Resistance is (mostly) futile: How buying nothing is harder than it looks (especially at Christmas time)


While there are thousands of people all over the world taking part in the “Buy Nothing” movement, along with a whole range of other groups of people doing what they can to reduce consumption, resistance to commerce is nothing new. The first Buy Nothing Day was held in 1992, and books such as Kalle Lasn’s (1999) ‘Culture Jam’, Naomi Klein’s (2002) ‘No Logo,’ and, locally, input from economists like Clive Hamilton (Growth Fetish, 2003; Affluenza with Richard Dennis, 2005) have all posited that consumption is not the answer to all of our problems. But, with the rise in access to information, consumer-resistance movements are becoming increasingly popular, prevalent and visible in contemporary Western society.

One perspective is that the Buy Nothing movement is an extension of a shift in the focus of some protest groups away from the state across to the corporate world. So, with government outsourcing more of their previous responsibilities to the commercial world – which sociologist, Jurgen Habermas referred to as the “privatisation of social problems” – the state is no longer the sole focus of social protest, and political activism is often directed towards a diverse array of institutions.

Research in the field of anti-consumption has identified the emergence of groups of people with different motivations. One group, identified by scholars such as Rajesh Iyer from Bradley University in the US, are motivated by a desire to reduce the general level of consumption predominantly for the benefit of society or the planet. These people are mostly concerned with the environment or material inequity. A study in conducted by Victoria Harty in 2002 found that these global impact/environmentally concerned people were the predominant consumer type in the Buy Nothing, and similar resistance, movements.

Along with this group, we also see the emergence of simplifiers; those people who make a conscious decision to drop-out of the fast paced, consumer oriented lifestyle. The seachange/treechange types. They are not necessarily all about cutting back, but looking for alternative ways to consume that are more “grass-roots”. And some argue that their behaviour is linked to a psychological emptiness that comes with consumption. One study conducted by the Harwood Group found that 72 per cent of people in this particular group agreed with the statement that “many of us buy and consume things as a substitute for what’s missing in our lives.”

Another group are those people who simply by virtue of the fact that they don’t have the appropriate resources, are forced to buy nothing. While theirs isn’t a resistance movement as such, my research into ethical consumption has found that it was this group of people, who once they found some affluence, were more likely than others to reduce their consumption, rather than replace their consumption with more “ethical” or values-based buying.

As we can see, there are a whole bunch of contradictions in here, but one issue to consider is that as consumption becomes culture, things like values, ethics and symbolism are infused into consumer behaviour to the point where the idea of the sovereign consumer becomes more prevalent, and permeates the general discourse of what it is to exist in contemporary society.

So, we see this state of affairs emerging that makes it difficult for people to explicitly consider moral and ethical behaviour – a major concern of previous generations – except to assume that it should go hand in hand with material and economic progress. Coupled with this is a situation where the political and business elite tells us that we can find our way out of any crisis through consumption.

And, at an emotional level, it makes sense. Consuming provides comfort, satisfies physical needs, and ultimately contributes to the construction of one’s self and the communication of it to others. The increasing diversity of products or services to choose from leads to a pressure for people to creatively pursue individuated identities (as consumers).

To some degree, even the capitalist project is predicated on an ideology of dissatisfaction with our current state. So, most of us are constantly on the lookout for ways to achieve a higher state, and a better life through one of the few outlets that we feel we can control – what we buy. Marketers refer to this as the “ratchet” effect – people are never totally satisfied, so they will always be wanting something more.

So, it becomes easier to consume and buy, than it is to resist. In some circumstances, buying nothing is actually hard to do, because resisting certain items can often be emotionally and financially costly. Which leads us to the ritual buying frenzy that is Christmas.

Humans at their core need to create rites and rituals to create meaning and a sense of security. If we have these festivals it can connect us with a community, and gives us a perception of normalcy and predictability.

However, many of us don’t stop to think about what the festivals and rituals mean to us; not in some historical, overly scholarly kind of way, but thinking about why we are actually celebrating it. Often, we need a crisis of some kind, such as a change in circumstances that allows us to stop and reconsider what these rituals actually mean to us.

Marketers are responding to all of these predispositions, while drawing on a plethora of psychological and sociological research to develop tactics that nudge us towards consumption, while giving us permission not to think, by surrounding us with stimuli designed to overwhelm our cognitive processing.

One of things psychological research tells us is that are not very good at predicting the future. Or maybe, it would be better put is that we have an over-inflated sense of our accuracy in predicting the future – we rely on how we feel right now to predict how we might feel about something later. Psychologists call it affective forecasting. So, in the moment, and just in that moment, we buy things that we think we will need. But we discount all the other things that we have bought, and also discount how having all that stuff didn’t necessarily make things great last time.

If we think about Christmas lunch or dinner, many of us are not good at planning how much food we will actually need and we aren’t very good at knowing how much we will actually end up eating (or needing to eat). We pile our plate high, because we don’t really know how much we need, but do know how much we want. Lots and lots. Just in case we miss out on something great.

It’s the same with gifts. We don’t plan, and so we are more susceptible to the gentle nudges that the marketers – with their tactics developed in the cold, hard, rational light of psychology – give us at Christmas time… when we are stressed, in a hurry, and trying to do ten things at once.

We are also incredibly social animals; so many of us are influenced by this need to provide a lot of food, or gifts, so that we will be valued by our friends and family. To not do so, especially at Christmas, means resistance to a whole bunch of rites and rituals. The issue is that it requires significant personal and psychological resources to actually resist the marketers’ view of Christmas.

But, in the same context, we have never before had such an opportunity to resist those societal norms. With movements such as Buy Nothing Day, Buy Nothing New Month, and even Occupy Christmas, there is significant support for those who wish to opt out of consumerism.

To resist any natural response requires a commitment to the idea of resistance, a willingness to practice that resistance at all times (we know that the more we do something, the easier it becomes), and, importantly surrounding ourselves with people who will help us to resist, or at least won’t sabotage that resistance. This doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from society, but it does mean coming to terms with the idea that “life as you know it” is likely to change. Constantly pushing up against all of the messaging around consumption is going to be hard.

That said, these campaigns aren’t for everybody. In the first place, you have to have the resources to be able to Buy Nothing. Buying nothing for any period of time means that you should already have a fair bit of what is needed to function capably in society. If you already have nothing, this is going to be difficult. If you have other stresses in your life, it is also going to be difficult, simply because you won’t have the mental capacity and energy to process the information in a methodical, rational way.

But, for many who are tired of consumption as culture, any resistance is resistance, and can for some, lead to a long-term change in our behaviour.

This entry was posted in Consumer Behavior, Ethics, Human Behavior, Philosophy, Research, Social Psychology, Tribal. Bookmark the permalink.

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