Anti-Consumerism and Anti-Consumption as Expressions of American Exceptionalism

Anti-Consumerism and Anti-Consumption as Expressions of American Exceptionalism

In a patriotic consumer society, with a deified economic social systems based around spending, consuming becomes a form of patriotic and ritualized worship, by which there becomes contextualized cultural meaning. In this, an idea of what it means to be a modern American in such a society as the United States forms, and those who dissent against such methods of worship become marked with their own brand. In a 2006 article for USA Today, about the concepts of living a simple life taking hold across America, Elizabeth Weise acknowledged that, “to many, the entire notion seems strange, even downright un-American”. As Keith Brooks (2007) would say, citing Rebecca Caldwell, “consumerism is so central to the American psyche that people who willingly curbed their consumption have been accused of being “un-American”. To buy things, to consume them, to give into materialism, driven to participate in consumerism merely in support capitalism is, to some, an illustration of devotion, patriotism, and love of country – part of being American. While this remains a uniquely American attitude, another part of Americanism, seen through various movements against consuming, used to define and improve “the self” and support individualistic ideals, exists.

We can come to understand and appreciate anti-consumerism and anti-consumption movements in America by recognizing these movements as not only characteristics in the individualism of American Exceptionalism, but also as a quest for personal liberty. Interwoven in the fabric of American consumer history are movements such as these. Through aspects of communication and studies of sociological consumer theory, juxtaposed with philosophies set forth in writings of Henry David Thoreau and Benjamin Franklin, the concept that behaviors of anti-consumerism and anti-consumption as expressions of individualism becomes actualized. A platform is constructed to support anti-consumerism and anti-consumption movements as legitimate components of a “true American” by studying the thought and actions of some of the earliest influential American thinkers on the principles and the dangers of consumption in terms of identity, self-reliance, and self-improvement. Built around the framework of political, ethical, and conscious consumer behavior, self-definition through individual judgments, as well as participation in activist social groups, can become part of a strive towards personal liberty. Therefore, expression of individualism through anti-consumerism and anti-consumption, in a capitalistic market-driven society, becomes an expression of the individuality of American Exceptionalism.

Part and parcel of the American Exceptionalism, which Alexis de Tocqueville introduced in his writings on America in the 19th century, addresses the idea that Americans are innovative. To De Tocqueville, it was the American’s innovativeness, which their keen sense of “rugged individualism” affords them, and with that individualism they are given the liberty they so enjoy. It is with this liberty that men like Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau were able to influence generations of people with their philosophies on self-improvement and self-reliance. Franklin and Thoreau, by inspiring generations of individuals to consider how, through the practice of moral virtues inside of natural rights, and endeavors towards personal liberty, illustrated how the construction of personal identity and individuality could be attained.

In the decades to follow their works, with “increased emphasis placed on consumption” (Hilton, 2003), where “consumption [became] regarded as a system of signs, [creating] meaning in terms of social order” (Sanne, 2002), the “right to explore one’s social and political identity through the culture of consumption” (Hilton, 2003) arose. In exploring the concept of identity creation and personal liberty through acts of consumer behavior, one can begin to see “how anti-consumption relates to other key constructs such as self-consciousness, self-actualization, and assertiveness”. (Rajesh & Muncy, 2009) In recognizing the role of anti-consumerism and anti-consumption in the creation of an improved and enlightened self, there becomes an actualization of the philosophies promoted by both the works of Henry David Thoreau and Benjamin Franklin.

Before understanding how consumer behaviors are characteristics of American individualism through identity creation and personal liberty, there must be an illustration of historical anti-consumerism and anti-consumption significance within the context of consumer behavior. Anti-consumerism and anti-consumption activities are not new occurrences of disgruntled un-patriotic “un-American” activists of the Twentieth Century. Anti-consumerism sentiments, that is those meant to enact social change of one sort or another, are an expression of individualism and liberty at the heart of American political movements, they are activities “practiced by a diverse group of Revolutionaries, abolitionists, Southern nationalists, and moral reformers” (Glickman, 2009) throughout American History. For example, the Anti-Consumption League of New England was formed in response to the 1774 Boston Port Bill, an act by British Parliament intended to control shipping and receiving in the ports of Boston. Retaliation as a political act led to the anti-consumerism boycott of British goods through The Continental Congress. (Jackman, 1920) These actions, among others, eventually led to the American Revolution. Another example, this time of acting on virtuous grounds for social change through anti-consumption activities, is the ‘Free Produce Movement’ of 1826. This movement led to the boycott of slave produced goods and was a reaction of moral fortitude of the Quakers, and led to the formation of the American Free Produce Association in 1838, which in turn “laid the template of modern consumer activism” (Glickman, 2009). These represent only a couple of instances of early anti-consumerism and anti-consumption activities prior to the nineteen hundreds.

Even Martin Luther King, in his civil rights actions, recognized acting against consumerism in America as powerful political tool, writing from a jailhouse in Birmingham, Georgia in 1963:

“We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic with with-drawl program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.”

While this was only one way in which King acted in working to carve out an identity for black citizens of America, it serves as another example of how anti-consumerism movements, commonly used throughout American history, became tools in enacting change and expressing the spirit of liberty and individualism rooted in American Exceptionalism.

While Benjamin Franklin may not have decried consumption of goods outright, the exercises in virtue ethics outlined in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1759) that were designed to help “arrive at moral perfection”, illustrate a kind of utilitarianism view of material goods. Franklin’s ideas of virtue ethics, such as the conduct in consuming is not only well practiced with frugality in mind, but also when done with mindfulness of others and the environment, exists today embedded in the philosophy of some anti-consumption subgroups. It is a duty to note that it is my belief that the utilitarian of Franklin, while it may be rooted in that of British philosopher and father of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham, is of a different ilk. Many people, whether correct or incorrect, associate the ethics of free-market capitalism ideals and corrupt exploitation with the utilitarianism of Bentham. (Fieser, ----) Franklin’s concepts were rooted in the natural good that he believed was in every man that would drive them to do right by each other, in which there should be no “injury of your own or another’s peace” in a man actions.

Through Franklin’s first virtue of Temperance, fifth virtue of Frugality and ninth virtue of Moderation, one can infer that Franklin’s view on personal belongings were grounded in fulfilling basic needs. Supporting this further are entries in Poor Richard’s Almanac such as “455: spare and have is better than spend and crave”, and “277: If you know how to spend less than you get, you have the philosopher’s stone”. Franklin not only saw value in utility, function, and thriftiness but also recognized the function of consumerism in the creation of individual self and the maintenance of “moral perfection”.

As the Industrial Revolution and the globalized market grew to further impact consumerism, modern anti-consumerism and anti-consumption movements have evolved past mere political and traditionally moral driven causes. Today’s activists have expanded their motivations, working towards environmental activism as well as using it towards expressing increased individuality, though many of the movements still remain rooted in the political and moral. Modern day consumption behavior has birthed in-groups and out-groups through “symbolic (anti-) consumption” (Hogg, 2009) used to define the self through group affiliation, or non-affiliation.

In Purpose and Object of Anti-Consumption, for the Journal of Business Research, Rajesh and Muncy (2009) defined four general groups of consumers: “simplifiers, ethical and global impact consumers, market activists, and anti-loyal consumers”. A range of personal notions motivates individual members of these groups of consumers. As Sandicki and Ahmet (2009) report, they “may reject certain brands if they perceive an association between the brand and a particular political ideology that they personally oppose”. Additionally, they may also act in opposition “to an ideology that they believe has the potential to change the order of society for the worse” (Sandicki &Ahmet, 2009) such as the impact on human rights and the environment. These actions are not simply because of virtuous “personal lifestyle choice(s)” or acts of utility. These consumers (or ant-consumers) “refrain from using a particular product or brand [to] promote what is good for the society overall” but they are also acts by consumers used to define themselves, whereby “avoid[ing] social groups, roles, and identities that represent the negative self” (Sandicki & Ahmet, 2009). In the act of “political consumerism” in groups like ethical and global impact consumers, market activists, and anti-loyal consumers, “actions and consumer choice” (Sandicki & Ahmet, 2009) becomes a political tool created in the marketplace by the “use [of] the power of consumer dollars to impact societal issues” (Rajesh & Muncy, 2009). This type of ethical consumerism does not speak to Franklin’s virtue of the utility of frugality and simplicity, but rather to the “basic good” that he believed that all people inherently have in them.

In looking at consumer behavior as a way of forming identity, “marketable goods are forwarded as the means to satisfy not only material needs but also needs of social stratification and cultural identification” (Sanne, 2002). By rejecting those marketable goods, subgroups of anti-consumer philosophy make individualistic moves away from applied and accepted social and economic identifiers. The level of consumption and the types of goods consumed becomes a form of nonverbal communication method of conveying identity. Cultural meanings become associated with consumption of those goods (McCracken, 1986), and the forming of social identity plays out in the acquisition of those goods. “Distastes and dislikes are important factors in how consumers define their identities and the undesired self can be linked to a series of consumption choices that are represented by tastes and distastes”. (Sandicki & Ahmet, 2009) As Sanne and Ahmet (2009) assert, by “[creating] yourself with the help of an abundant supply of consumption items” and in “forming an identity […] away from the marketing of lifestyle concepts” you can see the role of anti-consumerism in definition of self, instead of having brands of consumption being the definer. In addition, capitalism and pro-consumerism behavior works to homogenize societies by forming connections and meaning through the illusion of choice and freedom in selection of goods. This “anti-consumption-as-rejection (within symbolic consumption) is about what a person is afraid of becoming” (Hogg, 2009) and how a person is afraid of being defined by their peer in-groups. Used as a way of defining self, as well setting the self apart from others, anti-consumerism and anti-consumption movements in a consumer-based society become a method of expression of the individualism that is part of American Exceptionalism.

In anti-loyal consumerism groups, “avoidance of undesirable products is equally important to individual consumers' shaping of their ideal selves” (Rajesh & Muncy, 2009), and they use the rejection of products as a way to “express resistance against some power imbalance within the market place” (Chatzidakis & Lee, 2012), where “the amount of work performed determines the level of consumption” (Sanne, 2002). In Willing Consumers - Or Locked-In, Sanne (2002) emphasizes that “the amount of work performed per capita is controlled by social order rather than by individual choice”, and “the media promotes consumption by making the consumerist lifestyle the social norm” creating structures of “work-and-spend lifestyles”, where “consumers may not be so keen and willing but are rather locked in” by this endorsed social structure. In this, Sanne supports Thoreau’s view about the salve relationship man creates with work due to materialism, but also stresses the pressure of society to conform to it. In this way anti-consumption behavior is a tool in attaining the personal liberty, as discussed by Thoreau, where an individual becomes more free from the toils of work, and less a slave to “producer and business interests” (Sanne, 2002) and goods, through the act of moderation.

In contemporary groups like The Simplicity Collective, views of Thoreau in relation to luxuries, work, technology and basic needs, are utilized as guides of inspiration towards liberty as “the poetic alternative to consumer culture”. Throughout Walden, Thoreau spoke of the various ways in which people, enslaved by belongings, perpetuate the vicious circle of work and materialism vis–à–vis the lust of consumption and/or acquisition of goods. Thoreau expounds how, in the never-ending pursuit of owning things, a man becomes a slave by his own hand. Repeated throughout Walden, Thoreau presents a message of self-reliance through achieving basic skills, which free you from being dependent on the “trade and barter” of merchants, but also offer freedom from the uncertainty of “distant and fluctuating markets”. In addition, in the rejection of consuming past the point of basic needs for life, Thoreau defined those requirements under the headings “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel”, which he believed once attained leads to the ability to “entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success”.

So-called Simplifier groups of anti-consumption movements desire escape from “fast-paced, high-consumption society and [wish to] move to a simpler, less consumer oriented lifestyle”. (Rajesh & Muncy, 2009) So, additionally, in striving towards a simplified life, aspects of Franklin’s concepts of self-improvement and self-actualization, as “simplifiers, in general, become less dependent on the opinions of others and more and more on their own knowledge and values” (Rajesh & Muncy, 2009) are realized. Independence and liberty, found in leading a simpler and less materialistic life, fosters the growth of the positive-self and is achievable by supporting this “self-concept” by avoiding “products and services [associated] with [corresponding] negative stereotypes” (Sandicki & Ahmet 2009) and influences on the qualities of the negative-self.

Along with Henry David Thoreau’s notion of liberty through self-reliance, Benjamin Franklin prized liberty through virtue of frugality. Efficient use of assets by “avoiding wasting resources on frivolous pursuits” (Franklin; Chancellor & Lyubomirsky, 2011), affords the freedom to pursue worthwhile objectives such as self-improvement and self-reliance. As Goldsmith and Clark (2012) stated in the Materialism, Status Consumption, and Consumer Independence in the Journal of Social Psychology, materialism “leads consumers to put a disproportionate amount of their resources into acquiring goods”. Frivolous pursuits such as materialism are a waste of time, which leads to such things as envy, greed, lower levels of self-actualization, higher levels of mental and behavioral disorders and psychological tension (Burroughs & Rindfleisch, 2002). Matthew Hilton (2003) speaks to this psychological tension in Affluence or Effluence: Globalization and Ethical Consumerism: “As with the ass in Jean Burdidan’s allegory, so confused are we by the array of brands and images for identical goods placed before us, that we are prone to starve through our inability to choose between two equally attractive piles of hay”. For some, society’s attribution of too much value on goods, the overwhelming perception of choices presented, and “belief that well-being can be enhanced through one’s relationships with objects” (Burroughs & Rindfleisch, 2002). This leads to the shunning of materialism in favor of embracing virtues of frugality and thrift, and is a rejection of the qualities of negative–self and psychological burden of materialism.

The belief of the Simplifiers subgroup of anti-consumption is that “maximizing their consumption, as is commonly done, has undesirable consequences, such as stress and distraction from higher pursuits” (Rajesh & Muncy, 2009) mimicking both Franklin’s philosophies of self-improvement and perfection, and Thoreau’s vision of liberty and success. It is not difficult to recognize how the philosophies of these two men, in terms of quality of life through liberty and individualism, play out in simplified living through anti-consumption. It is clear why attempts at frugality, with an end goal of self-improvement, may be viewed as being at odds with a materialistic and consumption-for-the-sake-of-consumption culture. The result of society’s standards of consumption and consuming is lowered well-being and in so leads a path away from healthy individualism. Many claim anti-consumerism acts on political and moral grounds, and anti-consumption acts on grounds of health and frugality, to be “un-American” to be against popular cultural ideals of “true Americans”. However, anti-consumerism is a movement of empowerment is American, and has been through history, and these very actions of individuality and liberty, are American.

Through this brief multi-disciplinary exploration of historical and modern anti-consumerism and anti-consumption activity and sentiment, the values purported by the works of Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau shine through. Along with the historical framework, in disassembling and exploring the concepts and ideas in the monolithic and sociological foundations of a culture of pro-consumerism behavior, the individualism of American Exceptionalism is realized at the heart of anti-consumerism and anti-consumption activists. In individualism and self-actualization through self-reliance and attainment of liberty, through frugality and moderation in self-improvement and through simplicity there is an appreciation of the works of Franklin and Thoreau. At the center of what fuels both consumer and anti-consumerism behaviors is now the idea that each is equally as a valid expressions of American Exceptionalism as their counter-parts are. However, perhaps, anti-consumerism and anti-consumption behaviors become ultimate expressions in a country built on revolutionary movements and calls-to-action meant to establish independence and individuality for all.


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