The Madness of Consumerism

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?

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5 Responses to “The Madness of Consumerism”

  1. Tim Mueller Says:

    You’re exactly right, Mark (but you don’t need me to tell you that!).
    “If it doesn’t have a dollar sign, it has no value.”
    “If you have no money, you have no value.”
    The only thing worse than being poor in this country is LOOKING
    like you’re poor. It is a sickness, a pathology. Historians a hundred years from now will search mightily for a logical reason as to why seemingly intelligent people could forsake their happiness, their well-being, and their bliss for an extra car or a bigger TV. We’re dying a slow, agonizing death, and it’s simply a new-fangled form of suicide.

  2. Jodi Mae Yesshemay Says:

    I wrote this in regard to the recent selling of Annie’s Homegrown to General Mills. Now almost all of the hippie, health food, organic natural food companies have been sold to giant corporations.

    Now that I have more time available to me, I am thinking I would like to get back to the old ways, before all the health food products became available. In Berkeley, in the early 70’s, we had a food buyers club called the Food Conspiracy, where we bought stuff in bulk. We also had a community kitchen, so we baked our own bread for everyone to share. In rural, off-the-grid WV, I baked 4 loaves of bread every 2 weeks. I made my own sprouts, my own yogurt, baked pies, had chickens for eggs, traded around with other folks for fresh goat or cow milk, homemade butter, and veggies they grew that we didn’t. I had an old apple orchard and made my baby son’s apple sauce from scratch. Before brick and mortar health food stores, we did form a food buying club to order brown rice, oats, whole wheat flour, organic peanut butter in bulk. But, mostly we ate in season, and did without the rest. When my son got older, I made a mean mac and cheese for him, that he loved. Never bought it from a box, such as Annie’s biggest selling product in a tie-dyed box.

    You have more control as to what ingredients go into your food if you prepare it yourself, and I wanted my son to have very healthy foods. There weren’t that many health food companies then: Def Smith was one and Erewhon the other. Some hippies became entrepreneurial, and companies emerged. In Sonoma County, I was a member of the Red Workers Brigade and was an original baker for Alvarado Street Bakery, a collectively owned and operated business of about 12 very hard working hippies. When we started, we were not mechanized and baked all the bread by hand. We had many consensus based meetings discussing the pros and cons of buying our first Hobart mixer and large bakers oven. We wanted to limit our growth and remain local. It is now a national company that has forgotten its original purpose and never mentions the collective of folks who started it.

    Eventually, we had families, or moved into larger cities for work and educational purposes, and began shopping at shiny health food stores, and purchasing products became a convenience in our busier lives. So, we contributed to the growth of these companies by buying from them.

    For me, now that I am older, and children grown and gone, I think it would be nice to get back to some of the basics: bake my own bread, grow a few veggies, shop at the farmers market, and break my addiction to purchasing convenience products, even if they are organic, unless they are products I use wisely and require and cannot create on my own such as brown rice, whole wheat flour, etc. Anyway, just a thought and a goal I would like to set for myself…

    • markbittner Says:

      Interesting comments. I make my own bread half the time and buy Alvarado Street Bakery bread the other half. I didn’t know about their past. I do know that they cut off one small local store here in North Beach because their orders weren’t large enough. And they were one of Alvarado’s first regular customers. I watched the counterculture businesses sell out to big business for years. There used to be a separate economy that you could survive in. A lot of people put their faith in it and left the system to be part of it and then had the rug pulled out from under them. This is going to be part of my book. It was such a great opportunity, and it was blown.

  3. Linda ladeewolf Says:

    If anyone is interested, another good older book is Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders. It’s a classic about the advertising world and the psychology used in it. I’ve been hoping to find a new copy, I lost mine years ago. Once you read it you see everywhere what is going on, it makes you a much more informed buyer of everything.

    Yes, I’ve noticed that another reason for buying is nostalgia, they induce that in all the flea markets to get you to buy stuff, the old music, the smell. I am slowly learning to not buy and it’s hard. I had so few toys as a child that even now, I love toys, I don’t play with them, I sit them on a shelf and look at them. I will probably sell most of them, if I were still a child I would have loved having them,now they just fulfill a desire I had as a child to have more than one or two dolls. Most of the children I knew growing up had piles of toys, I had a total of three dolls when I was a kid, my parents thought that playing with my brothers hand me down tanks and planes was good enough. I so wanted dolls. Strange to have them orient me to a man’s career at that time and then tell me I couldn’t be in the military. I was so confused as a girl. No direction, and no one to go to for advice.

    I don’t bake much bread during the summer, my kitchen is too hot and I just can’t take much heat. Come the winter, I’ll start baking again though, pies, cookies and cakes and biscuits. Oh and cinnamon rolls.

  4. Tracy Glomski Says:

    I also still don’t have a cell phone. 😉 And still don’t want one, in fact.

    Those are some spooky, eye-opening quotes that you found, Mark.

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