The cure for consumerism
There is some concern among investors that GLP-1 receptor agonists — Ozempic, Wegovy, semalglutide, etc. — will be so popular and so successful at curtailing appetites that it will affect the value of companies that make and sell alcohol and junk food. Walmart’s CEO, for example, claimed in an interview to see a “slight pullback” in the food sales. According to this tweet, Ozempic has made Barclays wonder about the future sales of toothpaste.
Some have speculated that these drugs don’t merely affect appetites for food and drink but intervene in the whole structure of human wanting in ways that are not yet fully understood, changing people’s relationship to desire and compulsions of all sorts. The pill could serve as a means by which we can rationalize (and perhaps extinguish) all our cravings — no more conflict between head and heart, between the moral imperative of reason and the ways of the flesh.
Extrapolating from this idea, Matt Levine takes it to the logical endpoint and posits a wonder drug that acts as a “universal demand suppressant”:
It makes the people who take it so much happier and more fulfilled that they don’t want anything else. They eat less food and drink less alcohol and buy fewer clothes and take fewer vacations and get fewer haircuts and consume less social media and click on fewer online ads and otherwise consume much less.
What if you could actualize the romantic, “buy less, live more” critique of consumerism with a simple pill? Instead of being dumped into the desert of the real, what if the “red pill” took you into a shopping-free paradise? How would you advertise a pill that essentially works as an antidote to advertising?
Levine is interested in what the economic ramifications of such a pill would be, whether, for instance, the large asset managers with shares in the pill-making company would tell it to stop because of the losses the pill would inflct on other companies in their portfolios. He tries to calculate whether more money would be made selling Ozempic at its current price than by selling the goods it mutes demand for: “It would be a crowning achievement of postmodern capitalism,” he writes, “if the corporate world, in aggregate, was able to make more money by charging people for not consuming stuff than it does by selling them stuff.”
Maybe postconsumerist capitalism turns out to be a condition of universal medicalization in which everyone is compelled to buy “wellness.” An endless regime of self-care would fully replace shopping as the model of individual freedom and personal accomplishment. But what would happen to the sense of empowerment that we derive from choosing among different status signifiers? Would we power through our suppressed appetites to maintain the necessary levels of conspicuous consumption? Ultimately, how much of consumer demand has anything to do at all with biological appetites?
In changing people’s relation to their own appetites, drugs like Ozempic will also affect their social motivations, and what they want in relation to what other people want or have to offer. If personal appetite is eliminated as a use value, consumption will become more a matter of social signification, if that is even possible. (See Baudrillard’s “The Ideological Genesis of Needs,” where he claims use value is a fiction and that “if the system could function without feeding its workers, there would be no bread.”) So perhaps a drug that suppresses appetites will actually make consumerism worse, as no one will have “real” reasons to buy anything but will be shopping and consuming only to have a social identity, unimpeded by “natural” constraints.
There is a standing contradiction between the power and status that stems from self-indulgence and the power and status that stems from self-discipline. Ozempic and the other similar drugs sit at the nexus of this contradiction. In this New York Times piece, Tressie McMillian Cottom argues that GLP-1s are not only obesity treatments but “shorthand for our coded language of shame, stigma, status and bias around fatness,” and that “untangling those two functions is a social problem that one miracle drug cannot fix.” In other words, the drugs address both a medical concern and a cultural principle by which a person’s weight indexes their social value, but “curing” obesity won’t also eliminate the existing society’s need to stigmatize people. Ozempic may make the cultural assumptions that seem to “naturally” derive from a medical condition suddenly appear as arbitrary, ideological. Thinness may lose some of its signifying power; the forces that currently make thinness appear mandatory for women (and not men) may be displaced to some other axis of injustice so as to maintain the significance of gender distinctions.
McMillan Cottom notes that obesity is a social problem — an unevenly distributed outcome produced by how society is deliberately organized — and drugs like Ozempic make it seem as though it can be addressed by isolated individuals. This individualistic cure then reinforces the individualized stigma fomented by social policy. Not only are individuals seen as fully responsible for their condition (as though there is a “level playing field” in society and no systemic biases) but their failure to address it with expensive medication will be a further mark against them.
So it is that a "medical breakthrough” becomes a means of reinforcing what McMillan Cottom calls “our poverty of imagination for the ethical care of all bodies.” It typifies the “American penchant for solving structural issues by fixing individual bodies,” which “is excellent at creating demand without solving social problems” that are the actual root causes. If people “want a drug that can help them manage an environment that works against their aspirations,” McMillan Cottom writes, it “ is a condemnation of our culture,” not of the individuals.
A drug that promises to curtail demand does nothing to change the “environment that works against our aspirations” — even if it could seem to negate consumerism, it would do nothing to address the unequal society in which consumerism has come to thrive. It doesn’t make social position irrelevant, despite having an impact on one of its markers. The pill has not yet been developed that makes us stop caring about status.
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