MARION MADDOX AND I have just published a paper, “The consolation of profit”,* in New Formations, a journal of contemporary culture and politics.
Perhaps the quickest introduction is bottled water. Why do people pay for something they can get out of the tap?
Certainly, the hefty marketing promises health and status. But to those familiar explanations, we add another: the insistent hawking itself arouses a reasonable expectation that sellers are so desperate for profit that they will risk no other complication. If it’s outside the market economy, can it really be safe?
The “consolation of profit” arose from attempts to understand consumer anxiety when Jennifer Hillier and I ran the Uraidla Aristologist restaurant more according to our own earnest ideas than the Market’s.
Along with a funny name, the Aristologist had no piped music, no Coca-Cola, no smoking (except in a special room or outside), and otherwise signalled more than mere profit-seeking. The precipitating incident was a sweet, young couple looking at the menu, and asking if they might repair instead to a nearby restaurant. Our food would be “too spicy”, they explained, although, in reality, this would have applied more to the other place.
A more likely explanation was that the Aristologist might seem to require savoir-faire, an unfamiliar wine, reflection on the experience, or any number of other interactions.
McDonald’s redoubles the assurances. Their so-called “restaurants” advertise utterly predictable food – “Do you want fries with that?” – and stilted interactions – “Have a nice day”. The hammering of cheapness backs the warranty: no any other demand.
As a religious studies scholar, Marion added the second case-study. Why have megachurches been on the rise, when mainline churches have generally declined? Megachurches have replaced old liturgies with the forms of rock concerts and television tonight shows. Theirs is “Jesus lite”.
The “consolation of profit” thesis adds that, whereas a tight, more traditional congregation might threaten personal, social or deep theological challenges, these “growth churches” preach a simple message, “we want your money.” The merchandising in the foyer, donation buttons on web-pages, repeated onstage appeals shout out the safety of profit-seeking. The upfront demand for money could risk no challenge.
Our third case study asks how could anyone vote for such a shallow charlatan as Donald Trump? Together with lies and racism, his heavily-funded election campaign came with the “consolation of profit”. Trump never pretended to be anything more than a super-salesman with advertising slogans in place of policies.
This self-professed artist of “the deal” grew up in the congregation of prosperity gospel preacher, Dr Norman Vincent Peale, author of a string of business self-help titles, most famously, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). Peale officiated at Trump’s first wedding.
Voting for the celebrity money-maker guarded against any untoward governmental decisions. Selling himself as the greatest, Trump offered no “deep state” threats. Denouncing elite expertise, he ostentatiously ruled through Fox News tweets.
With the pandemic, the Symons-Maddox thesis sees a hard-selling, anti-intellectual braggart struggling with an unanticipated crisis. “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it”; “I like this stuff. I really get it,” etc, shows he has nothing to sell but himself.
How enduring the consolation proves against obvious lack of social commitment, we’ll find out in November.
*Michael Symons and Marion Maddox (2020), “The consolation of profit,” New Formations 99: 110-126