This is part of an ongoing series of blogs examining the consequences of neoliberalism over the last several decades, particularly in the U.S. Neoliberalism is a modern politico-economic theory favoring free trade, privatization, minimal government intervention in business, and reduced public expenditure on social services.
Capitalism needs constant new sources of wealth in order to expand and grow. Manufacturing was the leading sector of the American economy in the post-war years, but since the 1980s the growth of the U.S. economy has been spurred by the expansion of consumerism, which provides goods and services that satisfy consumers’ artificial wants. Today 90 percent of the American work force is directly and indirectly in the business of producing consumer goods and services. Private consumption expenditures make up about 70 percent of GDP.
First used in the 1960s, the term “consumerism” means an emphasis on or preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods. Consumerism is a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods or services in ever greater amounts. In economics, consumerism refers to economic policies placing emphasis on consumption. It involves a powerful, socially sanctioned commitment to ever-increasing purchase of goods and services. It is similar to materialism, an approach to life and social well-being that elevates the material conditions of life over the spiritual and social dimensions. A consumer society acquires goods and services not only to satisfy common needs but also to secure identity and meaning. Consumption patterns are powerfully shaped by forces such as advertising, cultural norms, social pressures, and psychological associations.[i] Sociologist Madeline Levine criticized what she saw as a large change in American culture in the post-war years, identifying this as “a shift away from values of community, spirituality, and integrity, and toward competition, materialism and disconnection.”[ii]
Neoliberals have been successful in exporting a consumer ethos to the rest of the world. Many think of consumerism as the new religion of the world community, worshipping at the altar of the shopping mall or the on-line retailer, performing the ritual of purchasing dazzling products that are beyond what is needed for a comfortable life. On a summer 2011 trip to China with fellow educators, I was dismayed to see the proliferation of late model cars in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai. I was dismayed because the smog hung so thick in the cities that it stung my eyes and limited the view to only what was immediately in front of us. Consumerism is indeed is rampant in the two largest cities in China where the most desired consumer purchase is a late model car, preferably one with high status, such as the racy Audi sports car displayed at the airport in Xian, China. Who says the U.S. doesn’t export anything? We have exported consumerism, and the rest of the world can’t seem to get enough.
Capitalism has been immensely successful at producing goods and services for about 20 percent of the world’s population that can afford these products. They have enough goods for a comfortable life, yet the other 80 percent of the world’s population does not. This is one of the many paradoxes of capitalism. Capitalism, which is supremely efficient at producing goods and services, is not proficient at distributing those goods and services to those in real need.
In fact, capitalism has been too successful in producing goods and services. Have you ever been to a store that has racks and racks of clothes waiting for purchase and wondered who is going to buy all these items? Producers have become inventive in creating ways to induce consumers to buy more – more than they need. Enter the advertising industry. The single goal of this industry is to get customers to buy more things. The industry creates gimmicks and enticements to convince consumers that they need more and more. The single goal of the advertising industry is to stimulate new needs and desires on the part of consumers whose only remedy for this malaise is to buy.
The traditional values of the Protestant ethic that have shaped the American value system since the founding of this country include thrift, hard work and its rewards, long-term planning, rational behavior, stability, and adherence to rules and laws. The dilemma for advertisers is that a person with these values does not impulsively consume. The advertising industry figured out that it needed to change individual behaviors and values, and it launched a brazen campaign to change the entrenched Protestant and patriotic values that provided the foundation for American culture. The industry sought to transform the rational, logical, steadfast behaviors of mature adults into what journalist Benjamin Barber calls “infantilizing adult behaviors.” The advertising industry encourages behaviors that are impulsive, irrational, self-centered, reckless and, in other words, infantile. Billions of dollars later, its efforts have proven to be worthy of its investment from the capitalist perspective.
Critical Thinking Questions to Consider:
1. Imagine you have traveled in time from the 19th century, and arrive in the 21st century in the middle of a large shopping mall in America. Looking at the stores and shoppers from this perspective, what might some of your thoughts be?
2. What percentage of the things you own do you think you need to survive?
[ii] Levine, Madeline, “Challenging the Culture of Affluence,” Independent School. 67.1 (2007): 28-36. http://www.nais.org/publications/ismagazinearticle.cfm?ItemNumber=150274