Book Name：Work, Consumerism and the New Poor
Author: Zygmunt Bauman
It is one thing to be poor in a society of producers and universal employment. It is quite another thing to be poor in a consumer society.
In the latter society, life projects are built around consumer choices, not around jobs or expertise. Whereas “poverty” was once associated with unemployment, today it points primarily to the plight of the defective consumer.
This difference has changed the way poverty is experienced and has had a major impact on saving suffering. This work by the renowned sociologist and thinker Bauman reflects on and addresses consumer society and its effects.
In this book, Bauman traces this change as it has occurred in modern history, takes stock of its social consequences, and considers the effectiveness of various ways to combat poverty and alleviate hardship.
This book explores the relationship between work ethics, consumer society and the conceptualization of poverty. Through a very clear analysis, the author shows us how the work ethic has changed.
Before capitalism, there was no such thing as a “work ethic”. People were either peasants, whose motivation to work was driven by their desire to eat and drink, which therefore meant that their work was limited by demand, rather than working under capitalism, or working as some kind of artisan. As artisans, people have an innate pride in their work, which is difficult to maintain under capitalism.
Productive society: labor is most honorable
Wage laborers under capitalism are mostly de-skilled. The laborer is only required to be a screw. The more mindless and routine the work they do, the better it is for capitalism, because their labor can be measured and replaced. In such a situation, it is difficult for workers to be motivated to “go beyond” or to have a great “pride”, as craftsmen do.
Since it is difficult to motivate people to work long and hard for boring jobs, and wages are garbage, it is necessary to invent a “work ethic”, so that people feel that it is their moral duty to work for their bosses.
In a productive society, the aim is to extract as much labor as possible from people. The source of capital’s profit comes from the exploitation of labor. This is because you only need to pay workers enough so that they can reproduce labor. After a few hours of work, laborers may be able to achieve this goal. But the capitalist makes them spend the rest of the day making things that the capitalist can sell for a profit.
If the capitalist can increase the rate at which workers work or can increase the number of hours they work – then the capitalist can keep this “surplus” as profit. The struggle between labor and management, then, is about either side getting more of this surplus.
Consumer society: make money and consume so that life has meaning
In developed capitalist countries, they are no longer productive societies in this sense, but have transformed into a consumer society. Production has shifted to the places in the world where labor is the cheapest. This means that the nature of employment in developed capitalist countries has changed fundamentally. The poor themselves are no longer those who do not work, but those who are identified as “failed consumers”.
The ethics of consumer societies are very different from those of production societies – production societies require people to be constantly reminded of their moral obligation to work, while consumer societies are more obsessed with their need to shop. As Bauman repeatedly says, a consumer society is one that uses the power of consumption to domesticate people in order to ensure the rational functioning of society.
The desire for consumption is never satisfied, and the constant force of consumer desire leads the market to smell business opportunities, and the market’s propaganda encourages people to pursue their desires and experience pleasure. The culture of “quick fix” and “fast food” has become fashionable, and people’s longing for the fast and the good is based on continuous consumption. People have lost the pursuit of eternal values.
Consumption redefines people, and their identity is defined by what they buy, not what they do. In the process of being nurtured as consumers, people’s work has undergone a dramatic transformation. First, the disciplinary factory model, which had been a “circular prison,” has been drastically reduced because it solidified the mind and lacked the willingness and ability to consume.
At the same time, companies no longer preach the demands of work ethics and allow people to complain about the tedium and pain of work, but they offer a new promise to lure people into work: “You can dislike your job, but it will earn you more money and freedom in the future.”
That means work is meaningless, but work has benefits, but people always have to find meaning in life, so another layer of this promise is: “You can earn more money and then take it and spend it, and get meaning in life in spending.”