Monday, November 21, 2011

The Oppression Of Consumerism


Sometimes It Pays To Rethink What we Know

I didn't grow up in a house where books or authors were discussed over dinner. But my friend Danny did. And his parents often invited me over. His father was a professor at CUNY and through him I was introduced to the idea that books were something worthwhile. I was also introduced to the work of contemporary authors and, in some cases, the authors themselves, like Michael Harrington, who wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States while I was in high school, and The Social-Industrial Complex while I was in college. One of Danny's dad's pals was also Vance Packard, who wrote The Hidden Persuaders, The Status Seekers and The Waste Makers all before we were even in high school, the latter of which I'm reading again, some 4 decades after I first read it and talked with the author about it over dinner.

I was very impressed at the time-- and Packard was clearly ahead of the times. Environmental activist and author Bill McKibben was born the same year Packard wrote The Waste Makers and the just published new edition has an intro from him and his contemporary approach makes a lot more sense today than the way people looked at Packard's work back in the day. Even the concept of "planned obsolescence"-- no matter what you think of Apple's business model-- is reinterpreted by McKibben as "the much more potent idea of 'the planned obsolescence of desirability,' the continuous flow of fashion designed to get people to buy new things even when their old ones work just fine." Could anything be more early twenty-first century? McKibben:
[I]t's not primarily the details that Packard got right, but the broad strokes. He understood what kind of country we were building. He understood, fundamentally, that growth had become its own religion. Even ten years before economists had doubted that the size of the U.S. economy would grow much larger-- FDR had said we had more factories than we'd ever need. But in the wake of World War II, the boom to end all booms (at least until China's) was leaving us with a new theology: "Out of all the anxieties created by the desire to make the economy hum at ever higher levels has come a clamor for 'growth.' Economic thinkers of many stripes have joined in the call. Certainly this is the first time in history that the felt need for growth has been so self-consciously vocalized." A brief recession in the late 1950s had made it clear that we had a new master. "At a press conference, President Eisenhower was asked what the people should do to make the recession recede. Here is the dialogue that followed:

A- Buy

Q- What?

A- Anything

There's not much distance between that moment and President Bush informing all of us in the wake of 9/11 that our job was to go shopping. Packard quotes another leader-- marketing consultant Victor Lebow, writing in the Journal of Retailing: "Our enormously productive economy... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing rate."

If there's a moral to this book, fifty years later, it's that No One Can Say We Weren't Warned. If we didn't get it from Thoreau, we should have gotten it from Packard. That we didn't get it is indisputable, and now-- as the Arctic melts and the oceans acidify-- we'll pay the price in ways even he couldn't have imagined.

A McKibben contemporary, author and environmental economist David Korten has very much imagined-- and quite vividly. In his newest book, Agenda For A New Economy, Korten compares the approaches of economists Jeffrey Sachs and James Speth-- tinkering vs transformation-- in regard to the economic collapse our 1% elites have ushered us into. Describing Speth idea's for system redesign, it would be hard to imagine Korten hadn't read Packard at some point.
Economic growth is disrupting the values and living systems essential to human well-being. Beyond a minimal threshold of consumption, distributing wealth equitably and building community, rather than increasing the consumption of stuff, is the key to increasing human health and happiness.

...The operating systems of capitalism must be fundamentally redesigned to internalize costs, distribute ownership, and establish accountability for the human and natural consequences of economic decisions.

Have you been watching the Republican "presidential" debates? Can you imagine asking Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry to comment? How about Mitt Romney? Skip a few months and try imagining what kind of an answer you would get from Barack Obama.

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At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A description of the perfect business model sticks with me from the first time I read the Waste Makers in high school 40 yrs ago...Factories would be located on the verge of great chasms with products moving out the front doors to the market and unwanted or uneeded products made and simply pushed into the chasm..jeebus

At 10:00 PM, Blogger Wraxtiorre said...

I just have to wonder how the 1-percenters would have any revenue after they finished stripping their revenue-base from its income. I mean, if the way to end a recession starts with consumer spending, shouldn't the consumers who are supposed to do the spending have an income from which to spend?

I blogged last year about the nature of credit in a sadly inappropriate storyline called "Dissing Economics at Snacktime."

However, since I myself even find the chauvinist environment portrayed in it unacceptable, I posted an extract which contains only the Anti-Consumerism description.

While I found it to be a significant expression of the underlying cause of this change in our economy, it fails as an academic premise. Also, I have to wonder if this description explains why the 1-percenters are so indifferent to the plight of the consumers in this recession--they no longer need us to have an income to enjoy a revenue based on our existence. This gives me a VERY dismal picture of the fate of our huddled masses, but I have to live with blind hope. However, I welcome your commentary on my articles' theses--as well as the readers it might invite (Shameless self-promotion is partly my motivation here).


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