Sometime a lie is so big that it's hard to perceive, much less comprehend.
Consumerism is one of the biggest “big lies” ever perpetrated. It’s so pervasive, so woven into the fabric of everyday life, that it can be almost impossible to detect. It’s a con game of unimaginable scale, so sweeping that even when a facet is exposed, the glitter of its other sides quickly works to obscure the meaning of what you’ve seen.
This essay is meant to be the simplest possible introduction to what consumerism is, why it's so devastating to individuals, families and nations, and why it's essential to oppose it until it is destroyed.
What is Consumerism?
There is, of course, a dictionary definition of consumerism:
consumerism - noun - 1. (obsolete) the promotion of the consumer's interests; 2. the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable; 3. a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods.
Like most dictionary entries, this brief listing doesn't really tell you what consumerism is, and the first, obsolete definition completely confuses the matter. For the record, using “consumerism” as a term for things that benefit the consumer is as archaic as calling a person who performs calculations a “computer.” Take it as a warning sign when you see it – those who use the term in that manner are either clueless or working to subvert the current meaning.
One of the things that makes it hard to pass on an understanding of consumerism is that the concept is tied into other social, political and economic matters. It’s far too easy to stray into other areas and confuse the central message – one minute you’re talking about consumerism, the next you’re hip-deep in Marxist dialectic. Or green movement dogma. Or an anti-tax rant, or theology. Consumerism can be a component of all those things and more, and when the subject is raised, each of these schools of thought is quick to try and claim it as either a companion movement or the exclusive product of their beliefs.
Let’s make it clear: consumerism, as it presently exists in the western world and most of the globe, is more fundamental than any political system, philosophy or belief. The concept of consumerism does not stem from any individual school of thought, but is a core building block of nearly all of them. That’s how utterly pervasive and yet nearly invisible consumerism is – unrecognized, it underlies nearly every other aspect of modern life.
Because this is meant to be an introductory essay, let’s keep it simple and ignore the myriad ties into almost every political and economic school of thought on Earth. We’ll consider consumerism as an independent entity, and leave the connections and influences for later discussions.
Consumerism is the idea that buying goods is the central engine of an economy, and that the purpose of a population is to spend money on goods. The usual extension of that is that the more goods a population buys, the stronger its economy becomes. Like most theories, this one is accurate to a degree. Any population (be it a village, city, state or nation) does buy goods, usually with money derived from income from working, and often from producing those selfsame goods. It's hard to separate this cycle from the basic needs and demands of a population, no matter how simplistic a model you use.
But — like most theories expressed in a vacuum — that's too dry and too simple and assumes the cycle will be self-limiting and self-balancing. The cycle of consumerism is not. Although it can be self-regulating, the application of any force pushes the cycle out of balance. The present cycle of consumerism has many forces, many of them extremely strong, all pushing it to move as fast as possible. Each of the forces gains from each of the others; a push from one is a push for all. It easily can – and has – become a synergistic spin-up to destruction.
The basic cycle of a population working to produce products and using the income derived from that work to buy those products is a reasonable practice, one that’s replicated all over the globe and throughout history. Humans are consumers. Only at a very primitive level can they not also be producers – and so the natural state of humans in any large collection is that of producer-consumers. There are other systems, but historically, they have worked only in limited circumstances and for brief periods, before something much like this cycle of consumerism replaces it.
The problems start to arise when some clever human figures out that if he produces more, he can earn more and thus consume more. Well and good to a point, because if he consumes more, it means that someone else has to produce more… and thus earn more, and thus consume more themselves. As long as this cycle is limited by some natural brake, it is normal, economically and socially healthy, and sustainable without being predatory on any group or individuals within the cycle.
But the problems always grow: some especially grasping boyo figures out a way to produce a lot more and sell that produce to his kinsmen… and then he’s suddenly a lot wealthier, which leads to a sudden and localized spike in consumption. It doesn’t take long before there are many smart boys, each trying to outproduce the other and keep up the income stream so they can keep up their higher level of consumption. Before you know it, the entire village is caught up in a frenzy of working to produce to earn to spend to consume.
Replace “village” in that last sentence with “nation” – or even “planet” – and you have the current cyclone of insanity in a nutshell. Ordinary life for most people becomes working to earn to spend to consume. All else is illusion – patent and comforting lies we tell each other to cover up the horrid truth. You may not have ever thought so, but a few moments of reflection on your life, work, career and habits might make you realize that you are that population member whose purpose is to buy goods. Not a voter. Not a churchgoer. Not even a husband, wife or parent - just a cog whose function is to buy, and forever strive to buy more.
Now you understand my horror. Or begin to. At least, I hope so.
Like a motor spinning at such speed that it begins to disintegrate and throw off shrapnel, the cycle then becomes overheated, overpowered and overloaded in too many ways to list. Nearly every part of the cycle becomes diseased and predatory. Workers become more bound to their jobs in many ways - they are driven to produce more at less cost, “less cost” often translating to lower wages. This produces a push for longer work hours and higher-paying positions to keep up a standard of living. At the same time, advertising and marketing combine to incite the population to ever-increasing consumption. In the end, labor goes up and up only to feed the cycle of producing enough to keep up with expanding consumption, and the rewards of labor (income) increasingly go towards that same consumption. The cycle is complete, feeding on itself… or, more precisely, feeding on the population that drives it. You.
Predatory effects increase as the cycle speeds up. The most basic of them is an increase in consumer spending to the point where individuals and families are routinely spending all of their income on nonessentials (“crap,” for those of you who’ve read ahead in the essays) and are well into the robotic consumer mode of seeking out goods to spend money on (that would be “shopping.”) As no ad in existence says anything like “buy this only if you can afford it,” there is no brake on this part of the cycle and it becomes common, nearly universal, for people to not only spend all their income on nonessentials, but to pledge future income against current purchases, the better to consume early and consume often. This is, of course, an elaborate way to say consumers go into debt to acquire what they have been pushed to acquire… all to the benefit of the producers and the cycle itself and rarely to much benefit for themselves, even as producer-employees.
When the cycle’s markets are saturated and stable, new markets must be created. Products that never existed before, filling needs that are invented by the manufacturers, come into being. Something that humanity has manage to live without for thousands of years becomes first desirable, then utterly necessary, often spinning off additional products and markets in support or collusion. Whole industries have sprung into being simply to create a need and then fulfill it.
The final and basest level in the consumerist cycle is reached when individuals, families, communities and nations begin to shape themselves and make choices to further their advancement in the cycle. Jobs and careers are chosen to maximize income… and thus consumption ability. Working adults are conditioned to think in terms of buying power (e.g., maximum payment ability, often calculated on future increases in salary and home valuation) rather than affordability or actual need. Families are organized around consuming activities – and around parents’ working schedules. Children are indoctrinated from the earliest ages, mostly via television commercials, to become even more grasping consumers than their parents. The indoctrination, increasingly prevalent at all levels, creeps earlier and earlier to the point where there are programs, commercials and products aimed for sale at the under-two set.
We are in at least the third generation, possibly the fourth, that has been subjected to the ever-increasing speed, pressure and insanity of this cycle. The indoctrination begins early, never lets up, rarely lets itself be noticed, and controls most people’s lives from birth through death. Any competing idea that there are options, different ways to see individual and family life or different ways to base community and national economies is marginalized and forgotten. People, families, communities and nations exist only to consume, and to feed that endless consumption, generation after generation.
It is an illness on the order of cancer, yet everyone’s feverish symptoms are taken for the best of good health. It is madness.
Why is Consumerism Bad?
I’ve made no attempt to make this essay even-handed, because I don’t think any aspect of the consumerist cycle is defensible. It’s a cancer eating most of the population of Earth. If you’ve read the above material and aren’t starting to agree, you might want to jump back and reread it more carefully.
Or perhaps you read the above and ended with a shrug – “So what? I don’t see anything so awful!”
Whatever benefits you might see from consumerism, or to whatever degree you think it is benign or doesn’t affect you, you’re wrong. That’s a lifetime of powerful conditioning talking, along with the usual mental inertia and resistance to unwanted change. We’re all prone to disbelieving or wishing away unpleasant truths and doing all we can to justify our current beliefs. You’ve come this far; stay with me now and try to keep an open mind. (Note that “open mind” never means uncritically accepting ideas. Being a Renegade means remaining skeptical at all times. Unlike cynicism, dogmatism or denial, though, skepticism allows new ideas past the barriers once they’ve met the tests of validation. I've worked hard to give you an initial understanding. Remain skeptical... but continue your education here until you have the basis for being convinced one way or the other.)
One of the biggest hurdles to comprehending consumerism (and one of its biggest faults) is that it has displaced almost all other notions of how life should be. Everything about individual satisfaction, contentment and achievement has been bent to fit the earn-spend-consume cycle. Contrary ideas about how one might organize a life without submitting to the consumerism cycle are not just discouraged and deprecated, but absent – it takes an effort to even begin to imagine a life not bound to that crushing wheel. The major effort, then, besides comprehending consumerism and its many tentacles, and learning to recognize its presence and effects throughout the social, political and economic spectra, is to begin to visualize individual and family life – and eventually community and national life – of a wholly different nature.
But why? Why should you, and we, and all of us seek to destroy what has become the very core of our identities and lives? Whatever the downside, isn’t it better to let things be? In short, no. It’s not. The downside of consumerism is so massive that there’s no justification for letting it continue. The benefits of destroying the cycle and seeing that it never re-establishes itself are too great to pass up.
It begins with saying, “I'm a Renegade.” Try it on. We have one in just your size. And it's free.
— J.K. Greyfriars