This paper will be about many things, but the focus will be on social change and consumerism. It will be based partially on a sort case study on the recent Occupy Movement, which stems from the left of the political spectrum. The analysis will cover what gave rise to this movement –the causes which go further back in history– beyond the 2008 global recession. This is necessary because it is material and ideal interests that direct action (that is history) not dry economics or ideas in a non-existent vacuum. That is we must look at the historical context, the processes that created this culture. Also to keep in mind, is that this culture is not simply one of capitalism but one characterized by consumerism. We must take into consideration the negative consequences of this economic system since the Occupy Movement is largely a protest against these consequences. Max Weber provides us the theoretical toolbox in order to dissect the mechanisms that lead to this current structure –of Western capitalism– and also points us to how this system can undergo transformation. The seeds of transformation to a more normative, equitable system may be happening now, as reflected within the protest movements of the last few years which gives currency to and calls out a need for analysis.
Weberian theory states that one of the preconditions for social change is that the dominating social structures need to be delegitimized in some way. That is, the previous configuration is no longer working the way people wish it to, and this structure then consequently comes under question. This has been recently happening, as it has been reflected in the “Occupy Movement” which was engendered by the global economic recession that began in 2008. The status quo can only exist with the consent or acceptance of those it presides over, and when people uphold the status quo with the result being overt or subtle oppression, this is what Weber would term “Herrschaft.” That is, some groups of people benefit more from the system (capitialism) more than others yet it there is an arrangement of cooperative oppression. The status quo is upheld and perpetuated because the norms and ideals underlying capitialism have been internalized. To put simply, the dominating institutions of power derive their authority from the internalization of values by it’s subjects. This results in individuals who believe that the status quo was historically inevitable and thus beyond any sort of human agency or control. However the recession and the Occupy Movement have agitated the popular imagination, prompting us to believe that “another world” is possible. However, what exactly is wrong with the world as it is now?
In industrial Western societies a central value is what is labelled as freedom, and there is an assumption that to maximize freedom we need to provide a large number of choices. However given enough choices we are overwhelmed and are even paralyzed in making a decision.1
Worse than this is that we are dissatisfied by any choices we do make, regardless of how good it is because we are always comparing it to the alternatives even after the fact.2
We live in a society that privileges choice and freedom, but what is presented as freedom is distorted in a consumer society. Ultimately choices that are presented to us are pseudo-choices, pushed on us by advertisement. For our lives are not subjectively any better having the newest incarnation of whatever widget is being pushed out onto the market. Do we really need an electric toothbrush, or a toothbrush that plays music, or a phone that has built in web-browsing, high-definition video or games? Real freedom would be the choice of what is produced instead of which brand of e-reader I wish to buy, or to have Coke or Pepsi. It is obvious that this focus on consumption is not for the welfare of anyone except producers, and this makes sense considering that capitalism treats the economy as a sacred cow. Economic growth is supposed to increase the general welfare of the people, but this is measured through GDP, which in turn is based on goods produced. The gross domestic product is a variable based on quantification, and ignores the alternative which is subjective well being. This is not an inevitable outcome, some countries –such as Bhutan– have adopted a “happiness index” to measure gross domestic happiness instead.3
Weber cautioned against this current form of capitalism, which is based on rationalization, or a focus on utility. Whereas in traditional capitalism profit is only sought out of an affective (emotional) reason, or only in order to sustain their lifestyles. The problem with the current form of this system is that profit is sought for its own sake, money is gained in order to make more money and thus is an unlimited pursuit. The ideal-type of this system is characterized in the following ways: life should be rationally organized, economic work is the most valued of all action, and quanitification is the measuring stick for estimating value or worth. This directly leads to a disenchanted worldview that completely excludes the subjective and romantic. The Occupy Movement captures the imagination partially because it rejects these values and implictly calls for a re-enchantment of life. Watching and listening to the protestors one sees a horizontal, rather than a vertical, hierarchical organization and is more decentralized with no leadership. There is also creative pursuits within these camps, with consent based decision making, dancing, banging of pots, and yelling out slogans like we are the ninety-nine percent! So now that it has become apparent that our culture is not one of choice and freedom, but really a disenchanted culture of consumption, what is the cause of this?
Mass production thanks to the Industrial Revolution is the reason for this overflow of goods. To clarify, with the advent of new technology directed at productive capacities we become more efficient at producing whatever products we wish. New technology, and the automation of previously labor-intensive processes has engendered a surplus of labour. Increased productive capacity has lead to a dilemma, with increased technical efficiency and surplus labour we have job loss. That is, we have people losing their jobs because less people are needed for production. The answer posed in response to this problem is increased consumption in order to counter the increased productivity. To get people to follow along with this, we need to persuade people of the “need” for these products, and since artificial and socially constructed needs are limitless we have a winning mode of consumerism. This however has caused a negative consequence, increased rates of cancer from environmental toxins, environmental pollution, loss of biodiversity and other ecological damages. We are encouraging endless growth on a planet with finite resources which has sparked a level of environmental debate which has not been seen since the 60’s. The popular conception is that technology brought us here, we can use technology to solve these problems as well. Green technologies, wind mills, solar power, and even nuclear power have been posed to get away from oil and to reduce energy consumption. However this may not necessarily work, as increased efficiency actually encourages further consumption; this is known as Jevon’s Paradox.4 This is akin to someone who eats food meant for those on diets, they will likely only just eat more and counter the purpose of it. Increased efficiency only slows the rate of consumption, it justifies living with the same lifestyle without any compromise.
An alternative to this endless consumption is to reduce the work week and put a priority on leisure time, family, community and so on. Employers could still produce if they split the labour among employees through work-share programs; by sharing forty hours among two employees for example. This seems to be a simple solution to over-producing; working less results in various perquisites such as less pollution, increased peace of mind from not having to keep up with the Joneses, and increased time to pursue hobbies and interests. We have been working harder than ever before, yet wages have been stagnant since the 1970’s.5
The loss in extra income would not be such a big deal if we consumed less and put our priorities elsewhere than material things. These sorts of priorities and programs exist in places like France where the legal work week is thirty-five hours,6 but they are slow to catch on in North American. This is in large part due to the underlying “spirit” of Western capitalism which is based on a Protestant work ethic.
Protestantism helps explain the motivations of hard-working and wealthy people. The Protestants (Calvinists) viewed time itself as a commodity –so leisure would be antithetical to this view– because it would be a waste, we have an obligation to work. Working hard is a virtue and sitting idle is equivicated to losing money, work-sharing would also be anathema to this point. Self worth is bound up in how successful you are at making money and if you fail at that, it is seen as a character flaw. What ties these all together is that there was an internal salvation anxiety the Protestants held because they had no idea if they were saved or damned, but they knew it was already predestined. This resulted in them looking for signs of their predestined status, and being in the position to make lots of money –through hard-work– was seen as a sign that they were one of God’s select few. This in turn evolved into a never ending striving for profit as the religious roots have decayed over time; there has been consequently a value-shift to overconsumption and indulgence. This is the verstehen that Weber explicated to show us the true meaning and motivations of rational-capitalism.
Now knowing the frame of reference that capitalists work from, maybe it could serve in accomplishing social change. To start we could educate people that leisure time is something to be more valued than working hard and making money, and steer people away from the misconception that someone who doesn’t work hard must be lazy. There are a variety of factors that Weber takes into account when it comes to social change. Not all these variables need to be present to spark change, but they reinforce the possibility of it. These variables are stratification, the questioning of authority, and technical conditions of organization. Questioning of authority has already been covered, people are starting to think differently about capitalism and our mode of life in the West. Stratification are dividing points that can either help in creating groups that push for change, or they prevent it by reinforcing cleavages –perceived boundaries– whether they are real or not. The points of demarcation –in stratification– can be broken down into class, status, and power. Class is defined in Weberian terms as the probability of gaining position or goods that are believed to bring increased life expectancy and quality. A person can have be of a class but be oriented around different issues, these being property and market position. Within these two fields there is further demarcation, one can be positively privileged, negatively or somewhere in between. In the property distinction, one can be an owner, or a debtor (not an owner). With market position one can be negatively privileged, in that their labour is at the whim of the market, while the positively privileged are those who can safeguard their social status and position.7 This is a conflict theory that differs from Marx in that he (Marx) says overt conflict depends on there being two opposing social groups, what he termed bipolarization. With this tripartite division of stratification, it makes it much harder for the emergence of any unified oppositional groups to come into being.
That is why the slogans by the Occupy Movement, the self identification of being part of the ninety-nine percent versus the super-rich one-percent (who benefit most from the status quo) helped their cause. While these protest camps bordered a little on the “carnivalesque,” –as the group was composed of such a wide variety of people from all backgrounds– they were able to unify under this banner. This fit the criteria for the formation of a organized social class; it was organized against an economic group, large amounts of people were perceived to be in the same class position, and the technical conditions for organizing were being met. The class dimension met along the lines of property, specifically debtors. As was nicely summed by an OWS participator, “The debtor is a potentially powerful political identity that connects the dots between student debt, housing debt, medical debt, credit card debt, municipal debt and more; the issue of debt provides a gateway into a more radical conversation about capitalism itself and the alternatives we want to build.”8
The technical conditions for communication between members was achieved through social media, and other online websites. While this was a victory over the possible obstacle of crosscutting stratification, was there any effective social change, or was there the requisite conditions in place to do so?
According to Weberian theory on the ideal-types of authority, only one of these three can instigate social change: charismatic authority (intrinsic gifts within a person), traditional authority (convention), rational-legal authority (procedural). The one responsible is the first one, the other two are meant to perpetuate social systems. Yet these all play a role in social change, the latter two are needed after the charismatic leader dies. There is a routinization of actions or behaviour to carry on the leaders legacy. The problem with Occupy is that there is no leader, and many times the media has posited that they are leaderless and therefore directionless. The reality behind the matter is different though, there is a general feeling of disgust with money in politics and the bailing out of banks, growing wealth inequality and ecological damages, for a few examples. It is a coming together of every view from the left side of the political spectrum, pointing to the capitalist system and exposing it’s faults. While they may not possess the ideal-type of charismatic authority, the movement does possess an appeal all on its own. Another quality that Weber deemed necessary for change is power, and this the movement clearly has.
What is meant by power in this sense can be translated into party, because that more accurately reflects the practice of power. Power is practised socially by groups, these can be unions, political parties, and special interest groups who are trying to achieve some benefit for its members. Status is the last remaining system of stratification in the general theory of social change for Weber. However for the Occupy Movement this seems to be almost irrelevent since Occupy tries to be all inclusive. That is, they do not try to set up boundaries for participation, and they also reject hierarchy. If there is any seeking after status, prestige or honor, the endeavour is not individuallistic but more a way to enhance group affirmation; they gain honor when they and their ideas are accepted by the populace at large. There are at least two preconditions for social change that are being met, power and class with prestige/honor only being present in an oblique way.
It is not possible to deduce if the Occupy Movement will succeed in affecting social change, however there seems to be a strong chance as it has within it the characteristics that point towards that they will be successful. There is a coordination between the different levels of stratification, specifically class and power but it is difficult to insert status into the analysis because it is an inclusive movement that doesn’t privilege itself or keep anything secret. We have a delegitimization of the status quo because of the global recession and we have modes of communication between the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) members. We can extrapolate with some degree of probability that they will affect some social change, but the degree in which they will is still up in the air as they are an ongoing movement, and one that doesn’t neatly fit into Webers models. There is a desire for change because of various social problems that progressive activists blame the “one-percent” for. However this ignores an important interrelated issue of infinite growth and consumerism, it doesn’t address the economic effects that the Industrial Revolution has given rise to. A consumer culture impoverishes people as it puts them deeper and deeper into debt in our attempt to fullfill endless and arbitrary social needs. We are working harder and longer than in the past for the same pay as we had in the 1970s. We can all benefit with increased leisure time to spend on instrinsically worthwhile pursuits, and not on the arbitrary accumulation of money which only undermines not just our bank accounts, but our mental and spiritual health. We are destroying our environment for the pursuit of more widgets and more profit. Increased rationalization and utilitarian thinking is orienting us in a way that disenchants not just our world, but us too as we use go by procedure and not out of a spontanous and creative desires. We need to look to other parts of the world to see alternatives, where there is already less consumption or alternative measures of social welfare are being implemented, such as the Happiness Index. Most importantly we need to change the idea framework of capitalism in order to undermine and dismantle it, we need to change how we think about our priorities and value systems.
Barry Schwartz, “Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice,” filmed July 2005, TED video, 19:40, posted September 2006. ↩
Accessed Dec 2, 2012, http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com The relevent information is on the home page. ↩
“Workers of the World Relax: Jevon’s Paradox,” Accessed Dec 2, 2012, http://workersoftheworldrelax.org An excellent documentary is on the home page. ↩
Dylan Matthews, “Wages aren’t stagnating, they’re plummeting,” The Washington Post, July 31, 2012 ↩
“Workers of the World Relax.” ↩
Kenneth Allen. Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World (University of North Carolina at Greensboro: Pine Forge Press, 2010), 171. ↩
Jeremy Brecher, “Occupy and the 99% Opposition,” The Nation, July 9, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/article/168790/occupy-and-99-opposition ↩