Needs, Wants and the threshold of consent.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. If so, then the genius of capitalism is that it translates wants into needs. Needs determine necessity. The deliberate promotion of wants into needs in pursuit of profit has become the driving force behind technological innovation,the necessity of which is driven as much by consumption as it is productive requirements.

Thirty five years ago few people had remote controlled televisions. Over time the remote became affordable for mass consumption, and by now few televisions come without them.  As a unanticipated externality or derivative, local pathologies have risen as the” need” to consume  taken hold: couples fight over viewing options, leading to personal conflicts or the acquisition of another television and remote for separate viewing and marital harmony (as well as further profit). As the cost of televisions with remote controls drops under the weight of competition, material preferences (and social pathologies) are extended into the mass of society. Thrity years ago no one needed a remote controlled television. Now everyone does, at least in the “developed” world.

Twenty years ago mobile phones were clunky, heavy and expensive. So where computers. Landlines sufficed for most verbal communication, and computers were in a relatively early and restricted stage of mass development. Since mobile phones  and computers were not needed for everyday communication they were a luxury good or professional tool, not a mass consumption item.

Today computers and mobile phones are everywhere, with squadzilliions worth of gigabytes and full spectrum interconnectivity complete with multi-media capability built into the latter and with the former moving into nanotechnologies of unprecedented scale. Everyone must have one or the other (or preferably both) and landlines are being phased out along with desktop computers. The very nature of inter-personal and group interaction has been altered by the advent of portable communication devices and the move into social media. This has had political as well as personal impllications.

The translation of wants into needs is evident in the service sector, which now occupies the majority of GDP is many countries. 15 years ago only the uber rich wanted personal trainers and life coaches. Now there are scads of them (the US has an association of life coaches that numbers 150,000 members), as there are many other types of service that cater to wants translated into needs. Think car and dog groomers, garden landscapers, plastic surgeons that do vanity work–the list of non-productive occupations that service the “wants into needs” trade is immense and only limited by the amount of disposable income available.

Turning wants into needs fuels profit  riding on unsecured advancement.  Making affordable the previously unobtainable, then embedding  the consumption of previously wanted goods to the point that they become needs that influence human behaviour, perpetuates the cycle of profit as well as technological, innovation and service frontiers. But in its success it generates new inefficiencies. Time in and efficiency of production is saved and improved, but time is also wasted in the pursuit of consumption of non-productive consumer commodities or individual interests and pleasure pursuits (all those of you reading this at work will get the drift). Commodity fetichism sets in, and here is where the Achilles Heel of contemporary capitalism ultimately rests.

For any regime to be legitimate in the eyes of its own people, and hence to be stable over time, it must establish and continually uphold the threshold of mass contingent consent upon which its rule is founded. Consent, as readers may remember from a series of posts done on KP a while back (and the literature on which those posts were based), is simultaneously secured and expressed at the economic, social and political levels. Political consent is given through elections and adherence to institutional channels of conflict resolution, redress and voice. Social consent is achieved by mass acceptance of ideological norms guiding individual and group behaviour. Economic consent is given by participation in the system of profit and private property and exchange for incremental gains in mass material standards.

Consent is not given once, forever. It is given contingent on expectations being met at all three levels of operation, the combination of which represents the threshold of mass contingent consent at any given time. Nor are expectations static. Instead, the develop and advance as a result of the translation of wants into needs over time. Mid-career professionals have different material expectations than teenagers on their first job. Adults have different expectations than (and of) their children. They also have different responsibilities, some of which are a product of achieving past expectations. The same holds true for social and political consent. As people become accustomed to one set of expectations they come to want more, and in so doing play into the “wants into needs” logic. In advanced democracies people want more social and political entitlements, if not rights, than did those present at the origins of the democratic state in their respective countries.They also want more things, particularly those that are related to social status and advancement. The threshold of mass contingent consent, in other words, rises over time and in the measure that mass contigent consent is achieved and reproduced.

The emergence of cultures of mass consumption that are disconnected from production have broken the easy translation of wants into needs. Conspicuous consumption is everywhere but the means of achieving it increasingly is not. Uncoupling of production from consumption reverses one traditional logic upon which it was based: that production lead or keep pace with consumption (the supply side argument).  It also undermines demand-side logics because these are based on an assumption that production will be dominated by consumer preferences rather than speculative calculations of gain, and that the production of consumer durable and non-durables would absorb most global capital in advance of consumer demand.

The current phase of globalised capitalism brought with it the uncoupling of production from consumption even as the “wants into needs” syndrome persists. The specific result is that, relatively speaking, global production of goods has declined while the consumption of non-productive commodities has increased. That means that there is an excess of wants with respect to needs. In fact, mass focus on obtaining a proliferation of wants has served to obscure the basics of needs. That makes people feral rather than solidarity-minded, even as the divorce between their material and social priorities and structural reality come into conflict. 

This quickens the process of alienation based on a sense of relative deprivation, which in turn is the source of collective unrest based on the withdrawal of mass contingent consent to the economic project (since it is the feeling of relative as opposed to absolute deprivation that riles people up. If everyone is equally poor and deprived they take comfort in their common condition. When some are much better off than others and the means to achieve conspicuous consumption status are reduced, then collective resentment grows). When material gains are not assured, much less incremental in the passing of one generation to the next, then the structural foundations for a mass withsdrawal of consent are set in place.

Withdrawal of mass contingent consent from the economic project leads to withdrawal of consent at a social level. The turn to collective violence and acts of individual norm violation and misbehaviour are manifestations of a lack of consent to the prevailing social mores, which are seen as instruments of elite control in pursuit of an economic project that no longer allows for the satisfaction of wants turned into needs via material gratification. The withdrawal of mass contingent consent to the ideological project represented by different combinations of social mores and norms is the precipitant for a withdrawl of political consent. The masses turn away from institutional channels of expression, voice and redress. This is a crisis of the political regime.

This seems to be more or less where the UK is at present, although it is just one of many countries in which dominant paradigms are being challenged and in which maintenance of mass contingent consent is under question. That many of the UK looters and rioters had mobile phones, wore designer label clothes and connected via social media does not obviate that fact; it is just another manifestation of the “wants into needs” syndrome turned sour.

The fundamental issue is that the “wants into needs” logic worked well so long as the material production of goods outstripped the wants of the general population. But as production vis a vis consumption decreased and full employment policies gave way to more precarious employment schemes in non-productive work, the gap between needs and wants widened for the majority, forcing concession and backtracking in material lifestyles. That has had social and economic repercussions as the first generations of citizens who will not be as well off as their parents lose faith in the system that their parents consented to.

One might call this situation many things, but the bottom line is that it represents a transitional moment that has no defined outcome but which is certain to include severe dislocations of the economic, social and political sort in the measure that a new threshold of mass contingent consent (however debased, as was the case with the Argentine and Chilean democracies that followed the state terror experiments of the 1970s and 1980s) is not achieved. The outcome is uncertain, and the situation is delicate and dangerous (to again paraphrase the founder of the Italian School of Marxism).

NB: Obviously this post is stems from the previous posts on the UK riots and the fiscal crisis of the Western capitalist State, as well as the comments about them. It also has longer-term roots in a series of lectures that I  used to give in upper division undergraduate courses on worlds systems, modernisation and dependency theory as well as revolutions, insurgencies and counter-hegemonic movements. I will resume writing about other things shortly.

8 thoughts on “Needs, Wants and the threshold of consent.

  1. People did not need Pepper, Nutmeg or Tea but they reflect inherent human desire for new desirable things that have driven trade and prosperity. I sense a sort of disapproval on consumption in your posts but that desire for newer and better goods and services is part of our core as human beings. It is why we are not still hunter gathers but exist in massive civilisations.

    Capitalism is not in crisis. Socialism is in crisis. You may view the decline of US and UK manufacturing as a sign that capitalism is failing but that requires a wilful avoidance of the global picture which includes massive growth in the developing world. Global average wages have been increasing steadily and absolute poverty is vastly reduced

  2. This is very helpful, thanks Pablo.

    It does seem as though the massive propaganda efforts (“marketing”) of late post-industrial capitalism, exhorting us to find our very identity and meaning through/in what we consume, is in the process of backfiring.

    I hope, because I don’t want to see violence, we see some fairly substantial reform mongering soon. But, as we see in the US and UK, because the elite have become so disproportionately rich and powerful, they are not going let go of much of that wealth and power without a real fight.

    It would seem to me that there is a fairly good public case for finance to be disciplined (e.g. FTT), just as labour was disciplined from the late 70s, and that eventually there will be some kind of social consensus as to what needs to be done to “save capitalism from itself”.

    I suspect the substantial reform will only come when the middle-class are defaulting on their mortgages, so that the power of the death-grip is lost and people start wondering if there is another way.

    But the most serious challenge to the hegemony of neo-classical economics is now coming from the Austrian school, which scares the crap out of me.

  3. You may not be a ‘fellow traveller’ yet Pablo but the continuum of posts you refer to is piling up to be quite a critique of capitalism, from a different angle than classic clunky Marx etc. nicely written and illuminating.

    Capitalism has cycled on past it’s use by date for so many reasons. Several key modern ones beyond basic repression and ideological control are indeed commodity fetishism and individualisation of social being. Hilarious, Apple has huge cash reserves on the back of ipad etc while similar Samsung tablets are literally being given away this week with flat screens in the US. Apple after almost dying in the late 90s has created a powerful “want, gotta have one” brand.

    Technology and science increasingly increasingly develop in an independent somewhat beyond class manner with interesting consequences.

    The characteristic of uneven and monopolistic development is deadly indeed though if you happen to live in say Somalia.

    How easy 60 years on to dismiss the hope of “world government” and co-operation involved in the formation of the United Nations, anyone remember Esperanto? Brasilia? such concepts, updated, will likely make a comeback as corporates overun nation states anyway.

    Lews conerns of a grim authoritarian socialism will be less likely with modern communications. The terror is more likely to come from high surveillance societies such as the UK and US against their own populations as elites try to cling on.

  4. Speaking of Apple Tiger as of Friday their market capitalisation was greater than that of all Euroland banks! Think about that. Centuries of financial services growth is worth less than Steve Jobs design.

  5. Yes indeed, a lot to think about there. Apple gadgets and computers have durable often barely noticeable design features, the ‘others’ one way or another all look like they have had a good whacking with the ugly stick or are just slightly ‘off’.

  6. Its all very well to have a computer, a cellphone or other gadget these days, but there will always be contrary to what the people who market the devices of now, will tell you, a place for non-electronic contact.

    The landline might be on the way out, but I found after the 22 February 2011 earthquake, that there will still be a place for the old airphones for awhile to come. I could plug one in, dial a number and not have to worry about the power being possibly off for many more hours to come.

    I think capitalism confuses “wants” with “necessities”. I think necessities are those things you need in order to avoid a significant deterioration of the quality of your life. Can you show me how not having an iPad or iPhone is going to lead or is leading to a significant deterioration in the quality of my life?

  7. Pingback: Wants, needs and production » TVHE

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