John Daniels contributes to our discussion of consumerism, arguing that it is an indicator of a bigger issue.
In his recent post on the topic, Tony does us a great favour by directing our attention to the woes and cunning of consumerism, the damage it continues to do to our planet and also to our selves. And he’s quite right that what’s at stake here is identity: I consume, therefore I am.
This is the slogan of homo economicus, the withered cartoon human imagined by Alfred Marshall and others at the end of the 19th century to help predict and control the burgeoning capitalist economy. Here, people are assumed to be basically selfish individuals who aim to maximise ‘utility’ – as much pleasure, and as little pain, as possible.
Obviously there’s some truth in this. But it’s a radically partial and distorted truth. Problem is, over recent decades we’ve come to resemble this cartoon more and more. The ultimate consequence is a population which has come to regard a continuous dopamine high as a basic entitlement. And as the growth of material prosperity stalls and debt climbs all over the industrialised world, no wonder people are up in arms demanding the resumption of what they’ve come to expect as normal service.
But is demonising consumerism the best way to respond to this? Because isn’t consumerism at root a symptom of the underlying problem rather than the problem itself?
After all, mass consumerism only took off after World War 2 as a means of warding off the dreadful prospect of insufficient effective demand – i.e. that people might decide they already had enough, thanks, & so stop buying stuff.
That’s obviously bad news for a system in which people’s jobs involve working for organisations which can only remain in business if they make more money today than they had yesterday. Summed over a whole society, that means we must have economic growth if one man’s profit isn’t to mean another’s loss.
So if the economy as a whole is to continue to grow (if only so that we all can repay, with interest, the debts we incurred yesterday) then we need to find some poor saps who are prepared to buy our trinkets – in larger & larger quantities.
Consumerism then is one of the many canaries in our current coal mine, trilling all too plainly that something’s gone seriously wrong. And what’s wrong, at root, is an economic system that renders the idea of ‘enough’ effectively meaningless.
Enough for what, though? That’s the $64000 question: it all depends on what you think human life is all about. And of course different traditions of human philosophy and religion suggest very different answers. One part of the Christian tradition answered it like this: ‘the chief end of human life is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever’ (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 1647).
In other words, what we’re meant for isn’t ‘maximised utility’ but, rather, joy; and, what’s more, this unique, incomparable joy. It’s only as we come to realise this that we can realistically aspire to Joy in Enough.