The relation between human perception and the perceived world is part of a long-standing philosophical debate—but it is also a sociopolitical reality. People perceive different things according to their economic viewpoint and according to normalized opinions and beliefs (broadly speaking, culture). Part of the task of having a critical, social justice consciousness is to identify how and which ideas—including ideas of abundance and scarcity—may be informed and sustained by class ideology. Karl Marx wrote that humans will never have true freedom until we collectively have reasonable control over our society, partly because we will perceive the world from various class divisions rather than as a comprehensive class of people who are interested in the maximization of collective human flourishment.
Class-based divisions reinforce class-based perceptions of abundance and scarcity. (To be clear, when I use the term class-based division I mean the working class and the owning class most broadly, and then also the varying levels of economic stratification commonly known as lower class, middle class, and upper class.) This is the philosophical and practical conundrum that the economic system of capitalism leaves us all in. Individuals in the owning class are perceptually-conditioned over time to perceive the world according to their vested interests. Likewise, individuals in the working class are perceptually-conditioned over time to perceive the world in their ways—ideally leading to the recognition of their own exploitation and thereby organizing a revolution of the economic system. The tensions between the two broad groups are more than obvious, and some intellectuals have theorized that mass culture (mass television, media, and advertising) acts as a sort of ideological screen that often keeps the working class from boldly organizing upon the recognition of their alienation from their labor.
It goes without saying that the owning class perceives the world to be exquisitely abundant because they see rich things while the working class perceive the world to be scarce because they see few things over which they have material and political control. This often goes without saying precisely because the relation between class division and class knowledge is purposely obscured leading individuals to assume that the way they perceive the world is a universal human perception. But this cannot be so within a class-stratified society and globe.
I bring this up because I see it occurring regularly, usually after I have reflected on it, since assumptions like this are latent and widespread and tend to become imperceptible without the lens of reflective scrutiny. I would like to examine a recent adbuster, “Get Less Today,” that I think shows how latent class-divided perception and knowledge can be even when the occasion is a progressive cause.
“Get Less Today” is a public education outreach campaign spearheaded by the Solid Waste Management Coordination Board and Rethink Recycling that aims to encourage Twin Cities residents to reduce consumption and solid waste disposal in the region in order to improve the region’s solid waste management system. I want to be clear that my intention is not to assail the campaign effort, which I view as a positive, well-meaning, and progressive contribution to the community, but rather to illustrate how economic assumptions are present in the campaign in latent ways, just like they are in newspapers, articles, and other campaigns. These assumptions frame knowledge from a certain perceptual viewpoint demonstrating just how pervasive economic assumptions are in the overall culture if they appear even in well-meaning, progressive, public education campaigns.
Here is the adbuster video from the “Get Less Today” outreach effort:
As you can see, the video begins with an image of a woman standing before a closet full of clothes, a box in her hands, sighing, “This is too much. What am I going to do with all this stuff?” The next image shows that same woman trying to get through a walk-in closet full of clothes. We then move to “Lester Moore” “selling” the value of less stuff. “Just like you,” he says in a passionate voice, “I worked hard to get cool things, follow fashion, and pick up the latest piece of technology. I could barely get through a week without picking up more stuff. In fact, at one point, I even had to rent a storage locker to fit all my stuff! That’s when I really realized that what I needed wasn’t more, it was Less.” Lester continues to come up with witty sayings that play off the idea that less is more.
I describe the video as an adbuster because it evidently does double duty as a satire on infomercials and advertising. It pokes fun at the ways in which advertisements deceptively sell us stuff that we don’t need and it also satirizes the over-cluttered household by depicting abundance in extreme and cluttered forms. All of these are useful points. The main charge I have is what I have spoken of earlier with regards to perception and class-divided knowledge. Capitalism can accommodate all of these ecological significations—buy less, spend less, reduce, reuse, recycle, and so on. But what any outreach effort that does not critique the economic system perpetually obscures from the start is that the very idea of reducing consumption presupposes that all individuals have too many things when that is absolutely not the case in actuality. There are vast numbers of people in our country—let alone in the world—who do not have enough food in their pantries, and some do not even have pantries. Having more in our present system means that others are doing without by necessity. In the “Get Less Today” adbuster, having more becomes a burden on privileged residents and homeowners as opposed to what could be a much more effective critique of the systemic distribution that allows some to have too much and others to have nothing. It thereby unconsciously reinforces the perceptions of people who have money to spend on things and money to save on less things and so reinforces the class-based divisions which are responsible for these differing perceptions in the first place. In failing to provide a systemic critique we may preserve and actuate the very harm that we seek to minimize.
Moreover, while the adbuster encourages less consumption and increases waste disposal efficiency it does not problematize the waste disposal system at large. Indigenous economist and author Winona LaDuke points out that the waste industry is one of the biggest industries in our society and is part of an inherently unsustainable linear economic model. She describes, in stark contrast to our present model, a cyclical economic model where resources are returned to the earth in sustainable ways to replenish themselves or create new resources. This model has no need for conceptions of reducing waste, since waste itself would no longer be an accurate term for what happens to items after they are used.
References: [1) “About Us,” Rethink Recycling