david on consumption

david graeber essay on consumption (aug 2011 – original 2007)

compensatory consumerism et al

via anarchist library [https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-consumption] – pages refer to kindle format



Rarely, however, do anthropologists examine it: asking themselves why it is that almost all forms of human self-expression or enjoyment are now being seen as analogous to eating food. This essay seeks to investigate how this came about, beginning with medieval European theories of desire and culminating in the argument that the notion of consumption ultimately resolves certain conceptual problems in possessive individualism.

I do not want to offer yet another critique of consumption or of consumer practices. I want to ask instead why it is that we assume such things exist. Why is it that when we see someone buying refrigerator magnets and someone else putting on eyeliner or cooking dinner or singing at a karaoke bar or just sitting around watching television, we assume that they are on some level doing the same thing, that it can be described as “consumption” or “consumer behavior,” and that these are all in some way analogous to eating food? I want to ask where this term came from, why we ever started using it, and what it says about our assumptions about property, desire, and social relations that we continue to use it. Finally, I want to suggest that maybe this is not the best way to think about such phenomena and that we might do well to come up with better ones.

The most frequent villains are the Frankfurt School. One widely used cultural studies textbook begins by explaining that theorists such as Adorno and Horkheimer: ‘Processes of standardization, they argued, were accompanied by the development of a materialistic culture, in which commodities came to lack authenticity and instead merely met “false” needs. These needs were generated by marketing and advertising strategies and, it is argued, increased the capacity for ideological control or domination. (MacKay 1997:3)’

compensatory consumerism ness and our need to undo our hierarchical listening so we can org around legit needs


Each of these authors had his own version of the story, and each developed his own idiosyncratic theories of what consumption was all about, but what was ultimately more important than any particular author’s version was what might be described as the standard narrative that began to take shape in classes, seminars, and informal graduate school conversations at the time. This was a surprisingly uniform little morality tale that runs something like this. Once upon a time, it begins, we all used to subscribe to a Marxist view of political economy that saw production as the driving force of history and the only truly legitimate field of social struggle. Insofar as we even thought about consumer demand, it was largely written off as an artificial creation, the results of manipulative techniques by advertisers and marketers meant to unload products that nobody really needed. But eventually we began to realize that this view was not only mistaken but also profoundly elitist and puritanical. *Real working people find most of their life’s pleasures in consumption. What is more, they do not simply swallow whatever marketers throw at them like so many mindless automatons; they create their own meanings out of the products with which they chose to surround themselves. In fact, insofar as they fashion identities for themselves, those identities are largely based on the cars they drive, clothes they wear, music they listen to, and videos they watch. In denouncing consumption, we are denouncing what **gives meaning to the lives of the very people we claim we wish to liberate.

oh my.. whalespeak.. compensatory consumerism.. *this is whales.. we have **no idea what legit free living would be like

Still, the real (and rather perverse) effect of this narrative has been to import the categories of political economy—the picture of a world divided into two broad spheres, one of industrial production, another of consumption—into a field that had never seen the world that way before.


This is what I really want to investigate. How did “consumption” become a field of anthropology, and what does it mean that we now call certain kinds of behavior “consumption” rather than something else?.. Perhaps the real question should be, Why does the fact that manufactured goods are involved in an activity automatically come to define its very nature?


It seems to me that this theoretical choice—the assumption that the main thing people do when they are not working is “consuming” things—carries within it a tacit cosmology, a theory of human desire and fulfillment whose implications we would do well to think about. This is what I want to investigate in the rest of this paper. Let me begin by looking at the history of the word “consumption” itself.

Etymologies and Antecedents

“Consumption” first appears in English in the fourteenth century. In early French and English usages, the connotations were almost always negative. To consume something meant to destroy it, to make it burn up, evaporate, or waste away.

This in turn made it possible to imagine that the “economy” (itself a very new concept) was divided into two completely separate spheres: the workplace, in which goods were “produced,” and the household, in which they were “consumed.” That which was created in one sphere is used— ultimately, used up, destroyed—in the other. 


“Consumption,” then, refers to an image of human existence that first appears in the North Atlantic world around the time of the industrial revolution, one that sees what humans do outside the workplace largely as a matter of destroying things or using them up. It is especially easy to perceive the impoverishment this introduces into accustomed ways of talking about the basic sources of human desire and gratification by comparing it to the ways earlier Western thinkers had talked about such matters. St. Augustine and Hobbes (1968), for example, both saw human beings as creatures of unlimited desire, and they therefore concluded that if left to their own devices, they would always end up locked in competition. As Marshall Sahlins (1996) has pointed out, in this they almost exactly anticipated the assumptions of later economic theory. But when they listed what humans desired, neither emphasized anything like the modern notion of consumption. In fact, both came up with more or less the same list: humans, they said, desire (1) sensual pleasures, (2) the accumulation of riches (a pursuit assumed to be largely aimed at winning the praise and esteem of others), and (3) power. None were primarily about using anything up.



Even Adam Smith (1976[1776]), who first introduced the term “consumption” in its modern sense in The Wealth of Nations, turned to an entirely different framework when he developed a theory of desire in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (Smith 2002[1761]), one that assumed that what most humans want above all is to be the object of others’ sympathetic attention. It was only with the growth of economic theory and its gradual colonization of other disciplines that desire itself began to be imagined as the desire to consume.

theories of desire

Since Plato, the most common approach has been to see desire as rooted in a feeling of absence or lack. This does make a certain obvious intuitive sense. One desires what one does not have. One feels an absence and imagines how one might like to fill it; this very action of the mind is what we think of as “desire.” But there is also an alternative tradition that goes back at least to Spinoza (2000) that starts off not from the yearning for some absent object but from something even more fundamental: self-preservation, the desire to continue to exist (Nietzsche’s “life which desires itself”). Here desire becomes the fundamental energetic glue that makes individuals what they are over time.

rather.. perpetuates sea world


But then there is also the approach adopted by authors such as Deleuze and Guattari (1983), who wrote Anti-Oedipus, their famous critique of psychoanalysis, largely as an attack on this kind of thinking. Appealing to the Spinozist/Nietzschean tradition, they deny that desire should be found in any sense of lack at all. Rather, it is something that “flows” between everyone and everything; much like Foucault’s power, it becomes the energy knitting everything together. As such, desire is everything and nothing; there is very little one can actually say about it.

Desire is “the idea of an appetite,” the imaginative construction one puts on some such attraction or disposition. In other words, the one constant element in all these definitions is that desire (unlike needs, urges, or intentions) necessarily involves the imagination. Objects of desire are always imaginary objects and usually imaginary totalities of some sort because, as I have argued before, most totalities are themselves imaginary objects (Graeber 2001).


At this point, I think we have the elements for a preliminary synthesis. Insofar as it is useful to distinguish something called “desire” from needs, urges, or intentions, then, it is because desire (a) is always rooted in imagination and (b) tends to direct itself toward some kind of social relation, real or imaginary, and that social relation generally entails a desire for some kind of recognition and hence an imaginative reconstruction of the self, a process fraught with dangers of destroying that social relation or turning it into some kind of terrible conflict.

wilde not-us law.. brown belonging law.. maté trump law.. et al


on lovers and consumers

The result is a social order that has become, in large measure, a vast apparatus for the fashioning of daydreams. These reveries attach themselves to the promise of pleasure afforded by some particular consumer good or set of them; they produce the endless desires that drive consumption, but in the end, the real enjoyment is not in the consumption of the physical objects but in the reveries themselves (see also Wagner 1995).


..the “pneumatic system.” One of the greatest problems in medieval metaphysics was to explain how it was possible for the rational soul to perceive objects in the material world because the two were assumed to be of absolutely alien natures. The solution was to posit an intermediate astral substance called “pneuma,” or spirit, that translated sense impressions into phantasmic images. These images then circulated through the body’s pneumatic system (which centered on the heart) before they could be comprehended by the intellectual faculties of the soul. Because this was essentially the zone of imagination, all sensations, or even abstract ideas, had to proceed through the imagination—becoming emotionally charged in the process—before they could reach the mind. ..anyone who got the idea that one could resolve the matter by “embracing” the object of his or her fantasy was missing the point. The very idea was considered a symptom of a profound mental disorder, a species of “melancholia.”

on buying stuff then throwing it out..

This leads to the interesting suggestion that from the perspective of this particular form of medieval psychological theory, our entire civilization—as Campbell (1987) describes it—is really a form of clinical depression, which in some ways does actually make a lot of sense


jensen civilization law.. krishnamurti measure law.. hari present in society law.. et al


If human beings tend to become dominated by powerful, emotionally charged images, then anyone who developed a comprehensive scientific understanding of the mechanics by which such images work could become a master manipulator. It should be possible to develop techniques for “binding” and influencing others’ minds, for instance, by fixing certain emotionally charged images in their heads or even little bits of music (jingles, basically) that could be designed in such a way as to keep coming back into people’s minds despite themselves and pull them in one direction or another. In all of this, Couliano sees, not unreasonably, the first self-conscious form of the modern arts of propaganda and advertising. Bruno felt his services should be of great interest to princes and politicians.

It apparently never occurred to Bruno or anyone else in this early period to apply such protoadvertising techniques to economic rather than political purposes. Politics, after all, is about relations between people. Manipulating others was, by definition, a political business, which I think brings out the most fundamental difference between the medieval conception of desire and the sort of thing Campbell (1987) describes. If one starts with a model of desire where the object of desire is assumed to be a human being, then it only makes sense that one cannot completely possess the object. (“Embrace” is a nice metaphor, actually, because it is so inherently fleeting.) And one is presumably not intentionally in the business of destroying it, either.

manufacturing consent et al.. voluntary compliance

complications 1: individualism


Money, for example, can be considered in Marxian terms as a representation of the value (importance) of productive labor (human creative action) as well as the means by which it is socially measured and coordinated, but it is also a representation that brings into being the very thing it represents, because after all, in a market economy, people work in order to get money. Arguably, something analogous happens everywhere. Value then could be said to be the way the importance of one’s own actions register in the imagination—always by translation into some larger social language or system of meaning, by being integrated into some greater social whole. It also always happens through some kind of concrete medium—which can be almost anything (wampum, oratorical performances, sumptuous tableware, kula artifacts, Egyptian pyramids)—and these objects in turn (unless they are utterly generic substances, such as money, that represent sheer potentiality) tend to incorporate in their own structure a kind of schematic model of the forms of creative action that bring them into being but that also become objects of desire that end up motivating actors to carry out those very actions. Just as the desire for money inspires one to labor, the desire for tokens of honor inspires forms of honorable behavior, the desire for tokens of love inspires romantic behavior, and so on.

Far from being models of action, in fact, passivity came to be seen as a virtue in itself: it was those who tried to act on their passions, to seize the object rather than contemplate it, who really missed the point.

on letting go of the things you have to cling to..

Framing things in such passive terms then opened the way for that extreme individualism that appears to be the other side of the peculiarly Western theory of desire. A schema of action is almost of necessity a collective product; the impression of a beautiful image is something that one can imagine involves a relation between only two people or even (insofar as love became a mystical phenomenon) between the desirer and God. Even with romantic love, the ideal was that it should not really be translated into an ongoing social relation but remain a matter of contemplation and fantasy.


complications 2: shifting lines of class and gender


on having your cake and eating it too and certain problems incumbent therein


Imagination was redefined as something inherently separate from experience—as, in fact, a compendium of all those things (dreams, flights of fancy, pictures in the mind) that one feels one has experienced but really has not. It was at this point, once we were expected to try to satisfy one’s desires in what we have come to think of as “the real world,” that the ephemeral nature of experience, and therefore of any “embrace,” becomes an impossible dilemma (Agamben 1993b:25–28). One is already seeing such dilemmas worked out in De Sade, he argues, again around the same time as the dawn of consumer culture.

From an analytical perspective, of course, property is simply a social relation: an arrangement between persons and collectivities concerning the disposition of valuable goods. Private property is one particular that entails one individual’s right to exclude all others—“all the world”—from access to a certain house or shirt or piece of land, and so on.

endnote: in other words.. rather than asking how is it possible to truly ‘have’ or possess some object or experience.. perhaps we should be asking why anyone should develop a desire to do so to begin with


The ultimate proof that one has sovereign power over another human being is one’s ability to have the other executed. In a similar fashion, one might argue, the ultimate proof of possession, of one’s personal dominium over a thing, is one’s ability to destroy it—and indeed this remains one of the key legal ways of defining dominium, as a property right, to this day. But there is an obvious problem here. If one does destroy the object, one may have definitively proved that one owned it, but, as a result, one does not have it any more.. Hegel’s quest for recognition does not lead to the destruction of property, but it does lead to a choice of either destroying the Other or reducing the Other to property. Relations that are not based on property—or, more precisely, on that very ambiguous synthesis between the two types of sovereignty—suddenly become impossible to imagine.. At any rate, the paradox exists, and it is precisely here where the metaphor of “consumption” gains its appeal because it is the perfect resolution of this paradox —or, at least, about as perfect a resolution as one is ever going to get. When you eat something, you do indeed destroy it (as an autonomous entity), but at the same time, it remains “included in” you in the most material of senses. Eating food, then, became the perfect idiom for talking about desire and gratification in a world in which everything, all human relations, were being reimagined as questions of property.

again.. the buying then throwing out ness.. the clinging as killing ness.. helping in order to rule.. steiner care to oppression law et al..


The connections here are infinitely complicated: I have argued that capitalism is really a transformation of slavery and cannot be understood outside it (Graeber 2005). But in this essay, in this argument, by taking things back to the eleventh century, before Western Europeans had a colonial empire and when chattel slavery was at its low ebb, I am trying to cast the net even broader to ask, What, in fact, are the origins of that attitude toward the material world that allowed people in certain corners of Atlantic Europe to create these colonial empires to begin with? If we do not ask such questions, we are left with the tacit assumption that there is nothing to be explained here, that anyone in a position to massacre and enslave millions of people in the name of personal profit would naturally wish to do so. I would hardly suggest I have offered a full explanation for this, but I think the material assembled here is quite suggestive in this regard.


conclusions: what about consumerism


above all we should be suspicious bout importing the politcal econ habit of seeing society as divided into two spheres: production and consumption (endnote: or at best three: production, consumption and exchange)

Any production not for the market is treated as a form of consumption, which has the incredibly reactionary political effect of treating almost every form of unalienated experience we do engage in as somehow a gift granted us by the captains of industry.. How to think our way out of this box? 

This is not to say that everything has to be considered a form of either production or consumption (consider a softball game—it is clearly neither), but it at least allows us to open up some neglected questions, such as that of alienated and nonalienated forms of labor, terms that have somewhat fallen into abeyance and therefore remain radically undertheorized.



One thing I think we can certainly assert. Insofar as social life is and always has been mainly about the mutual creation of human beings, the ideology of consumption has been endlessly effective in helping us forget this. Most of all it does so by suggesting that (a) human desire is essentially a matter not of relations between people but of relations between individuals and phantasms; (b) our primary relation with other individuals is an endless struggle to establish our sovereignty, or autonomy, by incorporating and destroying aspects of the world around them; (c) for the reason in c, any genuine relation with other people is problematic (the problem of “the Other”); and (d) society can thus be seen as a gigantic engine of production and destruction in which the only significant human activity is either manufacturing things or engaging in acts of ceremonial destruction so as to make way for more, a vision that in fact sidelines most things that real people actually do and insofar as it is translated into actual economic behavior is obviously unsustainable. Even as anthropologists and other social theorists directly challenge this view of the world, the unreflective use—and indeed self-righteous propagation—of terms such as “consumption” end up undercutting our efforts and reproducing the very tacit ideological logic we are trying to call into question.

(end essay)

comments (from other people on essay)

david harvie: Indeed, one of the most informative aspects of the essay is the way it describes a performative power of “consumption” as an imperialistic concept taking over the academic galaxy one discipline at a time. Graeber shows us that many anthropologists have been willing to add to the marketing and economics literature, but in so doing they have accepted a readymeal understanding of consumption prepackaged by the disciplinary demands of marketing and economics such that their research serves to valorize the very category they should analyze.. Part of the appeal of consumption, then, is that it simultaneously pleases the two handmaidens of the modern university: business and intellectuals. It bridges the practical and the useless, the scholarly and the mundane. 


(still harvie): So for us, the power of Graeber’s piece is that it encourages us to ask what the world might look like if we, like early political economists, could draw a line around “consumption”—thus defining it and containing it. .. Researchers would have to look at consumption rather than through consumption. ..But what if we had a concept other than production, consumption, or some stupid combination of the two that would allow us to look into the mirror of consumption rather than hold up another mirror to it?.. If marketing scholars do not want to limit their studies, economists rarely care, and anthropologists have been distracted by the very concept they should be critiquing, what is to be done? One solution is to look outside of academia. Those outside the academy are happy to critique consumption. This work is being done. Graeber’s challenge to us, though, is to force ourselves to regurgitate the concept, to stick our scholarly fingers down our academic throats until we vomit up the idea of consumption. The question is, once it has been exposed to the disinfectants of sunlight, will we, like dogs, return to the concept and swallow it down once more?

yeah.. same song/vomit.. till we get out of sea world.. hari rat park law et al


Dimitra Doukas: ..As enslavement and colonization were once justified by enlightening the benighted native, so the unworthiness of the “backward” justifies a so-called international development that covertly pursues the same goals: cheap labor, cheap resources, mass markets. Hidden in the ideology of consumption, no matter how creatively people use it, is the world-shaking contempt of the West for “the rest” that our discipline has long been at pains to deconstruct. Graeber is right. Let it go.


Felix Girke: Such an understanding might be critical for the research program suggested by Graeber, to work out what it is that actually drives people to destructive encompassment. In this theoretical tangent, I find this valorously quixotic paper most stimulating.


reply (david to comments)


We used to feel “consumed” by passions. Now we have a passion to consume. Yet to what degree is all this based not in an active desire to make, do, or construct but a (sometimes secret) desire not to have to do so for a change. In earlier drafts, one of the comments that most enraged marketing theorists seemed to be the idea that some of the desire to throw oneself in front of the television was grounded on the desire not to have to do—or think—anything at all.

norton productivity law – huge

next read.. abolition of work

Finally, I genuinely appreciate David Sutton’s comments about food—appropriate indeed for a project that began in a restaurant in lower Manhattan with just the sort of conversation he describes. I would just reemphasize the second half of the clause “40-year-old upper-class white men eating food, or at least their ideas about their eating.” Indeed. Conviviality has always been, for most humans everywhere, the definition of shared experience, a kind of communism of the senses that puts the lie to the entire ideology of consumption. (And even when rich white guys eat in expensive French restaurants—how often do you see one eating by himself?) It is not even most eating that is the model; it is the midnight snack, the piece of pie snarfed from the fridge when no one else is looking, the sandwich you have at the train station, the morning coffee, possibly the candy bar you buy when you are depressed. In a way, that last one tells you everything.

compensatory consumerism.. cope\ing ness.. et al