Elaborating upon the concept of panopticism, Michel Foucault analyzes the phenomenon of examination. According to him, examination is essentially meant to control individuals rather than test their knowledge:
The examination, surrounded by all its documentary techniques, makes each individual a “case”: a case which at one and the same time constitutes an object for a branch of knowledge and a hold for a branch of power. The case is no longer, as in casuistry or jurisprudence, a set of circumstances defining an act and capable of modifying the application of a rule; it is the individual as he may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc.
Foucault seeks to demythologize the social order of western civilization, ostensibly socially progressive and morally positive. He does that by foregrounding how this social order is regulated by various disciplines. Discipline is a core concept in Foucault: not only are we disciplined, but our individuality is regulated and controlled. In what follows, I want to examine the dilemma when the individual exercises the moral right to choose individual identity but is dependent on a social order grounded in control. In other words, does the consumerist social order really allow the individual to select individual identity?
According to Foucault, the individual, whose life and activities are restricted by the social order, is constantly examined and classified; this facilitates identification. This process, obviously political, is especially important in contemporary megapolises. The practical and political interest of every state is to control and discipline its citizens in order to secure the successful functioning of its political and economic systems. Moreover, control and discipline help preserve the consumerist order.
Contemporary western civilization, capitalist and global, promotes the consumerist order – its ultimate basis – as universal and proper. Of course, capitalism rarely exists in its pure form; a capitalist society can contain a number of socialist elements, most frequently within health care and educational systems. This is more characteristic of Europe than the USA, where the individual is granted the right to choose from different health care and educational programs. However, even the most socialist capitalism (the Scandinavian model) cannot escape consumerist ideology. Omnipresent advertising is every individual’s constant companion and thus the most persuasive proof of the consumerist capitalist social order. Global advertising of global companies shows that we do believe in certain trademarks and find it hard to do without them, both in purely capitalist countries and in those that can be described as socialist-capitalist.
Citizens, both producers and consumers, or prosumers, have become objects of control – individuals who are examined not only according to Foucault’s definition, but also by the entire economic structure. If there is no control, the prosumerist society will simply disintegrate.
It would be naïve to assume that prosumers can choose identity. It is ascribed to them by default. Today, one is even born with it. Such is the order of the capitalist system, when individuals are free to choose professions but not the status of the producer and the consumer. Indeed, if Europe or the USA saw the emergence within their boundaries of a state that refused to participate in this global system and instead effected a Rousseauesque return to nature, and if the ideology of this state were based on principles other than production and consumption, contemporary western morality grounded in the maximization of economic growth would simply collapse. This would mean that an “advanced” country chooses “backwardness”. What is seen as inevitable in Africa would, in Europe or the USA, be regarded as a choice and thus become a challenge to the ideology, ethics, politics, economics, and culture of utilitarian efficiency. Even if this is a hypothetical assumption, global/public intellectuals have already persuasively exposed the fictitiousness of the existing order. Jean Baudrillard called the world permeated with advertising signs the world of simulacra; according to him, there is no major difference between the impertinence of capitalist advertising and that of the propaganda of the October revolution. For Zygmunt Bauman, globalization entails what we are obliged to do if we want to be happy. Claude Lévi-Strauss distinguishes between “savage thinking” and the thinking of savages, simultaneously reminding us of our own savageness. According to Hannah Arendt, the consumerist society is the plebeian ideal. Norwegian intellectual Thomas Hylland Eriksen claims that, in the consumerist society, it is high technologies that manipulate us into consuming immoderately, filling our free time by gobbling down information.
Their opponents might suggest that a contemporary variety of ways to assert individual style and identity as well as the propagated freedom of self-expression suggest democratic tolerance as opposed to economic oppression and global manipulation. Thus, for instance, products intended for consumption are often personalized, acknowledging individual differences, personal demands, and specific tastes. However, such arguments do not differentiate political tolerance from marketing strategies, which are inseparable from capitalist goals and the morality grounded in the striving for economic profit: in this context, only those who qualify as efficient parts of the system deserve acclaim. Others are relegated to the status of waste.
Remembering the “flower children”, alcoholic writers, and rock’n’roll artists of the 1960s, and the great cultural, political, and social freedom they achieved in the USA during that decade, one can see a stark contrast with the 1970s and 1980s, when economically “unproductive” class of “asocial” individuals obediently returned to embrace market structures. This is empirical evidence that a cultural politics that encourages economic independence, rejection of the social order, defiance of circumstances, and hatred of pragmatism cannot survive for longer than a decade. Excessive tolerance of the individual’s right to choose identity could bring us back to the situation of the 1960s, when limitless social freedom turned out to have an adverse effect production and consumption. The counterculture did not succeed in creating a self-sufficient “Woodstock nation”, grounded in the principles of free love and peace, drugs and rock’n’roll. After the hippie spirit evaporated, people acknowledged the necessity of survival, both social and physical. Despite their return to workplaces, the cultural-political experiment had its consequences. After a decade spent as a “flower child” in Woodstock, it was difficult to suddenly transform into a pragmatic team-worker, and an economic practice that unmercifully classified individuals according to the level of their productivity found the former hippies wanting.
In capitalism, there is a close linkage between democracy as an ideology and real economic democracy, though they frequently contradict each other. If an individual is unable to produce and consume and thereby to contribute to economic growth, if she or he prefers the beatnik motto of “here and now”, this does not yet mean that she or he is social waste de jure, since his or her right to chose identity is defended by democracy as a political system. However, the economic reality is that such identity is inevitably reduced to the failure to pass the “examination” necessary to qualify as socially useful, and thus the individual has to be economically “normalized”. Of course, she or he still has the right to seek social support and, consequently, is protected by the state policy, but this does not mean that she or he is welcome at welfare institutions.
According to Zygmunt Bauman, while Marx described the abuse of the proletariat, today one can talk about the reduction of individuals to waste and garbage. Bauman’s statement reveals the very nature of the consumerist epoch, when consumers have to consume for the sake of consuming and, consequently, continuously produce waste. After a purchased product has been consumed, an individual goes on consuming another one, which stimulates economic growth. It is necessary to produce as much as possible to ensure consumption. Consumerism enables the production of economic value. Grounded in this logic, the capitalist order implies that the ultimate objective of the individual is to be a prosumer. Otherwise, she or he is regarded as economic waste. Or, paraphrasing Immanuel Kant’s moral imperative, act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of the prosumer.
Thus how should one define the identity that refuses to obey the imperative of economic morality by disregarding millions of choices offered by the capitalist market? Bauman calls such identity “stigmatized” and offers numerous examples: single mothers, drug addicts, or various other social misfits.
The previous quotation from Foucault uses the word “case”. According to Foucault, individuals are “cases” that need to be trained, corrected, normalized, or rejected. To paraphrase Foucault, the capitalist order examines any given individual as a specific “case” and then either corrects or rejects him or her.
A different perspective is feasible here, too. The terms “learning society” and “information society” have effectively permeated both organizational management and real life politics so that essentially consumerist, contemporary society now has to rise to this new challenge. As a result, university education has become indispensable for everyone wishing to be regarded as a developed citizen. The consumer society is thus educated and informed; its individuals consume and produce high quality products and are competent in evaluating their worth.
More and more university diplomas are acquired all over Europe and the USA, but also in affluent Arab countries, China, and Japan. Higher education implies more career possibilities and attests to the success of our epoch. However, the paradigm of mass education and mass production/consumption implies the presupposition that those who do not rise to the challenge are less valuable – if valuable at all. There are winners and there are losers. If one forgets the poor who inhabit the slums of Africa and Brazil or the provincial regions of Russia, the winners might seem to be markedly more numerous than the losers. Provided that economics is consistently regulated according to capitalist principles and that education is acquired en masse, it seems that affluent society is open to anyone who makes an effort.
At this point, it is necessary to clarify the meaning of “affluence”. First of all, economic affluence is circumstantial, especially when it comes to mass society. Affluence per se is an economic and social illusion, a political statement, beautified with the veil of wellbeing. This is because the affluent society owes its existence to the loans system.
The loans system is the essence of mass consumption. The world has many rich people living comfortable lives, who do not need loans, but the majority has to seek bank loans. The credit system offers great possibilities to consume. However, it is not equally accessible to all individuals; banks demand that the applying individual be young and employed. If one is approaching retirement, this is reason enough to be rejected by the system, while jobless people have no value because of their joblessness.
In the consumer society, individual identity can be discussed in the context of the banking system and the transparency the latter commands: before a new credit card or loan is granted, personal accounts, income, and balance are basically X-rayed. Moreover, bank managers research and identify the most profitable social groups and try to lure them into certain schemes, using advertising. Strategic schemes transform “the best” bank clients into loyal users, both within a specific bank and within the whole economic system.
When a passive consumer is transformed into an active one, she or he can indeed see the benefit of participating in the affluent society: she or he buys whatever is needed, is on time paying the interest on the loan, and can therefore apply for a larger loan on more advantageous conditions. The benefits are mutual as long as both the client and the bank are happy. In this case, affluence is not merely an economic and social illusion or a political statement. However, as soon as a client fails to pay the interest in time due to illness or the loss of employment, the illusion of affluence evaporates. As soon as a company goes bankrupt, its employees, burdened by debt, inevitably become “mobile” job seekers. Moreover, the bankruptcy of a single company can affect the entire community. For instance, the bankruptcy of Ekranas, the biggest factory in the Lithuanian town of Panevezys, was a painful blow both to the four thousand families that live there and to the local real estate prices, not to mention the factory’s suppliers, who are mostly located elsewhere.
If a debtor fails to find a new job, she or he loses the bank’s trust. The matrix of crediting ensnares individual lives; prosumers are from now on classified exclusively according to their credit rating, without considering their individual intentions or dispositions. Banks check the figures in their clients’ accounts, as opposed to the conscience or experiences of those trapped by an economic crisis, which is quite frequently engineered by certain interest groups. The very matrix of crediting is artificially constructed. In Lithuania, banks, which otherwise generously grant loans, secure themselves the right to increase interest rates at their own discretion and thereby consciously render their clients insolvent because salaries do not grow as fast as do interest rates. As a result, individuals are classified and normalized after each increase is announced: debtors are declared either solvent or insolvent.
It is within this context that the power of the omnipotent capitalist system is revealed. Credit users can easily lose a good reputation. In this case, an individual becomes, in Foucauldian terms, a documented case. Although Foucault discusses examination as the exercise of control in the context of education, his insights also reveal the brutality of capitalism, which puts each individual CV under scrutiny. Everything is thoroughly examined: work experience, recommendations, age, and other variables. An individual CV is an individual “case”. Such cases are controlled.
Taking into consideration individual life conditions in the affluent society, the US example is particularly suggestive. Eight billion dollars worth of bank loans in 1946 jumped to 21 billion in 1950, and to 56 billion in 1960. In 1970, the number reached the 127 billion dollar mark and is still rising. The money that individuals, families, and entire nations owe banks allows the latter to actively consume in the economic but also in the political sense: high levels of consumption tends to be linked to a developed welfare state. However, consumerism grounded in indebtedness first of all means financial dependence as opposed to actively propagated democratic freedom.
Aristotle defines happiness as eudaimonia, suggesting a specific mental condition as opposed to bodily pleasures. Distinguishing a slave from a free citizen, Aristotle understands that a free person must be independent from the laws of necessity, or he is not free. It is hardly possible to speak about freedom if one is trapped in a vicious circle when she or he works and produces to consume and consumes to produce even more.
Eudaimonia suggests happiness, but also a blissful state that, according to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, is only accessible to generous minds. An eudaimonian personality is focused on spiritual virtues and is thus the most valuable member of Aristotle’s city state. Let us compare these principles with the economic ideology of capitalist society.
Consumerist economic culture and politics stimulate an intense and unlimited desire to acquire new products, whatever these may be: advanced technologies, clothes, or entertainment. For ancient Greek philosophers, the absence of limits meant evil, mistakes, disorder, and chaos. Eudaimonia was to be acquired by controlling desires and habits and by finding the epicentre. Contemporary economic ideology, by contrast, encourages individuals to consume incessantly. Advertising represents the consumerist lifestyle as correct and ideal: it is pictured as both exclusive and moral.
The keyword here is “more”: more products, more production, more consumption, more loans, more efficiency, more globalization, more competence and qualified employees. Is affluence the ultimate goal of human beings? Is this where the essence of self-expression of human beings as a species, homo sapiens, lies?
In Ethics, Aristotle claims that the rule of a happy medium allows people to avoid the extremes of excess and deprivation. Following the eudaimonia principle, one can only be happy after one has managed to balance the two. Epicurus, who foregrounds hedonism, considers the lack of moderation as evil; in order to be happy, a human being should strive for natural pleasures and tend to his or her essential needs, but should avoid anything unnatural and unnecessary, such as political power, fame, or riches. For Pythagoras, even odd numbers, the so-called apeiron, suggest evil. Forbearance and moderation are the two virtues foregrounded in his ethics. Just like health and cosmos, virtue implies harmony.
The contemporary world of advertising does not care about harmony. The affluent society does not seek balance between affluence and deprivation. Affluence is its ultimate goal. Harmony is understood as a balance between unlimited production and unlimited consumption. Nonetheless, for instance, in Scandinavia or Germany, consumption is deliberately restricted at weekends in an attempt to protect employees’ right to recreation. This could be an example for Lithuania, which should support small and medium businesses as opposed to trying to please such insatiable tycoons as VP Market, which make their employees work on holidays, including Christmas, Easter, and the “long weekends”. If we want to harmonize our life at least to some extent, it is essential to temper capitalism with socialist principles. This, however, is impossible in Lithuania due to the corrupt relationship between big business and political structures.
Henry David Thoreau could be a perfect example of an intellectual who refused to consume. Even the pencils he used were of his own making because he wanted to be independent from the system. He is considered to have been an American romantic, but is this a social perversion? What was the morality he so radically rejected? He writes in Walden:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
This intellectual American woodman would hardly succumb to contemporary cosmopolitan consumerism. His morality is different from a capitalist morality linked to comfort and wellbeing. A society that incessantly consumes is a result of the maximization of business and the abundance of products, not of life near Walden Pond. But why should it necessarily imply wellbeing? Why is the very concept of wellbeing usurped by the supporters of affluence and consumption? Is economic affluence so inevitably tied with what is referred to as wellbeing? David Hume did not see a relationship between what ought to be and what is. We should also probably reconsider our belief in wellbeing as insatiable affluence.
Thoreau must have experienced just as much wellbeing as an active contemporary businessman, but understood it in a completely different way. He had his own ethics of Walden Pond. In the age of industrialization, he talked about the individual’s right to choose his or her identity. Thoreau was an American romantic, who flouted the paradigm of usefulness and found harmony near his favourite pond, not far from the civilization which incessantly advertises abundance. He rejected the philosophy of progress for the sake of the progress of personality.
Hannah Arendt describes the consumerist society as a working class society which grovels before the capitalist system. According to her, working and consuming are two phases of the same enforced and compulsory process. Enforced consumption is masked under the artificial smiles of advertising. Even cheap Chinese products are accepted into the paradise of affluence and abundance. Nowadays, it is basically impossible to purchase the newest, the best, or the most advanced mobile phone, computer, car, or TV set, as each day sees the appearance of still newer and better models. “Progress”, the label of the twenty-first century, forces people to catch up with the newest technologies. Those who, in response to advertising, succeed in constantly updating their domestic appliances feel psychologically strong and morally advanced. In Lithuania, even more so in Russia, such people distinguish themselves by very particular behaviour and manners, which are not necessarily aristocratic.
Erich Fromm agrees with Sigmund Freud’s statement that the focus on possessing is pathologic and neurotic. According to Fromm, an entire society can be pathologic if its ultimate value is to possess.
The argument that consumerism is necessary to secure the very economy of affluence is not necessarily correct. The author of To Have and to Be sees a compromise and offers an example: if at least 20 per cent of the citizens (he most probably means US citizens) stopped buying cars and started using public transport, economic losses would make business companies and governments seek new solutions to respond to the new demands. According to Fromm, civil disobedience of consumers would be a big blow to the very strategy that governs contemporary production and consumption. However, such a move would require a high degree of awareness. Besides, the existing social order forms and promotes certain habits of thinking and behaving, which are difficult to change or replace by new ones, especially when both an individual’s and an entire society’s values and dispositions are intensely watched by corporations concerned with production and consumption.
In Lithuania, consumerism in its real sense, that is, as a pastime, does not yet exist since unlimited consumption is accessible only to a small social group. Thus, Fromm’s ideas would hardly be understood. First of all, we have to allow people to load themselves with objects before questioning who we have become, and what our identity is. Indeed, what is the worth of such disobedience if the purchasing power of a self-conscious citizen is so low?
Contemporary business ethics emphasize the necessity to humanize economics. However, the implementation of such ethics does not necessarily entail a deconstruction or at least a critical revision of consumerist culture and its economic ideology. By contrast, business ethics serve to make production and consumption even more effective. They do not seek to encourage consumer society to qualitatively transform its pathologic status of having into the status of being; instead, the aim is to make the morality of having more ecologically and socially acceptable.
A key term in business ethics, “human resource management” means that every employee is a resource for production and requires responsible professional management. It is necessary that human resources, disciplined by management, produce and offer ethical products; otherwise, the social appeal of production and consumption will decrease and so will efficiency. If ethical products are successfully implemented into practice, one can expect increased consumption. This is the goal of human resource management, which aims to humanize capitalist economy. In Lithuania, however, qualified human resource management is obviously lacking; since the restoration of independence, business has strayed away from humanistic values and dignity. The synthesis of ethics and business is indispensable in order to avert a crisis similar to the one which has already affected Lithuania when big business was recognized as the success of interest groups. I would not limit myself to the organizational level, though; I am more interested in whether the aims of business ethics can be independent from the ideology of having more.
It is important to keep in mind that business ethics bring to light specific cases of unethical business, reveal the string-pulling mechanisms of the black economics, and disclose the Pantagruelian appetites of large corporations as well as their Machiavellian methods. Business ethics are essentially created to supplant such phenomena. Advanced corporations create their own behavioural codes and seek innovations both when it comes to their production and what concerns work ethics. An ethical company is more competitive. Effective human resource management increases competitiveness. The concept of corporate social responsibility reflects precisely that: a corporation has to take on economic, ecological, and ethical responsibility for its activities in a specific space. This understanding is still lacking in Lithuania, where the real corporate social responsibility has not yet been developed. It is all too obvious that in Lithuania, one accumulates wealth without being bothered about ecological consequences or ethics.
Whatever is being said about the need for business ethics in Lithuania, about their theoretical and practical levels, we have to admit that business ethics are the ethics of having. Moreover, they are easy to simulate, especially if one can have more disregarding morality. Our country will probably never see real business ethics, grounded in objective criteria, developed; we will never understand that such ethics do not contradict capitalist aims and can even help achieve them. We will probably never understand that such ethics can help seek professional honour and respect.
According to Arendt, happiness grounded in profits for as many people as possible is a plebeian dream. In Lithuanian and other post communist countries, which have witnessed a sudden leap from collectivism to individualism, profit as an ultimate value has indeed become a plebeian aspiration. In this respect, Arendt’s idea that economic abundance is a paradise for plebeians and fools is more easily understood in eastern central Europe than in Germany, England, or Scandinavia, where business and ethics are more closely related and where consumer society has a real purchasing power. Having recognized that, one could reject the prosumerist course of development. This would open new possibilities for post-communist societies to seek individual identity. Thoreau found such identity near Walden Pond. Leo Tolstoy and some other writers followed a slightly different path, which nonetheless led them towards spiritual identity. Franz Kafka suffered because of it. We can also remember Lithuanian postmodernist Ricardas Gavelis, who, in fiction, constructed his own Vilnius and in the wake of the nationalist movement in the late 1980s, contemplated the implementation of a moral code, which would unite the entire nation.
In the prosumerist system, the individual who asserts him or herself through authentic freedom is regarded as a case of the non-efficient consumer. Does this imply that people “outside the system” are abnormal “cases”? If so, we are indeed living in a consumerist panopticum, described by Foucault.
Nevertheless, one cannot forget that it took mankind several thousands years to bridge the gap between starvation and abundance, accompanied by mass consumption, while only a small step separates wellbeing from poverty. It would be incorrect to depreciate those for whom business is more than a tool to satisfy greed; indeed, financial success could even be compared to art. It is very easy to contrast spirit and matter, but quite difficult to link them together. It is good that our country, too, has people capable of creating the linkage. Therefore, discussing identity and consumerist morality, one should recognize that criticizing the limitations of a state orientated towards affluence is much easier when one is well off; for the hungry, affluence is the ultimate good, even if this does look plebeian.
A consumer becomes a plebeian when she or he transforms his or her or her seeking for affluence into a goal. As long as one merely seeks to fulfil one’s creative ambitions, both economic and humanitarian, or solve everyday problems, this is in no way to be condemned. When working hours become shorter, when life expectancy increases, we all seek a pleasant occupation that can help us realize our potential. Herein lies the major challenge faced by the contemporary individual: how to accommodate both spirit and matter, and how to make matter serve spirit as opposed to overwhelming it. This is what our identity depends on. Thus, consumerist morality is in one way or another determined by our own relationship to things.