Consumerism Power and Meaning

My summer honors course “Consumerism, Politics and Values” is turning into one of the most interesting courses I’ve taught, as the students are active, come prepared, and we engage in good discussions.   Yesterday was a wide ranging class, moving from Freud and Erikson in the world of human development, to Rousseau, Plato, Machiavelli, utiilitarianism, and Vico, etc.   Yet we came up with some ideas that are intriguing to build upon.   All of this was built around reading Benjamin Barber’s eclectic and brilliant Consumed:  How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole.

It’s long been conventionalism wisdom that the Augustinian “other-worldliness” of the so-called dark ages were a period of stability and order, based on tradition.  That’s partially true, though early on the barbarism of the post-Roman era gave way to localism and a general loss of knowledge and lack of progress.   Power, such as it was, was officially in the hands of the church, but unofficially with local feudal elites — the aristocracy.  To use Vico’s term, this new “age of the Gods” saw a European public convinced that this life was unimportant, existing only to prepare one for the afterlife.  The neo-Platonism of the Plotinus-inspired Augustine gave us the Christian trinity, a distrust of the world of appearances, and a belief that the reality that matters can be fathomed through prayer and contemplation, something the monastaries coulld offer.

Over time this gave way to what Vico would call the “age of heroes,” in which an aristocratic elite would command a stable world order, based on virtue and vision.  This era coincided with the rise of rational thought after Aquinas who, borrowing from Muslim scholars, brought Aritotilean realism into European intellectual life.  Slowly we moved to the “age of man,” as early capitalism emerged.   Early capitalism, Barber notes (citing Weber) functioned in line with the so-called protestant work ethic.   People would work hard to produce, fulfill the needs of the public, and make a profit to boot.   This era saw power start to shift dramatically from the church to the state, and from tradition to region.

Barber (and Weber), while noting the scars of early capitalism — raw exploitation, a drive to imperialism, and alienation (noted by both Rousseau and Marx) — still saw it as having a kind of virtue.   It created individual wealth, but at the same time served the public good.   Society rationalized, and great progress was made.

Next Barber traces the development of capitalism to “puerile libertarianism,” where the private is considered virtuous while the public sector contempted.   To Barber, this comes from a very negative aspect of capitalist development.   Once most needs were met, corporations still needed to expand and grow.  Thus they moved from fulfilling needs to creating artificial needs.   All  this despite the fact the vast majority of the world has real, unfulfilled needs.   Rather than find a way to align the productive power of capitalism and the human mind with solving those problems, advertisers and corporations seek instead to gain quick profit by making people believe their wants are needs — wants they wouldn’t have  if not for a very active advertising industry.

Rousseau noted such a trend back in 1750, and a century earlier Pascal decried the way humans sought distractions rather than spending time thinking about who they are and what they value.   While Barber sees capitalist development as something internal to its systemic operation, building on Weber, I think there is a more profound problem, one related to the enlightenment – hence my reference of  Vico.

Vico was concerned about class — long before Marx this devout Christian Professor of Rhetoric in Naples noted that class conflict was a driving force of social development.   For Vico’s notion of cyclic historical development, corso e ricorso, the “age of man” corresponds with the growth of rational thought — the Greek enlightenment, Roman thought in the early empire, and enlightenment Europe.  This age has promise, and for awhile a sense of optimism reigns that rational thought can give us a way to understand the world.   But ironically, this faith in reason ultimately and perhaps inevitably gives way to skepticism.  Reason is a tool, not an end, and unlike religion, provides no real sense of meaning for life.

Soon people realize that reason can be used to rationalize anything, and the intellectual elite moves from trying to improve society to looking for personal development or skeptical criticism.   This leads to decadence and consumption, something we now see in our society.   For us, this means that power no longer lies in the church, but is split by the state and big business.  The two have a common cause — to continue the growth of wealth through capitalism.   Instead of building a religion and cathedrals, the state builds nationalism as a secular religion, and big businesses create consumerism as the new social religion.   Instead of holy books proclaiming the truth, they have advertisers manipulating emotions to get people to seek truth in consumption.

Reason does not give us meaning.  Humans yearn meaning.   Once needs have been met, the next step in Maslow’s hierarch of needs is self-actualization.   Self-actualization theoretically could involve a strong sense of community and reflective ethics.    Ronald Inglehart’s theory of “post-materialist politics” seems to assume as much, believing that in an era of fulfillled material needs humans would seek to improve the quality of life and move towards issues like environmentalism and human rights over economic growth.   However, with the power of advertising and big money able to control media  and shape the culture, hyper-materialism seems to have trumped post-materialism, with people desparetely seeking meaning through consumption.   People shop when they feel down, define themselves through products and brand names, and in a manner Pascal would understand, use distraction to prevent themselves from thinking about who they are.    Barber argues that infantilization comes as advertisers recognize that the impulsive wants and desires of youth are more likely to yield uncritical consumption than the traditional virtues of maturity.

So, at base, humans seek meaning, and with religion and ideologies now discredited for much of the population, it is up to individuals to construct their own meaning.   This kind of relativism, noted Nietzsche, opens the door to nihilism and what is now called post-modernism.   More ominiously, powerful actors can use their wealth and power to make us think that meaning comes from consumption (and  a dose of nationalism).  In so doing, we privilege personal wants over collective needs, even to the extent that libertarian thought tries to do away with the notion of the public or “society,” and privilege individual wants.    The result is a spiral of unsustainable consumption that ultimately will destroy our society and the environment.

Is there a way out?   Of course.  Individuals resist this pressure all the time.  But most do not, and even those of us who see these processes give in ourselves to the desire to consume, so over-arching are the messages.   The strength to resist the cultural ethos of infantilized consumption (“I want my hummer, damn the environment, who cares about global warming”) is hard to summon, especially when advertisers, politicians and entertainment all push one towards thoughtless consumption.

Ironically, the libertarian desire to privatize everything and attack government and the public sector while ignoring the awesome power of big money and the so-called private sector works against the kind of true liberty they claim to want.   In this, traditional conservatives and people on the left can find common cause.   While the left may not embrace religion, both conservatives and left-liberals can agree that the ethos of selfish greed and rejection of the public good for private gain is bad for society.  Both can agree that hyper consumption degrades culture and, to use Barber’s words, corrupts children.   Both can seek out more traditional virtues of honesty, hard work, living within our means, and recognizing that individual wants do not always correspond to what’s best for society.   And, of course, both can condemn the puerile libertarian effort to deny the very existence of society.

Whether or not Vico’s theory of history in cycles makes sense in describing western civilization, we do seem to be on the verge of either starting a period of intense decline, with hyperconsumption causing problems in the environment, resource and energy supplies, and our ability to sustain a world class economy.   We may be at yet another peak, ready to start a new cycle.

Or, perhaps, the economic crisis will bring out the best in us, cause us to start saving, rediscovering lost virtues, embracing community, and rejecting the effort to gain meaning through consumption.   The key will be whether or not we can forge a sense of meaning that isn’t tied to consumption or mere adherence to tradition and faith.  The former is destructive, the latter cannot co-exist with modern reason, at least not in its current, exclusivist form.

And that will be a subject on going in the class — what does life mean, how do we find meaning, and how can one resist the manipulations by those with power who use emotion to try to convince us that they can provide meaning, either by voting for them or buying their product.   This class will, I believe, continue to be very interesting!

  1. #1 by jmonk2011 on July 7, 2009 - 04:06

    very interesting post.
    where do you teach?

  2. #2 by Josh on July 7, 2009 - 18:41

    I think the values you speak of (about resisting consumerism) make sense. It’s something we as people need to overcome, and the government can’t overcome it for us. I believe the ability to make the right or wrong choice (should I buy that new car or save the money) must be allowed. However, there will be consequences for irresponsible actions. I certainly believe this recession will teach us all a lesson about our money.

    However, for me, the jury is still out on whether or not the global warming thing is as serious as everybody says. Buy that Hummer, but you shouldn’t spend money you don’t have.

  3. #3 by 80 on July 9, 2009 - 01:01

    An introspective post, to say the least! I agree with the general premise of the post–blind consumerism is a death sentence for humankind. I think there are major issues with certain aspects of religion that continue to keep people in a state of “puerile denial,” giving the corporations and government Hench people enough time to privatize life before any real large protest or movement against them can realistically challenge their reign…

  4. #4 by henitsirk on July 13, 2009 - 20:03

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with making money, per se. After all, there have always been rich people and poor people, at least in recorded history. And along with that, there have always been greed and corruption and manipulation and class structures. So those are not inherently distinctive of modern consumer capitalism.

    I think we’ve been led down the primrose path of becoming inured to the suffering of others through our own material comfort. It’s very easy for me to forget about child labor and slavery in West Africa when I just want to eat some chocolate and be done with it. It’s very easy for me not to consider the environmental impact of buying frozen vegetables instead of growing my own or buying locally when I just want to get dinner on the table for my kids. I think I’m a fairly unmaterialistic person, but it’s very easy to neglect our natural compassion and heart forces when we don’t have to see the slaves on the chocolate plantations or the migrant farm workers falling ill from pesticide poisoning. That’s all happening somewhere else; nothing to do with me.

    And then there’s the unnatural economic idea that constant growth is good. Nothing works like that in the natural world; there are balances, cycles, and unmoderated growth is met sooner or later by a stiff correction of some sort. But we’ve convinced ourselves that our economy must constantly grow as fast as possible. It’s unsustainable and inhuman.

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on July 16, 2009 - 02:00

    Yes, we’ve had greed, slavery, and barbaric practices for all of human history. There are differences in modern consumerism, however, relating especially to labor practices and commodification of life. In fact, the separation of labor from consumption means that the objects we consume have no inherent meaning to us, though advertisers provide a meaning (not: “this chocolate comes from the work of slave laborers” but “this chocolate conveys richness and satisfaction.”)

    I agree with your second paragraph as well — I have a feeling that the next generation is going to have tough task of dealing with the problem of how to handle a correction to rebalance the system.

  6. #6 by Henitsirk on July 16, 2009 - 02:32

    And let’s not forget the way we are paid for our work: typically not paid for actual work but for hours worked. It creates an artificial distance between what we’re actually making or providing and the intrinsic value of that. As if we’re interchangeable workers “worth” a certain number of dollars per hour.

    As a freelance editor, I like to charge a flat fee for an entire editing project. I do calculate the fee based on a desired hourly “wage” so that I know I am earning enough for what I need and so that I am charging a fee commensurate with my peers. But it makes the transaction more about what my work itself is worth.

    I’m just finishing up Gombrich’s excellent “A Little History of the World.” Last night I read about how money was not used much in medieval Germany, because most of the country was rural and worked on barter. Only big cities required money. Eventually after establishing trade routes during various crusades, the Germans finally needed money, which led to increasing numbers of larger cities (a safe place to house money!), which further changed the social structure farther away from feudalism with the expanding bourgeoisie. I bring this up because it amazes me how economics is so intertwined with every other part of society, and yet we act as if it can be made separate and “scientific” without looking much at its effects and what shapes it outside of that narrow economic sphere.

  7. #7 by Scott Erb on July 16, 2009 - 04:09

    Exactly! We abstract economics away from its social relations. All is product or commodity, we care little of the “true” cost of production (treatment of workers, impact on lives, etc), just it’s abstract position in the market.

    I do think that some professions have less alienation than others. If you are independent, you have more control and are more connected. I think I benefit psychologically from having a profession where my alienation from my labor is miniscule. Still, even in education on line courses are being mass produced with grading rubrics that are designed to simply allow the student to learn, test and pass. Education is increasingly commodified as well.

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