Sunday, January 31, 2016

Enoughness and the Age of Consumer Capitalism, part 1

trees reflected in a winter pool

There is nothing more destructive to capitalism than the satisfied customer.

Lately, much of my work professionally is focused on reviving American practices of democratic citizenship, as well as reforming our economic culture and our public policies in ways that are less destructive to ourselves and our world.  There are various dynamics at work, but when I look around at all the various problems and potentials of our era, I've long maintained that consumerism is at the heart of the matter.

I thought I'd make use of this blog to try to flesh out my thinking on the topic, so bear with me . . .

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Depending on your priorities, market capitalism can be an efficient way to organize your economic affairs.  Those who possess wealth set up enterprises, and those who don't have wealth must exchange hours of work for a wage.  The desire for a good wage motivates the have-nots to be diligent and ambitious workers and the desire for profits motivates the haves to create goods for their customers in a cost-effective way.  When government is strong enough and democratic enough to set ground rules and make sure the common good is protected to some degree, it's not a terrible system.

For millennia the grunt-work of civilization was done with human and animal bodies, supplemented with the power of falling water and bustling wind, but now coal, oil and gas do the work and ask for no wage other than the effort it takes to get them out of the ground.

It's probably more accurate to call our current system "consumer capitalism," because the energy subsidy from fossil fuels enables a new variant, in which wage earners don't just occupy themselves with subsistence - the reproduction of the workforce - but they secure enough wealth to become key customers in their own right.  And they become a necessary and vital market for the goods being produced.

By the time we got a ways into the 20th century, there was actually enough wealth being produced to ensure material security for everyone, arguably even to a degree of comfort and luxury that would have satisfied an upper middle class burgher from a few generations past.  Leisure and time - freedom from labor and drudgery - had been the privilege of the few, but was now within the grasp of the many.

I ponder what might have happened if we had developed "enoughness" as a core cultural value- if our system had been oriented toward ensuring that people found satisfaction and self-actualization in a materially modest, cozy existence where there was less work and more leisure, more fellowship and edification and less competitive consumption.

But that is clearly not where we've ended up.    Today, instead of free time we have workers putting in 60-hour weeks to pay the rent or rise up the ladder, and mothers dropping their 3-week old babies at daycare.

We have millions of young people medicated and self-medicating to endure a ruthless culture of striving, in which the ability to stay focussed on working and spending are the parameters of life's success.


Our time away from work is no longer "free", but instead an effort of consumerist leisure - whether passively consuming media products or actively - and expensively - constructing our identities as golfers or runners, backpackers or Caribbean vacationers, video gamers or stadium tailgaters.

We work long hours for our wages and forget how to do a thousand things our great grandparents could do for themselves.  We've had our crafts and callings taken from us and replaced with things and services that we can buy from our direct-deposit paychecks.

We bring the global poor into our orbit as factory drones, but with the promise that they can soon join us under the bright lights of our consumerism.

Along a different trajectory, within a culture of enoughness, we might have been the beneficiaries of a golden age of prosperity and civilization - or at least achieved some sort of sustainable global existence. Is it so hard to imagine?

Next week, I'll continue my effort to sketch out this predicament - and the ways that our unhappy system is enforced and evaded . . .

6 comments:

  1. guera_linda@msn.comFebruary 1, 2016 at 4:08 PM

    have you read this recent article from the Guardian? I found it quite interesting. ARGH new operating system doesn't cut and paste the same way as before. Can't make a link. but it's on the opinion page and is titled "If having more no longer satisfies us, perhaps we have reached "peak stuff." Author Will Hutton

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  2. Yes yes yes!

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  3. Your 'we' does not include everyone! I figured out that I would rather be rich in time than in money before I was twenty, and that is some time ago. I was fortunate in many ways. Pity the poor young of today who have to cope with low wages and higher cost of the basics.

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  4. I think that's part 3 - to what extent "we" escape this consumerism they foist upon us. Like you I preferred experiences to things, but of course that's also been a frontier for consumerism!

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  5. I finally got around to reading it, thanks. Listening to economists fumbling at the intersection of their models and the real world is always entertaining - or terrifying - given how central their models are to how our world is run.

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  6. Your 'we' does not include everyone! I figured out that I would rather be rich in time than in money before I was twenty, and that is some time ago. I was fortunate in many ways. Pity the poor young of today who have to cope with low wages and higher cost of the basics.

    www.golden-slot.com

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