Impossible Dreams

Editor's note: In the November Rail, Reverend Billy and Liza Featherstone/Doug Henwood debated the meaning of Buy Nothing Day (the day after Thanksgiving) and some of the larger issues it raised about the Left's view of consumer capitalism. On that day, shopping most certainly did occur; the next day's front page of the Times showed mutants racing into Wal-Mart, and both local tabloids' covers dutifully declared there to be a "frenzy" among the city's eager shoppers. Yet whether such a culture of consumption can or should be opposed remains open to discussion.

Consensus makes my skin crawl. This feeling likely results from my having attended too many direct action spokes-council meetings where consensus means lowest common denominator agreement, an agreement later ignored in the name of "diversity of tactics." So it was a great pleasure to see Reverend Billy and Liza Featherstone/Doug Henwood squaring off on Buy Nothing Day in the Rail. Disagreement on the Left is a good thing--it hones our thinking and sharpens our strategies. And so the recent dust-up sent my contrarian's heart a-fluttering.

As I see it the arguments go something like this. The good Reverend believes shopping to be a soul-sucking enterprise that alienates us from finding pleasure elsewhere: with each other, within our communities, though our imagination, by way of our bodies. Buy Nothing Day becomes a time when we recognize this, where together we can yell: "NO! WE STOPPED SHOPPING." Yelling NO is exactly what worries Featherstone and Henwood. Buy Nothing Day is merely the latest incarnation in a long history of asceticism on the American Left, from Prohibition to Political Correctness. Furthermore, taking a stand against a pleasure so widely embraced in this country is a tactical mistake, sure only to further marginalize an already marginalized Left.

Both sides, unfortunately, are correct. Finding our pleasure in shopping can mean not looking for it in other places. Happiness becomes defined as a product purchased, and community is eclipsed by the shopping mall. On the other hand, finding pleasure in shopping can be, well, genuinely pleasurable. And in a world where pleasure is fleeting, and work, sacrifice, and stress are the norm, building a political alternative based on taking away the little fun that people have is bound to fail.

Luckily, both sides are also wrong. What the Reverend fails to acknowledge is that shopping is not the problem--the larger system within which one shops is. Shopping can be the opposite of alienating. Take, for instance, the experience of buying a hand-tailored suit. Going to the shop, I meet the person who will make my suit, he or she gets to know my aesthetic preferences and bodily quirks, and using their skill and talent and a bit of cloth they transform my desires into an item of function and beauty, which I then purchase from them. The problem (both for society, and me, personally) is that only the very rich can afford this sort of consumption. The rest of us buy clothes made by near slave labor in a sweatshop in some far-flung corner of the world, advertised by clever creative directors who mine our fantasies, and sold in mega-stores by badly-paid clerks selling pants one minute and power drills the next. What could be a communion between people and a recognition of the creative abilities of humankind becomes, under capitalism, a process of alienation. As such, a more appropriate struggle (if not an immediately more popular one) might be Crush Capitalism Day.

It's true that Buy Nothing Day, in the hands of Adbusters in the frigid North, takes on a rather dour, pleasure-denying, Puritan character. But for Featherstone and Henwood to accuse Reverend Billy of asceticism? Ridiculous. Look at that pompadour! The Reverend might be preaching denial, but the language he uses, the manner in which he does it, and the spirit that moves him all bespeak pure desire. Through a sort of performative alchemy, Rev. Billy makes abstinence into pleasure. The secret to understanding what Featherstone and Henwood characterize as the Reverend's absurd calls for "stop shopping" is to acknowledge that such demands are, in fact, absurd. Part of this reveling in the ridiculous is pure provocation on the Reverend's part, a bit of Brechtian theatricality to draw our attention to how much we shop and how often we think about shopping. (Bill, after all, sells Church of Stop Shopping merchandise on his website.) But his absurd demand is more than just a stunt--it's part of an inchoate political strategy.

Featherstone and Henwood are absolutely correct in arguing that a politics that addresses the crappy jobs people have, and the affordable health care they don't, is the way to build a successful Left movement. But we also have a lot to learn from the Right. They don't sell reality, they sell fantasy. Or rather, they sell fantasy masquerading as reality: cutting taxes helps working and middle classes, the war in Iraq stops terrorism, and so on, ad infinitum. The Reverend is selling his own alternate universe. But what distinguishes the absurdities of Rev. Billy and those dreamed up by Dick Cheney & Co., is that the Reverend's fantasies don't pass themselves off as reality. This is what makes them ethical. Like the magical musings of Subcommandante Marcos, or the matches staged by the World Wrestling Foundation, what the Reverend offers up moves past the real: it's absurd, irrational, and seemingly impossible--in brief, it is a dream.

Between the real and the fantasy lies the dream. The dream, if it is truly a dream, is never meant to be realized. Given that his audience is not some ancient agrarian population where such self-sufficiency is a possibility, but an urban, American population to whom buying stuff is a necessity, there is little danger that Bill's commandment to Stop Shopping will be taken as a blueprint to follow or a final state to reach. Instead, his ridiculous dream is meant to inspire and to guide, to be a lodestone to orient a political compass. It forces a break in the prison house of normality, opening up a space to think about desire differently. Unlike programs or plans, or even the reasonable dreams of progressives past--such as those of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--these dream politics offer no comfort or quietude in claims of realization, nor disillusion or disengagement from disappointment in a goal not met. They are forever unrealized, and therefore continually demand the possibility of the impossible. Even the seeming impossibility of a world where everyone can buy fine, tailored suits every day.


Stephen Duncombe, an ardent activist and committed dandy, is finishing up his book Dream: Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, which will be published by the New Press next fall.

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Stephen Duncombe

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