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social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts

Consumerism is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts.


  • In thinking about modernity and modern capitalism, Max Weber spoke a century ago about an iron cage. Consumerism brings to mind a different cage. There is a fiendishly simple method of trapping monkeys in Africa that suggests the paradoxes which confront liberty in this era of consumerism. A small box containing a large nut is affixed to a well-anchored post. The nut can be accessed only through a single, small hole in the box designed to accommodate an outstretched monkey’s grasping paw. Easy to reach in, but when the monkey clasps the nut, impossible to get out. Of course, it is immediately evident to everyone (except the monkey) that all the monkey must do to free itself is let go of its prize. Clever hunters have discovered, however, that they can secure their prey hours or even days later because the monkey—driven by desire—will not release the nut, even until death. Is the monkey free or not?
    And what of the consumer? There is of course endless talk about giving people “what they want,” and how the market “empowers” consumers. The market, indeed, does not tell us what to do; it gives us what we want—once it gets through telling us what it is that we want. It promises liberty and happiness while, in truth, delivering neither. More to the point, consumerism encourages a kind of civic schizophrenia, a disorder that divides the citizen into opposing fragments and denies legitimacy to the part that we understand to be “civic” or “public.” The market treats choice as fundamentally private, a matter not of determining some deliberative “we should” but only of enumerating all the “wants” that we harbor as private consumers and creatures of personal desire. Yet private choices inevitably do have social consequences and public outcomes. When these derive from purely personal preferences, the results are often irrational and unintended, at wide variance with the kind of society we might choose through democratic deliberation. Such private choices, though technically “free,” are quite literally dysfunctional with respect to our values and norms. Privatization means the choices we make eventually determine the social outcomes we must suffer together, but which we never directly choose in common.
  • Even within states, where a diluted sovereignty still obtains, consumerism steadily degrades its meaning. The conflation of consumption and citizenship is poisonous to democracy’s survival: When prudent adults become grasping children, the concept of public interest forfeits all meaning. If there is hope, then, it must be in restoring a balance between consumers and citizens, between markets and democracy, and in finding innovative ways to establish that balance globally, where there exists little in the way of democratic oversight or regulation.
  • Benjamin R. Barber, (Spring 2008). "Shrunken Sovereign: Consumerism, Globalization, and American Emptiness". World Affairs. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  • Although we like to think of ourselves as civilised thinkers, we’re subconsciously still driven by an impulse for survival, domination and expansion. This is 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.
    The problem with that, according to Rees and Hern, is that it fails to recognise that the physical resources to fuel this growth are finite. “We’re still driven by growing and expanding, so we will use up all the oil, we will use up all the coal, and we will keep going till we fill the Petri dish and pollute ourselves out of existence,” he says.
    But there’s another, more recent factor that’s making things even worse, and it’s an invention of human culture rather than an evolved trait. According to Rees, the change took place after the second world war in the US, when factories previously producing weapons lay idle, and soldiers were returning with no jobs to go to.
    American economists and the government of the day decided to revive economic activity by creating a culture in which people were encouraged to accumulate and show off material wealth, to the point where it defined their status in society and their self-image.
    Rees quotes economist Victor Lebow as saying in 1955: “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”.
  • “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.”
    The result is a world in which rampant consumption in rich countries is rapidly outstripping the resources in the world needed to satisfy demand.
  • U.S. consumers and industry dispose of enough aluminum to rebuild the commercial air fleet every three months; enough iron and steel to continuously supply all automakers; enough glass to fill New York's World Trade Center every two weeks.
  • [...] what Havel identifies as 'the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity' is a phenomenon that is hardly unique to communist societies. In the West, consumerism induces people to make moral compromises with themselves daily, and they lie to themselves [...] in the name of [...] ideas like 'self-realization' or 'personal growth.'
  • Consumer politics became culturally and politically central in the post-war years, moving far beyond a small cadre of consumer organizers and the larger group of activists. As Lizabeth Cohen has documented, consumer politics became a defining interest of leading business leaders and politicians in the postwar era. The creators of what Cohen calls the "Consumers' Republic" often defined their mission in opposition to the consumer movement. They sought to enshrine consumer choice as the essence of American freedom. They also generally contrasted consumer choice with the consumer movement and vilified consumer activists (whom they labeled consumerists) for infringing on the sovereignty of shoppers. Moreover, as we have seen, many business leaders associated the consumer movement with communism, at worst, and left-wing New Dealism at best. Indeed, the concept of the American free enterprise system emerged in no small measure as a response to the consumer movement. The phrase was coined in the 1930s by anti-New Deal businessmen, and it became a fixture of political discourse in the 1950s. As late as 1970, Elisha Gray II, the chairman of Whirlpool, claimed that consumerism "threatens to destroy the free enterprise system." In a 1969 op-ed piece entitled "Free Enterprise Endangered by Wave of 'Consumerism,'" the satarist Art Buchwald made sport of these claims by noting that the consumer revolution "could get out of hand." Buchwald called for the creation of a "House Anti-Consumerism Committee" which would be charged with finding and prosecuting those anti-free enterprise consumer advocates who sought "the violent overthrow of the National Association of Manufacturers."
  • Lawrence B. Glickman, (2012). Buying power : a history of consumer activism in America (Paperback ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 265. ISBN 978-0226298672, p.263-264
  • Another way of gauging interest in consumer politics is to examine the new significations of the word "consumerism" that emerged in the 1950s. Champions of "free enterprise" celebrated consumerism as the essence of American freedom in the 1950s and a bulwark in the Cold War. For these celebrants, the new stage of mass affluence - the hallmark of American freedom - was centrally dependent on consumption. As Robert Whitney, the president of the International Distribution Congress, said in 1955, "Without consumption, capitalism will crumble," and he offered "consumerism" as the proper name for this "new system." Later that year, a delegation of America's "top salesmen" visited the Soviet Union "to show Russia how American 'consumerism' really works." This group, the National Sales Executives, also proclaimed "consumerism" to be the appropriate name for the economy of the United States; the Russians will "hear about consumerism instead of communism<' declared one delegate. The following year, Robert J. Eggert, a marketing research manager for Ford, told a columnist for the Washington Post that consumerism was the perfect "word for America," since it denoted choice and a high standard of living, two key elements separating Americans from Russians. The "Kitchen Debate," in which Vice President Richard Nixon confronted the Russian premier, Nichkita Khruschev, about the superiority of U.S. domestic conveniences at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in July 1959, marked the culmination of this thinking.
  • Ibid, pp.264-265.
  • Other commentators took the existence of this form of consumerism as proof that the consumer movement was unncecessary or irrelevant. In a 1952 lecture, Charles Phillips, the president of Bates College, claimed that "the actions of consumers in recent years indicate that, in general, they are quite satisfied with the retailer's efforts to serve them - to treat them as king." His evidence: "If they were not, I think, we might find them rushing to join consumer's cooperatives or looking for aid in the Consumer Movement. In fact, they are doing neither. Consumers Union...has achieved a monthly circulation of but 500,000 copies." Like other champions of mass consumerism, as opposed to political consumerism, Phillips here paid backhanded tribute to the consumer movement, and although he prefaced the number with a "but," the membership figure he quoted represented a huge increase from the supposed high point of the 1930s and even the 1940s. In his book The Powerful Consumer, George Katona made the same point from the other side. Conceding that interest in testing agencies "has risen greatly during the last few years," he argued that this was so because such agencies assisted consumers' in their deliberations about what to buy rather than because of a broader concern about the fate of consumers in the public sphere.
  • Ibid, p. 265.
  • Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
  • The problems and possibilities associated with the emergence of a global consumerist ethos is one with which scholars have only just begun to come to grips.For much of the past century, beginning with Thorstein Veblen’s investigation of conspicuous consumption in 1899, anxieties about commodity culture were treated as national or Western rather than global concerns. They have been explored in articles and books on a dizzying array of themes and topics, and from a variety of theoretical perspectives. Attempts to make analytic sense of the impact and significance of consumerism on modern cultures have been complicated from the outset by normative considerations – either of a moralizing character or by concerns about consumerism as a form of social control – as well as by the role played by consumerism in the rise of ‘mass’ societies. When these long-standing anxieties about consumption and consumerism are set against the space of the entire globe, coming to clear conclusions about its impact on global and local social relations is made even more difficult. The idea of consumerism as a form of social control, for example, blends easily into existing discourses of economic and cultural imperialism; what is described as ‘Americanism’ is often the threat of a consumer culture associated with US society. 7 Expressed more structurally, the addition of new global communication technologies and the increasing role of techno-scientific inquiry (labelled R&D) in the production of goods, have intersected with and altered practices of production and exchange, further multiplying the difficulties of accounting for consumption and consumerism in the world today.
  • The central role played by consumerism in contemporary social life has led some scholars to suggest that it is in practices of consumption that we should now locate political, economic and cultural values and rationalities. One commons trategy has been to re-locate the critical functions of culture with respect to society – what for the historical avant-garde emerged from art’s separation from bourgeois life (Bürger 43 ) – to consumerism itself. Lauren Langman, for instance, articulates a not uncommon position within studies of contemporary culture: "‘In our global age, when consumerism is hegemonic, consumer culture provides spaces for transgression’. Political and normative objections to consumerism have to be measured against the empirical fact of consumption as a wide-spread, globalized,and defining practice of everyday life." The Argentinian anthropologist Nestor Garcia Canclini has perhaps gone the farthest in re-thinking the slide from citizens to consumers as something more than a sign of political or cultural loss that has tobe combated at all costs. He writes: "The relation between citizens and consumers has been altered throughout the world due to economic, technological, and cultural changes that have impeded the constitution of identities through national symbols. Now they are shaped by theprogramming of, say, Hollywood, Televisa, and MTV. For many men and women,especially youth, the questions specific to citizenship, such as how we inform ourselves and who represents our interests, are answered more often than not through private consumption of commodities and media offerings than through the abstract rules of democracy or through participation in discredited political organizations. This process could be understood as loss or depoliticization from the perspective of the ideals of liberal or enlightened democracy. But we may also posit,as do James Holston and Arjun Appadurai, that the political notion of citizenship is expanded by including rights to housing, health, education, and the access to other goods through consumption. It is in this sense that I propose reconceptualizing consumption, not as a mere setting for useless expenditures and irrational impulses,but as a site that is good for thinking, where a good part of economic, sociopolitical,and psychological rationality is organized in all societies.
  • Néstor García Canclini, "Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts", University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p. 5); as quoted in ibid,xxiv.
  • In ‘Towards a New Politics of Consumption’, the sociologist Juliet Schorproposes a different way of addressing contemporary consumption. She focuses on an important, if under-theorized aspect of consumption. Schor believes that there is enormous discontent with consumerism; what is lacking is a way to conceptualize this discontent. Social well-being in a consumer society is linked to income levels and the ability to consume. What is lacking is a market for‘alternatives to status or positional goods’. There is a market for things, but not for public goods or more free time. In turn, since it is difficult to express one’s desires for these kinds of goods in a society where achievement is measured by monetary wealth, consumer society ‘under-produces’ goods that people find important: a clean environment (since environmental costs are not included in the price of goods), leisure (as it is harder to choose more free time over higher incomes in virtually every employment sector), and all manner of public goods(since mass transit is so poor, we are forced to use private cars, which in turn leads to a further decline in mass transit since it is under-utilized and in need of subsidy in virtually every urban space on the globe). A new politics of consumption would create a language and a political framework in which it is possible to create an economy of ‘less work and less stuff’. Schor believes that there is a strong demand for such an economy, even if it is difficult to see it because we can only participate in those forms of consumption presently on offer. She makes seven suggestions. First is the revival of discussions of the minimal social needs for every individual in society to be fully able to participate in it; second is a focus on quality of life rather than ‘quantity of stuff’, which in turn is related to the need for more ecologically sustainable forms of consumption. Addressing minimal social needs has to be accompanied by more democratic consumption practices, that is, a way of delegitimating the status of high-end products and changing the rules of the game of distinction. Fifth and sixth, a ‘vast consumer policy agenda’ has to put pressure on the development of government policy, including the creation of policy to control the cultural environment (ad-free zones, diversity in retailing, etc.) Finally, a point that is absolutely crucial to any politics of consumption: ‘everything we consume has been produced. So a new politics of consumption must take into account the labor, environmental, and other conditions under which products are made, and argue for high standards’.
  • Ibid, xxv
  • Western developed societies culture is profoundly connected to and dependent upon consumption. Without consumer goods, modern, developed societies would use key instruments for the reproduction, representation, and manipulation of their culture...The meaning of consumer goods and the meaning creation accomplished by consumer processes are important parts of the scaffolding of our present realities. Without consumer goods, certain acts of self-definition and collective definition in this culture would be impossible. (McCracken, 1990: xi)

"Consumerism: As a Way of Life"]. SAGE. ISBN 9780761952152, p.3

  • If we are therefore to accept the contention that consumption is more than a mere economic phenomenon, then its cultural dimensions cannot be addressed in isolation. Indeed, what is more interesting about consumption is that, 'as a set of social, cultural and economic practices, together with the associated ideology of consumerism, [it] has served to legitimate capitalism in the eyes of millions of ordinary people' (Bocock, 1993: 2). It is in this sense that the notion of consumerism can be said to be of more sociological interest than consumption per se. The study of consumerism is a broader and more reflexive enterprise than a concern for the relatively straightforward process of simply purchasing and consuming a particular good or service. I will suggest that a study of consumerism should actually attempt to come to terms with the complexities that lie behind the act of consumption. In effect, while consumption is an act, consumerism is a way of life. From this point of view, consumerism is the cultural expression and manifestation of the apparently ubiquitous act of consumption.
  • Ibid, p.4
  • Consumerism is an important topic for social scientists precisely because it appears, at a common-sense level, to be somewhat inconsequential. Because we accept the routine of the consuming experience as legitimate, powerful ideological elements of that experience go largely unnoticed. What I will go on to suggest is that consumerism should be considered as an issue that has a fundamental influence upon the everyday experience of social life in advanced capitalist societies.
  • Consumerism is quite possibly the key concern of contemporary social science inasmuch as it transcends everyday life and does so in such a way that consumers take it for granted.
  • Ibid, p.5
  • As far as sociology is concerned, consumption did not emerge as a serious subject of concern until the second half of the twentieth century, and most dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the general tendency to see consumption as ahistorical, as Gabriel and Lang (1995) note, commentators have increasingly come to acknowledge that the social significance of consumption began to emerge far earlier.
  • Ibid, p.8
  • It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that consumerism was proposed by the British and American governments of the 1980s as a prime focus of people's lives and, in Britain in particular, that this proposal was gratefully consumed by sections of the population keen to take advantage of the opportunity to purchase their own council houses and to take their annual holidays abroad.
  • Consumerism has come to be seen as essentially democratic and has been marketed to the population as such, despite the inevitable question marks over access to resources and the extent to which consumption can provide all players with a level playing field. As Ewen (1976) notes in his book Captains of Consciousness, democracy does not merely flow our of people's desires, but actively reflects their ability to participate in a value structure. Consumerism offers an apparently democratic value structure which parties from both ends of the political spectrum have sought to exploit for their own political gain.
  • Ibid, p.10
  • One of the most significant classical contributions to a sociological understanding of consumption, bearing in mind the centrality given to the question of consumption in his analysis, is that of Thorstein Veblen, who saw consumer goods as markers of social prestige and status. In his analysis of the American nouvauz riches of the late nineteenth century, Veblen (1899) described a 'new leisure class' intent on mimicking the lifestyles of the upper classes in Europe. Veblen (1899) argued that higher social groupings continually updated their consumption habits in order to stay one step ahead of the nouveaux riches. As such, consumption was significant largely for its status-conferring qualities, in that what was emerging was a hierarchically organized social structure based upon the prestigious consumption patterns of the rich and in particular the gentleman of leisure who,
    In order to avoid stultification...must...cultivate his tastes, for it now becomes incumbent upon him to discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods...Closely related to the requirement that the gentleman must consume freely and of the right kind of goods, there is the requirement that he must know how to consume themin a seemly manner. (Veblen, 1994 edn: 47; orig. published 1899)
  • Ibid, p.18-19
  • Seeing consumption as a means of establishing, as opposed to merely expressing, variations between social groups, Bourdieu (1984) argues that human beings are motivated by the need to reproduce a collective pattern of preferences based on class demarcation. What Bourdieu describes as 'cultural capital' is crucial in this respect, in that different classes are educationally qualified to take advantage of different aspects of symbolic capital. The dominant classes therefore demonstrate their superiority through access to high culture and high consumption.
  • Ibid, p.21
  • Consumerism as a way of life incorporates social processes which are far beyond the direct control of specific social groups. Indeed, there could be some basis to the argument that, far from symbolic specialists becoming increasingly prevalent in a postmodern world, consumption provides everybody with a sense of control. The essence of consumerism therefore lies in the feeling that as consumers we are all gaining some semblance of authority over the everyday construction of our lives through consumption.
  • Ibid, p.25
  • One of the most well-known and extreme approaches to the influence of a mass-mediated consumer culture is that of Jean Baudrillard, the 'high priest' of postmodernism. Baudrillard (1988: 29) describes the role of consumerism in contemporary society as constituting 'a fundamental mutation in the ecology of the human species'. In this sense, 'Consumer society is...the society for the apprenticeship of consumption, for the social indoctrination of consumption. In other words, this is a new and specific mode of socialization related to the rise of new productive forces and the monopolistic reconstruction of a high output economic system' (Baudrillard, 1988: 49).
    Baudrillard (1988) points out that the idea that human beings have certain 'needs' which have to be satisfied through consumption is a myth inasmuch as human beings are never actually satisfied and thus such 'needs' are never actually fulfilled. In this sense, Baudrillard argues that the consumer good takes on the value of a sign. Discussing the example of the washing machine, Baudrillard argues that consumer objects are no longer tied to function or a defined need, but rather respond to what he describes as a 'logic of desire' (1988: 44). Consumer objects exist in a 'world of general hysteria' where goods become interchangeable (1988: 45). They all signify the potential to fulfill human desire, but can never actually do so. What therefore emerges is a constant fluidity of differential desires and meanings.
  • Ibid, pp.25-26.
  • Douglas and Isherwood therefore refer to consumer goods as an information system and as such famously argue that 'Consumption is the very arena in which culture is fought over and licked into shape' (1996: 37). In effect, consumption acts as a non-verbal medium for human creativity. In this context, the two authors point out that, contrary to some of the over-romanticized visions of the past, social interaction actually improves with affluence. Consumption provides degrees of freedom to the rich which are simply not available to the poor. More importantly, that is crucial about the act of consumption is the meaning that is actually invested in it. When a person purchases a particular bar of chocolate he or she is not simply buying sustenance, but a range of symbolic meanings expressing membership of a social world. In this sense, consumer goods actively articulate existing social divisions and structures. But what is especially interesting about Douglas and Isherwood's work, as Lee (1993) notes, is that it provides an antidote to the structure-down model presented by authors such as Baudrillard. From this point of view, consumers are not seen to be the mere products of structural forces such as advertising and the media. Consumers are always subject to certain pre-established patterns of consumption and social convention, but symbolic goods are purposefully managed by consumers within the cultural rules and codes laid down for and by them.
  • Ibid, p.29
  • The consumer has become a god-like figure, before whom markets and politicians alike bow. Everywhere it seems, the consumer is triumphant...And yet the consumer is also seen as a weak and malleable creature, easily manipulated, dependent, passive and foolish. Immersed in illusions, addicted to joyless pursuits of ever-increasing living standards, the consumer, far from being a god, is a pawn, in games played in invisible boardrooms. (Gabriel and Lang, 1995: 1)
  • Ibid, p.31
  • Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites.
  • Racial injustice, war, urban blight, and environmental rape have a common denominator in our exploitative economic system.
  • Eat and drink, but waste not by excess; verily He loves not the excessive.
  • … the consumerist pornography of advertising
    • Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress, (2004) Chapter 5, note 68.
  • Under present conditions, people are preoccupied with consumer goods not because they are brainwashed but because buying is the one pleasurable activity not only permitted but actively encouraged by our rulers. The pleasure of eating an ice cream cone may be minor compared to the pleasure of meaningful, autonomous work, but the former is easily available and the latter is not. A poor family would undoubtedly rather have a decent apartment than a new TV, but since they are unlikely to get the apartment, what is to be gained by not getting the TV?
  • He who knows he has enough is rich
    • Tao Te Ching Chapter 33
  • Mass consumption, advertising, and mass art are a corporate Frankenstein; while they reinforce the system, they also undermine it. By continually pushing the message that we have the right to gratification now, consumerism at its most expansive encouraged a demand for fulfillment that could not so easily be contained by products.
    • Ellen Willis, "Introduction", Beginning to See the Light (1981).

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