Prompted by Michael Pollan’s recent article about cooking shows in the New York Times magazine, I’ve been thinking about consumption deskilling. To me, this is as good a lens as any through which to view exactly what’s at stake in resisting consumerism.
Deskilling is a concept that comes from Harry Braverman’s 1974 work Labor and Monopoly Capital, which traces the birth of management science and its function within a capitalist division of labor (a nice PowerPoint summary of Braverman’s work can be found here). Elaborating an argument Marx makes in Chapters 14 and 15 of the first volume of Capital, Braverman argued that the management class stripped workers of their craft knowledge so as to make labor more interchangeable and weaken workers’ bargaining power.
Instead of drawing on the creativity and experience of workers, many contemporary jobs tend largely to be a matter of executing strictly limited, carefully detailed processes that make any individual worker superfluous. As a result, workers lose sight entirely of the larger picture, of the manufacturing process from beginning to end, and the meaning and purpose of their work becomes hard to fathom — it’s reduced to the paycheck. And naturally, what makes the paycheck meaningful is the consumer goods it can buy. When our primary identity is determined not by what we can do but what we have purchased, then we are fully living in a consumer society.
With the scaling up of manufacturing and retailing, workers must be deskilled as consumers much as they were as producers. Part of this is to ensure adequate demand for mass-produced goods; the consumers for this stuff must be “manufactured” through marketing and other means. In this paper (pdf), Shannyn Kornelsen lists five forms of consumer deskilling:
1) Professionalized deskilling, when consumers are supposed to surrender judgment to commercial experts;
2) Emancipatory deskilling, in which consumers are freed from the difficulties involved with exercising a skill (fast food has liberated women from the kitchen!);
3) Palette deskilling, in which consumers accept simplified versions of a product, a kind of connoisseurship in reverse that can masquerade as democracy;
4) Standardized/homogenized deskilling, where diverse processes are flattened into purchasable products; (all of which leads to)
5) Generational deskilling, in which household production has been replaced entirely by consumption, and we fail to learn from the experiences of our elders with regard to consumption, viewing it instead as a field ruled entirely by the pursuit of novelty. Just as you probably wouldn’t ask your parents for music or clothing recommendations, you wouldn’t necessarily seek their advice on how to eat.
Marketing becomes the consumption-side equivalent of training in the production process; it works most effectively when the consumer is stripped of a sense of the bigger picture and is discouraged from regarding consumption creatively. Denatured, standardized products with superficial differences (think cyclical fashion, or Coors Light, the “coldest tasting beer”) serve this purpose to a degree. They need to be as passive in their consumption as they are toward management at work.
This means consumption becomes either a matter of following directions (the devolution of cooking into processed food consumption), a matter of tallying vicarious experiences, watching other people perform activities as a substitute for actually possessing their competence (what Pollan wrote about), or a matter of inspiring ersatz competence, as with box cake mixes or video games like Guitar Hero. The products presume lazy consumers or dilettantes who reject the notion that their consumption should inconvenience them in any way — and increasingly we become that kind of consumer, regarding convenience as an end in and of itself. We end up saving time and energy merely to proceed to other activities engineered to save time and energy, with the result that we are always feeling exhausted and time-deprived amidst the surfeit of convenient culture, the quickly digestible bits and bytes of contemporary life. Convenience is a cleverly disguised treadmill.
As Marx claims in the Resultate, “in capitalist production the tendency for all products to be commodities and all labor to be wage labor, becomes absolute.” Any of our conceivable wants and needs are made internal to the circulation process. Fulfillment derived from outside that process (i.e. through social relations or craft work not for the market or undermediated interactions with nature) becomes suspect, inauthenticated. If it wasn’t bought, is it legitimate? Isn’t it, for example, necessary to pay for the MP3 to be allowed to enjoy it? Isn’t the greeting card purchased at a drugstore not only easier but more “real” then the card thrown together provisionally at home? Shouldn’t we delight specifically in industrial design and packaging, which encapsulates the majesty of capitalist circulation and dignifies our small but significant part in it? These are some of the ways consumer deskilling manifests itself positively — it makes the access to pleasure seem much more direct, as instantaneous as the moment of exchange.
Hence, it helps producers when consumers see consumption as a strictly quantitative matter — owning, using or experiencing the most stuff in the shortest amount of time. Contemporary capitalism seeks to make us all into rabid collectors, constantly crossing off items of a list we think we’ve devised but is actually just an edit of a list dictated by retailers to suit their own ends. Overall, consumption goods, like labor in the production process, become somewhat generic; demand becomes perfectly fungible, ready to soak up the ever-increasing amount of stuff that will be dumped on the market as capitalist production necessarily expands. And what will be dumped on the market is what boosts the margins of manufacturers, who innovate not to please customers but to seek competitive advantage over other manufacturers. (So much for freedom of choice symbolizing some larger existential liberty.)
In their paper “Consumer Deskilling and Transformation of Food Systems,” sociologists JoAnn Jaffe and Michael Gertler invoke the idea of the “flexible consumer” who exhibits a reflexive “willingness to try new products or to accept modifications that reflect the priorities of manufacturers and their engineering and marketing divisions.” Flexible consumers sound like a bunch of chumps, yet they are generally celebrated as courageous “early adopters” who are commended for being on “the cutting edge” and are mistakenly heralded as setting the fashion, when often they are merely so slavish that they are the first to leap up to heed their corporate masters’ call. Responding to novelty, Jaffe and Gertner argue, precludes our ability to respond instead to the nuances inherent in production on a smaller-scale. Deskilling, then, is a matter of our losing that capability to recognize what was once recognized as quality.
But the problem is that we don’t necessarily feel any dumber about what we consume, nor are we necessarily conscious of experiencing less pleasure from it. It can sound like sheer snobbery when localvores tell us how flavorless our store-bought tomatoes are, how sad and pathetic our taste buds must be that we can tolerate such blandness. Jaffe and Gertner fall into this sort of rhetoric themselves. “Consumers who lack the ability to discern true quality, freshness, or the genuine article with respect to flavor, texture, look, and smell are not likely to be of any assistance to farmers” who are adhering to organic methods, they complain. Our tastes are wrong, not genuine, as long as somewhere a small farmer might be suffering. This logic is similar to indie-rock zealots complaining about music fans not supporting the local scene, as if mass distribution inherently makes for an inferior product. Their complaint seems like a preliminary overture to a call for a massive reeducation program to force us to “develop loyalties to quality.”
“Quality” seems like the wrong thing to bring up in this sort of discussion, as it invites accusations of paternalism — that complaints about deskilling are a sophistic cloak for wanting to impose one’s own taste on the vulgar masses. It’s an aesthetic masquerading as ethics, as Scott Sumner describes here. Skilled and deskilled consumers, as described by Jaffe and Gertler, are easily transformed rhetorically into elitist connoisseurs and unjustly derided philistines: “Skilled consumers will be vital to the positive transformation of food systems. Deskilled consumers will be their own worst enemies and will undermine possibilities for progressive change up and down the food chain.” The deskilled are held to be suffering from false consciousness, an accusation which may only harden their resistance to what they are told is the truth.
Resisting the deskilling process means giving up pleasure that we experience as real — the pleasure of eating Doritos is no less real than the pleasure of making enchiladas from scratch. There are many reasons to prefer the latter form of pleasure, but those reasons are not necessary hedonic — it may not be more intensely pleasurable to exhibit our skills than to passively engorge ourselves on consumer goods. Personal pleasure, the invocation of quality, cannot be the basis for ethics here; in fact it’s in the interests of a consumer system to make it appear that it is. Individualist ideology finds such rich and compelling expression throughout the various discourses of American society, from advertising to taste-based criticism to democratic politics, in part because it echoes the consumerist premise that life is mainly a matter of detecting quality in the marketplace. Reskilling consumption cannot be about teaching people to strive for the “good things” in life. Rather, it will probably have to champion a different form of identity altogether that supplants connoisseurship and the curatorial identity with that of the craftsperson, wholly engrossed in their work and more or less indifferent to the world.