The Brief, Tragic Reign of Consumerism and the Birth of a Happy Alternative (Resilience.org)
The creation of “consumerism” was a direct response to the crisis of overproduction. There was a great fear that after the war-footing economy ended, we would once again slip into another Great Depression. Today we dismiss that as impossible, and believe we can fix all our economic problems by manipulating interest rates regardless of what the real economy of goods and services that people actually inhabit is doing. But back then, people took into account things like technological unemployment, overproduction, resource depletion, class power, diminishing returns; things that have been airbrushed out of contemporary economics in favor of abstract math and ludicrous assumptions.
To avoid that result, we engaged in the single greatest feat of social engineering the world has ever seen. Massive freeways were built to funnel the “nuclear family” out of America’s cities to live in single-family suburban Levittowns, while rail systems were ripped up coast to coast and cities fell into decay and disrepair. “Keeping up with Joneses” became a national obsession. Automobiles and houses drove accumulation and discouraged sharing. Homebuilding became the beating heart of the economy, and those houses became filled with every modern appliance and convenience. But the most important appliance of all was the television, without which consumerism would not have been possible on the scale it was implemented (and something it’s inventors never probably imagined it would be used for).
A massive psychological experiment was unleashed on the American public with all of us as guinea pigs. And as I’ve pointed out, if it were a real experiment, given the results engendered, it would have been terminated due to ethical concerns long ago. Heinberg provides an excellent summary of the history of that social engineering:
Though consumerism began as a project organized by corporate America, government at all levels swiftly lent its support. When citizens spent more on consumer goods, sales tax and income tax revenues tended to swell. After World War II, government advocacy of increased consumer spending was formalized with the adoption of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the nation’s primary measure of economic success, and with the increasing use of the term consumer by government agencies.I’m sure we’ve all heard the statistic about how “70 percent of the economy is consumer spending.” Without all this social engineering, capitalism in its present form would have collapsed long ago. Thus, I think the extent that capitalism was “saved” in the post-war period has been greatly exaggerated. Much of our wealth and jobs have not been creating value but rather mindless consumerism, waste, financial speculation, fraud, inefficiency and propaganda (advertising alone accounts for some 750 billion dollars of GDP). How much “growth” in the post-war period has been just this?
By the 1950s, consumerism was thoroughly interwoven in the fabric of American society. In 1955, economist Victor Lebow would epitomize the new status quo, writing in the Journal of Retailing: “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.”
The best summary I’ve yet read of this comes from Jeremy Rifkin’s book The End of Work, which also contains a great summary of the Technocracy Movement and their arguments. This article from Orion which I’ve posted before draws heavily on his account:
The Gospel of Consumption (Orion)
I’d also recommend the following books in addition to TEOW and the books by Stuart Ewen (which were new to me):
DEADLY PERSUASION: Why Women And Girls Must Fight The Addictive Power Of Advertising
Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture
Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture
No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies
Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.
Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.
And now that most Americans have been reduced to impoverished demoralized huddled masses living a precarious hand-to-mouth existence, the entire global economy rests on turning Asians into vapid, hedonistic, drooling, mindless consumers. Thus we see that our economic success is built on a shaky foundation, one that is rapidly coming apart.
Previously: What a good economy means.