In her article “The Cultural Contradictions of Consumerism”, author Josie Appleton examines both the dominant culture of consumption in contemporary Western, capitalist neoliberal culture and the attempts to critique this same culture. For the author, whereas the culture of consumption is fundamentally flawed, in so far as it emphasizes a world of illusion where consumption “remains a way in which our choices have a tangible effect, in which we can make something in our lives new and different”, the reason why this lifestyle is flaowed is because it reduces the human being entirely to what he or she purchases. Appleton stresses that this is problematic, for example, because human beings are no longer producers, they no longer create something, but are only passive creates whose life meaning is affirmed by purchasing the products that exist on the market. The human being becomes something that is entirely defined by what he or she owns, as opposed to what he or she does.
On the one hand, Appleton’s text could be interpreted as arguing for the importance of human creativity. If work ethic was once celebrated, but now work is to be avoided – as Appletone notes “In many Western cities, people start to live for Friday nights and the weekends: they live not for their work, but for the time after when they can have fun and let loose«, the culture of consumption replaces the culture of work and production, the latter being more meaningful, to the extent that the human being is valued in terms of what he or she does. On the other hand, Appleton’s text can be criticized to the extent that it appears to be a justification for capitalism, which also produces the same culture of consumption. Namely, Appleton takes a romantic view of work, but does not offer a critical vision of work. For those of use who have worked in meaningless day jobs, how can this work be considered to be something meaningful and fulfilling? Appleton seems to suggest in her text that the very fact of working and production is meaningful and preferable to the culture of consumption. But this is an assumption: is not the very problem of work in capitalism and why people look forward to the weekend as Appleton states, not because of consumption is preferable, but because the work we do is unfulfilling?
From this point of view, Appleton’s work appears to be an apology for capitalism. She does this in a particular manner: she rejects the culture of consumption. However, she advocates work and production within a capitalist system, without questioning the satisfaction of this work. For example, she writes: “today’s capitalist culture presents ample possibilities.” For Appleton, it appears that what is problematic is not capitalism, but rather the emphasis within capitalism on consumption instead of production and work. The problem with this thesis, arguably, is that within capitalism consumption and work/production are two sides of the same coin. We work so as to consume, which means we need to work so as to eat, to live, to go out and enjoy ourselves. It is not that consumption is opposed to work, but rather that the way work is structured in capitalism means that work is translated to consumption. For example, one could, in contrast, also work not to consume, but to maintain an entirely autonomous life. We could grow our own food, trade with others on a basic level and create our own life. Consumption is not a problem because it devalues work, but rather because the capitalist model of work makes us slaves to a system where the rewards of work are consumption. Instead of work being meaningful in itself, in capitalism, work is only made meaningful by what we can buy with our work.