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Saturday Feature
The era of unlimited consumption
Syed Fattahul Alim

          The philosophy of free market economy holds high the ideal (!) of consumerism. The more nations are embracing this ideal, the bigger is becoming the market of consumer goods. The measure of the standard of living of a community is the quantity of consumer goods its members are able to buy. The people of the highly advanced countries buy and use more consumer goods, the proportion of the very expensive variety of such goods being greater among them, than the people of less advanced societies like ours are. The mission of this evangelical fervour of consumerism has triggered the buying and spending spree of people everywhere, which is considered beneficial for the expansion of the market of various industrial products and services globally. But how is this consumption pattern of the people affecting human society and its environment?
Today's consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating. If the trends continue without change - not redistributing from high-income to low-income consumers, not shifting from polluting to cleaner goods and production technologies, not promoting goods that empower poor producers, not shifting priority from consumption for conspicuous display to meeting basic needs - today's problems of consumption and human development will worsen.
Looking at this behaviour of the consumers in the western societies a critique of madness R.Cronk says: "The egocentricity of Western society made it an easy target for the transition to a consumer society. As deceptive advertising and academic nihilism gutted culture of its subjectively realized values, the public was easily swayed onto the path of consumerism. In the midst of a major identity crisis, will America realize the lack of morality and humanitarianism in a world based on media image and the transient satisfaction of ownership rather than the ontological value of the meaningful cultural experience? The reduction of cultural values to economic worth has produced a situation in our 'enlightened' society where product availability, as opposed to survival needs, becomes ethical justification for political oppression.
Mass media perpetuates the myth of consumerism as a priority of the New Capitalism. As America settles into its nightly routine of television viewing, corporate profiteers are quick to substitute the lure of material luxury and consumer gratification for the fading spirit. Media advertising sells an image -- an empty shell. Corporate America placates its flaccid public with despiriting pastiche. There is only fraudulent illusion. Instead of Swiss clockworks encased in hand carved hardwood, the consumer is offered a cheap imitation of routed particle board and computer chip technology. Who cares as long as it looks good? "
Another strong antagonist of consumerism Doug Dowd in his essay 'Consumerism as a social disease' harangues against the culture of consumerism in the following manner:
"Not for nothing was the opening chapter of Marx's Capital entitled "Commodities," for commodification is among the defining characteristics of capitalism. First was land and labour; now, everything is a commodity; everything is for sale.
Adam Smith provided the analytical basis for commodification. In his Wealth of Nations (1776), he argued that free market competition, warts and all, would take us to "the best of all possible worlds." What he sought to replace was the corrupt and power-drunk mercantilist state of his time; he would be horrified by the corrupt and power-drunk monopoly capitalism of our time.
As Smith wrote, and until the 20th century, capitalism had no need for consumerism. There was, of course, "consumption," but that is as different from consumerism as eating is from gluttony: we must eat to survive; gluttony is self-destructive.
By his own reckoning, Marx knew it was impossible to foresee all that capitalism would bring about, but in analyzing worker "alienation" in 1844, he anticipated the essence of consumerism:
The power of /the worker's/ money diminishes directly with the growth of the quantity of production, i.e., his need increases with increasing power of money... Excess and immoderation become /the/ true standard...; the expansion of production of needs becomes an ingenious and always calculating subservience to inhuman, depraved, unnatural, and imaginary appetites. (quoted in Bottomore; Marx's emphases.)
Marx wrote as the first industrial revolution was roaring, when workers' average incomes were so low their lifespan had been in decline since the 1820s. By the time Veblen wrote his U.S.-focused Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the second industrial revolution was in full swing. Productivity and production had risen so dramatically that for capitalism's "health" irrational consumption had become both necessary and possible. The centre of Veblen's analysis were the elements of what became consumerism: "emulation" and its children: "conspicuous consumption, display, and waste.".
In 1899, such behaviour was possible then only for "the leisure class." For most others, given the political economy of the time, just staying alive remained a major problem. That began to change in the 1920s, if only for a fifth of the people: by today's poverty measure, half of the people were poor in the 1920s.
For consumer irrationality to reach today's levels in the U.S, (and, now, other industrial countries), major socioeconomic developments were essential; they arrived first in here, much enhanced by the economic stimuli of two world wars: World War I reversed an ongoing economic slowdown; World War II lifted us out of a decade of deep depression. But that was not all; both wars subsidized a string of new technologies and really mass production of durable consumer goods; most notably cars and electrical products. After 1945, that vast expansion of industrial production -- plus strong unions -- required and provided a qualitative jump in "good jobs" and purchasing power.
The wars had come just in time. Their creation of a permanent military-industrial complex plus consumerism assured that with or without war, there would always be a way out of what, by the 1920s had become a chronic and serious business illness: the inability of business to make a profit using productive capacities efficiently.
Along with militarism, the solution was found in consumerism and modern advertising, for all household products (from toasters to soap), for "fashion," and, most famously, for cigarettes and automobiles.
Cars and smokes used different and overlapping techniques; but both figuratively and literally poisoned the air we breathe. Lucky Strike, with its "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet," glamorised and universalised cigarette smoking, irrespective of gender, age, or condition of servitude. Edward Bernays, the "genius" behind the Lucky Strike ads, had earlier "invented" the art of public relations in 1916, when he was hired by President Woodrow Wilson -- who ran for re-election in 1916 promising to keep us out of war -- to soften up the public for our 1917 entry to that war.
As for cars, their sales had levelled off already by 1923. It was in that year that General Motors (GM) introduced three ways to enhance waste and irrationality: 1) the annual model change ("planned obsolescence"); 2) massive advertising, and 3) "GMAC," its own "bank" so buyers could borrow.
Consumerism came into being along with monopoly capitalism -- which, as Paul Baran put it long ago "teaches us to want what we don't need and not to want what we do." The "teaching" is done mostly by the always more ingenious advertising industry -- now raking in more than $200 billion a year in the U.S. alone.
Advertising feeds our irrationalities and energises our frenzied plunge into debt: as of today, household debt (credit cards, car loans, and mortgages) exceeds $10 trillion, and monthly payments are well in excess of average monthly incomes.
Advertising's function is not to provide information any more than consumerism's is to provide for people's needs; through delusion and illusion, its function is the capture of "hearts and minds." Just what Dr. Capitalism ordered!
That is bad enough; even worse are consumerism's socio-political by-products: the citizenry, increasingly "bewitched, bothered, and bewildered," is effectively distracted from what is being done to it by "the power elite."
In his Instinct of Workmanship (1914), Thorstein Veblen argued we have both constructive and destructive "instincts," but that capitalism brings out -- must bring out -- the worst in us. Baran made that same point and captured the essence of modern advertising in his essay "Theses on Advertising" (in The Longer View):
It is crucial to recognise that advertising and mass media programmes sponsored by and related to it do not to any significant extent create values or produce attitudes but rather reflect existing and exploit prevailing attitudes. In so doing they undoubtedly re-enforce them and contribute to their propagation, but they cannot be considered to be their taproot.... Advertising campaigns succeed not if they seek to change people's attitudes but if they manage to find, by means of motivation research and similar procedures, a way of linking up with existing status-seeking and snobbery; social, racial, and sexual discrimination; egotism and unrelatedness to others; envy, gluttony, avarice, and ruthlessness in the drive for self-advancement -- all of these attitudes are not generated by advertising but are made use of and appealed to in the contents of the advertising material.
Economists and philosophers since the time of industrial revolution always took consumerism with a grain salt. At the earlier stages of economic development, consumption of expensive goods, in excess of what is necessary for subsistence, was the privilege of the leisure class. Now this line of distinction between different sections of society is on the verge of extinction. The media and the ad industry have largely contributed towards bringing down social barriers to conspicuous consumption. The information superhighway or the Internet, too, is more or less serving the cause of limitless consumption. What can then modern day Adam Smiths or Veblens do against this fresh tide of consumerism?


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