Like csal, I'm a bit suspicious of all this anti-consumerist talk. I'm going to ramble on and see what happens. I'm not sure how relevant it'll be.
...Marxist conspiracy theorist who hates business... — Baden
Talking of Marx, let's see what he said. For him, the multiplication of needs is a saving grace of capitalism:
Each 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.It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilizing moment, and on which the historic justification, but also the contemporary power of capital rests. — Marx, Grundrisse
Also for Marx, the concept of artificial need is a bourgeois fiction:
Artificial need 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. — Marx
But since the seventies the critique of capitalism has taken on a different flavour, so that affluence and economic growth have become the target as much as poverty and scarcity used to be. You know how the story goes: advertising, Hollywood, and the Superbowl turn us from citizens or political agents into mere consumers, diverted from worthy activities and political struggle by pointless products and entertainments, which leave us always dissatisfied, when we could be satisfied with what we've got (materially).
So is there a justification for this change in the Leftist position? The traumatized Marxism of the Frankfurt School and the New Left is probably key here, but I don't want to go into that myself. Generally speaking, maybe we can just accept that while Marx wrote in a time of the immiseration of the industrial working class, today's Left operates in a time of abundance, notwithstanding the widening inequality of the last few decades. And whereas Marx optimistically imagined new needs as culturally enriching, today's consumerism is criticized as a cultural impoverishment.
To the tune of Micheal Jackson's Smooth Criminal:
Woke up this morning, need my paper, gonna jump in my car,
Down the shops on the corner, gonna drive there, I know it's not far,
My house is always heated, got no jumpers, I left all my lights on,
Dishwashers running, and so's the dryer, all my stuffs on standby,
Annie are you walking, Annie are you walking, No I'm driving baby x 4
Annie are you walking, won't you tell us that your walking?
Can't you see me through the window that I'm driving, that I'm driving my car
Won't you think about walking to the shops, or down your local?
Are you all crazy, I've got an off-road, I can drive anywhere!
Annie are you walking, Annie are you walking, No I'm driving baby x 3
You've been hit by, you've been struck by a climate criminal!
I never buy local, all my stuff comes from places real far,
I never recycle, I go on cheap flights, been on 20 so far,
Go to Chorus — Bristol anti-consumerist carol singers
Although this is environmentally focused, I think we can agree that this attitude is a big part of current Leftist thinking too (Naomi Klein, anti-globalization, etc).
Let's take the example of cheap flights, mentioned in the song. "Cheap flights", at least in the UK, is middle-class code for loutish working-class lads and lassies heading to the Costa del Sol to get drunk and have a lot of sex. But this is a stereotype. In Marx's time my forebears were poor uneducated rural labourers, and maybe some of them were recent arrivals in the cities, where they went to find work (it's mostly the upper class that can trace their ancestry with any certainty, so I can't be sure). It's unlikely they ever set foot outside Britain and Ireland. But here I am now in sunny Spain, having been to several countries in several continents, writing about politics and philosophy even though I haven't studied them in a university. I would never have been able to travel without cheap flights, and I would never have been able to read Kant without leisure. I'm pretty sure this is a cultural as well as a material enrichment, and it was made possible by capitalism.
What is the limit beyond which we should not have gone? When is abundance too much? At what point is the creation of new needs corrupting? Is an anti-consumerist going to say that while, okay, washing machines, despite being an artificial or false need, may have been genuinely liberating, iPhones, imported foreign food, cheap travel, and off-road cars are not? How do you separate the good from the bad here? Is it more than a matter of taste? Or is a washing machine a basic need, while an off-road car is a false one? How does that work? Who decides which is which?
I admit this is impressionistic and emotional, but--something about it just stinks. The critique of consumer culture and the influence of corporations appears to be often motivated by a contempt for the masses, or at least a superior paternalism, not to mention a snobbish distaste. (And it's pretty mainstream. Baden mentioned Hollywood and how much he hates it. But Hollywood is full of anti-corporate sentiment, and is now firmly seated on the green anti-consumerist bandwagon.)
There is a simplistic sanctimoniousness in the suggestion that we are mere puppets of the advertisers, and for me it's reminiscent of my heritage of Presbyterian sobriety. But come to think of it, this kind of Protestant puritanism is actually a real thread in the development of radical thought, from the English Revolution onwards, so maybe it's not quite true to describe anti-consumerism as a regrettable reversal--it's been in the Left the whole time. It's just that this is not the Leftist tradition that I have sympathy with. It hates capitalism for the good it has done, not only the bad.
But wait. Did I just hypocritically denounce Leftist snobbery after having held myself up as an exemplar of the culturally enriched in contrast to the loutish working-class lads and lassies on the Costa del Sol? Not quite, I don't think. I've been on holidays like that myself. That's the point about stereotypes and caricatures: they are unfair generalizations. Thanks to cheap flights, people--non-rich people--travel now for all sorts of reasons.