Is "Conscious Capitalism" Still an Option? Was it Ever?
"Empire is not an enemy that confronts us head-on. It is a rhythm that imposes itself, a way of dispensing and dispersing reality." —The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, 2009
One of the worst crimes a business can commit is psychological manipulation. And yet, it is a regular, open, well-documented practice we are all constantly having to navigate, and one I am mildly obsessed with monitoring in day-to-day life.
Through advertising, businesses attempt to convince potential customers that their life is in some way lacking in order to coerce people into buying products, the goal of which is to convert these one-time shoppers into lifelong consumers, the coveted "brand loyalists." Corporations employ psychologists, test products on paid focus groups, and tweak their marketing campaigns based on the information they glean from all the above. It's a dirty way to play the game, but, if you have your wits about you, you, the consumer, can still retain some form of agency. If you’re able to spot the manipulation as it’s occurring—become "media literate"—you can recognize the mechanisms by which advertisers are trying to manipulate you, evade the psychological warfare, and "consciously" choose whether or not to buy a company’s product. Choosing to buy one product over another empowers consumers to redirect the market, as well as brace themselves against unwanted coercion. In effect, choice is both a weapon and a shield.
The more people recognize the ways marketing campaigns are trying to manipulate them, the more savvy they become as shoppers. These "educated consumers" with refined palates shop under the banner of "conscious capitalism" and in turn become "conscious consumers," their oft-repeated rally cry: "Vote with your dollars."
On paper, and at times in practice, this strategy can be effective. If what’s being sold is determined by what’s being bought, then what we buy will determine what's being sold. As the theory is thought to play out, buying whole, organic produce instead of chemicals and garbage parading as food, should lead to a change in what's sold in the market. And, when Fugazi sings "Never mind what's been selling. It's what you’re buying," we're right there, singing along, head-bobbing in agreement, pointing our fingers at those who remain unaware of how their participation in the market economy negatively impacts the world. (I know I am!) But, conscious capitalism exists in a reality in which the self interests of corporations are seen as impersonal, unemotional systems that can be steered in whatever direction we choose, as if there are no humans behind the wheel, as if the market isn't driven by people with agendas.
The Rise of Subscription Tech
When over the past twenty years consumers began leveraging their buying power in order to create markets based on the products they wanted, as opposed to the products they were being told to want, corporations saw the tide turning and pivoted. To appease this newly woke consumer, corporations began giving people what they desired: more organic food, faster wifi, shorter wait times to reach customer service, more intuitive tech, and, on a more socio-political front, more ethnic and sexual diversity in management. But, the businesses never gave up their power. Instead, they found new ways to consolidate and leverage it.
As writer and contract software engineer, Cal Paterson, writes in his latest article, "It looks like a product but is secretly a subscription:"
"The secret of printers is that you aren't buying the printer, but instead entering into a subscription for printer cartridges, which are often ruinous. But that truth is obscure, and printer manufacturers work hard to ensure it remains so."
In other words, modern day companies bait you with a product in order to hook you with a subscription. Subscription-based products (can we call things you don't own a "product"?) take coercion far beyond paid research groups and subliminal messaging. While they still employ psychological coercion, a company like Adobe, in its pivot from product to subscription, forces their customers (now "subscribers") to continually pay for their product without any end in sight. The idea of a one-time fee—the cost of the product—is abandoned, and in its place is put an annual fee that within a short period of time exceeds the original price. As Paterson states, it’s a sneaky endeavor:
"One sign of a product that is secretly a subscription is networking: if it connects to the internet, and thus to some server, it is likely to be a subscription rather than a product —even if the 'product' itself claims otherwise…. [One of my favorite examples] is the tractor manufacturer John Deere, who works hard to ensure that you can no longer keep your tractor in good working order with just a socket set and an owner's manual, but also need a paid-up subscription to their online services: (else they will remotely disable crucial features)."
With subscription-based products your conscious consumerism loses its bite. You don’t buy anything, which from a neo-luddite, "live simply" perspective seems like the right way to go, until you realize that doing so subverts your ability to affect the economy through conscious consumer choices. Turns out, wandering the earth, consciously shopping online, while working remotely from a beautiful beach, does not a revolution make. So long as you are routed into the subscription-based corporate micro economy, your one weapon of choice, buying power, becomes almost entirely obsolete. Why? Because subscription-based tech makes it increasingly difficult to back out. Once you opt in through the initial payment, it’s difficult (and, for some people, impossible, if their livelihood depends on it) to stop paying. Choice is no longer an option. As in the case with Adobe subscriptions, "the lock-in is considerable, as access to [a person’s] existing bank of files and documents is contingent on continued payment." Cue "Hotel California" here.
A Slightly Doomer Perspective
Cost is only one factor among other, more psychological, considerations. A comment from a few years back discussing Adobe's, at the time, new conversion to a subscription-based payment model, from the now defunct graphics.com website states:
"Price, while important, is not the main issue. Consumers almost always acclimate to price increases, albeit with lots of grumbling. Happens all the time. The issue is the loss of trust in Adobe as a company and the attendant rise in anxiety among their customers. It’s really quite unprecedented." source
Consumer anxiety is a real thing. It's the idea that the potential to be perceived negatively by others based on what you buy can cause freak people out. But, where does this anxiety come from when, in the case of subscribing to a particular technological platform, no one is watching and everyone is doing the same thing? Could it be that feeling as if you don’t have options, as if you are buying into something you can’t get out of, as if you are once again powerless against the market, that these experiences might manifest as another form of anxiety? Does the idea of making a choice that might be hard to reverse make you nervous?
Not owning the products you buy, and instead subscribing to the rights to use said products, also has an adverse, symbiotic effect that, imo, challenges what it means to be human. Subscription-based products wire the consumer into the apparatus of the corporation. In other words, by no longer buying and owning technology, you instead become an essential part of it as a stream of funding. Subscription-based software like Photoshop (which, in full disclosure, I use, and use often) transforms me, the user, into a kind of host, mined for monthly payments which feed the corporation. Sound familiar? That’s because being mined for payments is not unlike the way human bodies are mined for energy in the film, The Matrix.
Perhaps you can see where I’m headed with this. To the dystopian future!
If technology is increasingly made to be more sentient—that is, if technology is on a trajectory of becoming more self aware, more intuitive, more "running on its own" as it certainly claims to be, and if at the same time we are becoming a source of nutrients essential for its survival—then what will it mean to be human when both we and it necessitate one another to survive? How far will a business go to maintain its food supply?
In The Matrix humans serve as batteries, powering the VR programs that give meaning to the enslaved. And, I have to say, life mediated by tech is starting to have a similar feel. For years tech companies have gotten away with making up whatever rules best benefitted them, often at the expense of user privacy and rights. If a company that produces technology, which is known to change human behavior, binds you to a subscription-based payment model you feel you can't get out of, while at the same time prohibiting you from opening up and fixing their machinery when it inevitably breaks down, where in this mess of techno-fascism is your choice? How does a person consciously choose to object to a product when they are roped into being an essential part of its existence? As Right to Repair initiatives pick up steam, boosted not by politically-outspoken Insta-leftists on social media, but by farmers—farmers, like the ones who use the John Deere products mentioned above, and have for years lobbied to have the right to fix their own "tangible" equipment—are we finally seeing an opportunity to break free from the yoke of technocracy?
Are there still opportunities to remain autonomous in our humanness, while at the same time using subscription platforms and apps? Personally, I do believe there are opportunities. But, like most things worth our time, they start with our becoming more embodied.
Note: This article was originally posted on 08–06–21