Why capitalism needs the consumer dream and we don’t
I asked the president, “What can we do to show support for America?” He said, “Mom, if you really want to help, buy, buy, buy”. – (Barbara Bush, 2001)
During the 1950s, at a time when the U.S. was in recession, Victor Lebow outlined what was to become one of the enduring tenets of global capitalism in the years to come:
Our enormously productive economy demands we make consumption our way of life, that we convert buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things to be consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate.
And so mass consumerism was ushered in. Indeed, the inescapable need for us to work hard and spend hard is now instilled in us, virtually from birth. But while this mass materialist mantra is highly effective in funnelling huge profits to the super-rich, the consumer dream is fast becoming a nightmare of cataclysmic proportions which threatens to suck us all into its destructive vortex.
Unmistakably, the consumer dream now pervades every area of our lives and, in an era of globalisation, virtually every corner of the planet. Five major processes are integral to the materialist economy, and most of us in paid employment will be involved in at least one of them. These include extraction; manufacture; distribution; marketing; consumption; and finally, disposal.
Buoyed by mass advertising, two calculated marketing strategies, Planned Obsolescence and Perceived Obsolescence are used to hook us into the mass consumer frenzy which teaches us that in order to have value and happiness, we must spend, spend, spend. (Easy credit also helps, of course.)
Planned Obsolescence entails industry manufacturing goods deliberately designed to break or become out of date quickly. Perceived Obsolescence convinces us that the stuff we have, although still functional, needs to be upgraded. This is achieved by changing the colour, style and function of the product, to create the latest must have accessory in our daily lives. Our new state of the art computers, mobile phones, TVs and CD players quickly become outdated. Cars are intentionally built to fall into disrepair. Fashion accessories, clothing and hairstyles are constantly changing and so on. But while this endless cycle of production and consumption creates enormous wealth for the few at the top of society, the lasting economic, environmental and social costs are profound.
The extraction of raw materials, by its very nature, destroys the environment. From strip mining to deforestation, the taking of resources from the planet leaves desolation and hardship in its wake. Populations, especially those in poor countries, are forced to leave ancestral lands as industry moves in to obtain its much needed raw materials. Refinement of materials into manufactured commodities and fancy packaging produces millions of tons of industrial waste. Transportation of goods to retail outlets across the globe burns up more resources, generating further pollution.
A few facts to consider – see www.storyofstuff.com:
- In the past 3 decades one third of the world’s resources have been consumed. If we continue to extract and produce at current rates, soon there will be nothing left.
- If the entire world consumed at the rate of the USA, we would need up to 5 planets to support us. 99% of goods bought in North America are disposed of within 6 months.
- We are losing 2,000 trees a minute, and last year, the global production of hazardous waste reached more than 300 million tons.
So much for the environmental costs, what about the social impact?
In his book ‘Affluenza’, the psychologist Oliver James describes how our dog-eat-dog consumer culture gives rise to obsessive, envious emotional states, making us prone to anxiety, depression and addiction. (It may also be surmised that the culture of ruthless selfishness upon which modern capitalism legitimises itself, prompts a multitude of other dysfunctional, anti-social and violent behaviours.)
Impossible ideals of beauty and nubility are foisted upon women daily by advertising and the mass media – primarily to boost profits in cosmetic products/ surgery, diets, fashion items and so on. Consciously or subliminally, mass marketing has the effect of producing mass dissatisfaction; cured temporarily by a course of highly addictive retail therapy. I recently read about a study into the steep rise in eating disorders in the Cook Islands, which coincided with the influx of western marketing and its idealised images of feminine desirability and perfection. Significantly, before the arrival of consumer culture, eating disorders had been virtually unknown on the islands. Manufacturing artificial needs and dissatisfaction to sell goods (and services) is what capitalism is all about.
But the harmful effects of mass marketed discontent are not confined to adults. A recent study undertaken by Cambridge University into the psychological states of primary school children revealed high levels of stress and consumption obsession. The commercialisation of childhood is an industry now estimated to be worth £30 million annually in the UK alone. Back in the U.S., a recent American Psychological Association study produced compelling evidence of the media’s sexualisation of girls as young as five – breeding a preoccupation with body image and dieting. Encouraging kids to grow up prematurely serves the economy by fuelling spending on dating, cosmetics, music, fashion and other such trappings of young adulthood. Morgan Spurlock’s film ‘Supersize Me’ exposed how the junk food industry deliberately targets children with feel good advertising, premeditated to make consumption of their (unhealthy) products an everyday, lifelong ritual. With 1 in 5 U.S. meals comprising of fast food, there is every reason to believe that this strategy has been a success, even if this has been to the lasting detriment of the nation’s public health.
A considerable body of evidence (showcased in James’ most recent book, ‘the Selfish Capitalist‘) indicates that our collective misery has become more acute since the 1980’s – a time when Thatcherite selfish capitalism was at its height. And, as James points out, the most significant act of selfish capitalism – which has also been enthusiastically embraced by New Labour – has been to rob the poor to give to the rich. Misery (surprise, surprise) is also linked to poverty and debt, other inevitable by-products of the prevailing political, economic and social infrastructure. Consumer debt in Britain alone is estimated at a staggering £1.3 trillion, and with social inequality, recession and the rising cost of living precipitating growing absolute poverty, the system is crying out not for reform, but complete overhaul.
However, capitalism is remarkably resolute. Its capacity for absorbing and commodifying the very disenchantment it churns out with such efficiency is highly impressive. A whole industry of self-appointed gurus has sprung up to sell us alternative therapies, lifestyles, guides and other panaceas for our terminal disconnectedness. Notably, all the ‘solutions’ offered are strikingly similar in their inability to offer any genuinely empowering collective solutions to the socio-economic systems which form the primary cause of our discontent. You can be as spiritually enlightened as you want, but its not going to stop the polar icecaps from melting of the poor from starving.
So there we have it. By treating the planet and its resources as an inexhaustible, disposable commodity, consumer capitalism literally threatens our very long term existence. Without even beginning to consider the damaging effects of wage-slavery on us (see Work is Slavery), the colossal production-consumption corollary spawns poverty, misery, and ill health – surely a recipe for far-reaching and radical social change if ever there was one.