Consumerism, or the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods, largely emerged from the 19th century onwards. It began to really take off from the early 20th century, when the idea of mass production of consumer goods fully materialised. Consumer goods are often those that are not exactly a necessity. They are acquired for ‘superficial’ purposes. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that the birth of modern-day advertising and/or marketing ploys, too, began to evolve more rapidly during this period. Their aim was to describe consumer goods as a necessity without which one could not become an identifiable member of society.
In 2018, I went through decades of ‘consumer demographic’ data of some of the world’s leading marketing and advertising firms (between the 1950s and early 2000s). These included advertising firms in Pakistan and India as well. The data shows that most makers of consumer goods and services have continued to ‘target’ the middle-classes, or the ‘aspirational classes.’ These have remained prominent buyers of consumer goods. They are also the most prominent classes in the social and economic spaces of major cities.
However, this is not the case when it comes to politics. The middle-classes may be a part of the electorate, but in most regions, their presence is minimal in the actual corridors of power. The middle-classes have often expressed frustration after feeling that their path towards holding the levers of political power is being blocked by members of the political elite who were born into their status instead of climbing their way up as the middle-classes want to.
Modern mainstream politics is the result of certain revolutionary 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century upheavals in Europe which saw the emergence and expansion of the middle-classes. They gradually pushed out the old political elites (the monarchs, the Church, landed gentries, etc.), and replaced these with themselves at the top. The politics that evolved during this process was a product of modernity as defined by the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment.’
Inch by inch, religion was demystified and relegated to the private sphere; newly formed polities began to be defined as nations that were linked to integrated economies; and the ‘pre-modern’ past was denounced as a realm ravaged by wars, plagues, brutal rulers, widespread poverty, religious persecution and exploitation, superstition, and short lifespans.
The political system which the expanding middle-classes adopted and evolved was democracy. Initially, they trod the ‘Aristotelian’ path which posited that a large, prosperous middle class may mediate between rich and poor, creating the structural foundation upon which democratic political processes may operate (J. Glassman, The Middle Class and Democracy in Socio-Historical Perspective, 1995).
Middle-class prosperity and growth were dependent on modern economic activity which functioned outside the old agrarian structures, and took place in the expanding urban spaces. These spaces attracted labour from rural areas who transformed in to becoming the working-class (the proletariat). During the upward-mobility of the middle-classes, they engineered a democracy that was to constitutionally protect their properties and newfound power and wealth. But as the size of the working-classes grew, it became necessary to create room for them in the political system, if social and political upheavals were to be avoided.
Traditionally, working-class interests in democracies leaned left or towards socialist or welfare policies. As a reaction, the middle-classes moved to the right (F. Wunderlich in The Antioch Review, Spring 1945). The middle-classes therefore, became more invested in curbing, or at least lessening, the electoral influence of the working-classes by voting for conservative parties which treated social-democratic ideas as Trojan horses through which communism would invade and usurp all political and economic power of the ‘hard-working middle-classes.’ However, from within the post-19th-century political elites (in industrialised countries) also emerged parties that evolved into becoming the parties of the working-classes. The growing number of blue-collared voters in the cities necessitated this.
This created a fissure within the middle-classes. A large section of them was now willing to undermine democracy, or a system that it had crafted itself. This section began to view it as a threat to its economic interests. Here is where we see the growth of authoritarian and fascist ideas permeating middle-class political discourses in Europe, and the emergence of demagogues such as Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, etc. The aforementioned section’s radical move to the (anti-democracy) right can be understood as an emotional decision born from the fear of being swallowed by the classes below (the ‘masses’).
Traditionally, working-class interests in democracies leaned left or towards socialist or welfare policies. As a reaction, the middle-classes moved to the right
When the American president F.D. Roosevelt stated that “the only thing we need to fear was fear itself,” he was trying to address just that. He understood that fear was capable of pushing reasonable folk into authoritarian/totalitarian/populist camps.
After the defeat of German and Italian fascisms, social-democratic policies thrived in the democratic West.
They succeeded in largely pacifying middle-class fears. The middle-classes now stood on the left and the right, yet within the mainstream democratic system which continued to safeguard and police their economic interests, and, at the same time, facilitate the interests of the working-classes as well.
But from the mid-1970s, as the nature of capitalism began to change, and the industrialised countries entered the ‘post-industrial stage,’ things flipped. Between the two World Wars, sections of Western middle-classes had largely moved to the right and far-right, whereas the working-classes had moved to the left. But when the service sector began to produce more wealth than the industrial sector, positions switched.
The service sector has always been dominated by the middle-classes. A gradual decrease in industrial activity and/or with this activity shifting to developing countries (due to cheap labour, etc.), the working-classes were left stranded and feeling bitter. They began to break away from mainstream democratic paradigms and embrace a populism which preyed on the fears of this class as it struggled to cope with the drastic economic shift that was eroding blue-collar economic interests.
So, whereas, during the first half of the 20th century, a large number from the middle-class milieu, fearing that they were about to be overwhelmed by the working-classes, had exited the mainstream democratic paradigm, and had embraced authoritarian ideas and regimes, in the second half of the 20th century, it was the working-classes who did the same by supporting the rise of right-wing nationalism and populism.
The South Asian flip: politics of consumption
In developing countries such as India and Pakistan, right-wing nationalism and populism are still very much the domain of the middle-classes. This is understandable because the process of industrialisation was slow and late in these regions, and so was the expansion of the middle-classes. The economies of both the countries during their first few decades were overwhelmingly agrarian. Industrialisation did not begin in earnest till over a decade after their formation.
As the middle-classes in Europe had done between the two World Wars, the middle-classes in India and Pakistan too, consciously or unconsciously, are destroying the very idea and system that was originally crafted to serve their interests
This meant a large rural population and a steadily growing urban proletariat. Therefore, democracy in this case, though controlled by an elite, was (for electoral purposes) driven to address the interests of the peasants, small farmers and the working-classes. It was social-democratic in nature. This did not sit well with the middle-classes. They were squeezed between a ruling elite and the classes below. They constantly feared being relegated or overwhelmed by the ‘masses’ because the ruling elite in control of political parties were talking to the masses more than they did to the middle-classes. The elite were, of course, courting sections that had larger number of votes.
Till the early 2000s, middle-class economic and political interests in Pakistan were mostly stimulated by military dictators (S. Akbar Zaidi, Issues in Pakistan’s Economy: A Political Economy Perspective, 2nd Edition, 2005). This is why the middle-classes in Pakistan are more receptive to non-democratic forces and currents, even though they were only provided a semblance of political power by the dictatorships. But the size of this class is growing and so is its economic influence. It feels blocked by the electoral political elites from complimenting its economic influence with political power.
Whereas in Pakistan the middle-classes have felt more secure during dictatorships, in India, they have managed to break into the realm of India’s political elites by riding on the wave of a right-wing political party. In 2018, large sections of Pakistan’s urban middle-classes believed that they too had done the same by voting to power Imran Khan’s populist bandwagon, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). But their nascent experience of democracy imploded when Khan’s regime was ousted by a no-confidence vote. This class is now back to viewing democracy as a corrupt system – engineered to serve an elite that is geared to address the issues of the classes with the most votes.
But the fact is, as the middle-classes in Europe had done between the two World Wars, the middle-classes in India and Pakistan too, consciously or unconsciously, are destroying the very idea and system that was originally crafted to serve their interests the most. This brings us to consumerism.
Between the two World Wars when large sections of the urban middle-classes in various European countries began to fear that the classes below (the ‘masses’) would use democracy to undermine middle-class interests, the middle-classes became antagonistic towards democracy — an ideology and system of government that they had themselves created. They then went on to facilitate the rise of anti-democracy forces that barged in and overthrew the political elites who were engaging with the masses through electoral politics.
The middle-classes in South Asia have been in a dilemma of being squeezed between two forces (the electoral elite and the working-classes/peasants). So, these middle-classes have failed to fully carve out a place and identity for themselves as a political entity within a political system that is largely informed by the engagement between the aforementioned forces. According to the historian Markus Daechsel, this saw the South Asian middle-classes indulge in what Daechsel calls “politics of self-expression” (Daechsel, The Politics of Self-Expression: The Urdu Middleclass Milieu in Mid-Twentieth Century India and Pakistan, 2009).
This form of politics is a rebellion against the dynamics of mainstream politics, which the middle-class milieu dismisses as being ‘corrupt.’ This corruption is not only denounced in material terms, but is also censured for contaminating or enslaving a community’s or individual’s inner self that needs to be liberated. Instruments such as the constitution, and institutions such the parliament, are seen as restraints that were stopping people from seeking liberation. Liberation from what? This is never convincingly explained.
The aim of the politics of self-expression is not exactly a way to find a place in mainstream societal politics. Instead, it is a flight into an alternative ideological universe where all societal constraints that plague the middle-class self would cease to exist (Daechsel, ibid). In fact, Daechsel explains the politics of self-expression as a product of the consumer society. According to Colin Campbell, a new ethics of romanticism driven by emotional introspection, a hunger for stimulation and arousal and a penchant for daydreaming, helped to give birth to a consumer society that alone could sustain the onward march of capitalism (C. Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, 1987).
To Daechsel, this drove people to develop an obsession with identities. The middle-classes remain to be at the core of consumerism. A consumer society has been defined as one in which there is no societal reality other than the relationship between consumers and branded commodity. People are entirely what they consume; no immediate relationships of political power, economic exchange or cultural capital matter anymore (J. Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, 1970).
According Daechsel, the middle-class milieu (in South Asia) was, by virtue of its material culture, persuaded to use consumption as an outlet for its frustrated socio-political ambitions. The fact that consumer identities have something ‘hollow’ about them, that they substitute a fetishistic relationship with consumer goods for ‘real’ societal relations, was precisely what made them so attractive. A constituency that could not otherwise exist as a class, due to the constraints imposed by a mainstream political economy that they became suspicious of, found in consumption a space where it could establish some form of a unified cultural consciousness.
Daechsel then adds that the trouble with consumer identities is that consumer goods are believed to reflect a person’s innermost being, but at the same time rely on the garish and the mundane to produce identities. Consumption is not about great deeds in world history, but about the choice of toothpaste and cigarettes. Yet, consumer goods through the manner in which they are marketed, provide the stuff to form identities. Marlboro smokers were rugged individualists, Coca Cola drinkers value the happiness of being part of a wholesome family, iPhone users are savvy folk who are ‘creative’ and ‘fun-loving,’ etc.
The aim of the politics of self-expression is not exactly a way to find a place in mainstream societal politics. Instead, it is a flight into an alternative ideological universe where all societal constraints that plague the middle-class self would cease to exist
The politics of self-expression is an attempt to make consumer identities secure and ‘serious’ by dressing up consumption activity as politics. The language of politics thus becomes a caricature of advertising language; it retains all the hyperbole. For example, the word ‘liberation’ in such nature of politics is as ‘serious’ as it is when used in ads of male or female undergarments! But in politics of expression, it replaces advertising’s playfulness and self-irony with the certainty of assumed prophetic airs (Daechsel, ibid).
In consumer societies the language of politics becomes a caricature of advertising language. For example, a young man or woman is more likely to come across the word Revolution in an advertisement than in politics. Advertisements and political rhetoric both exchange words which may end up meaning nothing.
The middle-classes in India and Pakistan have gone to war with conventional politics, which they still fear is pitched against them. But even in India, where these classes have succeeded to somewhat break into and disturb the once impenetrable fortress of the country’s ‘rational’ political elites, they have no convincing alternatives. Or the alternatives are creating unprecedented social and political turmoil because they are emerging from the politics of self-expression.
According to Daechsel, the methodology in this context is a direct reflection of the logic of a consumer society. Both in Pakistan and India, ‘rational’ political instruments and democratic norms are being attacked by the middle-classes through the creation of spectacles that are being beamed by the new media universe. They are like marketing stunts.
Events such as openly undermining the constitution, beating up and humiliating foes, burning passports and flags, etc., have turned the perpetrators into political brands that are immediately and often quite literally ‘consumed’. Daechsel views all this as a suicide mission (of the South Asian middle-classes). It is an ultimate extension of the self-expressionist longing for intoxication, a self-indulgent form of ‘political’ activity that is supposedly based on a supreme ideology, but in reality gives the person involved a taste of the ultimate power trip. Just like an expensive brand of car or watch would.
Established political instruments and democratic norms are being attacked by the middle-classes through the creation of spectacles that are being beamed by the new media universe.
Daechsel writes, “If there is a final conclusion to be drawn from this exposition of the politics of self-expressionism in India and Pakistan, it has to be the following: the development of a middle-class through an expansion of the social role of consumption offers no guarantee for a better political culture. Persistent contradictions between a consumer society and other forms of societal organisations will stimulate forms of self-expressionist radicalism that may be very hard to control. Far from being the historical carrier of the voice of reason and modernity, the consumer middle-class could well turn out as the destroyer of the world that gave birth to it.”
This is quite apparent in the ways many middle-class men and women in South Asia have willingly drowned the notion that their acts in this context could be undermining their own political and, especially, economic interests. They seem to have readily gone blind to this fact in their bid to devour politics like they would a consumer brand, but one which is marketed as a product to give them instant bursts of liberation, empowerment and greatness.