Recently, I read Zygmunt Bauman’s Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, a book that examines the meaning of poverty and being poor in a post-industrialized world. Mainly focusing on Britain and the United States, Bauman’s book explains how the shift from production at the time of industrialization to consumption has changed the way people understand, define and essentially deal with poverty today. Bauman’s book is especially useful as it provides a framework for assessing and understanding the relationship between poverty and consumerism, as well as identifying how a new understanding of labor can lead to changes in current ineffectual policies and practices dealing with issues of poverty.
According to Bauman, “If ‘being poor’ once derived its meaning from the condition of being unemployable, today it draws its meaning primarily from the condition of being a flawed consumer” (1).
Through British and American industrialization factory owners and capitalists depended on a vast number of laborers to produce goods and drive industrial manufacture. Labor was a valuable commodity and capitalists sought to instill in the poor a sense of duty and pride in their work in order to better ensure worker productivity and to maintain a large workforce. Today, however, the labor market (especially in the U.S.) reflects the short-term desires of a consumer society. Shifting from production to consumption, economic growth is seen “as dependent not so much on the ‘productive strength of the nation’ as on the zest and vigor of its consumers” (Bauman 27). As a result, capitalists now consider labor a less valuable commodity and more of a liability to company productivity and profitability (Bauman 53). Cutting wages, laying off employees and dissolving benefits all become increasingly desirable practices for company owners and managers as emphasis shifts to meet the demands of a consumer economy. Consequently, such practices not only weaken consumer spending power which drives economic growth and ensures fiscal stability, but also changes the way in which we understand, define and deal with poverty today.
As demand for labor decreases and consumption increases, poverty assumes the definition of flawed consumption. For Bauman many conditions inform this understanding of poverty but for my purposes here, I will just focus on three conditions: first, a belief in the moral value of work as a means for determining income entitlement; second, the increased emphasis on consumption to drive economic growth; and third, the understanding of identity as a self-construction in relation to the identification and representation of the poor in society.
The Work Ethic. No longer considered unemployable labor, the poor are instead seen as individuals who lack the motivation to work and grow the economy through the consumption of goods and services. Income entitlement is determined by the strength of an individual’s work ethic and thus determines the individual’s eligibility to gain access to the resources that would sustain his or her quality of life. As Bauman explains, “with labor turning fast into an obstacle to higher productivity […], the work ethic becomes an effective means to wash clean all the hands and consciences inside the accepted boundaries of society of the guilt of abandoning a large number of their fellow citizens to permanent redundancy” (77). What often results is not only a “moral condemnation of the poor” but also an increased criminalization of the poor (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s recently published article “Since When is it a Crime to be Poor?” in Mother Jones Magazine for up to date insights on the criminalization of the poor in America).
Emphasis on Consumption. “Consumerism puts the highest premium on choice [and] poverty forces one into a position in which no choices can be made” (Bauman 58). Emphasis on consumption not only attaches a stigma to programs and services for the poor (such as food stamps, low-income housing and welfare programs, etc.) since these services are not considered consumer choices, but also considers these provisions more of a waste of tax payer money and resources. Instead, that money is siphoned off to corporate and individual consumers with the idea that the money will be better spent and reabsorbed into the economy through consumption.
Identity as Self-construction. Emphasis on consumption and the devaluation of labor as a commodity in a consumerist society changes the way people think about identity formation and representation. As more people rely on consumption to mediate their identity and as fewer people identify through work performance and career development—since long-term employment is no longer desirable—identity is understood and represented more in terms of self-construction and consumption. What does this mean for the poor? Well, it means being effectively excluded from representation. As identity becomes more an issue of individual choice, absent of the economic and environmental factors which shape it, the poor are cast as economically and politically invisible and powerless.
Well, Bauman suggests one plan of action. Citing the work of Claus Offe, he recommends decoupling the idea of work and actual income-earning capacity from a current understanding of work as wage labor (118). With Bauman’s proposal, redefining labor as a commodity to include other types of work currently undervalued or unrecognized in today’s labor market (such as unpaid domestic labor or underpaid migrant labor) would broaden an understanding of labor and lead to greater economic visibility for a previously unrecognized and invisible workforce. In this way, income entitlement would no longer be dictated by a person’s actual income-earning capacity.
Poverty is not just an economic condition, it’s also a “a social and psychological condition: as the propriety of human existence is measured by the standards of decent life practiced by any given society, inability to abide by such standards is itself a cause of distress, agony and self-mortification” (Bauman 37). Poverty means not just being a “flawed consumer” but also being “excluded from whatever passes for a ‘normal life’” (ibid). As more and more people are put out of work, asked to work fewer hours, asked to take a lower wage or a reduced benefits package, as the middle class shrinks and the numbers of the poor grow, the need to redefine what it means to be poor, to be a worker and a consumer becomes ever more important. Consumerism, global commerce and poverty are just a few of the practices and conditions that have redefined the way we think and identify as human beings today. Shouldn’t we ensure that what redefines us does not also dehumanize and disempower us, too?