Consumerism  

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"I shop therefore I am" --Barbara Kruger


"The pseudoneeds imposed by modern consumerism cannot be opposed by any genuine needs or desires [and] unleashes an unlimited artificiality which overpowers any living desire [which] ends up by falsifying all social life." --Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 68

This structure, the Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, symbolizes the rise of consumer culture and the start of industrial design.
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This structure, the Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, symbolizes the rise of consumer culture and the start of industrial design.
Luxury is a form of consumerism.  Illustration: Still Life with Nautilus Cup (1662) by Willem Kalf
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Luxury is a form of consumerism.
Illustration: Still Life with Nautilus Cup (1662) by Willem Kalf

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Consumerism is a term used to describe the effects of equating personal happiness with purchasing material possessions and consumption. It is often associated with criticisms of consumption starting with Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen.

In economics, consumerism can also refer to economic policies that place an emphasis on consumption, and, in an abstract sense, the belief that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of a society (cf. Producerism, especially in the British sense of the term).

Contents

History

Origins

Consumerism is sometimes used in reference to the anthropological and biological phenomena of people purchasing goods and consuming materials in excess of their basic needs, which would make it recognizable in any society including ancient civilizations (e.g. Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Ancient Rome). However, the concept of consumerism is typically used to refer to the historically specific set of relations of production and exchange that emerge from the particular social, political, cultural and technological context of late 19th and early 20th century capitalism with more visible roots in the social transformations of 16th, 17th and 18th century Europe.

The consumer society emerged in the late seventeenth century and intensified throughout the eighteenth century. While some claim that change was propelled by the growing middle-class who embraced new ideas about luxury consumption and the growing importance of fashion as an arbiter for purchasing rather than necessity, many critics argue that consumerism was a political and economic necessity for the reproduction of capitalist competition for markets and profits, while others point to the increasing political strength of international working class organizations during a rapid increase in technological productivity and decline in necessary scarcity as a catalyst to develop a consumer culture based on therapeutic entertainments, home ownership and debt. The more positive, middle-class view argues that this revolution encompassed the growth in construction of vast country estates specifically designed to cater for comfort and the increased availability of luxury goods aimed at a growing market. This included sugar, tobacco, tea and coffee; these were increasingly grown on vast plantations in the Caribbean as demand steadily rose. In particular, sugar consumption in Britain.

Critics argue that colonialism was indeed a driver of consumerism, but they would place the emphasis on the supply rather than the demand as the motivating factor. An increasing mass of exotic imports as well as domestic manufactures had to be consumed by the same number of people who had been consuming far less than was becoming necessary. Historically, the notion that high levels of consumption of consumer goods is the same thing as achieving success or even freedom did not pre-exist large scale capitalist production and colonial imports. That idea was produced later, more or less strategically in order to intensify consumption domestically and make resistant cultures more flexible to extend its reach.

Culture of consumption

This pattern was particularly visible in London where the gentry and prosperous merchants took up residence and created a culture of luxury and consumption that was slowly extended across the socio-economic divide. Marketplaces expanded as shopping centres, such as the New Exchange, opened in 1609 by Robert Cecil in the Strand. Shops started to become important as places for Londoners to meet and socialise and became popular destinations alongside the theatre. Restoration London also saw the growth of luxury buildings as advertisements for social position with speculative architects like Nicholas Barbon and Lionel Cranfield.

There was growth in industries like glass making and silk manufacturing, and much pamphleteering of the time was devoted to justifying private vice for luxury goods for the greater public good. This then scandalous line of thought caused great controversy with the publication of Bernard Mandeville's influential work Fable of the Bees in 1714, in which he argued that a country's prosperity ultimately lay in the self-interest of the consumer.

These trends were vastly accelerated in the 18th century, as rising prosperity and social mobility increased the number of people with disposable income for consumption. Important shifts included the marketing of goods for individuals as opposed to items for the household, and the new status of goods as status symbols, related to changes in fashion and desired for aesthetic appeal, as opposed to just their utility. The pottery inventor and entrepreneur, Josiah Wedgewood, noticed the way aristocratic fashions, themselves subject to periodic changes in direction, slowly filtered down through society. He pioneered the use of marketing techniques to influence and manipulate the direction of the prevailing tastes and preferences to cause his goods to be accepted among the aristocracy; it was only a matter of time before his goods were being rapidly bought up by the middle classes as well. His example was followed by other producers of a wide range of products and the spread and importance of consumption fashions became steadily more important.

Mass-production

The Industrial Revolution dramatically increased the availability of consumer goods, although it was still primarily focused on the capital goods sector and industrial infrastructure (i.e., mining, steel, oil, transportation networks, communications networks, industrial cities, financial centers, etc.). The advent of the department store represented a paradigm shift in the experience of shopping. For the first time, customers could buy an astonishing variety of goods, all in one place, and shopping became a popular leisure activity. While previously the norm had been the scarcity of resources, the Industrial era created an unprecedented economic situation. For the first time in history products were available in outstanding quantities, at outstandingly low prices, being thus available to virtually everyone in the industrialized West.

By the turn of the 20th century the average worker in Western Europe or the United States still spent approximately 80-90% of his income on food and other necessities. What was needed to propel consumerism proper, was a system of mass production and consumption, exemplified in Henry Ford, the American car manufacturer. After observing the assembly lines in the meat packing industry, Frederick Winslow Taylor brought his theory of scientific management to the organization of the assembly line in other industries; this unleashed incredible productivity and reduced the costs of all commodities produced on assembly lines.

Consumerism has long had intentional underpinnings, rather than just developing out of capitalism. As an example, Earnest Elmo Calkins noted to fellow advertising executives in 1932 that "consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use", while the domestic theorist Christine Frederick observed in 1929 that "the way to break the vicious deadlock of a low standard of living is to spend freely, and even waste creatively".

The older term and concept of "conspicuous consumption" originated at the turn of the 20th century in the writings of sociologist and economist, Thorstein Veblen. The term describes an apparently irrational and confounding form of economic behaviour. Veblen's scathing proposal that this unnecessary consumption is a form of status display is made in darkly humorous observations like the following:

It is true of dress in even a higher degree than of most other items of consumption, that people will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption; so that it is by no means an uncommon occurrence, in an inclement climate, for people to go ill clad in order to appear well dressed.

The term "conspicuous consumption" spread to describe consumerism in the United States in the 1960s, but was soon linked to debates about media theory, culture jamming, and its corollary productivism.

By 1920 most people [Americans] had experimented with occasional installment buying.


In the 21st century

Beginning in the 1990s, the most frequent reason given for attending college had changed to making a lot of money, outranking reasons such as becoming an authority in a field or helping others in difficulty. This correlates with the rise of materialism, specifically the technological aspect: the increasing prevalence of compact disc players, digital media, personal computers, and cellular telephones. Madeline Levine criticized what she saw as a large change in American culture – “a shift away from values of community, spirituality, and integrity, and toward competition, materialism and disconnection.”

Businesses have realized that wealthy consumers are the most attractive targets of marketing. The upper class's tastes, lifestyles, and preferences trickle down to become the standard for all consumers. The not so wealthy consumers can “purchase something new that will speak of their place in the tradition of affluence”. A consumer can have the instant gratification of purchasing an expensive item to improve social status.

Emulation is also a core component of 21st century consumerism. As a general trend, regular consumers seek to emulate those who are above them in the social hierarchy. The poor strive to imitate the wealthy and the wealthy imitate celebrities and other icons. The celebrity endorsement of products can be seen as evidence of the desire of modern consumers to purchase products partly or solely to emulate people of higher social status. This purchasing behavior may co-exist in the mind of a consumer with an image of oneself as being an individualist.

Criticism

Anti-consumerism, Affluenza

In many critical contexts, consumerism is used to describe the tendency of people to identify strongly with products or services they consume, especially those with commercial brand names and perceived status-symbolism appeal, e.g. a luxury car, designer clothing, or expensive jewelry. Consumerism can take extreme forms such that consumers sacrifice significant time and income not only to purchase but also to actively support a certain firm or brand.

Critics of consumerism include German historian Oswald Spengler (who said, "Life in America is exclusively economic in structure and lacks depth"), and French writer Georges Duhamel, who held "American materialism up as a beacon of mediocrity that threatened to eclipse French civilization".

See also

-ism




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Consumerism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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