|Consumerism in the Garden
Moralists of otherwise diverse motivations agree on attacking consumerist materialism as against spiritual values. Educators blame it for distracting young people's interest from learning. Psychologists attribute mass loneliness and depression to unrealizable expectations of what commodities can deliver to consumers. Physicians decry the diseases, stress, and exhaustion linked to excessive work driven by desire for excessive consumption. Yet, for a long time, exhortations by all such folks have mostly failed to slow, let alone reverse, US consumerism.
The question is why? The answer is not advertising, since that begs the question of why that industry should have been so successful in the US and grown to such influence. Nor is it plausible to attribute some national personality flaw to our citizens.
An unspoken, historic deal defined US capitalism for those150 years. Capitalists paid rising wages to enable rising working class consumption; the workers had to provide rising work effort, rising profitability, and thus the even faster rise of profits. Because the rise in workers consumption was slower than the rise of their productivity -- the output that they delivered to employers -- the gap between workers and employers widened across US history. A fundamentally unequal society emerged, one that forever mocked, challenged, and undermined the ideological claims of the US to be the land of equality and opportunity. The working class labored ever harder, consumed more, and yet fell ever further behind the minority who lived off the growing difference between what workers produced and their wages.
This deal might have collapsed at any time if US workers rebelled against the organization of production in the US. This could have occurred if rising wages did not suffice to make them ignore the growing inequality of US life, or if they rejected subordination to ever more automated, exhausting work disciplines, or if they refused to deliver ever more wealth to ever fewer corporate boards of directors of immense corporations ever further removed from them in power, wealth, and access to culture. For that deal to survive -- for US capitalism to have been "successful" for so long -- something had to emerge in US society that prevented any of these deal-breakers from happening. Enter consumerism!
Consumerism's deep roots in the psyche of US workers explains their reactions when real wages stopped rising in the 1970s and since. They simply kept on buying more commodities. To pay for them, workers took on more hours of labor and borrowed vast sums. Worker exhaustion rose accordingly, likewise the number of family members sent out to work (straining "family values" to the breaking point). Anxiety intensified over frightening family debt levels. In this situation, the current scandal of sub-prime mortgages was a predictable disaster waiting to happen.
Consumerism was a necessary component of US capitalism from the 1820s to the 1970s. As an ideology uniquely suited to that capitalism, it was articulated, cultivated, and supported by different social groups. Whatever fun comedians and critics poke at consumerism, it was not some lovable human foible, nor some quirk of our culture. It was the glue holding US capitalism together for a long time. Even more important, business dissolved that glue in the 1970s, and now US workers have exhausted ways to postpone the results of that dissolution. Storms are rising.
Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002) and (with Stephen Resnick) New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006).