“Ars longa, vita brevis”

The Extermination of Homo Consumens

Let's not permit this dreadful byproduct of capital to remain with us for long...

Let’s not permit this dreadful epiphenomenon of capital to remain with us for much longer.

What better occasions remarks on the problem of homo consumens than the holiday season? As a worker forced to endure this madness, I share with you my thoughts.

Since the triumph of the capitalist mode of production in the eighteenth century, communist theoreticians and ordinary workingmen and women alike have justifiably condemned the demeaning character of bourgeois social relations. Then, as now, the central injustice of the system lies in the exploitation of labor by the capitalist class. The alienation wrought by impersonal market forces is also frequently cited as a source of grievance by class conscious working people, as it should be. But there is yet another facet of capitalism worthy of censure; one just as dehumanizing and pernicious. I’m here referring to the issue of menial service sector labor. Admittedly, service labor[1] precedes the capitalist epoch by millenia, but capital has transformed this line of work into something utterly unbearable to engage in. Those who have had the misfortune of being employed in the service sector for an appreciable amount of time are undoubtedly aware of the myriad objections one could level at it, but they bear elaboration for whatever néophytes or relatively privileged workers may be reading.

Imagine, if you will, spending (conservatively) 30 percent[2] of your finite time on this planet catering—in the most cheerful and hospitable manner you can possibly muster—to the desires of unappreciative strangers in order to acquire your daily bread. Individuals who view you solely as a means to an end; an expendable instrument in the pursuit of their consumptive gratification. Worse, this experience is to take place during the best years of your life, at your cognitive and physical apex. So, in addition to being in a position of servitude to property owners and their managerial representatives, you occupy a role wherein absolute obedience to individuals who know the least about what your labor entails (i.e., customers) is obligatory. With the exception of chattel slavery, indentured servitude, and sweatshop employment—which are confined to the periphery of the geopolitical order today—I defy anyone to propose a more humiliating and disempowering form of labor.

Even under capitalism a significant percentage of proletarians in the United States could once take pride in their work. Not only did trade unions (yellow though they were) shield them from some of the excesses of managerial oversight, but productive workers utilized their minds and muscles to produce tangible, useful products. Labor of that sort instills in the individuals performing it a genuine sense of purpose. Compare that to the tedious process of placing novelty items on a shelf in a high turnover firm or preparing lattes for impatient, rotund customers, which typifies the working day for so many of us. Taylorist management techniques and market alienation clearly exacerbate the problems exhibited in the service sector, but I can’t help but think that even within the context of a self-managed, planned communist commonwealth, society should take measures to reduce, if not entirely eliminate, this drudgery from human existence.

Everyone enjoys dining at a restaurant on occasion, but they don’t see the man in the kitchen accidentally impaling a digit with the cutlery customers used to shove steak into their foul orifices, or the chef burning himself on the steaming pans he used when preparing an entrée. If the thought did enter their minds, they would regard it as unfortunate but not their problem. ‘Why should I be forced to adjust my preferences just because they didn’t value their education as much as I did?’ is the meritocratic rhetorical question these pathetic lifeforms often pose to justify their relative privilege. God forbid they should have to learn how to prepare their favorite food or beverages, or have to contemplate, in advance, what they wish to consume. Such a practice might, in some sense, cultivate them, and society mustn’t allow that..

Homo consumens is a sociological subspecies of mankind, so obsessed by the pleasure of consumption that he has little regard for his fellow man’s conditions of labor. He emerged through a process of artificial selection induced by the law of value. His extermination, though indispensable for securing dignity in labor, is not inevitable, even under socialism. If the inhumane nature of service labor, outlined above, is to be surmounted, society must consciously prohibit the forms of production, distribution, and consumption which sustain him. Such is my appeal.

[1] By which I exclude slavery and indentured servitude, which are better placed in a separate category of coerced labor.
[2] During our adult years in late capitalist America 1/3 of our day is spent working, another 1/3 sleeping, and the final 1/3 engaged in other activities—much of which is related to work in some capacity anyway, e.g., commuting to our jobs, washing our work clothes, and/or venting to our family and friends about issues at the workplace.


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3 thoughts on “The Extermination of Homo Consumens

  1. Marko L. on said:

    I felt compelled to relay that this article captures my sentiments exactly. For years now I have endured the stultifying torment of customer service work and have witnessed its excesses, parsimony, and callousness–all in what should be the prime of my life. I have come to loathe customers qua customers as much as capitalists, and in some sense, even more. They, too, are vulgar upshots of this withering mode of production, and they can and will be eliminated as humanity transcends this antiquated obstacle we call capitalism and advances toward a more just, enlightened social formation. How can any sane individual feel any different when observing, for example, the frenzied beasts who assemble in front of Walmarts across the nation on the eve of Black Friday, as though it were an annual tradition, corpulent bodies eagerly stacking against the transparent doors in mad anticipation of the mindless stampede to come, all for the sake of “discounted” frivolities? How could anyone who has ever had the displeasure of servicing entitled simpletons whilst obsessively hounded to adopt a hollow smile object?

    Upon wresting power for the betterment of humanity, the proletariat shall embark upon the noble quest of constructing a higher mode of production. In the process, the anarchy of the market, being recognized as the inferior mode of distribution that it is, will eventually be succeeded by a system of rational participatory planning. With the abolition of the law of value, but likely diminishing even prior to that, the false consciousness of hedonistic consumerism will recede into the dustbin of history, where it rightfully belongs, and the socialist commonwealth will be free to invest a portion of its social product toward reducing menial, unpleasant labor and expanding the leisure time citizens enjoy in loftier pursuits, so that humankind may finally flourish.

  2. Marko,

    Like yourself, my antipathy for customers often exceeds that of the bourgeoisie. Although the latter are obviously of greater concern on an ethical level, the fact we’re forced to obey the capricious demands of the former on a daily basis explains why we find customers the more irritating of the two.

    Your description of the dismal spectacle that is “Black Friday” was spot-on. The only thing worse than observing the primitive herd rampage through the aisles, devouring one another in pursuit of slightly discounted baubles, was the pressure from my managerial overlords to persuade this mob to purchase even more than they were intending to.

    Capitalism is certainly effective in prompting the absolute worst in human nature. If we should be fortunate enough to experience the proletarian revolution in our lifetime, I will delight in viewing these profane temples of mindless consumption and exploitation dismantled.

  3. Pingback: The Frivolous Trends and Commodities of Late Capitalism: or, Aesthetic Justifications for a Communist Mode of Production | COMMON RUIN

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