The quest for authenticity is ostensibly born out of a desire to resist mass-produced capitalism, yet the pervasiveness of this desire means countercultural trends are rapidly appropriated by the mainstream. In The Authenticity Hoax, Potter concludes that we need to “come to terms with modernity” by recognizing liberal democracy and the market economy as givens, but I’m not so sure.
If we choose to see only the aesthetic virtue of nostalgia, ignoring its ideological dimensions, we participate in an inhospitable value system that excludes, well, most people. When we buy into a trend like eco-tourism, for example, we’re not just glorifying living without electricity and with daily meditation, we’re consuming an ideological system. As Slavoj Žižek argues: “When we buy a cappuccino from Starbucks, we also buy quite a lot of ideology… ‘Yes, our cappuccino is more expensive than others,’ but then comes the story. ‘We give 1% of all our income to Guatemalan children to keep them healthy… [or] some Saharan farmers, or to save the forest, to enable organic growing for coffee, or whatever or whatever…. Starbucks enables you to be consumerist without any bad conscience because the price for the countermeasure of fighting consumerism is already included into the price of a commodity.” This absolves us of guilt but ensures that consumerism continues.
Žižek refers to this model as “the ultimate form of consumerism”—selling redemption as part of the price of consumption, both literally and figuratively. But if we make peace with liberal democracy, the market economy, and blindly embrace Starbucks’ clever business model as a convenient way to find meaning outside the consumerist machine, we threaten the rigor with which we might define social progress. If we regard “authentic” consumer choices as an outlet for self-expression reflecting a commitment to personal beliefs, we displace useful energy from serious issues to the personal performance of “politics.” And with politics in scare quotes, the threat to progress becomes a real—dare I say authentic—object of fear.
In Kristian Niemietz’s Biercean-style definition, “consumerism” is the stuff that other people buy. In addition to being witty, this also accurately identifies the status competition that is the mechanism at work in these dime-a-dozen Marxish critiques. Lieberman, you see, is here to tell you that your Tiny Houses and farm-to-table-restaurants aren’t truly threatening to the capitalist status quo — apparently, any innovation which isn’t instantly and equally available to all without exception only perpetuates privilege and inequality, and clearly, any progressive improvements which leave the fundamentals of a market economy intact are fraudulent. Or, to go ahead and put too fine a point on it, she’s doing a rarefied version of what she’s complaining about — competing against rivals to sell a positional good. She’s an apex predator in the circle of performative consumer life.
It might surprise her to find that Spiked magazine, which represents a British libertarian/classical liberal perspective, is also enamored of this line of criticism — see here for a typical example which I happen to remember off the top of my head. This bipartisan consensus ought to alert us to the common denominator of human nature at work here, namely, the desire to position myself as cooler, more fashionable, more in-the-know than you, however irrelevant that may be in the world of functioning, practical adults. But I suppose when you’ve spent grad school studying turgid windbags like Adorno, Horkheimer and Zizek, only to end up paying the bills by writing for such radical journals as Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, and Marie Claire, you’ll seize any chance you can to feel superior to others.
I especially love that line, “the rigor with which we might define social progress.” Oh, might we? Well, I, for one, would love to see what sort of rigorous vision she has. Cynical me, I suspect it’s nothing more than vague gesturing in the general direction of some Rousseauvian fantasy in which the compromises and tradeoffs of sociopolitical life are finally transcended. The point is always to complain that other people aren’t doing enough to transform the world, not to provide a positive example of your own, which, again, these kinds of reheated left-wing leftovers are incapable of doing anyway. True, increased consumer choice and purchasing power won’t make people much more content. But that’s because human beings are inherently restless, easily bored, and prone to all sorts of logical and psychological flaws which constantly undermine our own happiness, which itself is an amorphous, moving target. Like any other product, left-wing critique promises more than it could ever deliver, but as long as people get excited by the commercials, they’ll keep chasing the illusion. At least it gives people like her a job.