On the Role of Critical Theory in Moving Toward Voluntary Simplicity


William E. Kilbourne (1992) ,"On the Role of Critical Theory in Moving Toward Voluntary Simplicity", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 161-163.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 161-163


William E. Kilbourne, Department of Management and Marketing, Sam Houston State University

The purpose of this paper is to develop a framework for examining the role of consumption in industrial society. Specifically, the mods of consumption referred to here as voluntary simplicity will be addressed. To do this, the alternative modes of consumption will be examined first. The two modes examined will be voluntary simplicity and involuntary complexity. This will be followed by an examination of two primary modes of thought referred to here as ideological and rational self-clarity. Their relationship to the mode of consumption will then be addressed. Finally, the modes of analysis that might be used in the examination of the consumption process will be examined. The two modes discussed will be the traditional positivist/empiricist made and critical theory.


Voluntary Simplicity. The first contemporary articulation of the concept of voluntary simplicity was that of Gregg (1936) who described it as, "...singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life." (p.31) Elgin (1981) expands on this and adds the notion of relativity to it. "Given human diversity, there can be no single, 'right and true way' to live more voluntarily or simply." (p. 37) Thus voluntary simplicity is more a function of one's values and beliefs about the role of consumption in life than manifest consumption behaviors.

It is a common misconception that voluntary simplicity is a form of poverty. This could not be more wrong. As suggested by Ram Dass, "Poverty is repressive: simplicity is liberating." (quoted in Elgin 1981, p. 31) Among the most eloquent expressions of the nature of voluntary simplicity are those of Thoreau (1854/1937). Throughout Walden he expresses the individuality of simplicity and the empowerment it engenders.

Involuntary Complexity. The prevailing mode of consumption in most industrial societies is characterized here as involuntary complexity. Its chief characteristic is the commodified form of existence in which individuals are intimately tied to the process of consumption through their .second nature." This second nature is conditioned through the introjection of consumption values, a process through which the values of one's culture become one's own and are accepted as having developed spontaneously and independently of the culture. It is a non-reflective form of consumption which allows social forces the individual does not understand to condition the second nature against exposure to itself. It is the product of inured false consciousness in which the antagonism between real and immediate needs is reconciled in the individual by the negation of real needs.

It is the conflict between real and immediate needs which is the essence of the problem voluntary simplicity seeks to redress. The negation of real needs must be exposed to itself through the examination of the ideology of consumption which equates the satisfaction of immediate needs with happiness. To see how this unmasking of false consciousness can be effected, the discussion turns to the modes of thought characterizing consumption.


Ideology. The most general definition of ideology is probably that it is the study of ideas. This removes the political component of ideology which is necessary for this paper, however. The definition used here might properly be called ideology in the pejorative sense. (Gauss 1981) Gauss (1981) suggests that a particular form of consciousness is ideological if it incorporates beliefs that are false, functions in a reprehensible way, or has a tainted origin. To be even more specific, three criteria will be established to determine if a particular form of consciousness is ideological. These will be drawn from Gauss (1981), Kinlock (1981) and Mannheim (1936). These three criteria are based on epistemological and/or functional properties of a set of beliefs. They are:

1. Falsely equating the interest of a subgroup with the general interest (Kinlock 1981, pp. 6-7)

2. Beliefs that serve to mask social contradictions (Gauss 1981, pp. 15-19)

3. Beliefs that fail to take into account new realities applying to a situation (Mannheim 1936, p. 96)

Rational Self-clarity. It might be considered that there are two levels of being, the manifest and the latent. The manifest level is one in which individuals experience the lived world in day to day life. The latent level is the underlying forces within the social existence that direct the experience and are relatively unknown to the individual subject.

In the role of subject, the individual must be free to act where being free is equiprimordially being rational. The true meaning of one's existence must be allowed to materialize within the subject, in a sense, letting reality appear as it is so that subjects become transparent to themselves. Within this context it is also understood that the true nature of reality can never be known completely. (Luijpen 1960)

In order to achieve a synthesis of the manifest and the latent levels of existence, an accurate narrative of the subject's existence must be developed. (Fay 1987) It is further suggested that enlightenment as to the nature of this narrative requires reflective assent as to its veracity, not manipulation or coercion. Clearly, if external manipulation were used to effect assent, then one ideology would be replaced by another. The consequence of this genuine narrative is enlightenment as to one's condition. Further, it allows the actors to reorder their existence self-consciously and intelligently. Relations masked by ideology are revealed in their true form freeing the subject to attain the potential available through a rationally ordered society.


Associated with each mods of consumption is a mods of thought which characterizes; it. If we examine involuntary complexity from several perspectives, its inception, its epistemology and its function, the nature of thought associated with it becomes more clear. Since it is of fairly recent origin historically, it is not difficult to establish its genetic properties, that is, the origin and development of the concept. Ewen (1976) examines the origin thoroughly and concludes that the notion of ever increasing consumption was not the product of natural progression, but was imposed from above in accordance with the needs of the industrial system which used advertising as its prime method. Benton (1987) further suggests that consumers had to be taught the necessities at consumption since vestigial Protestantism with its consumption morality of frugality still existed at that time. This is further supported by Fox and Lears (1983) who refer to the now mods of consumption as therapeutic consumption.

From the standpoint of the individual, the consequences of the prevailing belief are significant since it is true freedom that is at stake. Since the realm of freedom is reduced to the economic/consumption sphere, a diminution of experience through which the individual experiences growth potential materializes. With the confusion of real with immediate needs, the individual experiences ersatz growth. Kilbourne (1991) states,

The individual in industrial society has,- however, unwittingly subordinated self-interest to economic interests and develops the false identity between material success, as reflected in symbolic possession, and the development of potential. This self-deception results in unfulfilled potentialities remaining unfulfilled while one continues pursuing what is misrepresented as authentic self-interest. (p. 453)

Thus involuntary complexity, while extolling consumption as freedom, systematically consumes individual potential, alienating individuals from themselves. The spontaneous reproduction of individuals in the image demanded by the exigencies of mass production is not verification of its logic as suggested by the dominant class, but merely attests to the efficiency with which the technology of domination works.

With voluntary simplicity, the mode of thought is quite different. Since the dominant mods of consumption is assumed here to be involuntary complexity, simplicity must be chosen by its votary in response to the dominant condition. Since there is no cultural or technological apparatus extolling its virtues (quite the opposite is the case), it is necessarily the product of reflection and a choice from competing alternatives which, under involuntary complexity, should not exist. To reject the dominant cultural is an active behavior of individuals attempting to be free from their second nature and more specifically to be free from the economy in the case of voluntary simplicity. It is the closest behavior in the economic realm to what Marcuse (1969) describes as "systematic disengagement', i.e., the end of consumption ideology.

Voluntary simplicity reflects the belief that individual potential cannot be achieved through consumption per so. The role of consumption is recognized in one's life and reflects the belief that one consumes to live rather than lives to consume. From this perspective, consumption becomes enabling rather than personally immobilizing. This reflective behavior stands in opposition to the non-reflective, accepting behavior of involuntary complexity. Elgin (1981) cites many anecdotal cases demonstrating the different mode of thought exhibited by simplifiers.

The parallel between this view and rational self-clarity described by Fay (1990) is evident. The fundamental aspect of rational self-clarity is, as stated earlier, the genuine narrative of one's existence. Within this narrative, the role of consumption must be clearly delineated. Exposure of the symbolic character of consumption as irrational when judged independently regarding its contribution to a meaningful existence is the essence of voluntary simplicity and the mods of thought characterizing it.

The question which arises from this analysis of consumption is one regarding transition to now modes of thought. While the arguments for voluntary simplicity seem to some rationally compelling, to the majority they are irrational. So long as evaluation is framed in the idiom of the status quo, the prevailing mods of consumption, involuntary complexity, is the only rational mode. The success of the system so defined justifies its existence. Against the backdrop of the consumption flow of goods, all other modes of consumption are rendered irrational. This will remain the case so long as the narrative of one's existence is developed and framed by the status quo, i.e., the product of false consciousness. What then can be done to break the cycle through which each succeeding generation is reproduced in the image of mass production and mass consumption? This is the question to which we now turn.


Positive/empiricist. Traditional modes of analysis based on the positivist/empiricist model are inadequate to the task of effecting systemic change such as that proposed here. Their biases toward the status quo are evident in the restricted nature of conclusions based on these methods. Within this tradition is found, for example, the neo-classical economic paradigm. This particular model is chosen since it relates directly to the problem at hand, but similar conclusions could be drawn from other domains as well. This utilitarian based model of consumption behavior suggests that individuals are freestanding, independent actors who seek to maximize their own self-interest (pleasure or utility). it is assumed that they are rational and instantaneous calculators who have complete information. Under these assumptions, the models indicate that the "invisible hand" will act to turn chaos into collectively rational outcomes and all will benefit. If one accepts these assumptions, the conclusions worked out in the paradigm will always favor the status quo, i.e., involuntary complexity as the "rational' form of consumption. No other conclusion is possible.

This suggests that a different mode of analysis is necessary to reveal the ideological mode of thought within involuntary complexity rather than being directed by it. It is argued here that critical theory provides the beginning for such a mode of analysis.

Critical Theory. The use of critical theory as a mods of analysis is predicated on several assumptions. Primarily, it requires that society be suffering from structural conflict which precipitates or perpetuates suffering for some of its members. Members of society need not be aware of their suffering, however, since they may have been ideologically manipulated which serves to hide their suffering even from themselves. Second, it assumes that at least part of the problem stems from false consciousness of some or all members of society. Finally, it requires that the members of society who are suffering desire an end to their suffering and are enabled, through critical theory, to abate or eliminate their suffering. The essential elements for a functional critical theory can be summarized as crisis (or imminent crises), false consciousness, enlightenment, and emancipation. (Fay 1987) If all of these elements can be found in the involuntary complexity mode of consumption, then critical theory provides a useful, and possibly the only, mode of analysis through which meaningful change can be effected.

Since as suggested before, the characteristics of involuntary complexity subsume precisely these attributes, critical theory is uniquely appropriate for their unmasking. The technocratic mentality provides the illusion of security in impending ecological crisis providing a false sense of security in its capacity to solve all problems. This is partially a product of false consciousness regarding the role of consumption in the crisis and the nature of real solutions to the crisis. Only through enlightenment as to the true nature of existence in industrial society can the imminent crisis be averted. This means revealing the true narrative of existence so that meaningful change can be initiated which will result in the emancipation of individuals, freeing them from the domination of the economy and consumption. This would simultaneously reduce the threat of ecological crisis. Only through the application of critical theory can the true narrative be exposed, resulting in the true freedom of the individual.


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William E. Kilbourne, Department of Management and Marketing, Sam Houston State University


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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