A good friend raised a thought provoking question in email today, and I thought it was worth blogging about to share these ideas with others and see if anyone has other thoughts….

Is consumerism bad? Ask a Marxist supporter of a critical educational theorist like Paulo Freire, and you will probably receive a shocked look that says: “Of course! How could you think otherwise?” Ask your typical holiday shopper in a US mall this December, and the reaction might be something like, “Say what?”

I think most US citizens tend to be in agreement that capitalism is not inherently evil, and that it produces “the good life” for a large number of people. I am not sure many people sit around wondering and thinking about the value or problems inherent in capitalism and the consumeristic dynamic it fuels and relies on. Of course I could be wrong about this, I have not even taken a straw poll or searched online to see if anyone else has polled US citizens on this lately.

I have started to read Patrick Morley’s book, The Man in the Mirror, this fall, and he makes the claim early on that “the rat race” in which we are basically all embroiled is not the calling to which we are each divinely called. It is not necessary to use theological arguments to critique and indict consumerism as a lifestyle– there are plenty of secular critiques of consumerism and “the rat race” which are valid on their own. I think Morely’s points are well made, however– basically that we should not succumb to the pressures of consumeristic society, that encourage us to buy today on credit instead of saving for something tomorrow– and thinking that in “climbing the ladder” of our chosen vocation and acquiring more “things” in life, we will/can realize deep satisfaction in our lives.

For now I will focus briefly on some non-theological critiques of consumerism that readily come to mind. These are off the cuff, and I am sure with more reflection and discussion more will come to mind, but here is a brief list. Before going into them, I would point out I agree with Morley, that since World War II when “the Madison Avenue marketers” got together with the owners of mass media, consumerism has really accelerated in US culture. I would agree that consumerism has always been an element of capitalism for time eternal, but the almost inescapable barrage of advertisements we are faced with today in US culture: on TV, in magazines, on Internet websites, at movie theaters, on billboards, the radio, etc make the tangible influence of marketers and therefore consumerism much more powerful than, say, they were in the 1930s. (Of course I wasn’t alive then, but that is my understanding.)

So, now for a partial list. Here are some problems I identify with consumerism:

1. A consumeristic society tends to view human beings as means rather than ends. The highest value for a consumeristic society is ever growing levels of consumption, which fuel expenditures and therefore bolster business profits. To this extent, it seems to me that people are valued not for the inherent value they have as human beings, but rather for the instrumental value they can bring to the economy as consumers / buyers. Individuals in the society don’t have to buy into this value system, of course, but I think it is implicit in a capitalistic / consumer-driven economy. And of course I would counter that human beings are valuable intrinsically, not merely instrumentally. We tend to have way too much focus on instrumental values these days, I think. Even education is seen as beneficial mainly for its instrumental value: getting a better job, i.e. helping the economy. Of course improving one’s standard of living and aspiring to provide in economic terms more substantially for one’s family is noble– but I think there needs to be room for and an acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of things like education– as well as at a more basic level, of human beings. I don’t think this acknowledgment is inherent within a consumeristic society– I think the balance is tilted toward instrumental valuation. This may seem esoteric to some, but I think it is fundamental and very important.

2. Consumeristic societies tend to encourage people to live for the moment, to seek immediate gratification, to not save money but instead spend it on the desires of the moment. Whether it is going out to eat (always easier and often more appealing than having to prepare a meal at home, but usually more expensive) or purchasing additional gifts for the Christmas season, this pressure to spend and consume is always with us.

3. Tied to objection #2 above, consumeristic societies tend to encourage people to pile up high levels of unsecured debt. I don’t think I am exaggerating to say we live in an era that is unprecedented in the easy availability and large quantity of available credit. Do people have to use their credit cards or even own one? Certainly not. We are all free agents, whether we acknowledge this or not. But what do most people do? This article from March 2004 / USA Today makes the point clearly. Too many Americans go into too much debt.

4. Consumeristic societies tend to promote dissatisfaction and discontent as a secular religion. How else can marketers get us to buy? By convincing us there is something out there we need to purchase. By continually driving home the message (mostly to women) that they are not thin enough, not pretty enough, not young enough, etc to really be happy. By promoting the message that “you deserve it,” “just do it,” you know you want that new product so just go out and get it. We never see television advertisements or marketing pitches at any time that champion the idea, “You are so blessed in your life today! Celebrate the blessings of today and be content with what you have” because that very idea is antithetical to the fundamental premises of consumeristic society. One of those premises is: make people dissatisfied with what they have or don’t have, and they will go out and buy something new.

I think I could go on with more reasons, but my children are ready to go run holiday errands and if I write more no one may read the ramblings…. A critical point to end on, however, which I have grappled with a fair bit this last academic term, is: What viable alternatives exist for wealth generation to the capitalistic economy? I don’t think there are any. Certainly there ways in which the unbridled / unregulated market can and should be checked through governmental regulations… but that is a topic for another post and another day.

As Morley argues, the challenge for us as human beings is to live in the world but not be of the world. We must live in this consumeristic society, but we need not ascribe to and live by all the values it espouses. (This is, of course, a very basic Biblical directive– many references to this, Romans 12:2 is one of my favorites.)

So, these problems being acknowledged, I am off to do some last minute Christmas shopping! :-)

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