Hessel: Can we "Cry Out" how we wish to consume?
Market stand in Tunis medina - as long as I am an un-organised tourist consumer, the effects of my consumption here is very hard to know anything about.
I just read Indignez-vous!, by Stéphane Hessel (Cry Out is the awkward English title, which should perhaps have been Get Upset). The short book - more like a leaflet - has sparked debate in France and in part inspired the protests currently taking place in Spain and perhaps also elsewhere in Europe. Hessel goes straight to the point and makes a clear argument for human rights and non-violence, and when and how violence might be inavoidable.
If it is easy to sympathize with Hessel and agree with him on the importance to get upset, it is less clear to me what to get upset about. Hessel points to poverty, violations of human rights and the state of the planet as reasons that surely are enough, but admits that the youth today doesn’t have the same obvious reason to get upset and politically engaged as he had, because the actors behind the action are less clear than before. Hessel ends his leaflet by inviting his readers to react, among other things, against the moyens de communication de masse qui ne proposent comme horizon pour notre jeunesse que la consommation de masse… (“means of mass communication which doesn’t propose anything to our youth but mass consumption” my translation).
I note two things: Firstly, mass communication proposes a lot more than just consumption. If the term includes Facebook and Twitter or this very blog of mine, it surely proposes ways to communicate and engage people politically to the point of turning down dictators, as recently in Egypt and Tunisia. I don’t know how Hessel defines the term mass communication, but it seems somewhat old-fashioned, as referring to the old one-way TV communication.
Secondly, and this is the point I would like to stress - what’s so wrong with consumption, or even mass consumption? Like so many other thinkers, such as Habermas and Bauman, Hessel seems to look at consumption as an egoistic luxury, conducted by those who can afford it. Even serious consumption sites and organisations frequently picture the “consumer" as a female shopaholic carrying loads of exclusive shopping bags, although overall consumption in any society is much more male than female and has little to do with Gucci and Versace. At times, consumption is of course a luxury, but at times it is an everyday necessity. Consumption comes in many varieties, but it is always a highly political act. Following decades of deregulation and increased competition, not least at the level of the European Union, consumption is probably the most political act of all economic acts performed by citizens.
It might be that I have a very flowery look un us citizens when we happen to act as consumers, but I think we are fully capable of much more than passively acting on stimuli from ads, price tags and labelling. At least many economists have long since left the classic notion of the economic man, always acting to maximise his or her own benefit. I think consumers are able to organise themselves in their own right to gather information and express more actively how they wish the market to function, rather than relying on individual consumers’ ability to change the courses of the market. When the power is increasingly vested in the market, democracy and an organised citizenry need to be there as well.
Talking with Hessel, half a billion EU citizens’ consumption is of course not so much a reason to get upset as a chance to involve in the decision-making of the Union and a tool to empower European democracy. But we all know how much our consumption affects both poverty, human rights and not least the state of the planet. And mass communication is precisely what independent consumers’ organisations would need to analyse who the actors behind the action on the markets really are, and hold them accountable.
A couple of weeks after we came home from a holiday in Tunisia, the uprisings against Ben Ali began. As long as tourists aren’t organised and need to rely on travel agency’s information and what media occasionally report, any revolution will happen only thanks to what Tunisians do. But if tourists as consumers were organised, their organisations would at least be able to hold hotels and restaurants accountable for their role in fighting poverty, respecting human rights and protecting the environment. /