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Consumerism is a term used to describe the effects of equating personal happiness with purchasing material possessions and consumption. It is often associated with criticisms of consumption starting with Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen, but can actually be traced back to the first human civilizations.
In economics, consumerism can also refer to economic policies that place an emphasis on consumption, and, in an abstract sense, the belief that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of a society (cf. Producerism, especially in the British sense of the term).
History[edit | edit source]
Although consumerism is commonly associated with capitalism and the Western world, it is multi-cultural and non-geographical, as seen today in Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Taipei, Tel Aviv and Dubai, for example. Consumerism, as in people purchasing goods or consuming materials in excess of their needs, is as old as the first civilizations (see Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Ancient Rome, for example). Since consumerism began, various individuals and groups have consciously sought an alternative lifestyle through simple living.
Usage[edit | edit source]
Popular media used "Consumerist" as a short-form for "Consumer-Activist". Webster's dictionary added "the promotion of the consumer's interests" alongside "the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable" under "Consumerism".
Criticism[edit | edit source]
Marx argued that the capitalist economy leads to the fetishization of goods and services, and the devaluing of the intrinsic worth of a good or service, replaced by a focus on its price in the market. In many critical contexts, consumerism is used to describe the tendency of people to identify strongly with products or services they consume, especially those with commercial brand names and obvious status-enhancing appeal, e.g. an expensive automobile, rich jewellery. It has become a pejorative term which most people deny, having some more specific excuse or rationalization for consumption other than the idea that they are "compelled to consume". A culture that is permeated by consumerism can be referred to as a consumer culture.
Opponents of consumerism argue that many luxuries and unnecessary consumer products are social signals that allow people to identify like-minded individuals through consumption and display of similar products. Some believe that relationships with a product or brand name are substitutes for the healthy human relationships lacking in dysfunctional modern societies.
The older term "conspicuous consumption" spread to describe consumerism in the United States in the 1960s, but was soon linked to larger debates about media theory, culture jamming, and its corollary productivism.
The term and concept of "conspicuous consumption" originated at the turn of the 20th century in the writings of economist Thorstein Veblen. The term describes an apparently irrational and confounding form of economic behaviour. Veblen's scathing proposal that this unnecessary consumption is a form of status display is made in darkly humorous observations like the following:
- "It is true of dress in even a higher degree than of most other items of consumption, that people will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption; so that it is by no means an uncommon occurrence, in an inclement climate, for people to go ill clad in order to appear well dressed."(The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899).
Viktor Frankl had suggested that in the U.S., the engine behind consumerism is an extension of the "bread-winner" desire, an argument originally made by Veblen in his 1899 book.
"Overcoming Consumerism" is a growing philosophy. It is a term that embodies the active resistance to consumerism. It is being used by many universities as a term for course material and as an introduction to the study of marketing from a non-traditional approach.
Counter arguments[edit | edit source]
While there is not precisely an intellectual movement to promote consumerism, there has been, in recent years, strong criticism of the anti-consumerist movement. Most of this comes from libertarian thought. For example, Reason magazine, in 1999, attacked the anti-consumerism movement, claiming Marxist academics are repackaging themselves as anti-consumerists. James Twitchell, a professor at the University of Florida and popular writer, referred to anti-consumerism arguments as "Marxism Lite."
The libertarian attack on the anti-consumerist movement is largely based on the perception that it leads to elitism. Namely, libertarians believe that no person has the right to decide for (or even suggest to) others what goods are "necessary" for living and which aren't, or that luxuries are necessarily wasteful, and thus argue that anti-consumerism is a precursor to central planning or a totalitarian society. Conversely, many anti-consumerists believe that a modern consumer society is created through extensive advertising and media influence, rather than arising from people's natural ideas regarding the kinds of things they need. In other words, anti-consumerists tend to believe that consumerism is an artificial creation sustained by artificial social pressures, while libertarians tend to believe that consumerism is natural and the only way to eliminate it is through artificial social pressures.
See also[edit | edit source]
- Buy Nothing Day
- Consumer debt
- Economic materialism
- Keeping up with the Joneses
- List of environment topics
- Post-materialism (economics)
- Religion of Consumerism
- Simple living
Further reading[edit | edit source]
- Veblen, Thorstein (1899): The Theory of the Leisure Class: an economic study of institutions, Dover Publications, Mineola, N.Y., 1994, ISBN 0486280624. (also available: Project Gutenberg e-text)
- Nissanoff, Dan (2006). FutureShop: How the New Auction Culture Will Revolutionize the Way We Buy, Sell and Get the Things We Really Want, The Penguin Press. ISBN 1-594-20077-7. (Hardcover, 246 pages)
[edit | edit source]
- AdBusters, anti-consumerism magazine
- Fifty Possible Ways to Challenge Over-Commercialism by Albert J. Fritsch, SJ, PhD
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