From the text: In his widely known work La société de consommation, the French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard thus summed up contemporary society: ‘Just as medieval society was balanced on God and the Devil, so ours is balanced on consumption and its denunciation’. The notion of the consumer, contested as it has always been, has itself become an important cultural category. Especially from the late nineteenth century onwards, a number of economic, cultural and political agencies increasingly claimed for themselves the right and duty to address consumers and to speak for them. Advertising and marketing as well as state welfare agencies, consumer defence organisations, women’s groups, consumer boycotts, and more recently the European Union, environmental groups, and new global movements have all contributed, together with social scientific discourses, to situate the ‘consumer’ as a fundamental subject-category within public discourse.
This paper starts by considering the cultural representation of consumption and the consumer focussing on sustainable consumption and alternative food networks, proposing a theoretical systematization aimed at charting the emergence and consolidation of a relational view of consumer sovereignty. Potentially alternative to neo-classical and neo-liberal views, this view of consumer sovereignty takes up both collective goods (environmental concerns, equality, democracy) and private happiness (in terms of critical, creative fulfilment as opposed to acquisition and spending power) in the re-appraisal of the notion of utility. On the backdrop of such understanding, this paper firstly concentrates on the critical framing of the consumer as promoted by different actors in what it defines the alternative food network field and tries to offer a socio-theoretical mapping of its territory. Secondly, the paper looks at what these initiatives appear to have in common, and in particular it considers that they do embrace new visions of the consumer that may represent a challenge to the more established, neo-liberal notions of market choice, signalling that the symbolic boundaries that have come to define the consumer as a specific economic identity who lives in a private world removed from producers, nature and community are being destabilised. Finally, the paper aims to problematise Baudrillard’s view that ‘counter- discourse’ does not afford ‘any real distance’ from (a single vision of) consumer society. While there may be no escape from market society and consumer choice, choices can be constructed and practiced in quite a variety of ways, some of which seem to internalise values other than money and quantity and consider common goods and gift relations, civic engagement and sustainability as irreducible elements of consumers’ gratification. A good choice must be good for the community and for the planet as well as bringing happiness to the consumer: a sovereign consumer is such only if he or she engages responsibly with his or her own wellbeing, that of the community and the planet. Utility is thus re-defined not as a property of final goods as expressed in the individualistic relation between object and subject, but as a diffuse, entangled property of commodity circuits that extend well before and well after individualistic consumption, into the organization of production, the use of natural resources and the management of waste.
Contribution to the 3rd International Degrowth Conference for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Venice in 2012.