iCommunism for the masses
“If ordinary communism is about equality, justice and self-determination, a socially owned and rationally planned economy, iCommunism is also about pleasure: the proposition that it is possible to create a material foundation for the universal liberation of the senses – of playfulness and an aesthetic life” (p.6)
Colin Cremin’s iCommunism is a highly relevant work which locates itself within different discourses of both the right and the left, and ultimately comes together as a succinct polemic against those who would attack consumers.
It starts with a defence of the urge to consume, locating this in an innate human sentiment of feeling unfulfilled. This desire is what inspires us to be creative, to produce more, to seek change and to question the tenets and realities of society. However, this ‘excess of human desire’ (p.19) is manipulated by a capitalist system which has an excess of production which needs to be solved through greater commodity sales. The two excesses are linked together, and consumers are urged to address that sense of incompleteness by consuming products which are meant not to be one-off purchases, but lead to the desire for a new product down the line.
Cremin asserts the rationality of consumption in a system where these two desires are linked together, and says that the answer to question of how to unchain desire from capital is not through individual abstentionism, but large-scale social change. For example, it is no surprise that people buy cars which we know destroy the environment when modern cities and cross-country transport systems are designed around car ownership. To reduce the numbers of cars on the road (and the amount of carbon produced), simply telling people not to buy them is an irrelevance without fundamentally changing cities and increasing the availability of public transport, actions which challenge the profit motive and would require mass mobilisation and social ownership to implement. In this sense the book functions to critique the lifestylism and consumer-bashing popular amongst elements of the left, arguing that they offer no path to liberation for all humanity and fail to engage with both the socio-economic and individual-psychological motivations for constant consumption.
But Cremin does not reduce his ideas to a mere critique of other left-wing tendencies, he directly tackles the ideologues of austerity. Having encouraged us to spend our way out of crisis in the late 1990s and early 2000s, these same political figures, parties and institutions have now shifted to blaming unchecked consumerism as creating the economic crisis by racking up huge levels of private debt. Similarly the author tackles the notion that environmental crisis is a result of too many humans consuming too much, pointing to how parts of the world have seen rising populations but not a resultant increase in carbon emissions.
He also tackles the liberal notion that conscientious consumption and charity can result in meaningful change, given that they never challenge the fundamental nature of exploitation within capitalism as a whole. The emotive presentation of the results of various social crises (famines, ecological disaster) are done with the intention of inspiring immediate, gutteral response, at the expense of a presentation of deeper contexts and frameworks which make these crises inevitable. When few people can afford to live out the consumerist lifestyle, and even fewer can spend more to consume more ‘ethically’, these constant demands to ACT NOW only leave us feeling more guilty for having what few luxuries we can afford. It is ineffectual activism only accessible to a few, alienating to many more.
For the large part I enjoyed this book and felt that it made a number of essential arguments of the necessity of wide-scale social change realisable only through moving beyond capitalism to a system based on human desire rather than profit. Cremin’s emphasis on the importance of pleasure, sensuousness and joyful consumption to human fulfillment is refreshing, an element often overlooked or marginalised by a lot of Marxist commentary. That said there are elements of the work which I feel are somewhat incongruous or not fully elaborated.
In an attempt to refute what he terms ‘postmodern hack’ theories, Cremin assaults the notion that inividuals can create unique or fluid identities through cultural consumption (p.43), and asserts that we essentially construct personalities based on the bricks sold to us by the cultural industry (p.50); an argument built on the ideas of Adorno. The problem with this argument is actually revealed by the author himself. In an ironic twist the conclusion of iCommunism gives examples where you can find the collective and socialistic nature of enjoyment emerging within capitalist societies, with live jazz performances being listed as one of these. Adorno, however, felt that jazz offered no liberation and that essentially its formlessness was deceit, the musical structure often relying on re-presented and re-worked elements of the repressive European classical tradition.
Different people can purchase the same cultural commodities with totally different conceptions of why they have bought it and what it says about themselves. Someone could buy a Wills and Kate ceramic plate due to their love of the monarchy, or a subversive sense of its ridiculousness, or because they feel, good or bad, that it was an important moment in British identity formation. It could be purchased and displayed ironically, seriously, or politically. While there is obvious an overriding framework which is geared towards leading people to take certain conclusions, there is no guarantee that an individual necessarily takes on the attributes being forced upon them. Not everything is subjective, but at the same time literalist assumptions of imbued messages are perhaps not the most helpful.
This Adorno-esque concept is also used to attack the liberationary narratives of consumption which have often crept into feminist argumentation (p.54). While I obviously agree that being able to buy chocolate without guilt does not present womankind with a path to social liberation, I think the polemical nature of his argument serves to somewhat undermine an important element of reality. The narratives which accompany cultural consumption are a source of oppression in that they reaffirm hegemonic concepts of gender roles. For a woman to be able to pole-dance without being seen as an overly-sexual ‘slut’ or to drive a car without being seen as out of her league in a world of technically-minded men would be an element of liberation. In Saudi Arabia, women fight for the freedom to drive cars against prevailing narratives that it is incompatible with feminine virtue; narratives which are bolstered through religious decrees and state intervention. Narratives about culturally-appropriate consumption are often accompanied by state and societal repression, being able to destroy them and consume without worrying about what the act of consumption ‘says’ about you can form the basis for social struggles and attacking dominant ideologies.
In concluding this book, Cremin asserts that consumerism has not made capitalism more stable, in fact the economic system’s reliance on an ideology of consumerism-as-freedom threatens the whole social order as the demands of the financial crisis reduce disposable income and easy credit for many and take constant consumption out of the reach of the masses. It is perhaps both a strength and a weakness that the author is not prescriptive about tactics to intersect with the consumer’s desire for ‘shiney things.’ Struggles against the impact of capital on cultural forms are evident all around us, from ‘Rage against X Factor’, to the establishment of community-owned football teams. Anti-capitalists intervene into labour and social struggles; given that cultural consumption is a huge part of human existence, perhaps it is time to discuss more about intervention into the field of culture.