When consumerism is a force for good

At Joy in Enough, we have tended to take a dim view of consumerism – the pursuit of identity and satisfaction through material goods. It is a driver of environmental breakdown, and all too often offers only hollow visions of happiness.

However, it would be a mistake to take a 21st century British standpoint and universalise it across the world or across history. Where people do not have enough, or where identity is rooted in caste or class, consumerism can offer some positives.

One of the best places to investigate these is the exhaustive study Empire of Things, by Frank Trentmann. His sweeping history of consumerism tracks the phenomenon over centuries, and notes several instances where it was emancipatory.

There’s really no need to delve into the positives of consumerism as we experience it, because they are positioned front and centre: things like convenience, comfort, novelty. It’s the negatives that are hidden, the waste, debt, and psychological undermining, especially of those who can’t afford to participate in consumer society. Where consumerism is critiqued, it is usually seen as socially corrosive, driving a wedge between rich and poor and creating a hierarchy of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. But occasionally, it has also been a tool for social justice.

Consumerism and slavery. During the slave trade, there were relatively few imported or luxury goods in the Southern United States or the colonies of empire. Slave ownership became a status symbol for the elites. As international trade brought more goods to market, it slowly undermined the status element of slavery. “Status came to reside in the ownership of objects, not people” writes Trentmann.

Freed slaves expressed themselves. After freedom was eventually secured for slaves, consumerism opened up ways for the newly free to express themselves. Where their choices had been dictated to them, it was immensely liberating to be able to choose one’s clothes. Even with modest means, it was important to be able to choose what they wanted, and dress in a way that showed they were free and proud. “For former slaves and migrants, things were a great emancipator.”

Eroding class boundaries. There have always been strong class divisions in Britain, and people’s place in society has often been shaped by nobility and background. Consumer goods have helped to break down those divisions. Where old class systems insist that hierarchies are fixed by birth, consumerism suggests that our identity is ours to shape, for good or ill. This has been powerful in India recently, where emerging middle classes have found that “consumer goods have long been vehicles for lower castes to assert themselves.”

Consumerism and consumer rights. On a similar theme, being a consumer brings a set of rights that many people have not been accustomed to as citizens. As a paying customers, you have rights and expectations, or you can take your money elsewhere. In societies where certain services have depended on power networks or corruption, that can be liberating. “The power of the purse handed shoppers a personal weapon for social justice” says Trentmann.

As Christians, we know that human identity is rooted in deeper things than consumer goods. We can find our identity in the divine nature that all humanity shares, and in knowing that we are loved. We can define ourselves through community as well as individuality, something consumerism obscures. But perhaps we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

When Jesus said that we “do not live by bread alone”, it was not a refutation of bread – the ‘alone’ is there to say that material sustenance still matters, but it’s not all there is. I wonder if consumerism can be approached in a similar way: we do not define ourselves by our consumer choices alone. The big lie of individualistic consumer societies is not that our choices matter, but that they are the most important thing, or even the only thing that defines us.

With that in mind, how can we talk about better consumerism? Can we imagine consumerism that liberates?

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