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The Consumerist Manifesto. Book Review

by Rudolf Maresch Monday, Jun. 16, 2003 at 11:28 PM

"Trade is the functional equivalent to force", Bolz says self-assuredly. Whoever pursues trade and consumes doesn't wage wars apart from weapons and drug trade. Consumers as a rule are peace-loving beings. They don't hurl bombs.."

The Consumerist Manifesto

Book Review of the Philosopher Norbert Bolz’ “The Consumerist Manifesto”

By Rudolf Maresch

[This book review is translated from the German in the cyber journal Telepolis on the World Wide Web,]

In “Power and Powerlessness”, Robert Kagan described Europe some time ago as a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity that comes close to Kant’s “Eternal Peace”. In contrast, the United States is captive or rooted in history. The US exercises power in an anarchic Hobbesian world in which international agreements and rules cannot be trusted. Peace and security depend on possession and exercise of military power.

Nothing of this clash in western relations can be read in the “Consumerist Manifesto”, the last book by Norbert Bolz coming to us in a loud Ferrari-red. There is hardly note of US unilateralism and its “liberation theologians”. Where US-Americans see the Atlantic as constantly wider and prophesy the “end of the West”, the well-known idea of the West marked by the end of history, the global victory of liberalism and democracy and the end of the struggle for acknowledgment dominates with Bolz.

The common bond is more a liberal market- and exchange system given artificial respiration and kept alive by global streams of goods, money and capital than a formal legal system based on binding rules, norms and principles and supported by cooperation, dialogue and mutual trust.

How beautiful to consume!

This system is presently challenged by a new fundamentalism, militant Islam. The attacks of September 11 showed this impressively. Several certainties of the West were also shaken to their foundations with the collapse of the Twin Towers according to Bolz, for example the idea that dialogue and tolerance toward other religions, cultures and ethnic groups will lead to an amicable peaceful balance, to more peace, stability and security in the world. On top of it all, the attacks made clear that the structures and institutions of the interwoven world society are not anchored everywhere in the world. Consequently there are still places, plazas and black holes on this planet where violence and fanaticism can govern and plans for upheavals and bloody assassinations can thrive.

Whoever wants to do something against this reality, heal fanatics, terrorists and warriors of God from their rage, anger and hatred toward “the West” and dissuade them from their violent projects must infect “risk states with the consumerist virus” and annex them in the western “consumer- and productive cooperatives” (Carl Schmitt). Binding to market events and the rapid spread of money, trade and consumption help against these violent intentions, not the western universalism of human rights.

“Trade is the functional equivalent of force”, Bolz says self-assuredly. Whoever pursues trade and consumes, the media researcher concludes, doesn’t wage wars apart from weapons- and drug trade, Consumers as a rule are peace-loving beings. They don’t hurl bombs, capture aircraft or cut the throats of others in two in God’s name,

Consumerism is the immune system of the world society against the virus of the fanatical religions. This is the core thesis of the book. “Economic success” is opium for fanatics, not religion as Marx said. Economic success cools passions, soothes hot tempers and converts hostilities into customer relations.

Political Nullity

Playing off or strengthening the neutralizing, de-politicizing and civilizing effects of the market system against the political is an old hat. Negating the political and subjugating the state to the supremacy of the economic is a favorite idea of individualist liberalism.

According to Carl Schmitt, this idea changes and denatures “all political ideas”. The bourgeois according to Hegel bids farewell to death readiness and seeks “the perfect security of pleasure as a price or “substitute for political nullity”: the problem-free happiness of pure consumption. The proof of his bravery and heroism as well as the “danger of a violent death” are spared the bourgeois. The calculating trader who coolly estimates his financial advantages and wants to enjoy the “fruits of peace and earnings and replaces the hero who throws himself boldly into the fighting and passionately defends his cause. Humanity may “finally have found its formula as the bee finds its formula in the beehive” (Carl Schmitt).

Anglo-Saxon Spirit

This idea comes originally from the Anglo-Saxon language area [1]. British imperialists used this idea to expand their sphere of power overseas. The philosopher Francis Bacon was one of the initiators of this worldview.

American statesmen, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson later appealed to this idea. They loudly praised the effects of the market, bartering and communication in creating advantages and peace. Although they waged war against weaker peoples on the North American continent, they praised the calming effects of trade on international conflicts at the end of the 18th century to their stronger European rivals. They renounced power at that time just as the European nations swear off power today. They condemned war and military power and described the use of force as a means for enforcing national interests as historical outdated.

This shows that power, market and communication were never ends-in-themselves but were always political tools. In the course of the last century, capitalism has doubtlessly made a series of people more prosperous and healthier though certainly not everyone. Still people were not poorer or more sick. The sociologist Johannes Berger [2] pointed to the “worlds of capitalism” at the end of May in Hamburg.

The impoverishment theory of Marxists proved to be a non-starter even when the disparity grew between rich and poor countries. If colonizers at that time would have established a functioning market economy in poorer countries, these people would be more prosperous than they are today [3].

Capitalism as a Substitute Religion

Norbert Bolz knows nothing of this useful and practical side of capitalism. Capitalism’s “essential religious structure” interests him, that salvation promise discovered by Walter Benjamin at the beginning of the last century and described in a fragment (Capitalism is a Cult [4]). Accordingly capitalism is “pure idolatry”, a cult fostered nonstop, oscillating here and there and governed and held together by the mammon of money.

Where capitalism gains a foothold, God is no longer guaranteed but money as a world security. The striving for money encourages renunciation on authentic motives and ultimate values. Greed for money, avarice and the buying craze rule instead of hatred and violence. “Where money governs the world”, Bolz writes, “the terror of naked fists and good attitudes are spared us. Political enthusiasm changes into a “good-natured neutrality” through markets, payments and retail price systems. Therefore ”the prudish homeowner accepts the porno-shop in his shopping district and the racist mayor tolerates Arabs in the west end”.

The market constantly needs “the stimulation of the new” since consumption, luxury and comfort lead to boredom and indifference in the long run. The market must constantly invent new fashions, styles and trends, ensnaring customers and consumers and awakening new desires and cravings. Capitalism succeeds by making practical values symbolically outdated and enriching them with ideas and stories, rumors and values. Then the customer doesn’t buy a vehicle but freedom and driving experience. Animating conversation with friends awaits him in the café around the corner, not muddy dishwater. The smoker doesn’t inhale tar and nicotine but breathes the fragrance of the vast world. The consumer doesn’t go shopping because something is lacking but to enjoy the strolling, dawdling and consuming.

If people only shop when they need something or only buy what they need, the capitalist economy would have long collapsed.according to Bolz. The media researcher seems drunk with victor. The symbolic or cultural capitalism that wraps ideas in brand names, enriching them with stories and longing, offering them for sale as lifestyles doesn’t promise redemption from the evils of this world. Unlike political messianism, only “the new is promised again and again, not a goal or end of history”.

Reversal of Cause and Effect

The US imperialists hardly seem convinced of such simple worldviews. Since the end of the Cold War, a change of consciousness has occurred that grants a clear precedence to politics before the economy and rediscovers the political as a central area for itself and its imperialist goals affecting all other areas. They mistrust the traders and petty-minded persons and vote for the heroes. Private entrepreneurship and production for the market are hardly suited for success as a global power in the jungle of failed states. Rather courage, self-assertion and political resolution are necessary for conque4ring dark areas by force of arms if necessary and driving away dictators.

The Arab suicide bombers seem hardly taken with these ideas. The opposite is clear in the careers of Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta. Withdrawal, reserve or renunciation on money, brand-name articles and the pursuit of happiness did not animate them to the holy war against the West. Rather they matured as culprits in the possibility of living off the fat of the land. Atta and his conspiratorial friends stayed at a first-class hotel in Las Vegas the day before the attack and enjoyed the last kick for their assassination in this consumer temple of the American gamblers’ paradise.

The biography [5] of Omar Sheikh, the murderer of US journalist Daniel Pearl, is very revealing. Descending from a well-to-do Anglo-Pakistani family, he studied at an elite school in England. Pictures and reports about the Bosnia war first made him an Islamic extremist. Later he rose into a kind of bin Laden’s “favorite son” and enclosed his wife under a burka.

The virus of the western lifestyle, the pursuit of happiness, leads young hopeful Muslims who either grew up in the western world or were socialized in a comparable world to suddenly turn to the darkest fanaticism and become suicide bombers. The “eternal market peace” emphasized by media researchers instead of Kant’s “eternal peace” is the cause of the problem and not the solution.

If this is true, the loud and listless thesis of the book collapses like a house of cards. The desire to plant all potential bin Ladens in Nike shoes would have the opposite effect: giving birth to more instead of less warriors of God. Because this power of Islamic fundamentalism is lacking to him, Bolz becomes the messiah of a naïve market faith that makes exchange of equivalents the measure of all things. Presumably envy or jealousy doesn’t nourish hatred of the West and make Muslims into assassins but mainly the decades of social degradation, cultural humiliation and individual sickness by the West and its policies.

The reader should not be blinded by the post-modern charm. As the motto of the book warns, “everything that one sees is constructed and constrained – constructed, not invented, constrained, not found”. The perplexity radiated by the book could not have been formulated any better.


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