Sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the book The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions (1899). The term was meant to describe the behavioural characteristics of the nouveau riche social class that emerged during the Second Industrial Revolution (ca. 1860–1914). It describes how the people in this class would accumulate valuable possessions in order to display their wealth and increase their social status. As working and middle class peoples aspired for equal social standing with the nouveau riche, this conspicuous consumption morphed into something else entirely. With masses hoping to attain a standard of living beyond the imagination of most people, manufacturers looked to third world countries to fill the demand. The result is an exploitation that bears a tragic resemblance to slavery (indeed, in many instances, it is slavery). Living in the modern era, one might expect slavery to have vanished, but it has not. This exploitation goes on and it is the consumers of the ‘civilized’ world who are funding it. Conspicuous consumption has led to what I would like to call ‘complacent consumption’, or an assimilation of goods that draws on and supports the exploitation of workers in third world countries.
First, it is important to note what is meant by ‘complacent consumption’. The term complacent, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is is a feeling that displays pleasure of self-satisfaction. Some refer to is as an uncritical satisfaction with one’s self. This is specifically what I am speaking to when using the term. The term is not to be confused with ‘complicit’, but in this context it is explicitly linked with ‘complicit’. The word complicit implies knowing involvement with some sinister or illegal (OED). Using the term complicit, then, is problematic because I don’t believe most people know about the immoral and criminal activity they are facilitating, or at the very least don’t have a full understanding of it. Rather, they are uncritical about their consumption. They do not think. They are still involved with the immoral behaviour. They are blissfully, and in many instances willfully ignorant to their involvement in such activities. I believe this makes them complicit, but I think the term complacent, in this context, speaks to both the willfully uncritical approach many have in regards to consumption, and the degree of complicity that is the result.
There exist extreme cases of this kind of consumption. The ‘Blood Diamond’ or ‘Conflict Diamond’ trade has been made infamous through a series of investigative articles, films and songs. The exposure of barbaric practices in conflict zones has made citizens of industrialized countries aware of the exploitation. It is not uncommon now for jewelers to boast that they do not carry conflict diamonds, but what of other products procured in similar circumstances? Ashley Judd, for example, has called Apple customers on being complicit in ‘mass rape’. The reason? Apple uses minerals obtained in conflict zones. This may seem like a polemic argument, or like hyperbole, and Judd has received a lot of criticism for her comments, but her assessment is fair nonetheless. The regions where Apple buys some of their materials are conflict zones. These zones are often run by warlords who instill fear in the locals. Foreign businesses oftentimes deal with the warlords, funding their organizations directly or indirectly. Hence, foreign business is helping to pay for weapons and ammunition, and considering that it is regular practice for these militia to indulge in gang-rape (amongst other vicious crimes), it is fair to say that anybody who buys products from companies who deal with these people is actually helping to ‘finance mass rape’. The problem is, nobody wants to hear that. As a result, Judd has been attacked by people who misconstrue her words. Some claim that Judd is accusing the consumers or rape, whereas she is actually claiming that they finance rape. The consumer is oblivious and ignorant of the situation. But ignorance does not absolve one of guilt. Indeed, it can make one complacent about crime, if not complicit in it.
Perhaps the most overt examples of complacent consumption concern the sex-trade industry. Whether it be simply watching pornography, visiting a strip club, attending a massage parlor for a ‘manual release’, or being serviced by an escort or street walker, the consumer is very aware of the sex worker’s vulnerable position. For any number of reasons, the sex workers are often in a position where they need financial assistance. It may be as simple as wanting to make extra money for tuition, or supporting family financially, but other times sex workers need money to feed an addiction. Such substance abuse usually stems from dramatic experiences such as childhood abuse (though this isn’t always the case). During research for a creative writing project, I spoke to several dancers at a strip club and one claimed that there wasn’t a woman in the building who hadn’t been molested as a child. It is true that some sex workers enjoy their work, but this is an underwhelming minority. Due to childhood abuse, most sex workers are in the industry for reasons they have little control over. The consumers who participate in the sex industry can fairly assume that the majority of sex workers are not there because they want to, but rather because they feel compelled to be there. Participation in this industry therefore perpetuates the abuse and suffering of the sex workers. Consumers of the sex-trade industry help facilitate and fund this suffering and exploitation while excusing their participation by suggesting that sex workers choose to be a part of it. This is a primary example of complacent consumption, where the consumer’s participation merges their activity with the exploitation and makes them culpable.
This complacent consumerism extends beyond the sex-trade industry, diamonds and cell phones. It permeates our everyday life. Children who love Disney products may be playing with toys made by children no older than they are. In the documentary film What Would Jesus Buy? Bill Talen takes on Disney, among other companies, and exposes their practices. It is appalling to consider a child who is not yet ten, who is making toys for his or her peers in America and getting paid pennies for a day’s work. It is even worse to consider the unsafe conditions, which put him or her in danger of losing limbs. One might think that an exposé on the matter would turn heads, but people seem to like Disney more than they like these children who produce their toys on another continent. What Would Jesus Buy? came out in 2007, but it has still hardly made a stir. People simply do not want to hear how the toys they buy their children are made by other children who in all likelihood have been sold into slavery.
Whether it be chocolate bars or clothes, items made under reprehensible circumstances populate our everyday lives. In most instances, we do not stop and ask where or how or by whom a given item we are buying is made. We simply accept the low price and consume, unaware that the act of buying makes us complacent about the exploitation of the workers who made the item, and worse, we are sometimes complacent about crimes such as rape and murder when we buy items from conflict zones. Our spending habits shape the misery for people thousands of miles away from us. It is hard to avoid this complacency, but there are ways. We must ask questions and find out how and where and by whom the things we are buying are made and then make choices based on those answers. Slavery is still present in this world and most of us are in some way, through our consumerism, complicit in this exploitation.