“The fact that anti-consumerism is now left wing common sense reveals the historical mutation of the left wing critique of capitalism, from its early critique of capitalism as a system of scarcity and exploitative production stifling human progress to a post-1950/60s critique of one of alienating affluence.” —Ralph Leonard
Mad Men spoilers to follow. Also to be spoiled is anti-consumer Black Friday Scrooges.
Black Friday, the day where everything is cheap and people buy it is coming up. A lot of people seem to be outraged about consumerism. It’s the disease infecting “the people”. Just like fascism infects “the people”. Give me a break!
People also like to dump on Mad Men as a ruling class apology for consumerism. Maybe but it’s a pretty good show. Also no one kills anyone. That’s a miracle in American culture.
Mad Men has a number of compelling storylines but the main focus is on Don Draper who has had his whole life alienated by capital. His first sexual experience is forced sex by a prostitute. Likewise he is the bastard child of a prostitute and the only one of the powerful men against prostitution. It seems inevitable that he becomes an ad man.
The tension in the show comes from the fact that Draper is just as controlled by the market as his consumers are. He’s a true artist who can’t control himself and is impulsively driven by creative genius. Somehow he has to relate these ideas to non artistic executives who are so shallow that everything Draper touches that references human feeling is brilliant to them.
Draper is a personal mess and eventually drives everyone away, wins them back in a way, and then says fuck it and quits his job, and leaves his children, with a dying mother, to her second husband. Draper appears to wield power but is bound by something far more mysterious than money.
Such is the case with the world today. The market while increasingly hopeless is held together by human actors who don’t share its logic. There’s lots of hope. There always is.
Draper finds himself at a retreat during the last episode of the series. He’s always flirted with the counterculture scene but most artists and Marxists reveal themselves to be just as shallow as anyone else. The show might be too cynical here but I think there is something more genuine going on in its rejection of the many critiques of the ad man.
In the effort to find “truth” Donald Draper comes with what could be called an alienated vision to end the series. To the horror of some Draper envisions an ad for Coca Cola right when he is supposed to be reaching divine enlightenment on the series finale. Is the lesson of the show to buy a Coke? Perhaps, but in a way all network television only runs because there is advertising between segments of the episode. Is the alternative of streaming services such as Netflix where everyone can pay and watch for the show on their own, any less lonely?
To the contrary Draper finds that by the end of the show he has alienated everyone, especially himself. It in this moment where his ego collapses and he has a vision of something that appeals to everyone (a world of peace and harmony where we drink Coke). It is pretty cynical to view Coca Cola as the driving influence of such a revelation. Rather we should see it as the vehicle Draper and the consumer alike have to use in order to achieve the harmony and peace we all desire.
At the end of the series all his idols have failed him and Draper can no longer rely on his charm to fool himself that his life means something. He can only helplessly give away his fortune, shedding whatever he has already done in his only way to get even with life. What is to come to save him? What is coming to save us? Is it really finding our true selves?
What does that mean? I keep circling the drain on this idea of populism and authentic political expression that people say comes through Trump and anti-democratic forces in general. The basic argument seems to be that as the system fails and that what is authentic is rebellion, perhaps even revolution, rather than a further entrenchment in bourgeois institutions. More or less we are supposed to work backwards, before we create the necessary material conditions for working class seizure of production we are supposed to have the rebellious spirit first. This is a nebulous alienation that itself is marketed and if we don’t know where we’re going we can only destroy.
Somehow the anti-consumer attitude kicks in here as we are supposed to only express our authentic needs. This is a total jump. Capitalism creates artificial scarcity, and eventually through overproduction, real environmental scarcity.
I’m not exactly sure what people are expecting. We’re supposed to sign up for the revolution by denying all our desires and negate our humanity by finding our soul. Who’s signing up for that? The problem for the mass majority of people is not that they are consuming too much and that they’ve lost meaning because of it. The problem is that most people don’t have what they need. Most people are too poor.
If someone wants to buy a Coke at the end of the day, well for one I’m not sure why I would need to defend this. Yet more broadly the alienation is far deeper than people somehow being manipulated by advertising. My point here is that Coca Cola doesn’t want world peace, and that people drive the messaging through their desires. In part what is going on when someone needs to buy a Coca Cola at the end of the day is that they are not alienated, rather, the benefit is a chemical one. People like stuff and corporations take advantage often at the cost of people’s health. Cigarettes being an example. The success of cigarettes isn’t advertising genius and consumerism but rather chemical dependence by the masses, with the profits going to the elite.
At the same time the alienation is far deeper. No one necessarily believes what Coca Cola is selling. The idea that one should resist the urge to find meaning in Coca Cola is rather naive. It’s not so much meaning that is lacking. What is Iacking is a fulfillment of that meaning. What I mean here specifically is that when someone wants a Coke it is not because they are floundering about, looking for Coke to fill that imaginary gap. It’s not as if capitalism somehow created this society where no one really knows who they are.
We are we are. If we don’t know it, who does?
This is what bugs me about the anti-social media narrative too. People like this stuff. I like it. No one says it does much for winning the class war but maybe that’s why we like it. We’re not so sick as to subvert all enjoyment. The left wants to go head to head with what people like. It’s a losing argument. At the same time there’s a crusade against wokeness because it is supposedly ruining fun. Being woke is cool, sorry.
What the product does, or anything does, is fills a more general lacking. It’s not like life is just missing Coke. It’s missing a lot, and Coke tastes good, so why not? This is not to say I’m some kind of libertarian. A soda tax would be good. Let’s save some lives and do it. It would be better to have a different tax code in general but you get my point here.
Now all I am saying here is that the tragedy of Black Friday is not so much that people are happy because of products they buy and that somehow this isn’t authentic. Authentic to what? Who has the authority to dictate what makes people “really” happy? I more think the tragedy is specifically environmental. If all the earth’s species are going away and all we get is a chilled Coke then it feels like a lousy deal, even on Black Friday.
People are poor. Black Friday has deals. People are in pain. Black Friday fills a pain. If we can stop buying stuff and prioritize the planet this would be huge. But this often is many steps ahead of wherever we’re at.
The lesson we could learn from Mad Men is that what we have in common is this base alienation that is bound up by the market through an increasingly globalized and unequal economy. A growing universal connected through mutual dependence is necessary for survival but unfortunately facilitated through a market owned by the few for the benefit of the few. Paradoxically as the market connects us it makes us part of an increasingly universal poor.
Rather than abandon capitalism because it isn’t real, let’s acknowledge that the diverse set of faces in the Coca Cola ad had a meeting facilitated by the Coke bottle but this meant nothing until a real human desire was formed afterwards. In other words capitalism is the present and therefore the vehicle to wherever we want to go next. The key is not that everyone brought together by the powerful market force of Coke drop whatever soft drink is in their hands but more so that we organize our society into something more.
The Coke is the golden ticket, the key into the world marketplace that we don’t control but without the ticket in, where are we going? Marxism as an intellectual endeavor became just more cultural liberalism when post-Marxists attempted to talk about anything other than the economy. Lo and behold I don’t think anything about the economy was really written above.
The real problem with Black Friday isn’t that people buy things it’s that we simply don’t have enough power to ensure living wages for workers, support local business, control the market sustainably and I’ll certainly buy that things keep us away from people just as much as they create bonds. However are we really getting any closer to a simpler return where we all discover who we truly are? This to me seems like a cultural side turn away from the economic realities of most genuinely poor, or even sad people.
The revolutionary energy is rather coming from new things, as much as Puritans may hate it. New technology and renewable energy to replace oil and coal. New community partnerships to hold tough against corporate consolidation. New political organizations to fill the needs that the market can’t. In the age of fake news and mass production we are overloaded with so much junk it seems impossible to narrow down what is important. Maybe it all is, and our goal should be saving it.
For Donald Draper, capitalism is a fraud, he is a fraud, even the way out of capitalism is a fraud. All that is real is this connection he can form to other people. Long traumatized by capitalism, he can only begin to form healthy positive connections through his advertising work. Not because the advertising is true, but because the advertising is real. The material portal to the new world is through the very world he inhabits. He can only begin his journey when he stops judging himself and others for existing in these conditions. This is where we are and where we must begin, as far away as that is.