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Amitai Etzioni

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The Crisis of American Consumerism

Posted: 09/04/2012 3:57 pm

Some people buy inflatable Santa Clauses, and they put them on the rooftop. You ask if they really need that, they chuckle and say "no, no, of course not." But, when you ask them about flatscreen TVs, nobody chuckles anymore, people feel uncomfortable.

The truth is, we have very limited real needs.

Much of the debate over how to address the economic crisis has focused on a single word: regulation. And it's easy to understand why. Bad behavior by a variety of businesses landed us in this mess -- so it seems rather obvious that the way to avoid future economic meltdowns is to create, and vigorously enforce, new rules proscribing such behavior. But the truth is quite a bit more complicated. The world economy consists of billions of transactions every day. There can never be enough inspectors, accountants, customs officers and police to ensure that all or even most of these transactions are properly carried out. Moreover, those charged with enforcing regulations are themselves not immune to corruption, and hence, they too must be supervised and held accountable to others -- and so on. You can see how regulation cannot by itself resolve the problem. What is needed instead is something far more sweeping: for people to internalize a different sense of how one ought to behave, and act on it because they believe it is right.

The normative values of a culture matter. Regulation is needed when culture fails, but it cannot alone serve as the mainstay of good conduct. But what kind of transformation in our normative culture is called for?

What needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered, is consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life. This is not the same thing as capitalism, nor is it the same thing as consumption. To explain the difference, it is useful to draw on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of this hierarchy are basic creature comforts; once these are sated, more satisfaction is drawn from affection, self-esteem and, finally, self-actualization. As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs -- safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education -- it is not consumerism. But when, on attempts to satisfy these higher needs through the simple acquisition of goods and services, consumption turns into consumerism -- and consumerism becomes a social disease.

The link to the economic crisis should be obvious. A culture in which the urge to consume dominates the psychology of citizens is a culture in which people will do most anything to acquire the means to consume -- working slavish hours, behaving rapaciously in their business pursuits, and even bending the rules in order to maximize their earnings. They will also buy homes beyond their means and think nothing of running up credit-card debt. It therefore seems safe to say that consumerism is, as much as anything else, responsible for the current economic mess.

But consumerism will not just magically disappear from its central place in our culture. It needs to be supplanted by something.

A shift away from consumerism, and toward this something else, would obviously be a dramatic change for American society. But such grand cultural changes are far from unprecedented. Profound transformations in the definition of "the good life" have occurred throughout human history. Before the spirit of capitalism swept across much of the world, neither work nor commerce were highly valued pursuits -- indeed, they were often delegated to scorned minorities such as Jews. For centuries in aristocratic Europe and Japan, making war was a highly admired profession. In China, philosophy, poetry, and brush painting were respected during the heyday of the literati. Religion was once the dominant source of normative culture; then, following the Enlightenment, secular humanism was viewed in some parts of the world as the foundation of society. Such normative change is possible, especially in times of crisis.

To accomplish this sort of change, we do not have to give up on capitalism itself. This position does not call for a life of sackcloth and ashes, nor of altruism. And it does not call on poor people or poor nations to be content with their fate and learn to love their misery; clearly, the capitalist economy must be strong enough to provide for the basic creature comforts of all people. But it does call for a new balance between consumption and other human pursuits.

There is strong evidence that when consumption is used to try to address higher needs -- that is, needs beyond basic creature comforts -- it is ultimately Sisyphean. Several studies have shown that, across many nations with annual incomes above $20,000, there is no correlation between increased income and increased happiness. In the United States since World War II, per capita income has tripled, but levels of life satisfaction remain about the same, while the people of Japan, despite experiencing a sixfold increase in income since 1958, have seen their levels of contentment stay largely stagnant. Studies also indicate that many members of capitalist societies feel unsatisfied, if not outright deprived, however much they earn and consume, because others make and spend even more: Relative rather than absolute deprivation is what counts. This is a problem since, by definition, most people cannot consume more than most others.

Consumerism, it must be noted, afflicts not merely the upper class in affluent societies but also the middle class and many in the working class. Large numbers of people across society believe that they work merely to make ends meet, but an examination of their shopping lists and closets reveals that they spend good parts of their income on status goods such as brand-name clothing, the "right" kind of car, and other assorted items that they don't really need. This mentality may seem so integral to American culture that resisting it is doomed to futility. But the current economic downturn may provide an opening of sorts.

So far, much of this scaling-back has been involuntary, the result of economic necessity. What is needed next is to help people realize that limiting consumption is not a reflection of failure. Rather, it represents liberation from an obsession -- a chance to abandon consumerism and focus on... well, what exactly? What should replace the worship of consumer goods?

It must be a culture that extols sources of human flourishing besides acquisition. The two most obvious candidates to fill this role are communitarian pursuits and transcendental ones.

Communitarianism refers to investing time and energy in relations with the other, including family, friends and members of one's community. The term also encompasses service to the common good, such as volunteering, national service and politics. Communitarian life is not centered around altruism but around mutuality, in the sense that deeper and thicker involvement with the other is rewarding to both the recipient and the giver. Indeed, numerous studies show that communitarian pursuits breed deep contentment. A study of 50-year-old men shows that those with friendships are far less likely to experience heart disease. Another shows that life satisfaction in older adults is higher for those who participate in community service.

Transcendental pursuits refer to spiritual activities broadly understood, including religious, contemplative and artistic ones. The lifestyle of the Chinese literati, centered around poetry, philosophy and brush painting, was a case in point (but a limited one because this lifestyle was practiced by an elite social stratum). In modern society, transcendental pursuits have often been emphasized by bohemians, beginning artists and others involved in lifelong learning who consume modestly. Here again, however, these people make up only a small fraction of society. Clearly, for a culture to buy out of consumerism and move to satisfying higher human needs with transcendental projects, the option to participate in these pursuits must be available on a wider scale.

All this may seem abstract, not to mention utopian. But one can see a precedent of sorts for a society that emphasizes communitarian and transcendental pursuits among retired people, who spend the final decades of their lives painting not for a market or galleries but as a form of self-expression, socializing with each other, volunteering, and, in some cases, taking classes. One does not need shoes with fancy labels to benefit from a hike. Chess played with plastic pieces is the same game as the one played with carved mahogany or marble pieces. And I'm quite sure that the Lord does not listen better to prayers read from a leatherbound Bible than those read from a plain one, printed on recycled paper. In short, those who embrace this lifestyle will find that they can achieve a high level of contentment even if they give up a considerable segment of the surplus wealth they command.

The main way societies will determine whether the current crisis will serve as an event that leads to cultural transformation or merely constitute an interlude in the consumerism project is through a process I call "moral megalogues." Societies are constantly engaged in mass dialogues over what is right and wrong. Typically, only one or two topics dominate these megalogues at any given time. In earlier decades, women's rights and minority rights were topics of such discussions. Megalogues involve millions of members of a society exchanging views with one another at workplaces, during family gatherings, in the media, and at public events. They are often contentious and passionate, and, while they have no clear beginning or endpoint, they tend to lead to changes in a society's culture and its members' behavior.

Having a national conversation about this admittedly abstract question is merely a start, though. If a new shared understanding surrounding consumption is to evolve, education will have a crucial role to play. Schools, which often claim to focus solely on academics, are actually major avenues through which changes in societal values are fostered. For instance, many schools deeply impress on young children that they ought to respect the environment, not discriminate on racial or ethnic grounds, and resolve differences in a peaceful manner. There is no reason these schools cannot push back against consumerism while promoting communitarian and transcendental values as well. School uniforms (to counter conspicuous consumption) and an emphasis on community service are just two ways to work these ideas into the culture of public education.

I certainly do not expect that most people will move away from a consumerist mindset overnight. Some may keep one foot in the old value system even as they test the waters of the new one, just like those who wear a blazer with jeans. Still others may merely cut back on conspicuous consumption without guilt or fear of social censure. Societies shift direction gradually. All that is needed is for more and more people to turn the current economic crisis into a liberation from the obsession with consumer goods and the uberwork it requires-- and, bit by bit, begin to rethink their definition of what it means to live a good life.

Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, as well as the author of The Active Society and a frequent contributor to CNN.com.

 
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