[OPE-L] Doug Dowd, "Consumerism As A Social Disease"

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed Sep 28 2005 - 15:11:59 EDT

Consumerism As A Social Disease

by Doug Dowd

September 28, 2005

Not for nothing was the opening chapter of Marx's Capital entitled
"Commodities," for commodification is among the defining
characteristics of capitalism. First was land and labor; now,
everything is a commodity; everything is for sale.

Adam Smith provided the analytical basis for commodification. In his
Wealth of Nations (1776). He argued that free market competition,
warts and all, would take us to "the best of all possible worlds."
What he sought to replace was the corrupt and power-drunk
mercantilist state of his time; he would be horrified by the corrupt
and power-drunk monopoly capitalism of our time.

As Smith wrote, and until the 20th century, capitalism had no need
for consumerism. There was, of course, "consumption," but that is as
different from consumerism as eating is from gluttony: we must eat to
survive; gluttony is self-destructive.

By his own reckoning, Marx knew it was impossible to foresee all that
capitalism would bring about, but in analyzing worker "alienation" in
1844, he anticipated the essence of consumerism:

The power of /the worker's/ money diminishes directly with the growth
of the quantity of production, i.e., his need increases with
increasing power of money... Excess and immoderation become /the/
true standard...; the expansion of production of needs becomes an
ingenious and always calculating subservience to inhuman, depraved,
unnatural, and imaginary appetites. (quoted in Bottomore; Marx's

Marx wrote as the first industrial revolution was roaring, when
workers' average incomes were so low their lifespan had been in
decline since the 1820s. (Hobsbawm) By the time Veblen wrote his
U.S.-focused Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the second
industrial revolution was in full swing. Productivity and production
had risen so dramatically that for capitalism's "health" irrational
consumption had become both necessary and possible. The center of
Veblen's analysis were the elements of what became consumerism:
"emulation" and its children: "conspicuous consumption, display, and
In 1899, such behavior was possible then only for "the leisure
class." For most others, given the political economy of the time,
just staying alive remained a major problem. That began to change in
the 1920s, if only for a fifth of the people: by today's poverty
measure, half of the people were poor in the 1920s. (Miller)

For consumer irrationality to reach today's levels in the U.S, (and,
now, other industrial countries), major socioeconomic developments
were essential; they arrived first in here, much enhanced by the
economic stimuli of two world wars: World War I reversed an ongoing
economic slowdown; World War II lifted us out of a decade of deep
depression. But that was not all; both wars subsidized a string of
new technologies and really mass production of durable consumer
goods; most notably cars and electrical products. After 1945, that
vast expansion of industrial production -- plus strong unions --
required and provided a qualitative jump in "good jobs" and
purchasing power.

The wars had come just in time. Their creation of a permanent
military-industrial complex plus consumerism assured that with or
without war, there would always be a way out of what, by the 1920s
had become a chronic and serious business illness: the inability of
business to make a profit using productive capacities efficiently.

Along with militarism, the solution was found in consumerism and
modern advertising, for all household products (from toasters to
soap), for "fashion," and, most famously, for cigarettes and
automobiles. (Soule)

Cars and smokes used different and overlapping techniques; but both
figuratively and literally poisoned the air we breathe. Lucky Strike,
with its "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet," glamorized and
universalized cigarette smoking, irrespective of gender, age, or
condition of servitude. Edward Bernays, the "genius" behind the Lucky
Strike ads, had earlier "invented" the art of public relations in
1916, when he was hired by President Woodrow Wilson -- who ran for
re-election in 1916 promising to keep us out of war -- to soften up
the public for our 1917 entry to that war. (Tye)

As for cars, their sales had leveled off already by 1923. It was in
that year that GM introduced three ways to enhance waste and
irrationality: 1) the annual model change ("planned obsolescence");
2) massive advertising, and 3) "GMAC," its own "bank" so buyers could

Consumerism came into being along with monopoly capitalism -- which,
as Paul Baran put it long ago "teaches us to want what we don't need
and not to want what we do." The "teaching" is done mostly by the
always more ingenious advertising industry -- now raking in more than
$200 billion a year in the U.S. alone.

Advertising feeds our irrationalities and energizes our frenzied
plunge into debt: as of today, household debt (credit cards, car
loans, and mortgages) exceeds $10 trillion, and monthly payments are
well in excess of average monthly incomes.

Advertising's function is not to provide information any more than
consumerism's is to provide for people's needs; through delusion and
illusion, its function is the capture of "hearts and minds." Just
what Dr. Capitalism ordered.

That's bad enough; even worse are consumerism's socio-political
by-products: the citizenry, increasingly "bewitched, bothered, and
bewildered," is effectively distracted from what is being done to it
by "the power elite."

In his Instinct of Workmanship (1914), Veblen argued we have both
constructive and destructive "instincts," but that capitalism brings
out -- must bring out -- the worst in us. Baran made that same point
and captured the essence of modern advertising in his essay "Theses
on Advertising" (in The Longer View):

It is crucial to recognize that advertising and mass media programs
sponsored by and related to it do not to any significant extent
create values or produce attitudes but rather reflect existing and
exploit prevailing attitudes. In so doing they undoubtedly re-enforce
them and contribute to their propagation, but they cannot be
considered to be their taproot.... Advertising campaigns succeed not
if they seek to change people's attitudes but if they manage to find,
by means of motivation research and similar procedures, a way of
linking up with existing status-seeking and snobbery; social, racial,
and sexual discrimination; egotism and unrelatedness to others; envy,
gluttony, avarice, and ruthlessness in the drive for self-advancement
-- all of these attitudes are not generated by advertising but are
made use of and appealed to in the contents of the advertising
material. (His emphases.)

So, here we are, a people lurching along several intersecting paths
of destruction:

1. The much vaunted "nuclear family" has become a shambles, as
roughly two-thirds of all married couples with children work
full-time, while their kids -- with or without care -- watch
ad-filled TV an average of six hours daily.

2. In the realm of politics, the always low level of
class-consciousness in the U.S. has been squashed to the vanishing
point by consumerism, adding to the other trends weakening unions and
strengthening the already omnipotent "Fortune 500" and its bought and
sold politicians and media.

3. As our celebrated "individualism" becomes concentrated on
borrowing, buying, and making out, we have allowed our always
inadequate social policies concerning our education, health, housing,
pensions, and public transportation to dwindle or disappear.

4. Last, and most dangerously, we have looked the other away as "our"
nation pursues brutal and dangerous policies abroad and we remain
indifferent -- or worse -- concerning current and looming
environmental disasters.

All of this deepens and spreads at the very time when both large and
small social crises require careful and sustained attention and
thought and cooperative effort if they are to be resolved well and

We will not be taken on that desperately needed path by today's
"leaders." The necessary changes will never come from the top down;
they can and must be brought about from the bottom up. Workers
without unions must form or join one; those in unions must demand and
create a new leadership, and must find ways to join with the
thousands of groups working on the broad range of vital social issues.

The politics of the U.S. must become those meeting the basic needs
and values of the overwhelming majority of our people, those whose
lives are in every respect damaged or ruined by what is now "normal."
We must build a movement, moving away from capitalism, find that path
by ourselves; we must lead.

We will not be starting from scratch, nor be alone. There are
thousands of hard-working groups which can and must link up in order
to forge an always greater movement. There are already important
stirrings under way; all must become stirrers.

If not us, who? If not now, when?


Baran, P. The Longer View.
Bottomore, T. Early Writings.
Hobsbawm, E. Industry and Empire.
Milller, H. Rich Man, Poor Man
Soule, G. Prosperity Decade.
Tye, L. The Father of Spin: Edward Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations.

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