Consumerism is a symptom of a deeper problem

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. 

John Daniels

2 Replies to “Consumerism is a symptom of a deeper problem”

  1. Thank you John for your very thoughtful and articulate contribution to this conversation.
    But I’ve a few questions I’d like to raise:
    You ask ‘… isn’t consumerism at root a symptom of the underlying problem rather than the problem itself?’
    So I read on to find what you see as the underlying problem. Your answer seems to be; ‘what’s wrong, at root, is an economic system that renders the idea of ‘enough’ effectively meaningless.’

    But surely Consumerism, the process of creating extra demand, above and beyond the demand for goods or services that satisfy our basic needs, as I defined it, is an essential component of our current economic system rather than just a canary-like symptom? Especially since WW2, as you argued so well. Of course there are other component of this pathology, at least equally as important. To name but four: debt creation through the banks ‘printing’ money, crass and irresponsible exploitation of the world’s natural resources, gross inequality, business ownership structures.

    These components tend to interact with and support each other. But the advantage of analysing each of them in detail is that it’s then easier to see what we’ve to do to counteract them, to change them – and to develop alternatives to them, alternatives that ‘prefigure the kingdom’.

    So what can we individuals do to resist the consumerist pressures in their own lives? Consumer Detox by (Rev) Mark Powley is a good starting point? What can churches, schools, businesses, local councils do? And governments? So what can local churches and individuals do to influence schools, businesses, government bodies?

    Viewers, you are invited to give us your ideas, and to keep this discussion going


    1. John Daniels replies:

      Couldn’t agree with Tony more: consumerism is indeed an essential feature of – forgive the questionable shorthand – ‘late capitalism’.

      So, mea culpa, my coal mine metaphor was misleading: the noxious gases are building up regardless of the presence of the canary! (Plus the danger signal is of course the canary’s silence rather than its trilling. I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t started this train if thought…)

      My point though was that singling out consumerism as the bad guy, whether that’s associated with the fondly-remembered ‘A Mars a day helps you work, rest & play’ or with the latest real-time social media preference algorithms, would be to miss the point. It’s only one of the more visible aspects of the all-embracing socio-economic challenge we face in desiring, and so living, well.

      This irreducibly qualitative judgement has been displaced in recent times by the merely quantitative – ‘more’ has trumped ‘better’. But to talk about ‘better’ means having a good enough idea of the ‘good’, and that’s where we start to get back to basics in a big way.

      So resisting consumerism is essential – that’s a given. But on its own that would just mean demand destruction and so economic collapse. Alongside it we need to imagine new (renewed?) ways of organising our common life which can secure genuine, sustainable prosperity – the ‘good’ life, properly speaking.


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