5 Jan 2010

We can chose life or advertising but not both.

This is a crucial article from Michael from Monthly Review
Michael Löwy kindly criticised the first chapter of the new book I am working on (I don't answer my phone but unlike Stephen Fry I don't shut myself away while writing!)

This is a crucial article from Michael from Monthly Review.

January 2010

Advertising Is a “Serious Health Threat”—to the Environment

*Michael Löwy*

Climate change has brought the global environmental crisis to its crux. The
primary point that must be noted is that the pace of climate change is
accelerating much more rapidly than had been forecast. Accumulation of
carbon dioxide, rising temperatures, melting of the polar ice caps and of
the “eternal snows,” droughts, floods: all are speeding up and previous
scientific analyses, the ink scarcely dry, turn out to have been too
optimistic. More and more, in projections for the next one, two, or three
decades, the highest estimates are becoming accepted minima. And to that
must be added the all-too-little-studied amplifying factors that today pose
the risk of a qualitative leap in the greenhouse effect leading to runaway
global warming.

There are still some 400 billion tons of carbon dioxide confined in the
permafrost, that frozen tundra that extends through Canada and Siberia. But
how can the glaciers melt without the permafrost melting too? There are few
depictions of the worst-case scenario, in which global temperatures rise by
5-6°C: scientists steer clear of painting catastrophic pictures. But we
already know what looms: rising sea levels flooding, not only Dacca and
other Asian coastal cities, but also London, Amsterdam, Venice, New York;
desertification on an enormous scale; shortages of drinking water; repeated
natural catastrophes. The list goes on. At a temperature 6°C higher, it
becomes questionable whether the planet will still be habitable for our
species. We have, alas, no other planet to move to.

Who is responsible for this situation, unheard of in human history?
Scientists answer—humans. A true answer, but a bit incomplete. Humans have
lived on earth for many millennia, but atmospheric carbon dioxide levels
became dangerous only a few decades ago. In reality, the fault lies with the
capitalist system—its absurd and irrational logic of unlimited expansion and
capital accumulation; its obsessive drive to increase material production in
pursuit of profits.

The narrow-minded rationality of the capitalist market, with its short-term
calculus of profit and loss, is intrinsically contradictory to the
rationality of the living environment, which operates in terms of long,
natural cycles. It is not that “bad” ecocidal capitalists stand in the way
of “good” green capitalists. It is the system itself, based on pitiless
competition, demand for return on investment, and the search for quick
profits that is the destroyer of ecological equilibrium.

In contradistinction to the fetishism of commodity production and the
automatically self-adjusting economy propounded by neoliberal economics,
what is at stake is the emergence of a “moral economics”—economic policies
based on non-monetary and extra-economic criteria, as suggested by E.P.
Thompson: in other words, the reintegration of economics into its
environmental, social, and political integument. Partial reforms are totally
insufficient. What is needed is to replace the micro-rationality of the
profitability criterion with an environmental and social macro-rationality,
which means that civilization will have to operate according to a different
paradigm. This is impossible without a thoroughgoing transformation of
technology aimed at replacement of current energy sources by non-polluting
and renewable sources such as direct-solar and wind energy. The first
question demanding an answer is, therefore, that of control over the means
of production and, above all, over decisions on investment and choice of
technologies, which must be seized from banks and other corporations, and
made a function of the common good.

Of course, radical change involves consumption as well as production.
Nevertheless, the problem of industrial capitalist civilization is not—as is
often claimed by some environmentalists—“excessive consumption” by the
masses, and the solution is not a general “limitation” of consumption, not
even in the advanced capitalist countries. The problem is the prevailing
type of consumption based on “false needs”: display, waste, fetishism of
commodities. What is needed is production aimed at the satisfaction of
genuine needs, beginning with those that might be called “biblical”: food,
water, shelter, garments.

How can these real needs be distinguished from their artificial and
meretricious counterparts? By the fact that the latter are produced by the
system of mental manipulation called “advertising.” Contrary to the claim of
free-market ideology, supply is not a response to demand. Capitalist firms
usually create the demand for their products by various marketing
techniques, advertising tricks, and planned obsolescence. Advertising plays
an essential role in the production of consumerist demand by inventing false
“needs” and by stimulating the formation of compulsive consumption habits,
totally violating the conditions for maintenance of planetary ecological
equilibrium. The criterion by which an authentic need is to be distinguished
from an artificial one is whether it can be expected to persist without the
benefit of advertising. How long would the consumption of Coca-Cola or
Pepsi-Cola go on, if the persistent advertising campaigns for those products
were terminated? Such examples could be indefinitely multiplied.

“Of course,” pessimists will reply, “but individuals are motivated by an
infinity of desires and aspirations, and it is they that will have to be
controlled and repressed.” Well, the hope for a paradigmatic change in
civilization is indeed based on a wager, as propounded by Karl Marx, that,
in a society freed from capitalism, “being” will be valued over “having”:
that personal fulfillment will be achieved through cultural, athletic,
erotic, political, artistic, and playful activities, rather than through the
unlimited accumulation of property and of products. The sort of accumulation
induced by the fetishistic consumption inherent in the capitalist system, by
the dominant ideology, and by advertising—and having nothing to do with some
“eternal human nature.”

As capitalism, especially in its current neoliberal and globalized form,
seeks to commodify the world, to transform everything existing—earth, water,
air, living creatures, the human body, human relationships, love,
religion—into commodities, so advertising aims to sell those commodities by
forcing living individuals to serve the commercial necessities of capital.
Both capitalism as a whole and advertising as a key mechanism of its rule
involve fetishization of consumption, the reduction of all values to cash,
the unlimited accumulation of goods and of capital, and the mercantile
culture of the “consumer society.” The sorts of rationality involved in the
advertising system and the capitalist system are intimately linked, and both
are intrinsically perverse.

Advertising pollutes the mental, just like the urban and rural, landscape;
it stuffs the skull like it stuffs the mailbox. It holds sway over press,
cinema, television, radio. Nothing escapes its decomposing influence: in our
time we see that sports, religion, culture, journalism, literature, and
politics are ruled by advertising. All are pervaded by advertising’s
attitude, its style, its methods, its mode of argument. Meanwhile, we are
always and uninterruptedly harassed by advertising: without stop, without
truce, unrelentingly and never taking a vacation, advertising persecutes us,
pursues us, attacks us in city and countryside, in the street and at home,
from morning to evening, from Monday to Sunday, from January to December,
from the cradle to the grave.

Yet this advertising is nothing but a tool, an instrument of capital used to
dispose of its output, to unload its shoddy goods, to make its investments
pay, to expand its profit margins, and to win “sectors of the market.”
Advertising does not exist in a vacuum: it is an essential part, a crucial
gear in the capitalist system of production and consumption. Without
capitalism advertising would have no reason to exist: it could not persist
into a post-capitalist society for even an instant. And, inversely,
capitalism without advertising would be like a machine with sand in its

Let us add, in passing, that while advertising did not exist in the
countries whose bureaucratically planned economies vanished after the Berlin
Wall fell, there was a mendacious political propaganda that was no less
inhuman and repressive. That too must be avoided in any transition to a
post-capitalist society.

Still, today's omnipresent commercial advertising is inextricably
intertwined with capitalism. It is capitalist corporations that design,
finance, and profit from advertising campaigns, and that “sponsor”—that is
to say *pollute* via advertising—newspapers, television, athletic
competitions, and cultural events. Advertising plays the role of
tub-thumper, pimp, and zealous servant for the interests of capital: our
aim, explained the chief executive of TF1 (the leading French commercial TV
chain), is to be selling Coca-Cola during all the time our viewers’ brains
are at our disposal. Capitalism and advertising, inseparably intertwined,
are the authors and active promoters of the commodification of the world, of
the commercialization of social relations, of the monetization of the soul.

What, then, is advertising’s impact on the environment? “Alliance for the
Planet” is rightly upset by advertising’s use of fraudulent
“environmentalist” arguments to greenwash everything: nuclear power
stations, genetically modified organisms, automobiles, and soon—why
not?—road haulage. For opponents of advertising, this is not exactly news:
we have long known that advertising lies as naturally as it breathes. Not
because of deficient morality among those gentlemen advertisers, but because
of the intrinsically perverse nature of the advertising system.
Mystification and manipulation of consciousness are, alas, the sole
justification for its existence: advertising that does not lie is an animal
as hard to find as a vegetarian crocodile. As to the Bureau for Truthfulness
in Advertising, consisting entirely of representatives from advertising
corporations, its credibility and effectiveness are about that of a Bureau
for Safe Henhouses consisting entirely of worthy delegates from the
Brotherhood of Foxes. Nevertheless, phony green advertising is but the tip
of the iceberg. It is for more fundamental, structural reasons that the
advertising machine is a dangerous enemy of the environment. Here are two
such reasons:

1. Advertising is an immense, fearsome waste of our planet’s limited
resources. In France alone, advertising expenditures amount to several tens
of billions of euros, more than the state budget of many African countries.
With such a sum, it would be possible to build thousands of child-care
centers, hospitals, schools, and homes, to begin solving the unemployment
problem, to give large-scale aid to the third world. How many millions of
acres of forest are cut down in the world every year to print the
ever-increasing mass of advertising brochures cluttering our mailboxes, or
to make billboards and posters covering the walls of our streets and hiding
our countryside? How many hundreds of millions of kilowatt hours are
expended each year by the neon advertisements “embellishing” our cities,
from Shanghai to New York, (not forgetting Paris)? How many tons of garbage
left behind by this activity? How many millions of tons of greenhouse gases
emitted to supply the energy needs of the advertising circus? And so on. The
damages, though hard to calculate, are undoubtedly gigantic. And what
purpose does this enormous waste serve? To convince the public that
detergent X washes whiter than detergent Y. Makes sense? Of course not, but
it’s profitable (for advertisers). If you’re looking for a sector of the
economy that is useless, that could easily be eliminated without any harm to
the populace, while saving great outlays on energy and raw materials—what
better example than the advertising industry? Certainly, that would involve
laying off very many people but, rather than condemning them to
unemployment, they could usefully be hired for new “green” jobs.

2. All environmentalists agree in denouncing the “consumerism” of the
Western (i.e., advanced capitalist) countries as one of the main causes of
the ecological disaster threatening us. But they don’t know how to alter
that state of things: by making buyers feel guilty? By speeches preaching
frugality? By willingly making one’s own life an example of austerity? All
are legitimate activities, but they have a very limited impact on the larger
public and even run the risk, in certain cases, of making people less
willing to comply with environmental requirements. A change in consumption
habits will not be accomplished in a day: it is a social process that will
take years. It cannot be imposed from on high, nor can it be left merely to
the virtuous “good will” of private individuals. It involves a true
political battle in which active education by the public authorities must
play a role. But the main agents of change will be education and struggles
by consumer associations, trade unions, environmental movements, and—why
not?—political parties. One of the crucial fronts in this battle is the
fight for a complete and definitive suppression of advertising imperialism,
that gigantic undertaking to colonize our minds and our behaviors, whose
terrible effectiveness cannot be overestimated.

As we have seen, advertising is one of the main factors responsible for the
obsessive consumption of modern societies; of the ever more irrational
tendency toward piling up (usually useless) material goods; in short: of a
perfectly unsustainable consumption paradigm. Compulsive consumption is one
of the essential driving forces for the process of expansion and unlimited
“growth” that have always characterized modern capitalism and now are
driving us, with ever-increasing speed, toward the abyss of global heating.
It is thus not by chance that the publishers of one of the most inventive
“adverphobic” magazines in recent years, *Adbusters*, have also started the
environmentalist magazine *Objecteurs der Croissance* (“Growth-conscientious
Objectors”): advertising harassment and unlimited growth are two inseparable
dimensions of the system, two teats from which capital accumulation feeds.
It follows that transformation of the current consumption paradigm is
closely linked to struggle against the tentacles of advertising. How can
people be convinced to abandon consumption-habits incompatible with
ecological equilibrium without putting a stop to the continuous pounding by
advertising that incites, encourages, and stimulates them night and day to
buy and buy again? How can individuals shake off the culture of conspicuous
consumption—famously studied at the turn of the century by the American
economist Thorstein Veblen—that tells them they can affirm their personality
only by buying and displaying supposedly “exclusive” products; except by
freeing them from the advertising that incessantly reproduces this reified
culture? How can the public be freed from the dictatorship of “fashion” that
forces the speedy obsolescence of products, themselves ever more ephemeral,
without taking on the head-stuffing—if not brainwashing—of advertising? How
can we put an end to the tyranny of “brands,” the neurotic obsession with
“Logos,” without breaking up advertising’s frightful Ubuesque “brainectomy”

The compulsive consumerist behavior in advanced capitalist society is not
the manifestation of “human nature,” nor of some innate tendency of
individuals to consume more and ever more. Nothing comparable is ever found
in pre-capitalist communities or societies; it is proper to capitalist
modernity and inseparable from the dominant fetishistic ideology, from the
religious cult of commodity-worship actively promoted by the advertising
system. And what that manufactures is not merely the desire to acquire this
or that product—it is a culture, a worldview, habits, behaviors. In short, a
whole way of life.

Rather than seeking to force individuals to “lower their standard of
living,” or to “reduce their consumption”—an abstract, merely quantitative
approach—what is needed is to create conditions under which people can,
little by little, discover their real needs and qualitatively change their
ways of consumption; for example, by choosing more culture, education,
health, or home improvement rather than buying new gadgets, new decreasingly
useful commodities. For this, the suppression of harassment by advertising
is a necessary condition.

Of course, this is still not sufficient. For example, consider the iconic
commodity of so-called “Fordist” capitalism, the private automobile, whose
harmfulness to the general environment—by air pollution, paving over green
spaces, and above all forcing climate change through carbon dioxide
emissions—needs no demonstration. Steady reduction of its place in our
cities—to be democratically decided by the public itself—can successfully be
brought about only if, in parallel with the suppression of the persistent
and mendacious advertising for automobiles, urban planning strongly favors
alternative means of transport: mass transit, bicycles, pedestrianism.

Advertising is an essential gearing in the infernal neoliberal/capitalist
spiral of ever-increasing, ever-expanding (“Expansion” is the title of a
prestigious corporate business magazine)
production/consumption/accumulation—that spiral that is driving the
degradation, increasing at a geometric rate, of the environment—degradation
that leads us, by means of climate change, to a catastrophe without
precedent in human history. Advertising can even be viewed as the oil
lubricating those terribly efficacious gears that are crushing the planet
and might well, in a few decades, render it uninhabitable for humans.

The moral of the story is this: a different world is possible, beyond
capitalist reification, commodity fetishism, and advertising. But we cannot
wait for it to arrive: the struggle for a different future begins here and
now. Every attempt to put limits to advertising’s aggression—until we are
able, one day, to get rid of it altogether—is an environmental duty, a
political and moral imperative for all those who hope to save our natural
environment from destruction. The fight for a different civilizational
paradigm is to be waged precisely through that sort of initiative. We fight,
henceforward, to rein back advertising’s frenzy, in the same way that
anti-capitalists mobilize for measures—the Tobin Tax, for example—that would
apply the brakes to the unlimited covetousness of capital. Each success,
even if limited, if won through collective action, is a step in the right
direction and, above all, an advance in the acquisition of consciousness and
self-organization of the people—the main condition for total transcendence
of the system.

*Michael Löwy (lowymich@verizon.net) is research director in sociology at
the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, and is the author
(with Oliver Besancenot) of Che Guevara: His Revolutionary Legacy (Monthly
Review Press, 2009). Translated from the French by Shane Mage.*


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springyrice said...

This is brilliant. To be honest I'm a fairly new to this way of thinking/area of politics and this article is very informative. Thanks for sharing it.

nicolaas-vanuffelen said...

change the lay-out... You are a writer arent you? I wanted to read it but it gives me a headache