist production to develop the productive forces as if only the absolute consumption capacity of society set a limit to them.’ [75] Capitalism offers not a feast for the masses to gorge themselves on, but an austere diet. Marx’s real point is virtually the inversion of the one made in his name by countless spokespersons. According to Roberta Sassatelli, Marx maintains that ‘Individuals’ capacity to consume cannot be a barrier to economic development: the capitalist system must therefore induce ever-new needs in the human spirit, manipulating desires for commodities and increasing them incessantly.’ [76] For Marx, however, what limits the capacity of the masses to consume is capitalism itself. Capitalist ‘sale of commodities’, he plainly states, ‘is restricted not by the consumer needs of society in general, but by the consumer needs of a society in which the great majority are always poor and must always remain poor.’ [77] The individuals’ capacity to consume is a barrier which capitalistic economic development is intrinsically restrained from reaching. Technologically speaking, the means of production existing under capitalism can indeed manufacture enough goods to reach and exceed (or rather expand) this limit, but they are forever kept from doing so by the simple fact that such production yields no profit. The moment capitalism ‘over-produces’ it is checked by its own, systemically-imposed limitations to mass consumption, which results in a crisis of over-production. [78] The way that capitalism systematically falls short of satisfying consumer needs and desires is underlined in Theories of Surplus Value:

When, for instance, the market is glutted by shoes or calicoes or wines or colonial products, does this perhaps mean that four-sixths of the nation have more than satisfied their needs in shoes, calicoes etc.? What after all has over-production to do with absolute needs? It is only concerned with demand that is backed by ability to pay. It is not a question of absolute over-production — over-production as such in relation to the absolute need or the desire to possess commodities[79]

For the same reason, Marx elsewhere in the same book incisively differentiates between production of commodities — artefacts embodying surplus-value and produced for profit — and production of products, which are made to satisfy needs. With regards to the latter goods, he emphasises, ‘there can of course be absolutely no talk of an over-production of products […]. On the contrary, it must be said that on the basis of capitalist production, there is constant under-production in this sense.’ [80] Here Marx identifies both the possibility and the need for a superior socioeconomic constellation, arising out of capitalism but transcending its limits, in which mass consumption — ‘the absolute consumption capacity of society’ — will become the end of production: ‘The development of the productive forces of social labour is capital’s historic mission and justification. For that very reason, it unwittingly creates the material conditions for a higher form of production.’ [81] Marx’s vision of this ‘higher form’, i.e. communism, is therefore one in which so-called affluent society ceases to be a Fata Morgana and becomes for the first time a reality. After ‘the abolition of the capitalist mode of production’, Marx maintains, ‘the part regularly consumed by the direct producers would not remain confined to its present minimum level.’ [82] Here we have a blueprint for a theory of consummunism, for a society in which mass consumption is expanded, not cut down to size, as eagerly expected by both left-wing pessimists and right-wing advocates of austerity.

A Political Conclusion

During the boom years which followed the Second World War, many dissidents in the Western world became convinced that capitalism had resolved the question of scarcity once and for all and had ushered in an era of unlimited consumption. So it then became a question, for those not making their peace with capitalism, of attacking it on the grounds that it produces excessive material wealth, flooding humanity with worthless, shoddy goods. Ever since the 1960s, at the latest, the left has criticised capitalism as a system of relentless growth which has to be stopped, firstly for political reasons, and then, of course, also for environmental ones. Capitalism is conventionally portrayed as a monster that grows continually, until it reaches ‘the limits to growth’ which are external to it, natural limits, such as depleted resources, climate change, and so on.

From a Marxist point of view, critics of consumerism bark up the wrong tree altogether. Instead of attacking the Achilles heel of capitalism, the artificial limits on consumption, they concentrate their attacks, in effect, on its civilising aspect, its expansion of needs. They construe a system of chronic under-consumption (relative to the productive power of society, not to past modes of production) as a system of over-consumption. [83] This criticism functions to defuse the potential political explosiveness of mass consumption. One of the essential insights to be gleaned from Marx concerns, I believe, the way that capitalism is in many ways incongruent with consumerism, the latter being the source of numerous problems from a capitalist point of view, of a social, cultural, psychological, political, and even economic nature. Here, for limitations of space, I will only touch upon the political expressions of friction between consumerism and capitalism.

Mass consumption is customarily narrated as a tale of insidious manipulation: the masses are cast as pliant mannequins, swayed at will by public-relations experts. This is a system, so the argument goes, in which fabricated ‘desire’ takes the place of genuine ‘need’, in a way which disregards the historical and social nature of needs. Yet even if, just for the sake of discussion, we accept this as an accurate portrayal of the mechanism of mass consumption, the political implications drawn from this portrayal would still be questionable. For it is precisely the ‘inflaming of desire’ which can turn into a political problem for capitalism. Regardless of whether they are seen as wholesome or detrimental, the new desires must now be satisfied by capitalism, and the failure to do so can trigger civil unrest. Already in the mid-eighteenth century, an English squire named Jonas Hanway used the quintessentially political metaphor of the Magna Carta to describe the consumer demands of the labouring classes. He did so with regard to the profoundly un-English vice of drinking tea:

A cup or two as a bitter, […] confined to the higher orders of the people, […] could do no great mischief. […] It is the curse of this nation, that the labourer and mechanic will ape the lord […]. You may see labourers who are mending the roads drinking their tea. […] They consider it as their magna charta, and will die by the sword or famine, rather than not follow the example of their mistresses. What would you say, if they should take it in their heads not to work without a daily allowance of French wine? This would not be thought a mere extravagant demand now, than tea was esteemed forty years ago. Consider the tendency of these pernicious and absurd customs! [84]

Marx and Engels, too, acknowledged early-on the vast political importance of consumer expectations, and did so precisely in the context of laying out the premises of their materialist conception of history as against the narrow idea, favoured by idealists, that what makes history are great men, great ideas and great political events: ‘Take the case of sugar and coffee, which have proved their world-historical importance in the nineteenth century by the fact that the lack of these products, occasioned by the Napoleonic Continental System, caused the Germans to rise against Napoleon, and thus became the real basis of the glorious Wars of Liberation of 1813.’ [85]

In times of crisis, capitalist ideologues aim to justify austerity measures. They therefore become critical theorists of sorts, and do their best to remind the masses that the things they desire, they do not actually need. But it is not so easy to re-bottle the genie of consumerist desire. This explains why numerous conservatives had realised that mass consumerism is a political liability. Daniel Bell once referred to this predicament as ‘a revolution of rising entitlements’. [86] Mass consumerism becomes a Trojan horse within the capitalist framework, precisely because this system can only imperfectly accommodate it.

To proceed from the assumption that the problem with capitalism is that of over-consumption is indeed to open up a space for the survival of capitalism, if only it sees sense and reduces consumption. Hence the hope, so frequent even among the most zealous critics of consumerism, that capitalism might yet be saved by retrieving the ethical core it is alleged to have once possessed. Thus Benjamin R. Barber, for example, nearing the conclusion of a book-length tirade against consumerist frenzy, poses the following, hopeful question: ‘Resisting Consumerism: Can Capitalism Cure Itself?’ For Marx, this can only be answered positively: yes, capitalism will resist consumerism, indeed cannot but do so. And Barber, after his own fashion, agrees with Marx’s diagnosis. Yet unlike Marx he sides with capitalism, not mass consumption. He delivers a stern warning to his readers against the dangerous illusion that capitalism can ever be dispensed with: ‘Overthrowing capitalism has never been either a viable or a desirable option. […] So today the challenge is not capitalism per se but restoring the balance between capitalism and the many other independent life worlds it once helped establish, but now, dependent on hyperconsumption, it threatens to destroy.’ [87] Behind such a criticism of consumption plainly lies the effort to brush aside the gauntlet thrown down by frustrated consumers at the doorstep of capitalism. It is all about countering the ‘tendency of these pernicious and absurd customs’, anxiously noted by Jonas Hanway more than 250 years ago. [88]

At stake is no less than the question of whether the capitalist system can and ought to survive. Marx considered capitalism an intrinsically volatile system, unable in the long run to sustain the rate of profit it requires for continual economic growth: ‘this characteristic barrier in fact testifies to the restrictiveness and the solely historical and transitory character of the capitalist mode of production.’ [89] The capitalist limits on mass consumption are laden with political significance, since they underline the transiency of capitalism and the need to transcend it. The more capitalist ‘productivity develops’, writes Marx, ‘the more it comes into conflict with the narrow basis on which the relations of consumption rest.’ [90] To insist, therefore, on locating the problem in consumerism is to ignore economic realities and urge capitalism to stay, while expecting the masses to foot the bill; to attack capitalism in the name of mass consumption, by contrast, is to prompt capitalism to listen to the advice it receives on the part of reality and ‘to be gone’, giving ‘room to a higher state of social production’, more capable of satisfying the masses’ needs and desires. [91] Can we deduce from this that, a certain youthful hesitancy notwithstanding, Marx ultimately gave us carte blanche to embrace consumption of commodities produced under capitalism, disregarding the blatant exploitation on which such production rests, its environmental toll, and the tremendous inequalities in which it is embedded? Drawing such a conclusion is unwarranted and would be both theoretically and practically destructive. Consumption in a society qualitatively different from capitalism will doubtlessly undergo a significant transformation. Many goods and needs now produced will lose their relevance when (and if) this mode of production is superseded. Cautiously undertaken, a critique of consumption under capitalism can therefore convey the imperative need for such social change, by pointing to the harm and futility of specific commodities that presently abound — for example ‘locks of all sorts’ or ‘stock market tape’. [92] Perhaps even more significant is the need to move from the exploitative and apathetic (lack of) association which prevails between consumers and producers under capitalism to a society which may be capable of investing both production and consumption with an affective commitment, a mutual dependence and recognition, as envisaged by Marx in the powerful passages closing his Excerpts from James Mill’s ‘Elements of Political Economy’ (1844).

Such criticism, however, is a weapon that cuts both ways, and can easily serve conservative purposes. If Marx is anyone to go by, capitalist consumption variously nurtures the seeds of its own metamorphosis by way of a democratisation and expansion of needs, destabilisation of past boundaries and hierarchies, and by creating an ardent thirst among people all around the world for a life of plenty and well-being which it cannot truly quench. Hence the fear and loathing of mass consumption which innumerable elitists and conservatives have evinced, for the last 300 years at least, and with perfectly good sense from their perspective. By contrast, so many of the criticisms levelled at mass consumption on the part of radicals, whatever grains of truth they may contain, are self-defeating. Instead of galvanising the more-or-less inchoate protest of mass consumers, intensifying its political potential and furnishing it with a theoretical rationale and a basis in historical developments, they pull the rug out from under their feet by reproving ‘false and imaginary’ needs.

‘Within bourgeois society’, Marx maintained, ‘the society that rests on exchange value, there arise relations of circulation as well as of production which are so many mines to explode it.’ [93] Yet even if we accept the proposition that the contradictions of consumption within capitalism are to be counted among these mines, can we still hope for a revolutionary change ahead of us, one that will facilitate the birth of a true ‘consumer society’ out of the pseudo-, or embryonic consumer society, which we see around us? What is missing today, of course, is the popular belief in the possibility, let alone inevitability, of a change; the notion that something positive may yet arise out of the mire of capitalist contradictions. But a renewed radical vision, re-employing resources of Marx’s theory which have been long forgotten or obscured, can perhaps replenish such a belief. For this to happen, radicalism will have to switch from pessimism to an affirmative vision of humanity’s empowerment, to embracing, rather than lamenting, the staggering expansion of needs brought about by modern history. Facing consumerism, Marxists should dare to become vulgar again. Instead of the wrongheaded attempt to enlighten the masses and drag them away from consumer society, they should follow the masses into consumer society, and radicalise it from within. And was this not the whole point of Marx’s communism to begin with, as opposed to many other socialisms, that it did not disgustedly stay apart from capitalism, but endeavoured to transcend it by exploiting its immanent contradictions? That it emphasised the productive power of capitalism and its emancipatory potential, just as it analysed the straitjacket into which such powers are ultimately cramped? The challenge of popular utopia, in that respect, is to unleash consumerism from capitalism, emancipate the exuberant wealth of use-value from the dictatorship of surplus-extraction. As Marx once put it:

London’s liveliest streets are crowded with one shop after another, behind whose hollow glass eyes all the riches of the world are displayed, Indian shawls, American revolvers, Chinese porcelain, Parisian corsets, furs from Russia and tropical spices, but all of these merry worldly things bear on their foreheads fatal, white paper labels with Arabic numerals and laconic symbols £ s. d. This is how commodities appear in circulation. [94]

The challenge is of tapping into the rich tradition of popular utopia, for example that of the medieval dream of the Land of Cockaigne, a place of plenty, mirth and promiscuity. A utopia which the upper classes, from a position of privilege and plenty, were traditionally mindful to ridicule. Consider Hans Sachs’s poem Das Schlaraffenland or Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting of the same title (1567), both of which satirise the popular dream as a paradise of fools, idlers and debauchees. As against such reproves we may quote the words of Marx’s friend, Heinrich Heine, where a utopia is envisioned of democratic prodigality, of mass extravagance, of sumptuous equality:

We do not wish to be sans-culottes, thrifty citizens, bargain-basement presidents: we are founding a democracy of gods who are all equally magnificent, equally holy, and equally happy. You demand simple costumes, abstemious manners, and pleasures without spice; we, on the other hand, demand nectar and ambrosia, purple robes, delicious scents, sensual pleasures, splendour, dances of laughing nymphs, music and comedies — Do not let this annoy you, you virtuous Republicans! To your censorious reproaches we reply in the words of a Shakespearean fool: ‘Dost though think, because though art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ [95]

Consumer society, with all its failures and contradictions, should not be rejected by Marxists with aloof superiority, but rather dialectically examined, with a view to the Schlaraffenland of unbounded pleasure, that consummate realm of freedom, which it elusively conceals.


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[1] Interested readers may also want to look into an interview with the author on the 99 ZU EINS! podcast, “Consumerism & Marx w/ Ishay Landa.” (2022) [web] — R. D. 

[2] For a useful recent survey of the development of consumer studies within sociology, see Warde 2015. 

[3] Lee 2000, p. xi. 

[4] Lee 2000, p. xii. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Schor 1998. 

[7] Schor and Holt (eds.) 2000, p. x. 

[8] Sassatelli 2007, pp. 74–5. 

[9] Illouz 1997, p. 146. 

[10] Illouz 1997, p. 331. 

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Humphery 2010, p. 112. For a comparable defence of ‘Marxism or neo-Marxism’ as providing the conceptual tools for attacking consumerism, see Lodziak 2002, p. 71. 

[13] See, for example, Slater 1997, pp. 106–13. 

[14] Corrigan 2011, p. 1. 

[15] Miller 2012. 

[16] Miller 1995, p. 49. 

[17] Not all Marxist approaches to consumption are in the final analysis more-or-less decoded exemplars of critical theory. In the work of Ben Fine, for instance, there is a conscious effort both to use Marx’s own writings as the main source and to defend Marx against the charges of economism and neglect of consumption. Less felicitously, however, Fine has expressly eschewed axiological issues, adopting an interpretation at a distance from ‘an unduly ethical reading of consumption. Is it good or bad?’ (Fine 2002, p. 4). Instead he has favoured a descriptive approach. For all its benefits, such a value-free methodology ends up undervaluing the important ethical and political dimension of Marx’s thought. 

[18] Miller 2012, p. 127. 

[19] This paper does not intend to provide a comprehensive account of consumption and its numerous ramifications. It is a part of a book-length study I am working on, dealing with consumerism and history, where several issues that are only mentioned here — for example the environmental implications of consumerism and its criticism in Green circles — are discussed. 

[20] In the study I am working on, I intend to explain why the fetishism of commodities cannot convincingly be seen as a satire on consumption. For the present purposes, I wish only to express my agreement with such readers with a panoramic grasp on Marx’s work as Michael Heinrich, who writes: ‘Marx did not use the term “commodity fetish” to describe how people in capitalism place an undue importance upon the consumption of commodities’ (Heinrich 2012, p. 59). For similar judgements, see Karatani 2005, pp. 208–9, Henning 2005, p. 296, and Fine 2002, p. 76. 

[21] Marx 1992a, pp. 358–9. 

[22] Marx 1992a, p. 366. 

[23] Marx 1992a, pp. 363–4. 

[24] Slater 1997, p. 110. 

[25] Fromm 1970, p. 37. 

[26] Marx 1992a, p. 362. 

[27] Marx 1992a, pp. 360–1. 

[28] A question which later formed the title of one his books (Fromm 1976). 

[29] Fromm 1970, p. 37. 

[30] Fromm 1970, p. 83. 

[31] Marx 1992a, p. 361. 

[32] Marx 1992a, p. 360. 

[33] Graaf, Wann and Naylor 2005. 

[34] Graaf, Wann and Naylor 2005, p. 137. 

[35] Graaf, Wann and Naylor 2005, p. 136. 

[36] Ibid. 

[37] Sayers 1998. 

[38] Marx 2010, p. 72. 

[39] Marx 1992a, p. 346. 

[40] Marx 1992a, p. 395. 

[41] Marx and Engels 1975, p. 154. 

[42] Vaneigem 2006, p. 72. 

[43] Marx 1992a, pp. 324–5. 

[44] Marx 1992a, p. 325. 

[45] Marx 1992a, p. 389. 

[46] Marx 1992a, pp. 389–90. Here and elsewhere, translation of the manuscripts was slightly altered to avoid the gender-specific talk of ‘man’, where the German is non-specific: Mensch. 

[47] Marx 1992a, p. 390. 

[48] Marx 1992a, p. 386. 

[49] Marx 1992a, p. 375. 

[50] Marx 1992a, p. 381. 

[51] According to Christoph Henning, Adorno, for one, reverted in many ways to the position of the Young Hegelians even when that entailed turning against Marx (Henning 2005, pp. 358–9). 

[52] Conan Doyle 2005, p. 411. 

[53] Lee 2000, p. xi. 

[54] Lee 2000, p. 9. 

[55] Marx 1993, p. 287. See also: pp. 419–21. Useful commentary on the way Marx here ‘anticipated consumer society’ is provided by Mandel 1999, pp. 390 and following. 

[56] Marx 1993, p. 287. 

[57] Marx 1993, p. 92. 

[58] And one author, at least, has read the passage as consonant with the later ‘pessimism’ of the Frankfurt School. See Miklitsch 1998, p. 82. 

[59] Marx 1993, p. 92. 

[60] Marx 1993, p. 325. 

[61] Marx 1993, pp. 409–10. 

[62] Marx 1993, pp. 527–8. Much later, the great materialistic historian Fernand Braudel similarly claimed that, under capitalism, the tendency is to bring former luxuries within reach of the masses. ‘The rich’, Braudel argued, ‘prepare the future life of the poor’, trying out ‘the pleasures that the masses will sooner or later grasp.’ (Braudel 1992, p. 184.) 

[63] Marx 1993, p. 228. 

[64] Marx 1992b, p. 139. 

[65] Smith 1999, p. 441. 

[66] Smith 1999, p. 437. 

[67] Smith 1999, p. 436. 

[68] Smith 1999, p. 439. 

[69] Smith 1999, p. 441. 

[70] Smith’s difficulties in coming to terms with consumption were pondered by many historians of economic thought. Joyce Appleby, for example, observed that, although ‘Smith placed consumption at the heart of modern market society’, he ‘was far from happy with the human propensity to consume, characterizing it […] as a fascination for “baubles and trinkets.”’ (Appleby 1994, pp. 168–9.) 

[71] Marx 1993, p. 232. 

[72] Marx 2000, Book I: p. 282. 

[73] Huxley 1994, p. 194. 

[74] Marx 1991, p. 352. 

[75] Marx 1991, p. 615. 

[76] Sassatelli 2007, pp. 74–5. 

[77] Marx 1992b, p. 391. 

[78] Marx 1991, p. 367. 

[79] Marx 2000, Book ii: p. 506; emphases added. 

[80] Marx 2000, Book ii: p. 527. 

[81] Marx 1991, p. 368. 

[82] Marx 1991, pp. 986–7. 

[83] To be sure, under-consumption here needs to be understood as a historical and relative term, not an absolute one. What Marx criticised is not absolute pauperisation — as much as some of his early pronouncements can be thus interpreted. His critique was ultimately levelled, rather, at the relative limitation on mass consumption, which cannot match the level of productive capacity objectively available. Marx pointed out how capitalism enhances production while ignoring the fact that ‘the mass of the producers remain tied to the average level of needs, and must remain tied to it according to the nature of capitalist production’ (Marx 2000, Book ii: p. 535; emphasis added). This is in agreement with Michael Heinrich who emphasises that Marx’s mature theory ‘can be understood as a theory of “relative immiseration”’ (Heinrich 2012, p. 127). For a comparable conclusion, including a useful overview of the political and academic debates on the absolute-immiseration thesis wrongly attributed to Marx, see Baronian 2013, pp. 135–9. 

[84] Hanway 1757, pp. 272–74; emphases in the original. 

[85] Marx and Engels 1976, p. 51. 

[86] Bell 1976, p. 23. 

[87] Barber 2007, p. 257. 

[88] In general, historians have shown far greater awareness of the challenge posed by consumerism to the capitalist order than social theorists, whose critiques are often oblivious to the history of the phenomena they are analysing. For an intriguing historical study of the radical impact of consumerist expectations in 1919 Paris, see Stovall 2015. 

[89] Marx 1991, p. 350. 

[90] Marx 1991, p. 353. 

[91] Marx 1993, p. 750. 

[92] Ollman 1976, p. 183. For a still-relevant account of ‘the consumer society’, striking a rare balance between a legitimate critique of consumption under capitalism and an appreciation of the benefits it entails, see Mandel 1999, p. 395. 

[93] Marx 1993, p. 159. 

[94] Marx 1990, p. 69; my translation. 

[95] Heine 1993, pp. 249–50.