A quick clarification:
This page is about consumerism in the sense of "the theory that a progressively greater consumption of goods is economically beneficial", "attachment to materialistic values or possessions", and materialism as "the theory or doctrine that physical well-being and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life",
"the movement that seeks to protect and inform consumers by requiring such practices as honest packaging and advertising, product guarantees, and improved safety standards" * and "the theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of physical phenomena" ( philosophical materialism ). (definitions from American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd ed. )
* -- for which see the page on this site
/ Consumer Advocacy /
"... we live in a consumer society, a culture of the marketplace that necessitates a way of being increasingly unfamiliar with cooperation, civic participation, sacrifice for the common good.
Instead, we grow increasingly competitive, entitled, focused on acts of individual purchasing and consuming. It seems natural to ask whether you "buy" that idea, "own" your own feelings, or receive enough "benefit" from a relationship to continue "investing" in it. (You know, in any other historical culture, these would sound exceedingly weird.) ...
(By some) The public commons is seen as dangerous and the private realm the only safe place.
Increasingly now, we focus primarily on two activities: buying and selling. Surrounded by commercial television, we are attracted by extravaganzas, we comfort ourselves by spending, and we notice mainly what is colorful, loud -- or, I suppose, frightening, like "terrorism." We are easily bored, easily led and easily manipulated by jangly, sparkly things or people."
"...(University of Florida professor) James Twitchell writes in "Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism" (Columbia University Press), scheduled for release June 3 (1999).
"We have made the material world the map of value. What religion used to do, what occupations used to do, what bloodlines used to do ... now objects do it," said Twitchell, a pop culture scholar whose previous books include "Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture" and "For Shame: The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture." (and others -- ed.)
...the shift to consuming labels has a down side: It robs us of our roots and leaves us adrift and anxious. As easy as it is to create our own identity with consumer goods, he says, it's just as easy to create a new one, by switching brands of blue jeans, for instance, which creates an unstable situation.
"Relative to the world our parents knew, this is a world characterized by great anxiety and uncertainty," Twitchell said. "We don't have the anchoring system we once had."
The shift from traditional guideposts to secular ones has been a modern phenomenon, for the most part, driven by advertising, he said. It gained considerable speed with the advent of electronic media and shows no signs of slowing."
"Now the good life isn't consumer goods and things like that. The good life is the life of happiness or eudaimonia. That's the Greek word.... That's happiness. We're guaranteed the right for the pursuit for the right of eudaimonia.... What does that mean? That means the life of human flourishing....
Not only do we no longer know what the good life is, but our replacement for it is infantile.... We have a population of children, of adolescents. Studies are indicating that people are carrying adolescence into their mid-thirties instead of 23, 24 (Even into the retirement years, as far as I can see). It's basically our culture. But the good life is shaped by the average guy who's a beer drinking guy and drives a Toyota truck and likes to watch 'chicks' on the beach and go through a lot of consumer goods and have a blast. * . He's about twelve years old inside. He thinks below his belt and that's about the size of it. He's not an adult, he's a child. And if you threaten his toys he gets mad....
So this new definition is dehumanizing and infantalizing. And what it will do is it will cause a decrease of human flourishing with one key exception. In order for people to flourish with a bad definition of the good life, they're going to have to practice denial because they will, in fact, not be living in the way that they were meant to live and what their nature is. And the only way to do that and not experience the pain is to anesthetize oneself. But the price you pay for anesthetization is you lose touch with reality and you cease to be truly human.
... But people can still be happy, they can still flourish to a degree if they have enough power and they can oppose their will on others and have enough peace and goods and prosperity. Those people can be happy. But the price that they will pay will that it will anesthetize themselves from the pain of living the way they were not meant to live. To some degree this will produce passive, listless, dependent people. Except for some it will produce aggressive, achiever oriented people because people will have to pursue....
It's like Turkish Delight in C.S. Lewis, you've got to have more and more of it. You have to pursue more of it and the goal will be pleasure and you'll have to impose your will. The key is not the guy with the most toys wins, he who dies with the most toys and beats the other guy wins. "
"Diogenes of Sinope (on the Black Sea coast), who died 320 BCE, was the founder and most famous of the Cynics, a non-School embracing both asceticism and a kind of moral nihilism. He reportedly believed that virtue (the goal of most Greek philosophers but an irrelevance to consumer-societies) could be attained only by fighting hypocrisy, greed and corruption - i.e. conventional morality."
"... the level of one's socio-economic status has meager effects on one's "sense of well-being" and no significant effect on "satisfaction with life as a whole," to quote researchers Frank Andrews and Stephen Withey.
Psychologist Jonathan Freedman discovered that levels of reported happiness did not vary greatly among the members of different economic classes, with the exception of the very poor, who tended to be less happy than others."
"... predictably enough, the greens are moaning that the planet is dying of consumption. People, they say, are being pushed off their lands by the digging of holes, the felling of forests and the growing of cash crops; eco-systems are being poisoned and resources exhausted; the Earth is overheating, because so much energy is required to move its components from one hole to another. But I would ask them this: isn't the death of the planet a price worth paying for the happiness we now enjoy?"
"... I'm scanning through old papers stalking my elusive prey: Hunter S.Thompson's 1971 Vegas. It's an alien yet oddly familiar town I'm prowling through. Both the Manson and the Lt. Calley trials are underway, a pre-congressional, pre-tattoo Sonny and Cher are debuting at the Sahara and some crazed politician wants to turn Fremont Street into a park.
... when the dust cleared I had managed to track down the last remaining settings of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
"Shaun Saunders, one of the authors of the report from the University of Newcastle, Australia, said it came as no surprise to discover that money can't buy you love. ...
Saunders explained that one source of depression among dedicated consumers was the fact that the property they acquired tended to lose value quickly.
'If your self-worth is invested in what you own, as can be the case in our market-driven society, then these things may not hold their value for very long', he said."
"We are often given the impression that we are experiencing such a maelstrom of change -- economic, social, cultural, technological, environmental -- that the challenge is to 'wing it'. Adapt as best we can, seize the opportunities and try to dodge the dangers. This is only partly true. At the most fundamental level, these changes are driven by our Weltanschauung, the world view or world philosophy that determines what we believe and what we do.
World views are hard issues to address because they are 'transparent' to those who hold them. They comprise deeply internalised beliefs about what is important, right and good, and so how we should live and for what we should strive. These beliefs become unquestioned assumptions.
The modern Western world view is dominated by notions of progress, of making life better, that are becoming increasingly global in their influence. Progress is largely defined in material terms, a rising standard of living, and measured as growth in (per capita) gross domestic product (GDP). Economic growth is the driving dynamic of modern societies. Existing government policy is underpinned by the belief that wealth creation comes first because it increases our capacity to meet other, social objectives. This is a model of progress as a pipeline: pump more wealth in one end and more welfare or well-being flows out the other. ...
There are several things deeply wrong with this view of growth as progress. It is, at the global level, ecologically unsustainable and grossly inequitable."
"For generations we've been looking at both business and markets from the industrial producer's position -- one so corrupted by the abstraction of demand that it can barely comprehend the face-to-face, keyboard-to-keyboard nature of life in the bazaars that markets naturally long to be. What we call "consumerism" is really producerism, a tired ideology that believes it can forever categorize and organize markets for its own convenience."
"What we call "consumerism" is really producerism. The "consumer economy" is a producer-controlled system in which consumers are nothing more than energy sources that metabolize "content" into cash. This is the absolutely corrupted result of the absolute power held by producers over consumers since producers won the Industrial Revolution. ...
Real markets rely on balanced relationships between producers and consumers; but those two terms by definition distort the power relationships between the two sides. ...
We (programmers, actually) built the Net to function as a modern version of the real-world marketplace."
Emphasis from original, links a mix of original and mine -- ed.
" 'Rising consumption has helped meet basic needs and create jobs', says Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. 'But as we enter a new century, this unprecedented consumer appetite is undermining the natural systems we all depend on, and making it even harder for the world's poor to meet their basic needs.'-- Emphasis and links are mine -- ed.
That's the message underlying Worldwatch's annual "State of the World" report ....
This year's report focuses on the growing global "consumer class", defined as individuals whose "purchasing power parity" in local currency is more than $7,000 a year (roughly the poverty level in Western Europe). As economies expand, accelerated by globalization that has opened up markets, greater efficiency in manufacturing and advancing technologies, that consumer class has grown rapidly. It's the main reason there are more than 1 billion cellphones in the world today.
The consumer class now includes more than 1.7 billion people. High percentages in North America, Western Europe and Japan (85 to 90 percent) are no surprise.
But nearly half of all consumers now are in developing nations. China and India alone account for 362 million of those shoppers, more than in all of Western Europe."
"... I know that it would be a foolish waste of money to buy something I don’t need ....
I want it anyway.
(Author Ilyce) Glink’s point is that most of us aren’t thinking. And so we buy another TV, better speakers, more shoes, another suit, a second car, a new set of dishes, more towels, plus that boat we’ve always wanted -- without stopping to consider:
Is it necessary?
Can I afford it?
And the most important: What is this new thing really costing me? ...
(Author Dunleavey's sister) Deirdre blames In Style magazine. 'We all seem to think that the standard of living is celebrities', she says."
"Mao's basic tenet has been that every revolution bears within itself the seeds of counterrevolution. Postrevolutionary societies require the services of political experts (party and state cadres) and economic experts (managers, technicians, and scientists). If these experts are favored with special financioal and political rewards, then the end result is Soviet-type meritocratic elitism that Mao regarded as the antithesis of socialism. Hence, Mao insisted that every expert should also be "red" -- that is, a "comrade" who did manual as well as intellectual work, and who focussed on serving society rather than self. ...Links are mine - ed.
Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping reversed China's priorities (beginning in the 1980s and ongoing), placing expertness before redness. Government slogans no longer called on the people to "Fight Self"; rather, they assured citizens that "To Get Rich Is Glorious." Consumer expectations rose accordingly -- from the "big four" (bicycle, sewing machine, radio, and watch) to the "big six" (color TV, washing machine, radio-cassette player, refrigerator, electric fan, and motorcycle) and most recently to the "eight big things" comprising the "big six" plus modern furniture and a camera."
And of course, now add to the list a cellphone, computer/Internet, for the ambitious a car ...
"An iPod and the right phone are now essential trappings of youth -- not just because they let you talk or listen to music at your convenience, but because of what they say about you. Once we were known by what we produced (Literally: Smith, Baker, Shoemaker, Carpenter). Now we judge ourselves and others by what we and they consume. The advertisers know this; that's why they ask: 'What does your mobile say about you?' Welcome to the consumer society and the world of the turbo-consumer. It's a world driven by competition for consumer goods and paid-for experiences, of hi-tech and high-end shopping signals that have become the means by which we keep score with each other.
As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out, to be a successful consumer now defines what it is to be "normal". Therefore to be "abnormal" is to be a failed consumer. The lot of the failed consumer is miserable. This new poor may be better off in absolute terms than the poor of previous generations, but in the world of the turbo-consumer what you have means nothing -- it's what others have and therefore what we must have next that counts. On these terms the new poor are falling far behind in an age when keeping up is everything. (Author Lawson casts this in intra-societal terms, but of course we can also stop to consider the envy that the global "haves" inspire in the global "have-nots"...)
The failed consumer suffers not just from exclusion from normal society but isolation. The poor of the past had each other in a community of poverty. Misery could be shared and countered through class solidarity and the hope of a different life. The new poor lick their wounds alone in their council flats, with nowhere to hide from the messages on billboards and TV that constantly remind them of their social failure. The new poor, without the right labels and brands, are not just excluded but invisible.
The final ignominy of today's poor is that they don't want to overthrow the rich to create a new order, they just want to be like them. So they are denied even the satisfaction of anyone to hate -- just B-list celebrities to envy and copy.
So if you want the causes of crime, then look no further than the impulse of the poor to belong and be normal. So strong is this urge that the failed consumer will lie, cheat and steal to "earn" the trappings of success. In the world of the "me generation", people become calculating rather than law-abiding in their overwhelming desire to be normal. This is crime driven by the rampant egoism of turbo-consumerism, where enough is never enough. And precisely because of its competitive nature, consumer-driven crime cannot be switched off through tougher laws. ...
Why should failed consumers play by the rules when no one at the top seems to -- when social mobility is declining; when the government refuses to implement vocational training reforms for fear of a Daily Mail backlash over A-levels (education evaluation tests); when more thick (U.S.: "stupid") middle-class children fill our universities; and when school league tables (government evaluations of school performance ) mean "problem kids" won't be tolerated?
New Labour refuses to change the rules of the market state and consumer society, and instead attempts another crackdown on the symptoms through Asbos (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders -- court orders prohibiting specific individuals from engaging in certain behaviors found anti-social or disruptive to the peace.) (Wow; I wasn't familar with these -- looks like the government is really intruding into civil society here. See "Nanny State") and control orders. Just like Thatcherism, New Labour relies on a strong state to police a free market. (Well, the State has to be strong enough to police the free market. If your bazaar is troubled by theft, feuds, or riots, the market's going to collapse, and people are going to have to dig their own coal and forge their own shovels, or do without.) The prime minister extols his respect agenda without realising that the architect of the term, the sociologist Richard Sennett, was talking about the respect the powerful give to the powerless. So Tony Blair tries to turn back the tide of crime against a rampant consumer culture of new gadgets that are designed, advertised, sold and bought to prove our normality over and over again. Nine years, 50 law bills and more than 700 new offences later, being even tougher on crime isn't going to work.
Of course, it is always wrong to mug or steal -- but unless, as a society, we are prepared to understand why crime happens then, in the words of the criminologist Professor Ian Loader, 'we are using a sticking plaster (U.S.: "band-aid") to fix a broken leg"'. You cannot build a tolerant society on the basis of zero tolerance. ...
When it is the dominance of the consumer economy that is driving so much crime, easy answers aren't close to hand. We need a different conception of the good life, in which time, relationships and care take precedence over consumerism. Next there is a political alliance to be created between the post-material, happiness-seeking middle classes, who want more time, and this new poor, who have all the time in the world but none of the money. This is what needs rebalancing: not the criminal justice system, but the wealth and riches of the nation.
The problem of not belonging, of being anxious and insecure, afflicts us all. It's just more sharply focused for those at the bottom of the heap. The social theorist Roberto Unger says: 'Almost everyone feels abandoned. Almost everyone believes they are an outsider, looking in through the window at the party going on inside.' "