Consumerism As A Social Disease

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 labor; 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.)

Narx wrote as the first industrial revolution was roaring, when workers’ average incomes were so low their lifespan had been in decline since the 1820s. (Hobsbawm) 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 center of Veblen’s analysis were the elements of what became consumerism: “emulation” and its children: “conspicuous consumption, display, and waste.”
In 1899, such behavior 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. (Miller)

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. (Soule)

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,” glamorized and universalized 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. (Tye)

As for cars, their sales had leveled off already by 1923. It was in that year that 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 energizes 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’s 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), 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 recognize that advertising and mass media programs 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. (His emphases.)

So, here we are, a people lurching along several intersecting paths of destruction:

1. The much vaunted “nuclear family” has become a shambles, as roughly two-thirds of all married couples with children work full-time, while their kids — with or without care — watch ad-filled TV an average of six hours daily.

2. In the realm of politics, the always low level of class-consciousness in the U.S. has been squashed to the vanishing point by consumerism, adding to the other trends weakening unions and strenghening the already omnipotent “Fortune 500” and its bought and sold politicians and media.

3. As our celebrated “individualism” becomes concentrated on borrowing, buying, and making out, we have allowed our always inadequate social policies concerning our education, health, housing, pensions, and public transportation to dwindle or disappear.

4. Last, and most dangerously, we have looked the other away as “our” nation pursues brutal and dangerous policies abroad and we remain indifferent — or worse — concerning current and looming environmental disasters.

All of this deepens and spreads at the very time when both large and small social crises require careful and sustained attention and thought and cooperative effort if they are to be resolved well and peaceably.

We will not be taken on that desperately needed path by today’s “leaders.” The necessary changes will never come from the top down; they can and must be brought about from the bottom up. Workers without unions must form or join one; those in unions must demand and create a new leadership, and must find ways to join with the thousands of groups working on the broad range of vital social issues.

The politics of the U.S. must become those meeting the basic needs and values of the overwhelming majority of our people, those whose lives are in every respect damaged or ruined by what is now “normal.” We must build a movement, moving away from capitalism, find that path by ourselves; we must lead.

We will not be starting from scratch, nor be alone. There are thousands of hard-working groups which can and must link up in order to forge an always greater movement. There are already important stirrings under way; all must become stirrers.

If not us, who? If not now, when? 



Baran, P. The Longer View.
Bottomore, T. Early Writings.
Hobsbawm, E. Industry and Empire.
Milller, H. Rich Man, Poor Man
Soule, G. Prosperity Decade.
Tye, L. The Father of Spin: Edward Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations.


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