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The Chimera of Consumerism

Published originally as an answer to the following question for Vox Populi 15:

1. Modern Christians sometimes refer to consumerism as a sort of "religion" where money is "God." Do you think there is truth to this, or is it a bad analogy? CONSUMERISM.mp3 

There’s really no such thing as consumerism. Consumerism is one of those weasel words that attempts to control a debate by tampering with the language. Being a consumer is simply purchasing the goods and services that you need to survive–or that you want to make you happy. Our society, unlike any other before it, has a tremendous amount of surplus wealth, and that wealth is used to purchase products people want or need. Some could argue that much of what we buy, we don’t need. But who decides? What’s the definition of need? [For this discussion, I’m staying away from the topic of sustainability, which DOES add a moral dimension to consumption. More on this in a later post.]

In a place like Bangladesh or Somalia, it’s very different than the definition of need in the United States. After all, in United States, the poverty line hovers somewhere around $13,000 or $14,000 a year. And somebody with an income of $13,000 can afford a television, refrigerator, air-conditioner, new clothes, new shoes, a stereo and can eat pretty damn well if they shop smart and clip their coupons. Of course, they still suffer. They may lack money for what they want, or big-ticket items like a car, and they may have trouble paying for necessities like health care. But they have the life of kings compared to those subsisting on a dollar a day or less in many parts of the world.

It is very obvious that the modern consumer economy developed because people desired it. Demonization of individual economic choice by Christians or anyone else, is simply another attempt to impose socially defined, collectivist values.

[Making people feel guilty for enjoying the fruits of their labor is the first step to getting them to part with their money. Christians set up a straw man in their attack on ‘consumerism.’ They assert that consumers seek ‘meaning’ through their purchases–and then knock down their straw man by stating the obvious: "products don’t guarantee happiness." They should know that most people are not seeking to find the meaning of life at Pottery Barn. But having a well-appointed crib clearly doesn’t suck.]

[The whole debate is simply a tactic to gain a false moral authority.] It’s a way of focusing people’s attention away from success and prosperity in this material world and towards the promised afterlife. After all, if your churchgoer spent all their money at Wal-Mart, they don’t have anything left to put in the collection plate.


Comments (2 comments)

Matt / July 26th, 2006, 11:42 am / #1

Sean,

Great post, and I wholeheartedly agree with you (and don’t get me started on Wal-Mart, that’s a seperate issue for me!).

I think that you nailed it when you talk about playing with the language… you can make anything a ‘bad thing’ if you define it narrow enough in your world view. But I want to come back at all of the people that are attacking consumerism, and ask them to truly examine what they ‘need’ to survive. If Christian’s want to go on the offensive here, then I would ask them: why do you own a home? You don’t NEED to own one to survive. Why do you own a car? In many cases you don’t NEED to own a car to survive. Why do you own a computer, since you don’t NEED one to survive?

I would argue that the whole ‘consumerism’ argument is bullshit in the end, because the only thing that humans truly need to sustain themselves (from a material standpoint) is shelter from inclement weather, nutrious food, and drinkable water. Anything else is not a NEED, it’s a LUXARY. I would argue that there probably isn’t a single opponent of ‘consumerism’ out there who is living in a cave, wearing the most basic clothing to shield them from the weather, and eating and drinking only what they need to survive.

The people who ARE living like the above scenario in this world probably have no clue about consumerism, since they are simply surviving, not getting into useless debates.

Do you need that church?
Do you need that cross?
Do you need that bible?
Do you need those devotional tapes?
Do you need that gold cross around your neck?

All of these are manufactured, and not needed for survival… they are wants based on personal preferences.

-olly

BlackSun / July 27th, 2006, 3:00 am / #2

Olly, nice addition to the post–thanks, couldn’t have said it better.

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