Anti-consumerism is often associated with criticism of consumption, starting with Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen, but according to Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class consumerism can be traced back to the first human civilizations. Consumerism can also denote economic policies associated with Keynesian economics, and, in an abstract sense, refer to the belief that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of a society (cf. producerism).
Many anti-corporate activists believe the rise of large-business corporations poses a threat to the legitimate authority of nation states and the public sphere. They feel corporations are invading people's privacy, manipulating politics and governments, and creating false needs in consumers. They state evidence such as invasive advertising adware, spam, telemarketing, child-targeted advertising, aggressive guerrilla marketing, massive corporate campaign contributions in political elections, interference in the policies of sovereign nation states (Ken Saro-Wiwa), and endless global news stories about corporate corruption (Enron, for example).
Anti-consumerism protesters point out that the main responsibility of a corporation is to answer only to shareholders, giving human rights and other issues almost no consideration The management does have a primary responsibility to their shareholders, since any philanthropic activities that do not directly serve the business could be deemed to be a breach of trust. This sort of financial responsibility means that multi-national corporations will pursue strategies to intensify labor and reduce costs. For example, they will attempt to find low wage economies with laws which are conveniently lenient on human rights, the natural environment, trade union organization and so on (see, for example, Nike).
An important contribution to the critique of consumerism has been made by French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, arguing modern capitalism is governed by consumption rather than production, and the advertising techniques used to create consumer behaviour amount to the destruction of psychic and collective individuation. The diversion of libidinal energy toward the consumption of consumer products, he argues, results in an addictive cycle of consumption, leading to hyper consumption, the exhaustion of desire, and the reign of symbolic misery.
Critics have linked the rise of anti-consumer sentiment to Marxist and socialist ideologies. In 1999, the libertarian magazine Reason attacked anti-consumerism, 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."
In his 2004 book Understanding Postmodernism, Stephen Hicks takes a position similar to Twitchell's, though argued in much greater detail. Hicks notes that, from the 1800s, socialists and Marxists had consistently argued that wealth was good because it could increase quality of life -- but that capitalism was bad because it would force the working and middle-classes into poverty while simultaneously concentrating wealth in fewer hands. By the 1950s, however, the evidence was undeniable that socialist countries had lower standards of living (often coupled with massive human rights atrocities), while capitalist countries overwhelmingly saw increasing middle-class populations, rising wages and improved standards of living for all citizens. In response to this failure of socialism in theory and practice, Hicks argues that leading Marxist and socialist thinkers (e.g., Herbert Marcuse) made an about face to argue that wealth was bad because it "trapped" people in comfortable middle-class lifestyles: "Capitalism's producing so much wealth, therefore, is bad: It is in direct defiance of the moral imperative of historical progress towards socialism. It would be much better if the proletariat were in economic misery under capitalism, for then they would realize their oppression..." (p. 154)
"It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly."
In many critical contexts, the term describes the tendency of people to identify strongly with products or services they consume, especially with commercial brand names and obvious status-enhancing appeal, such as a brand of expensive automobiles or jewelry. It is 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 has a high amount of consumerism is referred to as a consumer culture.
To those who embrace the idea of consumerism, these products are not seen as valuable in themselves, but rather as social signals that allow them to identify like-minded people through consumption and display of similar products. Few would yet go so far, though, as to admit that their relationships with a product or brand name could be substitutes for healthy human relationships that sometimes lack in a dysfunctional modern society.
The term and concept of conspicuous consumption originated at the turn of the 20th century in the writing 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.
"Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate".
According to archaeologists, evidence of conspicuous consumption up to several millennia ago has been found, suggesting that such behavior is inherent to humans.
Anti-consumerists believe advertising plays a huge role in human life by informing values and assumptions of the cultural system, deeming what is acceptable and determining social standards. They declare that ads create a hyper-real world where commodities appear as the key to securing happiness. Anti-consumerists cite studies that find that individuals believe their quality of life improves in relation to social values that lie outside the capability of the market place. Therefore, advertising attempts to equate the social with the material by utilizing images and slogans to link commodities with the real sources of human happiness, such as meaningful relationships. Ads are then a detriment to society because they tell consumers that accumulating more and more possessions will become bring them closer to self-actualization, or the concept of a complete and secure being. –The underlying message is that owning these products will enhance our image and ensure our popularity with others–.
Anti-consumerists claim that in a consumerist society, advertisement images disempower and objectify the consumer . By stressing individual power, choice and desire, advertising falsely implies the control lies with the consumer. Because anti-consumerists believe commodities only supply short-term gratification, they detract from a sustainably happy society. Further, advertisers have resorted to new techniques of capturing attention, such as the increased speed of ads and product placements. In this way, commercials infiltrate the consumerist society and become an inextricable part of culture. Anti-consumerists condemn advertising because it constructs a simulated world that offers fantastical escapism to consumers, rather than reflecting actual reality. They further argue that ads depict the interests and lifestyles of the elite as natural; cultivating a deep sense of inadequacy among viewers. They denounce use of beautiful models because they glamorize the commodity beyond reach of the average individual.
In an opinion segment of New Scientist magazine published in August 2009, reporter Andy Coghlan cited William Rees of the University of British Columbia and epidemiologist Warren Hern of the University of Colorado at Boulder, saying that human beings, despite considering themselves civilized thinkers, are "subconsciously still driven by an impulse for survival, domination and expansion... an impulse which now finds expression in the idea that inexorable economic growth is the answer to everything, and, given time, will redress all the world's existing inequalities." According to figures presented by Rees at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, human society is in a "global overshoot", consuming 30% more material than is sustainable from the world's resources. Rees went on to state that at present, 85 countries are exceeding their domestic "bio-capacities", and compensate for their lack of local material by depleting the stocks of other countries.
"Lebow and his cronies got together to 'create' the modern advertising industry, which plays to primitive beliefs," says Rees. "It makes you feel insecure, because the advertising industry turned our sense of self-worth into a symbolic presentation of the possessions we have," he told me. "We've turned consumption into a necessity, and how we define ourselves."
Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index
Consumer Awareness –
Consumer Issues –
Consumer Marketing –
Left History –
Libraries & Archives –
Social Change –
Alternatives – Consumer Awareness – Consumer Issues – Consumer Marketing – Left History – Libraries & Archives – Social Change –
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