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08 December 2010

Thoughts on Agency and Consumer Capitalism

Agency is not something we possess within ourselves; it is constructed by the sets of relations which we enter into. See Latour, Whatmore, De Landa, Bennett, etc. for a fuller development of this argument.

The idea of individuation and individual liberty keeps us separated, keeps us from building relations that might be too demanding or constraining. It has, as a result, been a powerful weapon in the hands of consumer capitalism for the last century or more. It has allowed them (I don't know who exactly I'm talking about, but bare with me) to reduce our agency to our market choices - we are Consumers because that is the only kind of agency our current set of social relations will allow for. Consumer choices are easy. They don't require much from us, and they allow us to exercise a kind of freedom - the freedom to choose one product over another.

One can critique the capitalist system from within this framework, but (and they know this all too well) critique is nothing unless it's joined by efforts to construct a new world with a different set of relations. But when you're focused on liberating yourself from social norms and beliefs, you're not thinking about building relations that will enable a fuller agency. This is why the self-liberation movements of the 60s never amounted to much and was so easily co-opted by consumer capitalism - they didn't build a different world because they were too concerned about freeing themselves from the world they were in.

Instead of thinking about freedom, and how we as individuals can liberate ourselves, we need to start thinking about constructing a set of relations that will free us all from capitalist oppression. We need to build relations that will extend our agency (again, conceived not as an individual's capacity to act, but as a distributed set of relations that enable action) beyond simple consumerism.

Is it possible that the good society is one which maximizes agency?

PS (for clarification) -
I wrote this post with a specific person in mind. Someone who is very critically oriented, but who complains again and again that "society" is too constricting and oppressive. This is a person who longs for the 60s ideal of a world of pure freedom of expression and individuality. What I realized is that this desire that is so prevalent in our culture, aside from being ultimately narcissistic and self-indulgent, may actually be counter productive. Yes, society is restrictive in certain ways - you cannot run naked down Mass. Street in downtown Lawrence or you will be charged with indecent exposure or something like that - but society is also enabling in many ways. Ultimately, though, without society (broadly conceived including humans and non-humans), agency - "freedom" if you will - does not and cannot exist.  There will always be rules to abide by, but it is our social relationships - our communities - that enable us to be who we are.  To seek liberation from society is to reduce your agency to almost nothing. 

This mindset manifests itself in our culture in many, often less extreme ways.  It's at the heart of the consumer green movement - where all we need to do is buy efficient light bulbs and hybrid cars to solve the world's problems.  It's true that those activities will have a beneficial effect (possibly other harmful effects, but let's put those aside for the moment) but it's not enough.  Watching the documentary, No Impact Man, I realized that it's not enough for him and his family to live this way unless they give something back to help others live this way too.  It's not enough to ride your bike to work, because what's really needed is a transit system that is organized around bikes and mass transportation.  You riding your bike isn't going to do that - we all have to work together to transform our current transit system to the one that we want. 

Unless we focus on building a different set of relations, any movement - however well intentioned - will be reduced to individualized agency, and easily co-opted by the capitalist system which thrives on that kind of individuation.  Capitalism has always done best when it has a large population of highly individuated people - those with few familial and friendship ties.  Those people are easy to exploit because they have no security net to fall back on - those relations create an agency which allows an individual to say "no, I'm not going to work in a factory" or "no, I'm not going to buy that car." So we should focus on (re)building those kinds of relations that enable people rather than trying to liberate ourselves, each on our own terms.

I also don't mean to belittle the 60s and reduce it to narcissistic self-indulgence.  I realize that there was a lot going on, and that a lot of people were working on just the kinds of things I'm talking about.  But for my generation and others that came after that era, the 60s largely represents this kind of individual liberation ideal.

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