Thomas Feuerstein

The Tonic of Consumption
On Tricksters and Demons


"Are you bored with your Business? Are you bored with your Dinner? Are you bored with your Wife?", the advertisement for an early energy drink asks. Tono-Bungay is the name of the wondrous drink in the eponymous 1909 novel by H.G. Wells. Invented by druggist Edward Ponderevo, with the help of his talented nephew George this very cheap brew in a most expensive bottle conquers the world sip by sip.

Uncle Ponderevo dreams of an elixir that people will absolutely need, more vital than wheat or steel, and for which they will be prepared to pay any random price. He strives to control the market and ponders monopolizing medical substances, for if Ponderevo has access to "all the quinine of the world," a millionaire would give everything to save his "pampud wife" from malaria. Because of the incalculable meteorology of the stock market, this control seems unlikely, so he concocts an aromatic, slightly addictive placebo to make a toast to consumption, capitalism, and the free market. Tono-Bungay promises all sorts of things: rejuvenation, a longer life, strengthened nerves, improved performance, and the end of physical suffering. Manufactured from ineffective ingredients, it is just "Christian Science," a trick that changes "colored water" into a tonic, instead of into wine. Tono-Bungay is a derivative of the useless, a trickster's deception beyond economic exchange, a financial mobile of sprawling, self-consuming capital without any surplus value. The lacking use value is compensated for by marketing and labeling, becoming a Midas effect of salesmanship that gilds useless substances into promising consumer values.

When the alcoholic artist Ewart, a friend from George's youth, surfaces in the factory, he sarcastically realizes that the company runs without meaning. But it's precisely this pointlessness that has a poetry for him-selling tortured souls, humble employees, and exhausted workers the dream of leaving themselves to be able to quench their thirst for life: "That's what this… muck really stands for!"1 The poetry of production lies in the phantasmagoric invention of values and in the magical valuation of the worthless. The commodities decry the prose of reality and become, as Ewart explains, lyric poetry, fiction, and a promise of paradise. Herein they expose the modern eschatology of consumption as capital rubbish. Just as the artist ennobles worthless material and symbolically enchants it, the modern economy creates capital out of worthless trash. Aesthetics and economics belong inseparably together, and the disinterested pleasure shifts from art to the economy. The commodity is freed from the obligation of having to be useful, which forms the prerequisite for inflationary consumption, where production does not generate affluence for the improvement of living conditions, but uses up social energies without meaning and value. If the old merchant traded in use values, the new entrepreneur invents pseudo-values and empty promises and founds modern commodity fetishism as the magic of the economy.

Economic alchemy is based on the transformation of the commodity-money-commodity-circulation to the rubbish-money-transformation and, according to Wells, who played with the idea of titling the novel "Waste," characterizes the tumor-like growth of corporations, capital, and consumption. Before the backdrop of the most influential economists of Wells' age, Karl Marx and Alfred Marshall, the novel reflects the unleashing of capital in the context of communism and laissez-faire. Doing business in new capitalism is based on the artificial manufacture of needs that no one needs to have satisfied, and produces an asymmetric dependence in the form of a new colonialism. It is no accident that Wells borrows from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with the difference that the colony lies not in Africa, but in the global market. For the first time, the consumer is compared to the exploited natives of British colonies, and placed in the tradition of slaves, menial laborers, and workers. Tono-Bungay operates within the inequitable economy as a "glass bead" and a fetish, and the tonic unites two contrary moments of modernity in a single bottle. While the glass bead stands for the rationality of trade, the archaic fetish embodies the irrational and the anti-modern. Marx already knew that European fraud and animism are not mutually exclusive, but integral components of the modern economy. A reader of Charles de Brosse's work on the fetish, 2 Marx considered the Europeans the true fetishists, for they worship things produced by them in a form external to them. By way of brand identity, the commodity grants the familiar and the redundancy of everyday life, but also contains phenomena of alienation and repression.

In fetishism, commodities serve the incarnation of absent forces that produce the order and power relations of things. It is here that the demons dwell; just as in the African belief in fetishes, they construct the worldly order in the form of a transcendental power and stabilize it. Marx develops his concept of the fetish in the framework of his analysis of the commodity, where the thing-like the libidinal object later in Freud-is shown as perverted. The perversion results from the inverse, and derives from the double structure of the fetish that is simultaneously a material thing and an imaginary idol. The transcendental-economic relationship is based on "transubstantiation" and “confusion,” on the basis of which commodities can be exchanged quid pro quo for other commodities, services, social prestige and social envy, or entropic trash. The power of fetishism increases in the oscillation of possibilities of exchange, which is why Marx stylizes money as the greatest fetish of all. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, we read accordingly: "My power is as great as the power of my money."3 The magic of money is not just due to interest, which makes it close to a living, self-reproducing organism, but from a universal animism, where money becomes blood, giving strength and animating dead things. In this sense, Tono-Bungay operates like a bloody fetish whose content, like a genie out of the bottle, animates the zombie-like bodies of consumers, or as Uncle Ponderevo emphasizes, grants humanity feelings of self-worth and faith. Here, animating entails above all control and direction, for due to the lack of effect, no one is healed or awakened, but just degraded to a vampiric undead as an appendix of the capitalist machine. In contrast to the worker, who suffers his alienation in daily toil, the consumer is a slave who lives the illusion of freedom. The consumer is afflicted by a shopping frenzy, just as the body is invaded by a parasite or a virus.4

But the notion that consumers, like indigenous peoples, "want" to be conquered was alien to Marx. The nineteenth century was dominated by lack, not overproduction; hence, the exploitation of the laborer and not consumerist “obsession” stood at the center of critique. Only with the end of the nineteenth century did commodities of all kinds undergo a rapid increase. Manufactured in series and in countless variants, things multiplied and diversified to an extent previously unknown. The market becomes the biotope for competing products that court the favor of the buyer in the shop windows of newly emerged arcades and department stores. If a few decades earlier the society of abundance was bourgeois contempt, by 1899 Thorstein Veblen describes in The Theory of the Leisure Class the new status of the world of commodities and its social function of creating distinction. The multiplication of products targets ritual squander; only waste brings prestige. The consumption of commodities serves the self-representation of "fine society" and leads to competition in the social war of representation. After World War II, the apparatus of consumerist competition takes hold of all classes and after the collapse of communism expands to become the global order.

The principle of consumerist expenditure is reminiscent of the potlatch that Marcel Mauss terms a "system of total services."5 Comparable to the economy of the gift, consumption entails an excessive demand in that the purpose of each act of consumption is a satisfaction through social difference, which levels itself as soon as all others also possess this product. What follows from this, as in the gift that Mauss places in relationship to credit, is a system of endless circulation. The consumer is, like the receiver of the gift, required to outdo the other's gift and/or the commodity placed on display by him or her. Gifts are made to cause the other to make still a greater gift; one buys to demand a still more prestigious product from others. The moral of giving and consuming lies in agonistic consumption comparable to what Joseph Schumpeter has termed "creative destruction." From this ruinous ritual of gift-giving or entropic consumption, which brings the participating societies to the limit of their resources, the social order grows. The structural similarity of potlatch and consumption is shown in the paradox of sharing, which equally ties and divides, and thus functions on two contradictory levels: one can share something in solidarity, making the other into a participant in a social contract, and vice versa: sharing constructs a distinction that serves the purpose of social hierarchization. Consumption contains both the logic of liberalism as well as communitarianism. While liberal capitalism is based on social envy and class, a "communism of brands" generates compatibility via collectively used products. In consumerism, the shared and the divided live together, which like in a fragile marriage react to the slightest shift with social unrest. The commodity itself is here not just a passive medium that keeps the circulation running, it is, as in every fetishism, also an agent that actively takes part in the process and slips into the role of the subject.


In the Marxian conception of commodity fetishism, products in capitalist modes of production develop a life of their own and a magical power otherwise only attributed to archaic fetish sculptures. People are dominated by things, or as Marx puts it: "Their own social movement has the form of a movement of things, and they are under their control, instead of controlling them."6 If in Marx the worker was the object and the commodity the subject, resulting in the perverse "confusion" that causes alienation, then the nature of consumerism is that of a demon that lives in the consumer. The commodity does not alienate the consumer, as once it did the worker, but on the contrary is the consumer's drive and promise of identity. It lends energy to the economy and motivates ever more people to optimize themselves and integrate themselves into the labor process. In consumerism, the commodity becomes the consumers' daimonion, recalling Socrates' demon, which announces its uninvited presence as an inner voice, ranking far above reason. The parallels to Marx lie in the fact that the actions appear as inherent necessities and relations are no longer seen as man-made. Currently, this is experienced as a move from human to systemic processes, an abuse similar to the early days of capitalism.

When people lose their employment, and classes of the precariously employed and so-called "disposables" take shape, this is an indication that the new fetish is the "system." The system is apparently pulling the threads and makes itself independent of human needs. An animism suppressed in modernism lives at the heart of the system, guaranteeing the control of complex interrelations that exceed human reason. The fetishism of the system, as in a magical worldview, allows the delegation of responsibility as well as insight into social relations to a higher power. The system becomes destiny, divine, for the social ill has neither a face nor an address. In this hopelessly mythical consumerist situation, it is difficult for fronts of critique or class struggle to take shape, for the limits of the system run right through the actual self. Social class, a bad job, poor nutrition, bad education, a polluted environment-all this is a fate for which we ourselves are responsible. The message is: there's nothing to rise up against but our own incapacity.

But it is precisely this anguish and powerlessness that at the same time provide the last promise of salvation and the sole possibility of enjoyment. The enlightened consumer knows of the risks, the destructive pollutions, and the production conditions of the sweatshops, but enjoys the goods all the same. The selfish consumer need not justify her wealth, but displays it as a virtue. Since consumption is destiny, it approaches a status of religious fate and pathos. To that extent, Norbert Bolz is correct in his Konsumistisches Manifest [Consumerist Manifesto] when he says consumerism is the opposite of fundamentalism and that the sole possibility for world peace lies in market peace. But this peace is reminiscent of the eschatology of the American way of life of someone like Alexandre Kojève, who had already predicted the end of history in the 1940s, just as Fukuyama later would.7 In capitalism's final age of global consumerism, humanity does not triumph: instead, humanity regresses to animality. Humanity sits absent-mindedly at the eschatological banquet where according to religious notions there is no language, no history, no progress. Consumption frees us of the burden of individuality and offers brotherhood-granting concepts of attribution in collective rituals in that the individual is reified as a commodity. In both cases, consumerism as well as fundamentalism, a tonic is provided as a paradisiacal sleeping pill-Tono-Bungay as a Lethe drink-that causes delirious sedation by way of the religion of consumption or the consumption of religion and the dissolution of the self, freed of all memory. From this perspective, Bolz' consumerist position seems just as fundamentalist as the positions it seeks to fight. Fundamentalism and consumerism stand opposite one another like two competing illnesses that demonically attack the people's body. While on the one hand consumerism represents an "immune system of world society against the virus of fanatic religions," on the other hand, the hope for market peace is supposed to be fulfilled in that "the virus … of capitalist economics also reproduces itself within the souls that are still today dominated by anti-American resentments."8 Ignored here are the disappointed hopes of so-called fundamentalists, who are excluded from the economy and seek out alternative forms of life and community. In the long run, the pacification of terror through consumption can only generate the new terror of fundamentalist class warfare, triggered by the "disposable,” the losers of globalization, and environmentalists. But this terror will be unimaginably more horrific, for it has things, the forces of nature, the surplus of lack, and the ambiguity of complexities on its side.

Although there is enough peace ammunition in circulation for forgetting, the question remains: when will consumers-as once the workers of alienation-realize their obsession and understand that their consumerist values are not their own? The Marxist revolution wanted to expose fetishism and destroy it, but the opposite was the case: it became collective desire. The critique of mass deception, the analysis of a culture of spectacle, and the pronouncements of the Frankfurt School run, like the sporadic flare-ups of consumer critique, alongside the improvement of techniques of deception and the optimization of the use-value promise, which in turn obliterates the individual in favor of asymmetric capital accumulation.

In Wells' novel, George feels the lofty ridiculousness of his existence, and attempts to escape from his social weightlessness. With melancholy, he registers the revolutions of consumer culture, the avid activity, the striving for possessions, and all the marginal distractions that have moved to the center of social interest. All attention is focused on glamour, fancy cars, sport, luxury hotels, expensive paintings, even their "literature, their press turns all on that." "For this the armies drilled, for this the Law was administered and the prisons did their duty, for this the millions toiled and perished in suffering, in order that a few of us should build palaces we never finished, make billiard rooms under ponds, run imbecile walls round irrational estates, scorch about the world in motor-cars, devise flying machines, play golf and a dozen such foolish games of ball, crowd into chattering dinner parties, gamble and make our lives one vast dismal spectacle of witless waste!"9

George takes note of this hypertrophism of capitalism, and compares the color and opulence of the world of consumption with October leaves that will fall with the first frost. The unleashed economy presents itself as the free play of forces in which used up energies are not replaced. Consumer society finds itself in the process of dissolution and moves toward decay. This marks the "age of senselessness" and is reminiscent of Schopenhauer's aphoristic talk of life as a fungus covering the planet. The worldview of modern pessimists undergoes its concretization as the transition from ontology to economy, where consumption becomes a machinery of decay, the cadaverizer of values and the accelerator of entropy.10 For George, the modern economy is a demon without knowledge who, like the bustling "ponderevity" of his uncle, only produces chaos and a waste of existence. "For he created nothing, invented nothing, economized nothing," he created only mad poetry, written in valueless commodities and false numbers of accounting. What Uncle Ponderevo created with his corporate empire was a confabulation, a religion of capitalism, whose most important product was belief itself.

At the end of the story, George tries to get his feet back on the ground by producing flying machines and navigable balloons-all of which crash. He finds salvation in science, which represents the sole reality and whose results, in contrast to commercial activity, are of lasting profit. In the shadow of the glamorous world, "in a thousand different figures" work under "a hundred names" in science, art, literature, and other realms of society, to discover the lasting and the beautiful. In the end, George builds a destroyer, which becomes for him a symbol of scientific reality and truth. He takes it on the Thames out to sea, where a feeling of scientific sublimity overcomes him. Where his uncle once dreamed of transforming the entire country into an economically organized business, George envisions a future system of science. Thomas Richards interprets this in light of the not-so-distant emergence of cybernetics as a universal "governor" that controls the fate of the world.11 Such a control mechanism could reestablish order in the chaos, and borrowing from Cerk Maxwell's thought experiments, the "governor" would be a demon of politics that struggles against entropy in the state and the economy.  

Maxwell's demon, which anticipates the cybernetic techniques of regulation and automation becomes the model of a scientific state and economic apparatus that allows the "invisible hand" of an Adam Smith mutate to become the acheiropoíeton of modern information technology. The daemonicus oeconomicus becomes the constant of "social physics," which, not only in the age of Victorian thermodynamics determined the British Empire's fascination and paranoia for total information control, but to this day continues to manifest as the search for efficient control policies. The market as a panopticon of producers, commodities, and consumers forms the scenario of a Benthamian panopticon of cybernetic surveillance and control of the consumer society. For the user of communication and mass media, the consumer of consumer and mass commodities, this future began long ago.

1 H. G. Wells, Tono-Bungay. London, 1926, p. 177.
2 Charles de Brosse, Ueber den Dienst der Fetischgötter oder Vergleichung der alten Religion Egyptens mit der heutigen Religion Nigritens. Berlin, 1785.
3 Karl Marx, "Ökonomisch-Philosophischen Manuskripte," in: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke. Berlin 1972. p. 564.
4 John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor speak of the "time illness" of consumerism in Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001). The neologism “affluenza” combines "influenza" with "affluence."
5 Marcel Mauss, The Gift, trans. W.D. Halls, London, 1990. p. 13.
6 Karl Marx, in: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke. Vol. 23, Berlin, 1972. p. 89.
7 See Alexandre Kojève, Hegel. Frankfurt a. Main, 1975.
8 Norbert Bolz, Das konsumistische Manifest. Munich, 2002. p. 16.
9 H. G. Wells, Tono-Bungay. London, 1926. p 397.
10 To obtain capital, George sets out to get radioactive material from an island off of Africa. But everything that comes into contact with the substance disintegrates. The ship begins to leak, and sinks. Radioactivity becomes for George a metaphor for the consumption of things. "To my mind, radio-activity is a real illness of matter. Moreover it is a contagious disease. It spreads. You bring those debased and crumbling atoms near others and those too presently catch the trick of swinging themselves out of coherent existence. It is in matter exactly what the decay of our old culture is in society..." (p. 374).
11 See Thomas Richards, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire. London, 1993. pp. 74 ff.

Published in: Gerald Nestler (Hg.), Yx. fluid taxonomies – enlitened elevation – voided dimensions – human derivatives – vibrations in hyperreal econociety, Vienna 2007, p. 75 - 80. Translation: Brian Currid