ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)
Author: Trevor Norris

Note: See also “Hannah Arendt and Jean Baudrillard: Pedagogy in the Consumer Society”. In the Encyclopedia of Education:

It is the power of the object which cuts a swathe through every artifice we have imposed on it.1

We can’t let the terrorists stop us from shopping.2

Amid the tumult and distress of those shocking days the peculiarity of this statement by Bush was easily overlooked and forgotten. That it would be the responsibility of a democratically elected leader to call upon the people to shop is surely a perversion of the meaning of political leadership. It is radically different from the slogans of World War II regarding courage, frugality and investing in war bonds. Today a trip to Wal-mart is to perform the same political function and express an equivalent love of country. For Dick Cheney it is not only an expression of patriotism but also an act of military aggression: within a week of the event he described shopping as a way for ordinary citizens to “stick their thumbs in the eye of the terrorists”3 as grieving and consuming were conflated.

In this paper I explore the central features of, and problems associated with, our consumer society through a theoretical and historical analysis. In order to set the context of consumer society I begin by investigating the nature and origin of consumerism through a social and intellectual history. The newly emerging field of “consumer studies” will help illuminate the shift in political importance from production to consumption. I then consider consumerism through the lens of two philosophers, Hannah Arendt and Jean Baudrillard. These two are rarely connected, yet there are significant areas of overlap regarding their account of consumerism and society: both explain the process by which what is private becomes public, and both observe that human relations have been altered and are increasingly mediated by objects. Both thinkers show us the extent to which we are immersed in signs of consumption and highlight for us the urgency of the question of agency today.

The Origin and Nature of Consumption
Consumerism is today our new ideology, the paradigm of post-modernity. Consumerism has been identified as corrosive of political life and a deformation of human consciousness, construed as a process by which the human being is dehumanized and depoliticized – an active citizenry replaced with complacent consumers and passive spectators. Globalization and the commodification of all aspects of human life such as the “Malling of America”,4 are characteristic of our times, and coming to be increasingly accepted as inevitable and irreversible. Consumption has become our primary language, literacy the interpretation of commercial symbols, and the act of consumption our primary mode of insertion into the world and experience of participation in something beyond ourselves. We internalize the act of purchasing and translate this experience onto all other human activities and aspects of our social existence. Baudrillard began to assess this aspect of our society as something profound over three decades ago:

With the advent of consumer society, we are seemingly faced for the first time in history by an irreversible organized attempt to swamp society with objects and integrate it into an indispensable system designed to replace all open interaction between natural forces, needs and techniques.5

In her insightful survey of the “education-entertainment-advertising” cultural matrix Jane Kenway asserts that “consumerism is now recognized as a defining characteristic of the lifestyle of the Western world”.6 A wide variety of contemporary developments support this notion. For example, protestors in various anti-globalization movements have increasingly targeted sites of consumption such as shopping malls, storefronts, and commercial logos.7 The expenditure by corporations on advertisements and image creation has grown exponentially, and now in many cases far outstrips the costs of the physical production of commodities. Furthermore, several large Canadian newspapers such as the Toronto Star now include a separate “Shopping” section, full not only of advertisements but also helpful suggestions and elaborate stories of exciting shopping experiences. Baudrillard challenges us from his earliest writing to explore deeper more essential meanings of the consumer society:

…one could argue that nothing more is involved than an infantile disorder of the technological society, and attribute such growing pains entirely to the dysfunctionality of our present social structures – i.e. to the capitalist order of production. The long term prospect of a transcendence of the whole system would thus remain open. On the other hand, if something more is involved than the anarchic ends of a productive system determined by social exploitation, if deeper conflicts in fact play a part –  highly individual conflicts, but extended onto the collective plane – then any prospect of ultimate transcendence must be abandoned forever. Are we contemplating the developmental problems of a society ultimately destined to become the best of all possible worlds, or, alternately, an organized regression in the face of insoluble problems? …What, in short has made a civilization go wrong in this way? The question is still open.8

For American political philosopher and democratic theorist Benjamin Barber, consumerism remains an important dynamic on the stage of contemporary international relations and an essential component within the process of globalization. While international politics increasingly takes on the tone of apocalyptic fervor some have argued that the centrality of consumption to the American way of life is itself responsible for widespread anti-Western sentiment. In Jihad vs. McWorld, Barber asserts that the proliferation of Western consumerism constitutes a new “soft” power of “McWorld’s assiduously commercialized and ambitiously secularist materialism”9 and “inadvertently contribute[s] to the causes of terrorism.”10 The global spread of “McWorld” may help explain why the West is reviled worldwide. All too often the West has proven more successful at spreading consumer goods and values than the institutions and practices of democracy.11

Consumerism is then the unleashing of both our creative and destructive capacities, what Joseph Schumpeter has called “creative destruction”. 12 We are thus not only consuming products but in the process “using up” and negating something essential within ourselves and our political life, such that in our pursuit of possession we experience an absence rather than fulfillment.13  While there is much which can be said regarding the origin of consumption, there remain several uncontestable facts: first, we have always engaged in consumption since our most primitive times; second, our very physical survival depends on consumption; third, we are all consumers in some way. But, as Baudrillard points out, there are unprecedented developments which point towards the emergence of a new form of social order with consumption at its center, that certain problematic features are becoming increasingly apparent, and that this new order is also reflected in our own subjective experience and self-understanding. These unprecedented developments highlight the distinction between humanity’s requirements for survival and the growth of an ideologically-based consumerism.

III. Theorizing Consumerism and Its Origins
Consumerism entails the institutionalized production of need and the invention of new desires, the systematic inculcation of inadequacy and yearning for completion through material gratification. Yet consumerism was certainly not a significant part of perhaps the earliest and most influential text of political economy, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, where there is only one reference to consumption in its 900 pages, a reflection of the relative neglect given to the topic in that era. 14 Engaged with problems associated with the process of industrialization in the early nineteenth century, Karl Marx focused primarily on human labor and the material conditions of production. Human consciousness was considered to be determined by the ownership of the means of production, and a revolution was to transfer ownership to those engaged in the productive process. In The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism15 Max Weber argued that the rise of capitalism was driven by Puritanical restraint and self-denial and the moral commandment to reinvest capital into business.

Early the last century George Simmel and Thorsten Veblen described the extent to which consumerism arose as an attempt to mark oneself off as different from others so as to enable one to establish and express a distinct social identity. This endeavor emerged in response to the growing homogenizing forces of mechanization and technology, caused by industrialization and increasing urbanization and crowding. In contrast to Weber’s theory of Puritanical self-restraint, duty gave way to pleasure and self-expression, while Thorsten Veblen’s thesis of “conspicuous consumption” described consumerism as a way to express affluence.16

Several disciplines have studied the notion of consumerism and consumer society. Historians have traced various significant developments which have pointed towards either gradual shifts or abrupt ruptures in the rise of consumerism.17 The fields of economics and marketing study principles of consumer demand under the assumption of its guidance by natural laws, driven by economic agents characterized primarily by “rational self-interest.” We are thus able, through access to objective information regarding products and their qualities, to rationally deliberate and calculate and thereby “maximize our utility”. However, in its claim to objective study of natural laws, classical economics excludes important factors: the consumer is also driven by “irrational” emotional impulses left out of this account of the human being, from desire and hedonism to anger and sorrow.18 Consumerism thus emerges as a cultural activity rather than merely economic. Postmodernism, semiotics, and cultural studies, have therefore provided a much more effective and insightful analysis of the unique features of consumer society. An entire new field called “consumer studies”, combining cultural studies, sociology, semiotics, and psychoanalysis has recently emerged to critically interrogate this trend.

There is wide debate concerning the emergence of consumer society. Some scholars point to distinctive features associated with the emergence of modern capitalism during the Industrial Revolution. Consumption in this era was considered a response to the homogenizing forces of mechanization and technology. People began to consume as a principal mode of self-expression, a common language through which we communicate and interpret shared cultural signs. Others have argued that consumerism is a twentieth century phenomenon associated with the rise of mass communication, growing affluence, and the monolithic modern corporation. Consumerism became a prominent mode of self expression, participation, and belonging in an era when such traditional communal institutions as family, religion and the nation, had been eroded. Several theorists contrast the consumer, as the abstract locus of need in a fragmented society, against the customer, involved in a series of ongoing relationships with suppliers and embracing a more personalized set of long term relationships rooted in familial and communal contexts.19 Consumerism also emerged through our growing captivation with change and innovation, in response to the rapid redundancy of the old and the relentless pursuit of the new: of new products, new experiences, and new images.20 The notion of need has given way to the nebulous and transient notions of wish, fantasy and an “ever-changing dreamscape”.21

Consumerism has also been portrayed as a process by which the energies for agentic political resistance are drained and diverted into individual material gratification, and oppressive class structures and endemic alienation thereby obscured. For example, in tracing the origin of advertising Stewart Ewen suggests that rather than labor and production constituting the site of discipline and control, “the factory had not been an effective arena for forging a predictable and reliable workforce”.22 Advertising thus emerged because other forms of social control failed to restrain opposition to industrialization and the growing mechanization of human life. Increasing productive forces and growing working class resentment could be simultaneously reduced and redirected through advertising and consumption. The possibilities were relished by founders of the public relations and advertising industries such as Edward Bernays early in the last century:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it. Mass psychology is as yet far from being an exact science and the mysteries of human motivation are by no means revealed. But at least theory and practice have combined with sufficient success to permit us to know that in certain cases we can effect some change in public opinion by operating certain mechanisms.23

What emerges from this analysis is a gradual shift in the 20th century from the centrality of the production of goods to the political and cultural importance of the production of needs. Scholars have argued that the modern subject is experiencing a shift in identity and its expression from the workplace to consumption.24 Traditional analysis has therefore suffered from a “productivist bias”. For Baudrillard it is the organization of consumption into a system of signs that characterizes the transition from traditional consumption to consumerism:

Traditional symbolic goods (tools, furniture, the house itself) were the mediators of a real relationship or a directly experienced situation, and their subject and form bore the clear imprint of the conscious or unconscious dynamic of that relationship. They thus were not arbitrary.  …From time immemorial people have bought, possessed, enjoyed and spent, but his does not mean that they were ‘consuming’. …It is… the organization of all these things into a signifying fabric: consumption is the virtual totality of all objects and messages ready-constituted as a more or less coherent discourse. …To become an object of consumption an object must become a sign.  That is to say: it must become external, in a sense, to a relationship that it now merely signifies. …This conversion of the object to the systematic status of a sign implies the simultaneous transformation of the human relationship into a relationship of consumption.  …all desires, projects, and demands, all passions and relationships, are now abstracted (or materialized) as signs and as objects to be bought and consumed.25

People decreasingly identify themselves with respect to traditional social groupings and more so with consumer products and the messages and meanings conveyed about them. Consuming is thus construed as an affirmation of self, a way of acting in the world, of expressing one’s identity and difference and participating in something larger than oneself. Consumption is driven by the conflicting impulse to both belong and be different, to identify with and differentiate from. Because the activity of production is now experienced as alienating we therefore seek personal fulfillment in consumption.26 Furthermore, because personal identity is now in flux and decreasingly bound by rigid traditions and permanent constellations of meaning, consumption provides the opportunity for the development of a sense of self and cultivation of identity:

Choosing one car over another may perhaps personalize your choice, but the most important thing about the fact of choosing is that it assigns you a place in the overall economic order. …‘personalization’… is actually a basic ideological concept of a society which ‘personalizes’ objects and beliefs solely in order to integrate persons more effectively. …Personalization and integration go strictly hand in hand.  That is the miracle of the system.27

Thus consumption has risen to a place of political, social, and cultural dominance. Consumer society entails a shift from the production of physical goods to the production of cultural signs and their meanings and the production of human needs – even the production of the consumer itself. Not only have we moved from an industrial to a post-industrial (Fordist to post-Fordist) society but at the same time the social and cultural importance of production has been overtaken by consumerism. 28 Some have argued that more efficient productive technologies and therefore increased productive capacity results in an excess of goods, and that we therefore live in a “post-scarcity”29 or “affluent society”.30 Theorists argue that identity is decreasingly associated with such traditional social groupings as the workplace, political parties, local community, and even social class, and is instead associated with consumer products and the messages conveyed about them by the mass media.31 We experience ourselves as consumers before and above other forms of self-understanding: political animals and democratic citizens. It entails the eclipse of the political categories of democracy and citizenship: the consumer consumes the citizen.

Consumption entails more than the mere fiscal transaction of physical acquisition, but constitutes a process which expands beyond the purchasing of a product to include the transformation of all things in the world into objects for human consumption. This trend parallels the decline of active political citizenship and the transformation of human relations into consumer relations. The consumer replaces, or rather even “consumes” the citizen, and we internalize the act of purchasing a physical product and translate this experience into other human activities. Consumption is thus an archetypal activity, and the consumer the paradigmatic figure, of contemporary society. With this discussion in mind, I turn now to focus on the work of Arendt and Baudrillard. An assessment of their writing allows us to understand how two of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century arrive at an understanding of consumerism with a conflicting understanding of the possibility of human agency.

Hannah Arendt

The consumer has become a god-like figure, before whom markets and politicians alike bow.32

The theoretical perspectives on consumerism found in the work of Arendt and Baudrillard have rarely been connected but contain significant commonalities. Both explain the process by which what is private becomes public: Baudrillard describes this as making the private “explicit,” while Arendt outlines the ascent of the private activities of the oikos.33 Secondly, both observe that human relations have been altered and are increasingly mediated by objects. For Baudrillard this entails a loss of reality, while for Arendt it entails a loss of the polis and of the world and the ensuing “worldlessness.”

In this section I outline Arendt’s key ideas regarding the polis, the oikos, and their corresponding central human actions (labor, work, and action), and document the historical ascent of the oikos to a place of political dominance such that the polis is undermined. I will then turn to Baudrillard and consider his theory of the ascent of consumerism and the proliferation of signs. This will reveal a shortcoming in Arendt: although she discusses communication and “speech” – she lacks a theory of how consumerism functions at the level of signification and entails the separation of the commodity (or signified) from its sign. Next, I consider the consequences of this ascent: the erosion of the polis and political life for Arendt, and eclipse of “the real” in Baudrillard. Unlike Baudrillard, Arendt in her documentation of the ascent of the social realm and resulting worldly alienation – leaves a way out: natality and political action –  and maintains a vision of politics which celebrates the possibilities and potentialities of action. Baudrillard, much to the dissatisfaction of his neo-Marxist critics, leads us to the huge problem of how much agency we actually possess in the face of the totalizing system of consumerism.

In The Human Condition34 Arendt outlines how the public realm has been eroded by the emergence of the private forces of consumption. Arendt’s distinction between public and private is grounded in the three activities of human life, the “basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to man [sic]”.35 These distinctions therefore refer to how we experience ourselves and others and relate to the world around us and ultimately contribute to her emphasis on the centrality of a commitment to the preservation and renewal of the public realm of the polis. These activities and the public/private distinction constitute the central themes of this, her best known work, and provide the conceptual structure Arendt uses to explain the rise of consumer society.

For Arendt, labor is described as the activity in which the human body “concentrates on nothing but its own being alive”.36 Because none of the products of human labor are lasting or durable, labor is therefore described as “futile”. It is the activity in which we are irrevocably bound to the unending cyclical process of consumption. This cyclical character of labor makes private life uniform and monotonous, and the private realm a location of conformity and sameness. Privacy thus implies “privative,” to be deprived of something essential. Yet as long as we are bound up within this process and restricted to our own privacy, our efforts remain futile and we remain isolated within ourselves, unable to engage in the realm of human affairs and effectively disclose ourselves and our experiences through speech. We are pulled into the cyclical process of production and consumption, and do not “appear” to others. We exist in a “mere togetherness” in which we are neither seen nor heard in our full humanness.37

In contrast, Arendt understands action as expressing our highest potentialities and possibilities, through which we are known by others, disclose our uniqueness, and participate in something larger than ourselves. A life without action “is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men”.38 Whereas labor was grounded in the “human condition of life,” action is grounded in the human condition of plurality, which implies that action is the “only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter;”39 it is where we experience ourselves and each other without mediating these relations with objects or commodities. It is through action that our identity and our uniqueness can be disclosed, made known to others, through which we “insert ourselves into the human world”. It is the articulation of difference, of alteritas, where we distinguish ourselves from others. This human world Arendt calls the “space of appearance”, the public realm, or the polis.

The polis and action are closely intertwined and mutually interdependent: while action is needed to preserve the polis, so too is the polis needed to preserve action; while the polis is the location for action, so too is it the place where action is preserved and memorialized through speech. The polis is where we not only differentiate ourselves from others, but also differentiate between “activities related to a common world and those related to the maintenance of life”. The polis provides the opportunity for self-disclosure and a place for its preservation and remembrance. Through the experience of self-disclosure Arendt closely links action with speech, stating that “speechless action would no longer be action”.40 For along with “deeds,” speech is how actors both disclose themselves and preserve or “memorialize” action. Although labor and the oikos may include “speech” of a sort, she insists that “no other human performance requires speech to the same extent as action”.41

For Arendt, the public and private realms and their corresponding activities are not historically static in their relation to each other; that is, they may change in relative importance throughout history. She argues that action and the bios politikos (political life) have been marginalized while the private concerns of consumption and production have been elevated into a place of political dominance. This modern reversal of public and private spheres Arendt terms the rise of “the social realm” – “the emergence of the social realm… is a relatively new phenomenon whose origin coincided with the emergence of the modern age”.42 With this loss of action and the public sphere, freedom becomes narrowed to routinized “behaviours,” difference and plurality reduced to conformism and uniformity, and speech and self-disclosure restricted to relentless production and consumption. Instead of experiencing the freedom associated with action and speech in the public realm, humans are reduced to mere adjuncts to the cycle of production and consumption. The polis in turn is required to enable this cycles’ smooth functioning and progressive acceleration. The social realm is ultimately a community centered around the cyclical process of production and consumption, in which human self-understanding becomes based on privacy and speech becomes subservient to commercial discourse. It is the end of action and speech.

Between action and labor Arendt situates work, the activity which corresponds to worldliness, the human capacity to build and maintain those physical things essential for political life. It is the process by which we transform nature into the human artifice, the lasting and durable environment for political life. However, in a consumer society the products of work are increasingly “consumed” and drawn into the cyclical movement of production and consumption, and therefore no longer provide a lasting and stable human artifice for political community. Arendt states that in the social realm “we have changed work into laboring”,43 and that “the rate of use is so tremendously accelerated that the objective difference between use and consumption, between the relative durability of use objects and the swift coming and going of consumer goods, dwindles to insignificance”.44 Worldly alienation arises when our physical structures are caught up in the accelerating process of decay.

The activities of labor and work are anti-political and destructive of politics and culture: they result “in [the] leveling of all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance.” The rise of the oikos eclipses – even consumes – the polis, while consumption conveys the illusion of political “appearance”. It is for these reasons that “it is frequently said that we live in a consumer society”.45 For Arendt the rise of “the social” becomes a self-perpetuating dynamic: just as the rise of consumption erodes the polis, consumerism is strengthened when we are denied meaningful political life. We are no longer Aristotle’s zoon politikon (political animal, or animal of the polis), but live as if merely zoon, according to biological preservation. Work and labor are thought to transcend the imperatives of biological preservation; the good life of the polis is believed to be characterized by the accumulation of goods rather than political action or speech.

Jean Baudrillard

Arendt opens The Human Condition with a description of Sputnik as an exemplar for all that is wrong and dangerous in modernity. The passengers on this “earth-born object made by man”46 would be the first to fully inhabit a realm entirely of human creation, in which humans are released from the confines of the condition of earthly existence to fully enter the realm of the human artifice. For Arendt, this event, a “rebellion against human existence as it has been given”,47 indicates the magnitude of our worldly alienation. This rebellion means the loss of the polis and erosion of speech, in which we “adopt a way of life in which speech is no longer meaningful,” and “move in a world where speech has lost its power”.48 Baudrillard points towards the similar implications of more recent events: he argues that the proliferation of signs combined with the separation of the sign from the object leaves humans inhabiting a symbolic realm entirely of their own making; hence the “eclipse of the real.” Just as we come to inhabit the realm of the human artifice, so too do we dwell in the realm of signs, symbols, and simulations. Baudrillard’s insightful semiotics provides an original analysis of consumer society, and can help explain how communication structures and sign systems can preserve consumer society long after speech has been drained of its power and meaning.

Arendt, who is primarily a political philosopher, employs the public/private distinction and activities of labour, work, and action to explain the rise of consumer society. Baudrillard’s analysis of consumer society draws from the disciplines of semiotics, psychoanalysis and the political economy of the production of signs. In drawing from these diverse areas, Baudrillard provides an extensive analysis of the various dimensions of consumption. In my view it is best to begin with a discussion of his consideration of speech within his theory of signification, then examine the implications of the separation of the sign from the commodity. It is then possible observe the implications of this development in both the loss of reality and the making public of what was previously private before considering the psychoanalytic dimensions of consumerism, and a discussion of the possibility of resisting the “code.”

We can recall that speech was of great importance to Arendt, specifically regarding its link with action and the polis, and the decline of speech resulting from the ascent of the social realm. While Arendt insisted that speech was associated with action and absent from the isolated private life of consumption and production, Baudrillard outlines the extensive spread of speech through the signs and symbols of commercial discourse. Similar to Arendt he finds the type of discourse and communication that dominates consumer society to be neither “speech” nor language: “The object cum advertising system constitutes less a language, whose living syntax it lacks, than a set of significations. Impoverished yet efficient, it is basically a code”.49 Elsewhere he asserts that “…there can be no more impoverished language than this one, laden with referents yet empty of meaning. It is a language of mere signals…”50 While this syntax of consumption is certainly not “speech” as understood by Arendt, we can observe how the mode of communication within consumer society effectively drowns out traditional forms of political speech. Advertising and marketing become the signs, language and entire communicative structure within our society and come to dominate all other forms of discourse and signification.

While Arendt asserts that labor and work are speechless and emphasizes the link between action and speech, for Baudrillard, communication systems are important within the consumer society as he provides an account of the political importance of the production of signs. Several decades after Arendt, Baudrillard writes at a time when consumerism has accelerated and moved into a new “hyper” form, when the discourse of consumption has become even more dominant, which suggests that consumer society is increasingly based on a new type of communication. “Hyper” society can be characterized as an acceleration of Arendt’s “social realm,” which becomes dominated by the proliferation of signs.51 As Douglas Kellner suggests, for Baudrillard modernity was concerned primarily with the production of objects, while postmodernism is concerned with simulation and the production of signs: “Modernity thus centered on the production of things – commodities and products – while postmodernity is characterized by radical semiurgy, by a proliferation of signs.”52 This shift becomes part of Baudrillard’s passage through Marx into the conceptual framework of linguistics as well as McLuhan’s ideas.53

Like many of his colleagues and contemporaries within the French postmodern scene, Baudrillard’s development was marked by a profound critical engagement with  Marxist theory. Perhaps the central issue regarding Baudrillard’s criticism of Marx concerns the shift from the production of objects to the production of signs, from the means of production to the means of consumption, or “the simultaneous production of the commodity as sign and the sign as commodity”.54 As McLaren and Leonardo describe this dynamic, “[d]omination no longer resides primarily in the control of the means of production. Rather, domination can be attributed more to control of the means of consumption. Moreover, this is accomplished at the level of the mode of signification (previously mode of production) in everyday life”.55 Furthermore, for Baudrillard, consumer society is not driven by the needs and demands of consumers, but rather by excessive productive capacity. The system faces an important problem which is no longer production but rather a contradiction between higher levels of productivity and the need to dispose of the product. It becomes vital for the system at this stage to control not only the mechanism of production, but also consumer demand as part of planned socialization by the code:

In the planned cycle of consumer demand, the new strategic forces, the new structural elements – needs, knowledge, culture, information, sexuality – have all their explosive force defused. In opposition to the competitive system, the monopolistic system institutes consumption as control, as the abolition of the contingency of demand, as planned socialization by the code (of which advertising, style, etc. are only glaring examples). …Thus consumption… signifies the passage… to a mode of strategic control, of predictive anticipation, of the absorption of the dialectic,  and of the general homeopathy of the system… With monopolistic capitalism… Needs lose all their autonomy; they are coded. Consumption no longer has a value of enjoyment per se; it is placed under the constraint of the absolute finality which is that of production. Production, on the contrary, is no longer assigned any finality other than itself. This total reduction of the process to a single one of its terms… designates more than an evolution of the capitalist mode: it is a mutation.56

This shift from production to consumption parallels the tendency within postmodern linguistics to separate the signifier from the signified; within Baudrillard’s semiotic analysis of consumer society, this takes on the character of a separation between the commodity and its sign. “To become an object of consumption, an object must become a sign… Only in this context can it be ‘personalized’, can it become part of a series and so on; only thus can it be consumed, never in its materiality, but in its difference”.57 Advertisements have become more powerful and persuasive because of this separation. Previously, goods were presented based on their material qualities and function. However, gradually this gave way to an association of the sign with a lifestyle, with the social life of people. Through the transformation of the commodity into a sign, the sign is able to enter into a “series” in which it becomes immersed within the endless stream of signs. This forms the “code” of commercial discourse. The pitch of this discourse relentlessly increases, as each sign seeks to drown out the “noise” generated by other signs. It becomes deafening; but to mix metaphors, it also begins to dominate our vision, blinding us, blurring into an endless stream of flashing images.

For Baudrillard, as a result of this separation, “we disappear behind our images”.58 The dominance of the code, the proliferation of signs, and the violence of the image entails the eclipse – even death – of the real. “The image…is violent because what happens there is the murder of the Real, the vanishing point of reality”.59 Furthermore, this dynamic is self-perpetuating, as signs “may multiply infinitely; indeed they must multiply in order at every moment to make up for a reality that is absent”.60  Arendt, in her own terms, shares this diagnosis: “Modern man did not gain this world when he lost the other world”.61 Arendt describes the dynamic of the loss of reality and loss of the world through the ascent of the oikos and agora to a place of political dominance. Just as reality is lost, so too is the polis, the realm of human affairs. For Arendt, this was the only place in which we experienced each other “without the intermediary of things of matter”.62 In Baudrillard’s terms:

…men of wealth are no longer surrounded by other human beings, as they have been in the past, but by objects. Their daily exchange is no longer with their fellows, but rather, statistically as a function of some ascending curve, with the acquisition and manipulation of goods and messages.63

Just as consumerism entails the loss of reality, so too does it point towards the process by which what was previously private becomes public. In Baudrillard’s recent essay “The Violence of the Image” he outlines how the predominance and “violence” of the image turns what was once private into something explicit. This is achieved through the “violence of transparency,” the “total elimination of secrecy”.64 This account parallels Arendt’s description of the historical process by which the private realm rose to a place of political dominance. Furthermore, just as Arendt outlined the ascent of labor and work, the oikos and the agora, which we in turn have come to inhabit, Baudrillard asserts that:

We live by object time: by this I mean that we live at the pace of objects, live to the rhythm of their ceaseless succession. Today, it is we who watch them as they are born, grow to maturity and die, whereas in all previous civilizations it was timeless objects, instruments or monuments which outlived the generations of human.65

The making explicit of the inner workings of privacy implies an analysis of the psychodynamics of consumption and consumerism, a topic which Baudrillard explores throughout many of his key works. While Max Weber associated capitalism with Puritanism and the imperative of restraint and reinvestment, Baudrillard asserts that consumer society replaces a puritan morality with a hedonistic morality. 66 Central to his thought is the notion that consumption and consumerism do not correspond to the notion of need, desire or pleasure. This confusion occurs because the sign and object have been separated and the sign has become a commodity to be consumed. For Baudrillard, “material goods are not in fact the object of consumption – they are the object merely of needs and of the satisfaction of needs”.67 Yet consumerism does not satisfy needs, because needs simply cannot be satisfied. There are no limits to consumption – indeed, Baudrillard speaks of the compulsion to consume:

There are no limits to consumption.  …people simply want to consume more and more.  This compulsion is attributable neither to some psychological condition (‘once a drunk always a drunk’, and so forth), nor to the pressure of some simple desire for prestige.  That consumption seems irrepressible is due, rather to the fact that it is indeed a total idealist practice… Its dynamism derives from the ever-disappointed project now implicit in objects.68

Furthermore, consumption does not satisfy desire: the discourse of advertising awakens desire then subjects it to a generalization of the most vague kind.69 It is this confusion that occludes the more insidious dynamics concerning consumption – that consumption is more deeply associated with the experience of lack: “Consumption is irrepressible, in the last reckoning, because it is founded upon a lack”.70 This lack is a longing for something that is not there, as “there can be no final, physical satiation”.71 There is nothing behind the sign, only an endlessly accelerating noise and blur. Consumption cannot be consummated, but is the “disappointed demand for totality”.72

For Baudrillard we are never satiated, always frustrated, and there is little possibility of resistance. For “the collective function of advertising is to convert us all to the code…The code is totalitarian; no one escapes it: our individual flights do not negate the fact that each day we participate in its collective elaboration”.73 The code comes to dominate us, to enchain us, by:

…imposing a coherent and collective vision, like an almost inseparable totality. Like a chain that connects not ordinary objects but signifieds, each object can signify the other in a more complex super-object, and lead the consumer to a series of more complex choices”.74

Consumers essentially “buy” into the code of consumption so completely that the capacity for critical reflection diminishes. Furthermore, any form of resistance is readily incorporated and assimilated back into the code. Rather than allowing dissention, they maintain order. Baudrillard argues that “[t]heir proliferation, simultaneously arbitrary and coherent, is the best vehicle for social order, equally arbitrary and coherent, to materialize itself effectively under the sign of affluence”.75

McLaren and Leonardo are among those who argue that “Baudrillard lacks the critical element of subjective agency in his theory of consumerism”.76 Just as Arendt’s account of the ascent of the oikos and agora to a place of political dominance entailed the loss of reality and worldly alienation, so too in Baudrillard does the proliferation of signs and the transformation of the sign into a commodity entail the loss of reality. However, in contrast to the all encompassing character of consumer society as presented by Baudrillard, which is able to absorb any form of resistance, Arendt reveals the possibilities which action and speech can provide. In spite of the political dominance of the oikos and agora, she still holds that action remains within our grasp: “needless to say, this does not mean that modern man has lost his capacities or is on the point of losing them…the capacity for action…is still with us”.77 Furthermore, Arendt links action with natality, the “new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity for beginning something anew, that is, of acting”.78 It is through action and speech that we bring newness into the world, and express the human capacity to begin. Arendt’s account of natality points towards the resilience of the constant source of the new through which the world is preserved from decay and decline. If this unending wellspring of beginnings is eroded and absorbed into the endless cycle of production and consumption through the dominance of commercial discourse, it is our polis, and reality itself, which we stand to lose. There are many points of intersection between Arendt and Baudrillard on the question of consumer society, but it is here on the question of “agency” they diverge and where Baudrillard offers his most significant challenge to Arendt and other critical theorists.79

The economic achievements of contemporary society are often reified as the natural and inevitable culmination of historical processes, thus implying that there is no alternative to capitalism and no point to its critique. Yet there is a paradox in this position: The market is construed as a sphere of freedom and the rise of capitalism is seen as the historical outcome of a natural and inevitable process following the principles of universal laws. Consumerism thus does not only gratify needs but legitimates capitalist societies by demonstrating their “success” at “delivering the goods” and achieving comfort, prosperity, and growth. Yet behind this success lies “materialism, opportunity, selfishness, hedonism, and narcissism”.80

Our pathological preoccupation with the commodity and the release of our extractive powers and appropriative endeavors entails the erosion of the public realm and eclipse of the real. Through consumption we attempt to differentiate ourselves from others and assert our identity, to mark ourselves as different and unique and insert ourselves into the world of human relations and thereby experience ourselves as part of a larger whole. Arendt and Baudrillard reveal how these are both illusory. We can consider that humans will always symbolize and signify and endow objects with attributes that are of our own making. What happens in consumer society is that this activity is appropriated by commercial forces such that instead of seeing the world around us we see only the signs of consumption. Arendt and Baudrillard reveal that when our political realm is dominated by the images and signs of consumption, our public realm and reality are eclipsed. This is precisely why questions of agency and resistance are so problematic after Baudrillard. These are also important questions for further work by Baudrillard scholars and they emerge from his analysis of consumer society. Indeed, these questions link up with many larger questions Baudrillard poses for technological society and its consumption of virtuality, artificialization and the posthuman.  In his inimitable style Baudrillard has recently put it this way:

…perhaps we may see this as a kind of adventure, a heroic test: to take the artificialization of living beings as far as possible in order to see, finally, what part of human nature survives the greatest ordeal. If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could be truly called “human”: some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified. Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test – that the human will be permanently eradicated.81

The road that led Baudrillard to this insight, one not so far from Arendt’s more fearful moments, began with the analysis of consumer society.

About the Author:
Trevor Norris is working on his Doctorate in the Philosophy of Education. Recent publications include: “Metanarratives of Emancipation: Nature and Culture in Freud and Habermas” in Peter Pericles Trifonas, Communities of Difference: Language, Culture, Technology. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005; “Teaching, Learning, and Consuming” Orbit, Winter 2005.


1 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:74.

2 – George Bush. September 14, 2001.  Bush later said the idea came from a letter from a child: “People are going about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing, worshipping at churches and synagogues and mosques, going to movies and to baseball games. Life in America is going forward, and as the fourth grader who wrote me knew, that is the ultimate repudiation of terrorism”. Bush goes on to lament that: Too many have the wrong ideas of Americans as shallow, materialist consumers… But this isn’t the America I know.” See: “The text of President George W. Bush’s address to America before representatives of firemen, law enforcement officers, and postal workers” Given at Atlanta, Georgia, November 8, 2001. (link no longer active 2019)

3Los Angeles Times. September 17, 2001.

4 – See Stephen H. Baird. “The Malling of America: The Selling of America’s Public Parks and Streets – The Economic Censorship and Suppression of First Amendment Rights”: (link no longer active 2019)

5 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso. 1996:132.

6 – J. Kenway and E. Bullen. Consuming Children: Education-Entertainment-Advertising. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2001:34.

7 – Naomi Klein. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Toronto: Vintage, 2000.

8 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:133.

9 – Benjamin Barber. Jihad Vs. McWorld: Terrorism’s Challenge To Democracy. New York: Ballantine, 2001:xxvi.

10Ibid.: xi.

11 – For Baudrillard’s take on this aspect of consumerism see: Jean Baudrillard. “The Global and the Universal” in Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2000:155-159.

12 – Joseph Schumpeter. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper, 1942.

13 – An understanding of consumerism can also be achieved through an etymological account. The English word “consume” can be in part derived from the Latin consummer: to complete, reconcile or fulfill in a teleological culmination, as in “to consummate”. Second it means to be taken in, used up, worn out, and reduced to nothing, as in the wasting disease of the middle ages, or the expression “the fire consumed the building”. This is implied by the Latin root sumer. We can speak of being consumed by anger, that it has taken possession of us and we are invigorated and compelled towards action. But it also implies that it has overtaken us, and by extension has negated our autonomy. We could say that we are consumed by consuming. This semantic ambivalence and seemingly contradictory character of consumption implies both creation (consummation, completion) and destruction (using up, negating). As Baudrillard has it:

does not affluence ultimately only have meaning in wastage… wastage which defies scarcity and, contradictorily, signifies abundance.  … The consumer society needs objects in order to be.  More precisely, it needs to destroy them…destruction remains the fundamental alternative to production: consumption is merely an intermediate term between the two. Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998, 1998:44-45, 47.

14 – Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library, 1936:625.

15 – Max Weber. The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1958.

16 – See Thorsten Veblen. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Penguin Classics, 1994 (Chapter Four); See also Georges Simmel. “Fashion” (c 1904) In D. Levine (Ed.) Georges Simmel. University of Chicago Press, 1971:324-339.

17 – Y. Gabriel, and T. Lang. The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and its Fragments. London and Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE, 1995;  D. Slater. Consumer Culture and Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997;  J. Kenway, and E. Bullen. Consuming Children: Education-Entertainment-Advertising. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2001; A. Aldridge. Consumption. Cornwall: Polity Press, 2003.

18 – Indeed, the Nobel Prize in Economics has recently (2002) gone to Daniel Kahneman who’s research often challenges traditional economic thinking on rationality (Ed).

19 – R. Bocock. Consumption. London: Routledge, 1993:48.

20 – For further discussion of this theme of change and the new, see for example: David Harvey. The Condition of Postmodernity: an enquiry into the origins of cultural change. New York: Blackwell, 1990; Manuel Castells. The Network society: a cross-cultural perspective. New York: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2004.

21 – J. Kenway, and E. Bullen. Consuming Children: Education-Entertainment-Advertising. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2001:23.

22 – Stuart Ewen. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. Toronto: McGraw Hill, 1976:48.

23 – Edward Bernays cited in Ibid.:83.

24 – R. Bocock. Consumption. London: Routledge, 2003; D. B. Clarke. The Consumer Society and the Postmodern City. London: Routledge, 2003.

25 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:200-201.

26 – See for example A. Aldridge. Consumption, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2003.

27Ibid.:141, 144.

28 -Daniel Bell. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

29 – R. W. Larkin. Suburban Youth Culture in Crisis. Oxford University Press, 1979.

30 -John Kenneth Galbraith. The Affluent Society. New York, Penguin, 1968.

31 – R. Bocock. Consumption. London: Routledge, 1993.

32 – Y. Gabriel, and T. Lang.  The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and its Fragments. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE, 1995:43.

33 – From Aristotle: the oikos (the private realm of the household). See:

34 – Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.






40 – This is an aspect of Arendt’s thought that guides Giorgio Agamben’s thinking today (Ed.)









49 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:193.


51 – As Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation:

The hypermarket is already, beyond the factory and traditional institutions of capital, the model of all future forms of controlled socialization… The “form” hypermarket can thus help us understand what is meant by the end of modernity. …Strange new objects of which the nuclear power plant is without a doubt the absolute model… These new objects are the poles of simulation around which is elaborated, in contrast to old trains stations, factories, or traditional transportation networks, something other than a “modernity”: a hyperreality, a simultaneity of all the functions, without a past, without a future, an operationality on every level.  And doubtless also crises, or even new catastrophes: May 1968 begins at Nanterre, and not at the Sorbonne, that is to say at a place where, for the first time in France, the hyperfunctionalization “extra muros” of a place of learning is equivalent to deterritorialization, to disaffection, to the loss of the function and of the finality of knowledge in a programmed neo-functional whole.  There, a new, original violence was born in response to the orbital satellization of a model (knowledge, culture) whose referential is lost (c 1981). Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1994:76-78.

52 – Douglas Kellner. Baudrillard: A New McLuhan? See page 2 of : (link no longer active 2019)

53 – See Gary Genosko. Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze. London: Routledge, 1994. Elsewhere Genosko notes Baudrillard’s writing represents “a vector for the transmission of McLuhan’s ideas, often in distorted form”. Gary Genosko. McLuhan and Baudrillard: The Masters of Implosion. New York: Routledge, 1999:3.

54 -For an interesting discussion of this thesis see: Peter McLaren and Zeus Leonardo. “Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Terrorist Pedagogy,” in Naming the Multiple: Poststructuralism and Education. Edited by Michael Peters. Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey, 1998:222.


56 – Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production (c 1973). St. Louis: Telos Press,  1975:126-129. Baudrillard speculates that we may have passed through capitalism into hyper capitalism and even to a socialist mode. See Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c 1976) London: SAGE, 1993:10.

57 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:200.

58 – Jean Baudrillard, The Violence of the Image.  See page 1 of: (link no longer active 2019)


60 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:205.

61 – Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press, 1958:320.



64 – Jean Baudrillard, The Violence of the Image, page 1. (link no longer active 2019)

65 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998:25.

66 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:185.





71 – Robert Bocock. Consumption. London: Routledge, 1993:69.

72 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:205.

73 – Mark Poster (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Second Edition. Stanford University Press, 2001:22.  See also Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:194.

74Ibid.:34; See also Jean Baudrillard The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998:27.

75 – Mark Poster (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Second Edition. Stanford University Press, 2001:20. See also Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:191.

76 – Peter McLaren and Zeus Leonardo. “Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Terrorist Pedagogy,” in Naming the Multiple: Poststructuralism and Education. Edited by Michael Peters. Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey, 1998”221. See also Alex Callincos. Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989; and Douglas Kellner. Jean Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernity and Beyond.Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989.

77 -Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press, 1958:323.


79 – For Baudrillard, this is precisely what has changed since Arendt wrote. While he has been much criticized for his stance, Baudrillard is among few critical scholars of our time to critically challenge concepts such as agency and will (see Jean Baudrillard. “The Spectre of the Will” in The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:8-15). In his recent book on Baudrillard, Paul Hegarty notes that concepts such as “hyper simulation” and “illusion” are much more important to Baudrillard than “agency”. Hegarty also notes the paradoxical side of  Baudrillard as “agency” would provide a way out of simulation which Baudrillard sees as all encompassing, yet acknowledges that “knowing about simulation is impossible” (See Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. London and New York: Continuum International Press, 2004:83, 89 n8). Baudrillard’s position is that theory, which can only exist as a challenge to the real, cannot provide us with a firm critical position but rather can offer “illusions, seductions, and paradoxes, even what we might call evil” (Ibid.:85). Baudrillard’s problem with traditional critical theory is that it allows us to deceive ourselves with a sense of agency the system does not allow. As such he passes through much contemporary critical theory [and this is exactly the point his Marxist critics have such difficulty with], to find what minimal possibility for resistance we have. This takes him beyond traditional concepts such as agency and will. For Baudrillard it is not a question of being for or against “agency” but to address a deeper problem of how the world and system leave little space for enacting such concepts. Resistance however is an inevitable by-product of the operation of the system as in the resistance of a myriad of singularities (culture, language etc.) to globalization (See Jean Baudrillard. The Violence of the Global. Baudrillard’s perspective, indebted to Mauss and Bataille more than traditional critical theory, focuses on the return of the gift, on symbolic exchange which leads him to positions anathema to traditional critical theory (such as Baudrillard’s understanding that the silence of the masses is an effective fatal strategy of resistance (See Mike Gane. Jean Baudrillard: In Radical Uncertainty. London: Pluto Press, 2000:19ff. (Ed).

80 – As Baudrillard has consistently pointed out for many years. See also A. Alan. Consumption. Cornwall: Polity Press, 2003:7.

81 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion.  (c1999) 2000:15-16.