For aeon upon aeon, it seems, the primeval battle has raged. On this side, the economists: smug, fanatical, genuflecting before the awesome power of the free-market before riding forth to sow evil and death. And on the other side, the sociologists: earnest, shapeless, gorging upon the most intractable social problems and then belching them out again in a vague and amorphous slime. Meanwhile, the rest of us stand on the sidelines, shaking our heads and fervently wishing the combatants would just be mystically transformed into unemployment statistics, already.
The latest tiresome blow in this tiresome conflict is Linda J. Miller’s new book, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, which focuses on the struggle between chains and independents which has dominated the book business over the last 30 or 40 years. Miller is a card-carrying sociologist, and so, inevitably, favors the independents. It’s ironic, then, that her major achievement is one of marketing rather than content: she’s proved decisively that, no matter how boring, a book about bookstores is going to get some buzz. The copy I picked up was prominently displayed on the front-table of one of Chicago’s most venerable independents, 57th Street Books.
It’s not that Miller’s tome is completely worthless; in fact, the volume’s monochrome gloom is flecked throughout with glimmers of interesting books that might have been. Miller could, for example, have put together an engaging, nuts-and-bolts history of contemporary bookselling, from elite, downtown bookstores, to department store booksellers like Macy’s, to the mall chains like Waldens and B. Dalton, to the freestanding superstores, to Internet shops like Amazon. Miller provides a strictly bare-bones account of this process, but the detail she does provide is fascinating, as trivia often is. I had no idea, for example, that there are no Borders stores in Canada, or that most titles in a chain superstore sell only one or two copies *per year*.
Alternately, Miller could have written a fuck-the-chains polemic, denouncing evil corporate behemoths with the kind of impassioned, brainy broadsides that have worked so well for Tom Frank. Of course, not everyone can write well enough to pull this sort of thing off, but there are a few indications that Miller could if she would. Despite herself, she does manage a couple of zingers. My favorite is when she notes sardonically that chain customers “savor the victory of a book discount equivalent to the price of the mocha latte they purchase in the store café.”
Alas for the reader, Miller is neither a vacuous pop-historian nor a pundit with a grudge. Instead, she’s an academic, which means that her book is devoted to mouthing bland circumlocutions and undermining capitalism, more or less in that order. Thus, her final call to arms claims, “…as consumers, we try to reconcile the act of acquiring commodities for the self with a need to make meaning, which sometimes includes a commitment to bettering the human condition. The ironies are endless, but they do not need to stop us.” Hardly “Workers of the world unite!” but more likely to get you tenure, I guess.
The obfuscatory quote above may not make this quite clear, but Miller does have a couple of points to make. Her central one is simply that consumption is a political act. What and where you purchase your goods affects other people. Miller then goes on to argue that, because people have a special reverence for books, the plight of the independent bookstores has raised people’s consciousness of their roles as “citizen consumers.” Those who own and shop at independent bookstores place community, diversity, and love of books above bargain-hunting and conscienceless consumption. Such individual changes of heart and emphasis may well — with due caveats and qualifications, of course — have some sort of effect on capitalism as we know it. Hallelujah.
Miller seems to be under the confused impression that the consumer-as-citizen is an outré idea; which “many find peculiar or even offensive.” No doubt that’s true in some sense; the U.S. is a big place, and “many” people can be found who think almost anything. Nonetheless, shopping-as-morality is almost a liberal shibboleth at this point. From vegetarians to Critical Mass participants, Working Assets subscribers to Wal-Mart haters, it sometimes seems like being a radical is as much about lifestyle accoutrement as it is about voting record. Nor are leftists alone; the religious right semi-regularly boycotts uncongenial media, whether its Disney or the Last Temptation of Christ.
In fact, under capitalist ideology, consumption has always had a moral and political dimension. In his own day, Adam Smith was as well known for his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments as he was for The Wealth of Nations. Moreover, 18th-century notions of political and moral relationships were central to the way Smith thought about political economy. For Smith, the economy was both atomized and integrated; individuals, by attempting to better themselves, were tied into a web of economic relationships. Guided by an “invisible hand”, what was good for one became, almost mystically, good for all. Freedom of economic action was a moral right; restricting it resulted in unhappiness, poverty, and unfairness. This is still the case ; The Economist, for example, insists in almost every issue that the only way to save the developing world is to place fewer restrictions on trade. Before capitalism, morality was spiritual — it was about a relationship with God, primarily, and was discussed in terms of sin and death. But under capitalism (or communism for that matter), morality is, essentially, material; it’s about one’s relationship to stuff, and is discussed in terms of who has what, and whether that’s fair or just.
In a recent essay in Slate.com, Tyler Cowan, an economist who (predictably) dislikes Miller’s book, claims that people who shop at independent bookstores do so in order to project a certain kind of image — it is, he claims, an “affectation.” No doubt it is, but more to the point, it’s a capitalist affectation. Linking one’s identity or sense of self-worth to what one buys — whether books, SUVs, or what have you — isn’t a rejection of capitalism; it’s an affirmation of it.
Not that resistance is futile or anything. If market forces are against you, there’s lots of steps you can take, and Miller discusses some of them; forming a union, as some chain bookstore workers have done is a good possibility; lobbying to keep a chain out of your neighborhood is another. But the suggestion that you can transform the world just by altering where you shop is about as ridiculous as arguing that the leadership of the country is hanging on whether or not you happen to vote come November. If you want a change, organize; if you want a revolution, you might think about obtaining some guns. If you want to shop, please, just shop.
A shortened version of this essay appeared in TimeOut Chicago.