The New West and the Problem of Affluence

In The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith suggests that the field of Economics has not sufficiently evolved to account for widespread material abundance, which is itself a recent condition anywhere in the world. Galbraith argues that the affluent society is different in kind, not just degree, from the generalized deprivation that prevailed for most of human history. He further argues that one of the more significant and troubling features distinguishing the affluent society is the pervasive manufacture of consumer demand.

John Kenneth Galbraith. Photo: jfklibrary.org

Galbraith introduces the point in the first chapter of The Affluent Society: “One would not expect that the preoccupations of a poverty-ridden world would be relevant in one where the ordinary individual has access to amenities — foods, entertainment, personal transportation, and plumbing — in which not even the rich rejoiced a century ago. So great has been the change that many of the desires of the individual are no longer even evident to him. They become so only as they are synthesized, elaborated, and nurtured by advertising and salesmanship, and these, in turn, have become among our most important and talented professions. Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an ad-man to tell them what they wanted.”

A longer passage lays out a key insight into the work of the modern “ad-man”:

“If the individual’s wants are to be urgent they must be original with himself. They cannot be urgent if they must be contrived for him. And above all they must not be contrived by the process of production by which they are satisfied. For this means that the whole case for the urgency of production, based on the urgency of wants, falls to the ground. One cannot defend production as satisfying wants if that production creates the wants.

Were it so that a man on arising each morning was assailed by demons which instilled in him a passion sometimes for silk shirts, sometimes for kitchenware, sometimes for chamber pots, and sometimes for orange squash, there would be every reason to applaud the effort to find the goods, however odd, that quenched this flame. But should it be that his passion was the result of his first having cultivated the demons, and should it also be that his effort to allay it stirred the demons to ever greater and greater effort, there would be question as to how rational was his solution. Unless restrained by conventional attitudes, he might wonder if the solution lay with more goods or fewer demons.

So it is that if production creates the wants it seeks to satisfy, or if the wants emerge pari passu [concurrent] with the production, then the urgency of the wants can no longer be used to defend the urgency of the production. Production only fills a void that it has itself created.”

Marketing’s capacity to spark and fan the flame it promises to quench has only grown in sophistication since The Affluent Society was published 61 years ago, and part of this evolution has been the selective merger of political and commercial agendas, including, notably, by many self-proclaimed subversives and revolutionaries. A few astute social critics have noticed. In 1997, with an apparent nod to the concept of “manufactured consent” made famous by Noam Chomsky, The Baffler published Commodify Your Dissent, which is a collection of essays cataloguing many of the ways in which the counterculture creates late capitalism and vice versa.

Photo: Apple

One prominent example is the trope of the “rebel” consumer, in which choosing a given brand is conflated with revolutionary political action or is carefully deployed toward the formation of an “alternative” or transgressive social identity. In this move, shopping becomes an integral part of the process of self- and meaning-making.

Naturally, the rebel consumer is mirrored by the rebel corporation which eagerly co-opts countercultural totems to sell, say, Chryslers. This has led eventually to a marketing race away from superficial gestures and toward signals of authentic corporate virtue; we now see many companies which don’t merely traffic in woke social or political symbols, but explicitly take on a capacious social and political identity. It’s as if, in Romneyian parlance, corporations really are people, my friend.

To complete the picture, a new figure has emerged at the helm of many of these organizations: the corporate leader who merges master-of-the-universe, robber baron-scale corporate ambitions with political-aesthetic sensibilities that would be at home in the Beatnik 50s or Free Love 60s. These characters score off the charts according to Bobo math: to calculate a person’s status, take their net worth and multiply it by their antimaterialistic attitudes. A fitting name for this odd new lifestyle-leftish corporate orthodoxy might be Countercultural Neoliberalism.

Photo: Nike

Given this state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that the culture wars are absolutely fantastic for business, especially as political polarization has amped up in the last decade or so. Everything from the running shorts we wear to the chicken sandwich we eat has been successfully enlisted in the cause. What cause, you may ask? The cause, of course!

It doesn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes the wires show and it comes off as clunky or worse, as in the Kendall Jenner-Pepsi debacle. But often it works seamlessly, and the well-heeled, well-coiffed fakerjack is invented (for example).

Photo: Patagonia

We also, of course, get the New West, where there’s always a bumper to sticker with a cause célèbre, where there’s always a new Best Town to colonize, and where hell is other people’s fossil fuels.

The New West is also where virtually every successful company that comprises what we might call the Recreation Industrial Complex (RIC) now primarily sells sanctimony and only secondarily sells the good or service that keeps its owners and executives well-fed. In a way, it’s an ingenious modern twist on Robinson Crusoe: we should speak only of our arduous journey toward self-actualization but, yeah, by the way, we also happen to be fabulously wealthy thanks to the Brazilian plantation we own.

In canyon country, specifically, we can observe how the RIC manufactured both the demand for “Bears Ears” and the satisfaction of that demand. In statistical terms, approximately no one seemed to need to visit “Bears Ears” before December 2016, but now every outdoor athlete with a shoe contract and a Personal Brand to burnish — an “influencer” in the postmodern vernacular — seems determined to make an Insta-pilgrimage to “Bears Ears” or to at least engage in a bit of slacktivism from afar. The hoi polloi cannot be far behind.

It certainly cannot be said with a straight face that the urgency to both produce and consume “Bears Ears” originated with any of the thousands of people who had never heard of it before it showed up in their social media feed thanks to their status as “follower” of their preferred gear manufacturer (and who immediately felt sufficiently well-informed to voice their very strong opinion on the matter).

And finally, also in canyon country, we can look at Moab or Springdale or Torrey and see the logical endpoint of the counterculture-neoliberals’ unflinching manufacture of demand for evermore New West.

Photo: National Park Service

In Moab, for instance, a prospective reservation system to cope with the overtourism of Arches is apparently being met with measured suspicion from some locals thanks to its potential for sucking $22 million from the Moab economy. Shuttle systems like the one that operates in Zion are another popular half measure for managing absurd levels of tourism. And still another commonly invoked solution is to move more off-brand public lands into tourism’s prime time lineup (usually through the sweeping and politically toxic use of the Antiquities Act).

But beneath a thin veneer of environmental sensitivity, these still are neoliberal growth schemes in practical effect. After all, such measures only get broad support in the New West if they smooth out the lumpiness of visitation across time and/or space, and pave the way for more net growth in the long term. Support immediately evaporates if the wrong ox is at risk of being gored. “Believe in something even if means sacrificing everything” indeed.

In truth, it has never been more clear that New West orthodoxy revolves around certain sanctioned forms of conspicuous leisure married with an ostentatious yet cost-free performance of wokeness. Low forms of recreation have no place here. The same goes for work, especially stereotypically blue collar work, which is only properly done by suckers, the voluntarily poor, and the occasional moneyed neo-Thoreau anyway.

It’s all great for getting clicks, and even better for moving units, pleasing the donor class, and getting out the vote. It is also nearly enough to make a cynic wonder along with Galbraith whether the solution to what pains the affluent lies not in more goods, but fewer demons.