The Downside to Consumerism

Last week we looked at the upside of Consumerism, the ways in which it functions well as an employment-creation system.  This week we’ll look at the darker side of our trusty economic engine.  Seventh in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

The question of course, is this:  If Consumerism works so well, why are people out of work?  Who turned off the jobs spigot?  As it turns out when we take a closer look at how well Consumerism meets our criteria for a great employment-creation system, the picture isn’t nearly as rosy as we painted it last week.  Let’s take a look at the criteria again.

  1. It creates jobs:  An unlimited supply, right?  Not really.  Theoretically the kinds and quantities of consumer goods that can be produced (and thus the number of jobs producing those goods) are only limited by people’s imaginations.  But in reality, there’s an actual limit to how much people want to acquire.  Most people in the First World already have far more consumer goods than they need to live a comfortable –one might even say luxurious –life.  This leads to the problem we discussed in week three (“The Global Pyramid Scheme“) of markets drying up.There are a number of ways in which consumerism compensates for this effect, but they all have problems attached to them.  One way is by making cheaper, more disposable products that wear out faster (such as blenders that break on the third usage) –which is wasteful.  Another way is to stimulate people’s desires for new and different products –which involves making them unhappy with what they already have (as in the case of cell phones that are already out of date a month after being sold) .  A third way is to promote ostentatious excesses (such as the purchase of giant gas-guzzling automobiles).  In addition to making our lives unhappy and filled with cheap crap, these techniques also accelerate the depletion and pollution of the Earth’s natural resources.  Consumerism is a driving force behind impending shortages of such vital and irreplaceable resources such as clean water, oil, fish populations, trees, and unpolluted air, a trend pushing us in the direction of an ever-accelerating environmental disaster.One cutting edge “solution” to the problem is the invention of “virtual” consumer goods, simulated objects that are bought, sold, coveted and “gifted” on various websites and in various virtual reality environments around the internet, ranging from Facebook and MySpace to World of Warcraft and Second Life.  These objects don’t draw a lot of resources, they don’t take up any physical space, and people love them.  It’s a perfect solution, except for the fact that people are now spending huge portions of their lives in the pursuit of shiny objects that don’t, strictly speaking, even exist.  Plato would be horrified.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Apparently not as well as it once did, but that’s more of a symptom of jobs drying up than the cause.  A more serious concern is Consumerism’s poor prioritization of projects, since it elevates trivial industries (say, the marketing of soda pop) to positions of central importance, while letting projects vital to the future of humanity (such as preventing mass extinctions) languish.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  This is where we run into real problems.  As you recall, Consumerism makes jobs meaningful through the money you earn from working those jobs, and money is meaningful, not just for its raw purchasing power, but because it allows us to each measure our own self-worth against that of those around us.  But reducing everything to money has its downside as well.  It’s nearly always possible to increase your profit margins (at least in the short term) by doing some bad or immoral thing such as clear-cutting the forest primeval, farming out your labor to five-year-old workers in a Third World country, or putting sawdust in the chicken nuggets.

The upshot of all of this is that Consumerism is faltering.  People are no longer in tune with its devil-may-care, spendthrift ethos, and the loss of confidence in the Consumerist philosophy is having a very real effect on global markets.  Furthermore, the stopgap measures that gave Consumerism an extra century or so of viability have run their course.  Now like the snake eating it’s own tail, Consumerism has begun to consume itself –one reason, perhaps, for current pop-culture’s tendency to endlessly regurgitate and redigest it’s own recent past.

The problem, of course, is that Consumerism is what is keeping Capitalism afloat, and when it comes to Capitalism, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, there is nothing else.  Competing systems, such as Communism, have been much worse.  But is Consumerism the only possible employment-creation system that can rescue Capitalism, or are there other options?

NEXT WEEK – Feudalism