Consumerism. Why did they do it?

A good friend has emailed me with a very cute little link, depicting the wows of consumerism. It’s rather charming. Really. Have a look:

The good people at “story of stuff” make an interesting mistake glitch, though.

The presenter, Annie Leonard, correctly ascribes consumerism, that plague that makes us violate the earth, to post-WWII American politics. As she describes it, the US government (followed suit by the rest of the western world) developed consumerism because it was “a means to boost the economy”. That is a gross understatement, and a historical misunderstanding. I agree wholeheartedly with most of what she says in that short movie of hers. But this is one point I would like to correct. It is a rather interesting one. If you want all the gory details, go and read Tony Judt’s excellent PostWar. Here comes the shorthand:

The consumer-goods economy isn’t a matter of governments sucking to big corporations. It’s really a political issue of a grander scale. In fact, it is about fighting (and winning) the two most important political wars of the 20th century: the war on communism and the war on fascism.

After WWII, it was clear that politics itself was at a crisis. Old school politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was rather chauvinistic. It led to inner-national as well as international conflicts, which peaked in two world wars and far too much death and destruction. No amount of modern industrial havoc can compete with the carnage of the wars (or civil wars) that plagued the world in the first half of the 20th century. To policy makers and intellectuals at the end of WWII, The only “philosophically” viable alternative to old-school politics seemed to be communism, but, as anyone with eyes in his head could see, from Bohemia to China, communism was evolving into civic nightmares. The main challenge of the era became this: how to win the public into participating in a tranquil form of politics.

Let’s elaborate. One would wish a democratic politics – that is, a politics actually (and actively) chosen by the public, for the public. But you also want that politics to be calm – not overly revolutionary, not too nationalistic, not violent…
But when you involve the masses in politics, you are far more likely to find them seduced by the politics of violent action. If my neighbor has a car, and I don’t, that creates social tensions. The simplest way to relieve such tensions would be if I went out with a couple of other angry men and torched his car. It would be very tempting for politicians to endorse such actions. So tempting, in fact, that you are very likely to find such politicians all over the place. It is their shortest path to success. When such politician get to the national level, everyone’s in deep shit.
So, if one wishes to engage the people in politics, without the violent fervor of the early 20th century, one needs to find a social force stronger than chauvinism. A force that would make people prefer mediocre politicians (not stupid ones, non extremest ones) to the fast extreme solutions suggested by the politics of violent action. Where can you find such a driving force? In consumerism!
It is, basically, a system of social bribery. Do workers want equality and good working conditions? Supply them with these, slowly (because you don’t want to upset the system), and in the mean while win their hearts with consumer-goods. But there’s much more than consumer goods to consumerism. It’s about democratizing financial mechanisms as well: If I envy my neighbor’s car, I can get a better one myself… using credit. As communist republics and communist parties all over the world were quick to discover, the general populace becomes especially dissatisfied with a government if their neighbors enjoy not only political freedom, but also the ability to buy better cloths, go to American cinema, and own cars. It also makes communism much less likely to win the hearts and minds of your local proletariat in the west. It was consumerism which dealt the killer blow to fascist politics in Europe, and it was by far the most effective means to marginalize the communist parties in the west.

No Stalinist purging was ever as convincing as the lack of consumer goods in the Soviet block. After all, those purged and sent to Siberia were mostly intellectuals and petty party officials. Why should the average East-German on the street care about them? But he does care about his quality of life, and about his peer from West Germany who can afford a TV set and a dish washer. It’s consumer goods that brought the Communists to their knees. And today, it’s consumer goods which buy the hearts and minds of masses in the third world. Bin Laden is an ideologist, a rich intellectual. He’s not the rule, he’s the exception. For most of us, violent political action is no longer a temptation if we can visualize a fat paycheck in the near future, provided that it can buy us a nice suit and a shining pair of mountaineering shoes.

What’s the lesson, then? Of course the green revolution Annie Leonard wants us to take part in is a must. And the lesson she teaches is interesting and important. But, for it to win the political battle, there is another message that should be used as well. These are not contradictory messages, they are complementary. I am referring to what Amory Lovins does in his TED talk.

I am speaking about the idea behind sustainable development. There are in fact two things we have to say out loud, if we want the green revolution to triumph. These are:

  1. We are really into saving consumerism rather than fighting it. Your new SUV won’t look quite as shining when the price of oil goes beyond the 100$ a barrel. When your family’s medical insurance bills get inflated because the insurance company will start looking into the carcinogens built into your child’s plastic toys, that won’t make you very happy, would it?
  2. A green industry is a more efficient industry, a cheaper one, in fact. It is more economically viable to save fuel than to spend it on inefficient combustion. A green revolution really means a chance for biotechnology innovation. Some big corporations have a tendency for convenient lethargy. They should be helped out of their stupor. It is a matter of pushing the economy forward, rather than allowing the economy to succumb to stagnation.

3 thoughts on “Consumerism. Why did they do it?

  1. Amir

    A good friend of mine, Guy, who sent me the link to “the story of stuff”, wrote the following reply:

    I once read that the explanation for consumerism has to do with the economist Keynes, who advised Roosevelt during the Great Depression. His analysis and consequent advice was something like:
    1. There is no manufacturing because there is no demand for goods.
    2. There is no demand for goods because the masses don’t have money.
    3. The masses don’t have money because there are no jobs.
    4. There are no jobs because there is no manufacturing.

    Advice: Break the vicious cycle by having the government create jobs with big public projects. (Oh, and make sure people spend the money they make – e.g. demand goods – instead of hoarding it. You can do that with advertising.).

    Historically, what stopped the Depression was the massive expenditures of WWII (quite a big public project). In the 50’s big industry, under government encouragement, took up Keynes’ advice Roosevelt, making sure there is always demand for goods with such tools as advertising, so the economy won’t plunge again into depression. Hence, consumerism.

  2. mousomer Post author

    True. Keynes’ vicious cycle is called “the paradox of thrift”. The funny this is – most economists (who are pro-consumerism) seem to deny the possibility of such a cycle.
    The roots of consumerism go back a long time. It might even have predated Keynes. Thing is, when the time came to rebuild Europe after 1945, the American government already had the solution (in the form of consumerism) at hand.

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