Review of James Livingston’s Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (New York: Basic Books, 2011). ISBN: 9780465021864. 288 pages.
Reviewed by Michael Fisher
University of Rochester
Goods Aplenty: Against Thrift and the Question, “What For?”
Following on the heels of his contentious re-reading of late twentieth-century American thought and culture, James Livingston has written a new book that promises to provoke much more than historiographic controversy. As the title suggests, Against Thrift is an ethical indictment and a political argument against the Protestant work ethic; yet it also prophesies a new moral order that might be just around the corner.
Livingston wants us to be happier, more carefree and better able to enjoy the pleasures of this life. In no uncertain terms, he thinks we ought to abandon the last vestiges of Puritanism that constrain our bodies and our minds in favor of a wholehearted embrace of spending—vigorous spending. Instead of saving and delaying gratification, he goads us: we should be focusing our scarce psychic and material resources on satisfying desire in the here and now. Why? Because the age-old assumption that work should come before play, that self-discipline and restraint are preferable to immediate gratification, is based on a series of false premises. So Livingston says and, for much of Against Thrift, he presumes to demonstrate. As he puts it in the introduction, “In this book, I make the case for consumer culture: why it’s actually good for the economy, the environment, and our souls, among other things. In this sense, I’m trying to heal the split in our personalities by demonstrating that less work, less thrift, more leisure, and more spending are the cures for what ails us.”
What ails us in Livingston’s view is partly economic and partly psychological (hence the supposed split in our personalities). But the twin ailments stem from a common cultural root. At least in theory, most Americans still buy the Puritan premise that disciplined frugality begets virtue whereas giving in to one’s instincts begets vice. Because we remain beholden to the resulting economic mindset, which assumes that saving and investing in the future are the best ways to ensure long-term growth and security, we have trained ourselves psychologically to associate the deferral of emotional gratification—particularly the gratification that comes with buying consumer products—with goodness.
According to Livingston, this conventional wisdom informs everything from our personal morality to our response to the 2008 financial crisis; and the symmetry between the two examples is scarcely coincidental: “All adults—not just parents—have a powerful psychological urge to put their desires on hold, and that urge makes us receptive to the notion that we’d better be saving more and spending less, just like all the mainstream economists and reputable journalists keep telling us to. We know what will happen to our bank accounts, our waistlines, and our marriage vows if we stop listening to their insistent voice of reason.”
Against much popular (in fact Populist) opinion, Livingston argues quite convincingly that both the Great Depression and the Great Recession drew from this very thrift-centered mindset. We miss the connection, he says, only because we have yet to distance ourselves sufficiently from the late nineteenth century. Since the 1890s, when the original Populists almost succeeded in restructuring the existing relationship between labor and capital, American antimonopoly sentiment has gone hand in hand with the traditional argument against consumption; and the two have tended to reinforce each other. Particularly when the economy goes bust, as it did in 1929 and 2008, the majority of Americans blame corporate power and profligate consumers, and the underlying problem is said to be moral failings on the part of irresponsible individuals.
As Livingston documents throughout “Part One: Our Very Own Perestroika,” this typical response—moral indignation against excessive spending, speculation, and greed—was especially widespread after the 2008 crisis. Yet it ignores several key pieces of historical evidence, most importantly the role of surplus capital, or what Livingston calls “redundant profits with no productive outlet, which eventually find their way into speculative markets that inflate bubbles.” Here is his extended reading of both the Great Depression and the Great Recession:
I explain both events as results of surplus capital generated by huge shifts in income shares away from labor, wages, and consumption, toward capital, profits, and corporate savings. And I draw the obvious conclusion from the historical comparison: if the New Deal succeeded by enfranchising working people and shifting income shares back toward wages and consumption—not by means of a ‘financial fix’—then a massive redistribution of income away from capital, profits, and corporate savings is our best hope of addressing the causes of the recent crisis and laying the groundwork for balanced growth.
In hardboiled form, this is Livingston’s descriptive argument for why consumer culture is good for us, and it’s difficult to refute. As Marx, Keynes, and even Milton Friedman all agree, he tells us, increasing aggregate consumption is the true handmaiden of long-term growth and security; it was what ended the Great Depression, and it is what will get us out of the current slump if we let it, that is if we give in to more of our desires and spend vigorously here and now. Our real obstacles are cultural and psychological, not economic, Livingston insists. But our atavistic resistance to instinctual gratification—in effect, our Puritan attraction to repression—runs deep. Without a total revaluation, or at least a major reshuffling, of values it’s virtually immovable. Thankfully, Livingston is not one to shy away from ambitious intellectual tasks (his introduction is called “Waiting for Galileo”). In “Part Two: The Morality of Spending,” he unveils his normative argument for consumer culture’s goodness, this time with respect to our souls, and tries to re-designate consumption, instant gratification, and instinctual satisfaction as intrinsic moral goods.
As a self-described “radical empiricist,” Livingston may object to this last claim. He doesn’t believe in intrinsic moral goods the same way he doesn’t believe in metaphysical ideals like Truth, Beauty, or Justice, he might say. Yet by employing the word “Good” in his subtitle, he slyly evades the hard edge of his radical empiricism. He wants to enter into the debate over values, and in true Nietzschean form, his epistemological hang-ups about what actually constitutes “truth” take a backseat to the argument he wants to make convincing, indeed appetizing.
Whether his language is a subtle pragmatist’s trick or not, we ought to take Livingston at his word: he aims to convince us that spending is “moral,” that consumer culture is “good,” and that learning these lessons “might produce a new human nature that is more at ease in the world… a human being informed by a constant awareness of the needs of others, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral.” To be fair, he frames this last bit provisionally; Livingston admits that “we just don’t know what will happen when the renunciation of desire and the deferral of gratification and the delay of satisfaction are no longer necessary to organize society and build character.” But the reason he thinks this outcome is brightly possible is that he believes the liberation he prescribes is intrinsically good for us, not just pragmatically worthwhile. There is a difference, and Livingston’s language makes his argument clear.
So how does his argument work? The first step involves what Livingston calls “the politics of more.” Around the turn of the twentieth century, the Age of Scarcity passed into the Age of Abundance, and with this shift came a profound redefinition of American individualism. As Livingston describes it:
Defenders of the old individualism, then and now, typically insisted that the site of self-discovery and self-determination—the address of autonomy—was work, where productive labor taught the moral lessons of punctuality, frugality, and honest effort, and meanwhile imposed external, objective, material limits on the imagination of the producer. Defenders of the new individualism moved this location, or rather scattered it, so that the site of self-discovery and self-determination could be leisure, the pleasurable scene of goods consumption, as well as work, the strenuous scene of goods production. Thus necessity and freedom, occupation and identity, even males and females, were now aligned at different angles.
The Age of Abundance created the possibility for a new kind of self, a “social self” whose identity was primarily other-directed. For a social critic like Christopher Lasch, the erosion of traditional individual autonomy undermined psychic stability and led toward a culture of narcissism. Yet Livingston sees the transition in more sanguine terms. “The politics of ‘more’ defined autonomy…as a collective result of association with others—fellow workers, to be sure, but also people gathered with purposes or interests reaching beyond any workplace.” Redefined as such, American individuals enjoyed new political opportunities as well as new aesthetic ones. But the basic change was psychological: “This new individual’s identity was anything but private. It wasn’t an enduring inner self you discovered by retreating from the outer world; it was instead a social construction, the result of interaction with others.”
In Livingston’s account, the movement beyond scarcity—in America, the first stirrings of a mature surplus economy that advanced rapidly after 1900—etched the contours of the new moral horizon of consumer culture. In doing so, it also laid the seeds for two of the most important social movements of the twentieth century. Pointing to the Civil Rights Movement and the revolutions in Eastern Europe between 1968-1989, Livingston identifies a common pattern of resistance in which the (social) desire to take part in the joys of consumption “produced revolutionary political change.” In both cases, he argues, African American music—what he calls “the black aesthetic”—was “the crucial medium in the redistribution of representational power accomplished by the movement.” It gave African Americans and Eastern Europeans “the cultural credentials they needed to speak for the future, for the people, for the nation.” And without the new technologies that allowed the black aesthetic to be mass distributed and mass consumed, neither movement could have succeeded. In short, Livingston thinks we owe both movements and their positive contributions to society to “the ‘reification’ or commodification of social life we (rightly) associate with consumer culture.” It goes without saying that this debt should make us more appreciative of the ways in which consumer culture is good for our souls.
Livingston is certainly right to point to the correlation between late twentieth- century social movements and expanding consumer consciousness. But he downplays the fact that Protestant Christianity was in many ways the deepest moral source of what came to pass in the American South between 1955-1963, and that Vaclav Havel had serious misgivings about the West’s model of “consumer-led growth.” In Livingston’s telling, it’s as if the two movements arose from consumer longings alone, and therefore consumer culture stands acquitted of all the charges leveled against it. This curious logic points to a question Livingston never fully answers: independent of the ends to which people put them, is there a moral imperative embedded within consumer culture and the mass communication mediums that help diffuse it, or are these platforms morally neutral? Could they be used to produce any number of results, including the Civil Rights Movement? Or does some inherent moral property bend them toward manifesting greater respect for differences and deeper yearnings for democracy?
The question becomes especially pertinent when Livingston begins his defense of advertising, what he calls (again provisionally) “the thesaurus of our real feelings, the indispensable, vernacular language we use to plot our positions on the emotional atlas that is everyday life.” By now it’s clear what Livingston means by the eclipse of the former form of American individualism, and why he’s glad about this as a radical empiricist. As he explains ever so delicately, there is not, and has never been, any “enduring, authentic, internal core of your self that you call your character.” This is a myth we have inherited from history. In reality, “we all know that who we are depends, more or less, on what others make of us, how they see us, and that these others are mostly the absent causes we call strangers.” And we may as well embrace this. What David Riesman called the other-directed personality is in fact the natural state of human existence, and this just happens to be good news for the advertising industry.
The reason Livingston calls advertising “the last utopian idiom of our time” is that he believes “it purveys a way of being in the world that is free of compulsion—free of necessary labor, the work you do because you have to—on the assumption that when at your leisure, you’re free to choose an identity that might accord with the goods on offer.” Yet what makes this way of being good for us? What about it furnishes the proper structure for our souls? Presumably Livingston’s answer to these questions is: “like it or not, we create identities by means of commodities, buying and selling what we want to be.” But isn’t this a shallow vision of what human life can be? Not to mention what it ought to be? The freedom to buy, to satisfy desire by clicking an icon after seeing an ad on TV, sets a low bar for Utopia, much less for the attainment of what any of us might call the good life. Still, Livingston seems willing to compromise: “what advertising invokes is more of an idea than a place, more like a map or a video game than something you can experience in three dimensions. But for now, that’s utopian enough.” At this point one wants to cry out, “no, it isn’t.” Why should we be willing to settle for so little so late?
If, as Livingston believes, we have reached a condition of post-scarcity, advertising brings us no closer to lasting salvation. The surface depth and masked anxieties of the lives it depicts in its many varieties conjures something closer to hell: coercive visions of the good life achieved through proximity to certain products; silent invitations to mimic the elegant gestures of a person who exists only in a photograph or a set of moving images; how do these social messages offer anything resembling liberation from “compulsion, necessity, fear?”
Following Livingston’s logic, we end up mired in a wasteland of goods aplenty. He defends other-direction as the necessary and binding condition of our lives, but the only compass he offers is an endless stream of barely distinguishable commodities, of consumer “goods.” This leaves him heralding a wild west version of American individualism in which nothing exists outside the market of changing circumstance, where insatiable desire is our only guide. Fortunately, Livingston doesn’t have to worry whether some permutations of social selfhood are bad for us because he doesn’t believe in any fixed human nature. Instead he says “we might as well buckle up and prepare for takeoff,” letting “change, flux, the dissolution of everything we take for granted” carry us forward. But toward what? Where does the unstated “premise of advertising: ‘All that is solid melts into air”’ ultimately lead? After how many purchases do we ask the question, “what for?”
We get a hint in Livingston’s coda, “Bataille Made Me Do It.” After describing in great detail the lead-up to his “hamburger experiment,” the change in his life that he says is “most relevant to the arguments of this book,” the morality of spending finally reveals itself. It took a lot for Livingston to eat a hamburger again. As a dutiful husband and father, he denied himself the pleasure of animal flesh for years. But then things changed, and he decided it was time to loosen up and live a little. He scoured the best restaurant guides he could find, settling on a place called The Homestead “where the Kobe beef hamburger goes for twenty-one dollars as a lunch special and thirty-nine dollars on the dinner menu.” Livingston and his girlfriend went for dinner. He ordered a martini straight up to dull the pre-gratification anxiety, but it didn’t help. Nothing did. All he could do was face the moment when the burger came. And come it did:
It was delicious. Underdone, but delicious. All those fleeting bacon fumes from weekends past took up sudden residence in my mouth. But the meat was sliding around in there, as if the chef had somehow liquefied an honored part of a pampered, grass-fed cow. I was gargling beef. So I acceded to the unfreedom of my soul, took my girlfriend’s advice, and sent the Kobe burger back to the kitchen. On its return, it was much more solid and no less delicious. Even so, the junior partner in the table’s choices [his girlfriend’s burger] was clearly superior in every respect: the smaller, cheaper burger got the better of us. The sheer excess of the bigger, ridiculously expensive burger was worth the price, but just this once.
The lesson from Livingston’s hamburger experiment is abundantly clear. But one wonders if he registers it. Although it’s delicious, his break from renunciation, from all the hidden vestiges of Puritan morality, culminates in a moment of bleak insecurity punctuated by a powerful compensatory desire for more sensory experience. As soon as he finishes, he’s “already descending that slippery slope, thinking ahead to another, maybe better hamburger.”
If this is where consumer culture leads, we need a better set of goods than James Livingston can buy, much less sell. Perhaps it’s time to redefine American individualism, again?
[Editor’s Note: A response from James Livingston will appear next week. – TL]
 James Livingston, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the Twentieth Century (Lanham, MD, 2009).
 James Livingston, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (New York, 2011), x.
 Ibid., xi.
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., xviii.
 Livingston’s unique interpretation of pragmatism can be found in his earlier books Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1994) and Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History (New York, 2001).
 Livingston, Against Thrift, xii.
 Ibid., 90.
 Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York, 1979). For related accounts of the new psychology engendered by twentieth-century social and economic developments, see: David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of The Changing American Character (New Haven, 1950); Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of a Moralist (New York, 1961) and The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Chicago, 1966); Richard Wightman Fox and T. Jackson Lears, Ed., The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880-1980 (New York, 1983); Warren I. Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1984); and Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940 (Berkeley, 1985).
 Livingston, Against Thrift, 89.
 Ibid., 100, 104, 106. Surely Livingston would interpret Arab Spring along similar lines.
 Ibid., 114.
 Ibid., 115, 176, 177.
 In The Lonely Crowd.
 Livingston, Against Thrift, 116, 128.
 Ibid., 158.
 Ibid., 121.
 Ibid., 197, 207, 208.