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kpfa-free-speech-take-it-back-logo-121199LUMPENPROLETARIAT—Rutgers University Professor of History, Dr. James Livingston, is the author of Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (Basic Books, 2011) as well as op-eds for Wired, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Christian Science Monitor.  In his book, Against Thrift, Dr. Livingston presented various controversial arguments.  Today, on free speech radio, Against the Grain (KPFA, 94.1 FM, Berkeley, CA, Pacifica Radio) broadcast a discussion with Dr. Livingston.  Listen here. [1]

Dr. Livingston challenges his readers/radio listeners to reconceptualise the commodity form as a force with emancipatory effects for humanity.  Dr. Livingston raises some interesting questions.  And, perhaps, his zeal in advocating for the power of consumerism for socioeconomic wellbeing adversely overpowers, as when he seems to advocate for marketing to children, despite its attendant perils of branding and corporations building lifetime cognitive associations in children carrying forward into adult fetishism of corporate logos and identities.

Dr. Livingston described various theories of capitalist crisis and emphasised one problem with the capitalist mode of production, in particular:

“I’m with the pro-capitalist theorists of the last century, the guys who invented the Federal Reserve, in saying:  No, it’s not these four Ms, although there’s enough truth in each, it seems to me, to warrant a careful study of these claimsThe real problem is surplus capital. [2]  That is, the real problem is the distribution of incomeToo much capital seeking too few productive outlets.  That’s the cause of the recent crisis, just as it was the cause of the Great Depression.”

This is, essentially, a Post-Keynesian argument describing low aggregate demand, or low consumer spending.  However, as Dr. Hyman Minsky (1919-1996), Dr. L.R. Wray (b. 1953) [3], and other Post-Keynesian economists have shown, Dr. John Maynard Keynes’ (1883-1941) ideas came to be distorted by others’ attempts to reconcile Keynes’ work with the extant (neo)classical economic orthodoxy or to mathematically model Dr. Keynes’ concepts as with the IS-LM model.  Joan Robinson (1903-1983), a colleague of Dr. Keynes, called these theorists who introduced Keynes’ ideas (in modified form) to the world as the Bastard Keynesians [4] because they bastardised, or debased, Keynes’ main arguments.  (Bastard Keynesians are also known, more neutrally, as the Textbook Keynesians because of their predominance in economic textbooks of the mid-20th century.)  Whereas Dr. Keynes argued for government intervention to increase consumer spending and capitalist investment as a means to stimulate economic activity, Bastard/Textbook Keynesians focused their policy prescriptions upon incentives aimed at capitalist investors, propagandised today as the job creators.  This shifted focus away from Keynes’ advocacy for public spending for job guarantee programmes, as developed during the USA’s New Deal, under the influence of Keynes’ ideas. [5]

Post-Keynesian analysis recognises that firms and corporations have no incentive to invest when aggregate demand is low.  Dr. Livingston understands this and, so, argues for a reconceptualisation of consumerism.  However, as the interviewer suggests, this approach may apply only narrowly to the already well-off middle class.  One important aspect, which Dr. Livingston seems to overlook is Modern Money Theory (MMT) as well as the economically viable, but ignored, concept of a government job guarantee. [6]



AGAINST THE GRAIN—Could spending be virtuous and thrift bad? Left-wing economic and cultural historian James Livingston thinks so. He suggests — taking on the 19th century Populists, the Frankfurt School, and current economic orthodoxy along the way — that consumption is good for social justice and the environment. Livingston argues that, in place of austerity and frugality, investment should be socialized, wages increased, and the workweek.

Learn more at AGAINST THE GRAIN.


AGAINST THE GRAIN—”Today on Against the Grain:  Could spending be virtuous and thrift bad?  Left-wing economic and cultural historian James Livingston thinks so.  He suggests—taking on the 19th century Populists, the Frankfurt School, and current economic orthodoxy along the way—that consumption is good for social justice and the environment.  I’m Sasha Lilley.  We’ll hear my conversation with Livingston after these news headlines.”


[This is a rush transcript. This transcript is currently under construction.]


SASHA LILLEY:  From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California, this is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.  I’m Sasha Lilley.  Both, before and after the financial meltdown, the conventional wisdom about Americans has been the same: We spend too much, save too little, consume too many resources, are manipulated by advertisers, and buy a lot of junk, that ends up in massive landfills.  James Livingston wants to upend your thinking on those assumptions entirely and argue the opposite, that frugality is bad and consumption is good.  No, he doesn’t work for Madison Avenue, but, rather, is a left-wing economic and cultural historian.  He teaches at Rutgers.  And he’s written a polemic called, Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul.”


[This is a rush transcript. This transcript is currently under construction.]


LILLEY:  [SNIP]  “What about this question of consumption and resources, consumption and—”


LILLEY:  “—the environment.  All around us, we see the ravages of the environment.  And you make the point that humans have always been involved in shaping the environment, that we’re not some interlopers from outside.”


LILLEY:  “And, even if we assume that’s all true—and you have me there; I agree—what about this destruction of resources by consumer capitalism?”

DR. LIVINGSTON:  (c. 48:26) “Yeah.  Well, I think that you’re absolutely right, that this is the most controversial claim in the book. [chuckles]  I can’t seem to convince anybody, not even you.  When I say, not even you, I mean it’s pretty clear that you’ve read the book very, very carefully.

“My primary example in my chapter where I talk about the environment is the food revolution.  It seems to me, since the 1970s, consumer boycotts of that industrialised food chain have changed the way we produce food, distribute food, consume food, and prepare food.  And I think that, as an environmental achievement, can’t be exaggerated.  I think that’s an extraordinary achievement.  So, that’s one way to put it.

“The other way to put it is:  If consumers have the requisite income and the proper facilities, they typically do two thingsFirst, they buy vehicles with better mileage, if they can, if they have the requisite income, and if the things are available.  They did it in the 1970s in an overnight switch to Japanese cars, which were, both, better built and had better mileage than American-built cars.  But I live in New York City.  If people have clean, reliable mass transit, not only will they use it, but they will use it by the millions every day.  And it will be a whole lot less destructive of the environment.

“So, in that sense, we need to rethink all of our transportation planning priorities.  And this is nothing new to you; I’m sure.  But I think consumers can lead the way and have led the way.  I mean they certainly have led the way in New York City.  Nobody drives.  I mean I own a car; but I don’t drive a whole lot.

“So, those are two examples, it seems to me, that environmental integrity can be delivered by empowered consumers.”

LILLEY:  “But that seems to run up against this issue, which is sort of an open question throughout the book around social power.  I mean consumer boycotts have worked in specific cases.  But they’re very hard to apply across the board.”


LILLEY:  “I mean there’s lots of controversy how effective consumer boycotts are.”


LILLEY:  “I think the consensus seems to be that they’re not very effective.  There’s some phenomenal examples.  But they stand out as times when people put a great deal of effort into something.”


LILLEY:  “But, you know, there’s so questions around the environment and green-washing and people thinking they’re buying something that is environmentally sound.  And, then, just the scale of the problem versus—”


LILLEY:  “—the impact of consumers, it’s hard to imagine that consumers, by themselves—we haven’t seen it around climate change in any big way that this is what it’s gonna take to reverse it.  And, although I think it’s interesting that you focus on the ways that the Left and others have fetishised the workplace as virtuous consumption or not virtuous, but certainly there is something about collective power in these different places, the work place is for one.”


LILLEY:  “And collective power seems to be a key, yet unflagged, element in all of this when we’re talking about redistributing income and all of that.  I mean how do you see that.”

DR. LIVINGSTON:  “Well, I think it’s a very good point that one of the reasons that we have fetishised the workplace is that it is easier to organise people in workplaces than it is to organise consumers.  Consumer boycotts are difficult to accomplish.  But it did get done in the 1950s and 1960s by the Civil Rights Movement.  So, I think we do have historical examples whereby consumer culture can be turned to the benefit of progressive causes.

“I think Michael Pollan has a good answer to your deeper question.  And that is consumers, in the absence of wielding some leverage over producers, like for example, if consumers want better mileage in their cars, well, how do they get that if the producers aren’t—you know—if they think that lower mileage cars are more profitable and, therefore, they’re gonna produce those?

“So, yeah, the question is:  How do you concentrate social power, if you’re talking about consumers?  I think Pollan has a good answer.  And that is:  This food revolution, of which he writes so eloquently, is a way of redescribing and reconstructing a relationship between consumers and producers.  It’s putting them in closer touch and teaching—not to the extent we would like, so far—but teaching producers that it’s to their benefit to produce more healthily, to distribute less expensively, and so on and so forth.

“I think his next book will demonstrate this new relationship between producers and consumers.”

LILLEY:  “But, not just sort of throw around a left-wing sneer—”

DR. LIVINGSTON:  “Right. [chuckles]”

LILLEY:  “—but isn’t a lot of this really about the middle class?  I mean so many Americans now are living on the edge of poverty.”


LILLEY:  “And they already spend all the money that they have, you know, because they need to to get by.  So, they don’t have discretionary income to say:  Well, I’m gonna put it here or I’m gonna put it thereSo, is this really, in some way, an argument limited to just one portion of society?”

DR. LIVINGSTON:  “I should hope not.  Um, uh, I hope you’re wrong about that because part of the redistribution of income effect, that I argue for in the book is that if we place more income in the hands of people who are now just getting by, who live at or below the poverty line, if we can place more income in their hands, then they will have more choices when it comes to food.  And the boutique stores, you know, the Trader Joe’s, the Whole Foods, all of those places—will move into those poorer neighbourhoods where they can turn a profit, where they can actually market their brand of health food and healthier food for the poorer people as well as the middle class people.

“Paul Campbell’s book on obesity, it seems to me, speaks directly to this, that income redistribution is really the first step towards addressing what he calls the obesity myth.  He doesn’t think it’s an epidemic.  But I guess the rest of us have a little bit more doubt about it.  But income is the key to that.  And, so, without income redistribution, this food revolution, that Pollan describes so well, can’t be completed.”

LILLEY:  “When we think about abundance, shouldn’t we really be thinking about ways to expand public abundance, generally, rather than private abundance?”  (c. 55:10)


LILLEY:  “Although, you’re talking about these policy-wide ways of redistributing income, consumption seems still, by and large, to be a private thing in your book.  Correct me, if I’m wrong.”

DR. LIVINGSTON:  “Well, I think that that’s a fair reading of the book.  But, again, I would hope that one of the policy implications here is that we have to rethink transportation planning priorities, so, that instead of simply giving consumers better choices when it comes to the cars that they buy and commute with, we have to give consumers, commuters, better choices of mass transit.  I don’t think there’s any way around that.  We’re not going to be able to reduce our carbon footprint, as we now see it, in the absence of vaster, greater public spending on public transportation.”

LILLEY:  “James Livingston has been my guest.  He is Professor of History at Rutgers University and the author of Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul.  That’s published by Basic Books.  And you can find a link to it on our website, AgainstTheGrain.org.  James, thank you so much for joining me.”

DR. LIVINGSTON:  “Well, thank you for having me, Sasha.  It was a pleasure.”

[All transcription by Messina]


[1]  “Celebrating Consumption“, Against The Grain, May 26, 2015, https://kpfa.org/episode/against-the-grain-may-26-2015/

[2]  N.B.:  Economics is a controversial field of study with contending theories vying for dominance in the academic and popular spheres of influence.  Two of the dominant categories of economic theory (Neoclassical and Keynesian) describe capital as plant and equipment (cf. fixed capital) or financial/money capital (cf. circulating capital).  In both cases, they convey the basic notion of capital, which is of an initial outlay (or investment), which yields a greater return later.  For example, an initial outlay of money capital will generate a greater amount of money later.  This is thought of as using money to make more money.  Or an initial outlay of plant and equipment, will pay for itself and generate greater returns later.  This is thought of as using tools and equipment to make more money.

However, simply thinking of capital as plant and equipment or financial capital obscures the social relations inherent in capitalist social relations.  Another major dominant category of economic theory is Marxian economics.  Marx wrote three important volumes on capital, capitalist relations, and the capitalist mode of production.  Unfortunately, it is largely left out, or censored, from most economics departments.

In the more accurate Marxian sense, capital is a social relation.  It is the constant extraction of surplus value from living labour (as opposed to dead labour, which is embodied in commodities or goods manufactured/produced through the application of living labour).  Workers are exploited through the capitalist mode of production and its wage labour social relations.  Under the capitalist mode of production (as opposed to slavery, feudal or other modes), workers are proletarianised (forced onto the grid, as it were).  Workers are a class of people with nothing of value by which to earn a living other than their capacity to work.  This makes workers dependent upon the asymmetrical power dynamics of the wage-labour social relations, whereby the capitalist owner of the means of production will never hire a worker, unless she can exploit the worker.  That is, unless she can make more money off of the worker than the worker is paid in wages.  By definition, the wage-labour social relation is a predatory one.  This is capital.  It is the theft, or appropriation, of the value produced by labour through society’s deification of property rights and capitalist ownership of the means of production.  Over time, class consciousness has eroded, especially in the USA, such that workers (even in most unions) do not perceive the inherently predatory nature of wage labour or how capital is extracted from labour.

[3]  Dr. L.R. Wray was a student of Dr. Hyman Minsky.  Dr. Wray was also one of my economics professors at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

[4]  Cf. Turgeon, Lynn (1996). Bastard Keynesianism: The Evolution of Economic Thinking and Policy-Making Since World War II. Praeger. ISBN 978-0313300240.

[5]  Also consider, for example:

[6]  Ibid.


[Last modified 04:54 PDT  27 MAY 2015]