For the last couple of months, I’ve been reading Civilization: A New History of the Western World by Roger Osborne. I can’t really recommend it. The author sees Western Civilization as flawed, but still capable of being repaired, albeit with some difficulty, whereas I see its flaws as being so fundamental that to fix them, which we must, is to create an entirely different animal. In any case, every now and then I find an interesting nugget. To wit:
Strange as it may seem to us, the underlying concern of American capitalism in the late nineteenth century was the possibility of sufficiency. Just as Marx had envisaged a world where everyone would have enough for a decent life, American capitalists were worried that people would stop buying their goods once they had enough things to live comfortably. There seemed no obvious reason why someone would replace a piece of furniture or a coat or a set of crockery simply because it was old. This problem was solved in large part through the influence of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and principal promoter of his ideas in America. Bernays was intrigued by Freud’s view that people are bundles of emotion, passion and desire, and that the real motive for human action is the satisfaction of deep-seated desires rather than rational calculation. Bernays saw that American companies needed to transform the way that people thought about their purchases, so that they would forget about trying to fill their rational needs and instead aim to fulfill their desires. In the 1920s, consumerism, or consumptionism as it was then called, was born. Calvin Coolidge declared that an “American’s importance to his country is not as a citizen but as a consumer.” Rather than selling goods to its customers, the advertising industry began to sell happiness.
… Bernays, and his clients in American corporations found themselves in agreement with Freud’s view that democracy carried serious risks and should be discouraged. Other commentators such as Walter Lippman, the most influential columnist in America in the 1930s and 1940s, came to agree that democracy was an inappropriate way of governing such a complex country, and that the masses needed an elite to guide them…
… In 1928 President Hoover reinforced Coolidge’s sentiment and said that people were “constantly moving happiness machines.” Just as Freud had suggested that if our selfish desires are satisfied we feel docile and happy, and if they are thwarted we feel aggrieved, Hoover understood that when people are fulfilling their desires they are not inclined to be politically active.
Americans showed that if products were sold to them in the right way, they would buy and buy and that consumerism would make them politically conservative.
That’s about as bald as it gets, isn’t it? And it is what has come to pass. There was a brief effort in the 1960s to stop it. But since then people have enthusiastically taken up the role of “consumer” again. The philosophies I study and believe in say that pursuing the satisfaction of one’s superficial desires can never truly satisfy. It merely leads to more desire and, ultimately, madness. I think that’s obvious. You don’t need to read any philosophy to understand that. A little real-life experience will do. Yet here are all these captains of industry pursuing this mad course and accusing those who don’t agree of being evil fools. We’re over a hundred years into it now and it has grown to massive levels. You never see any other point of view represented. No one advocates at the national level for living a simpler, less materialistic life. I’ve been reading about the feverish expectations for the new iPhone that’s supposed to be announced today, and it’s crazy. I still don’t have a cell phone, and I do just fine. I’ve never wanted one. But I’ve been reading commentators who fear what might happen if the new gadget doesn’t meet expectations. They warn that there could be real trouble. Every year at Christmas you see articles about how Christmas sales are doing and what it means for our well-being. Are we spending enough? We have to get out of this mindset. It has to be exposed for what it is. I think that if we don’t, reality will force a change on us. Wouldn’t it be better to do it gracefully?