Thursday, December 11, 2014

The end of consumerism?

Froma Harrop, the supposedly liberal columnist, has opined in a recent op ed that Americans may be turning "post materialistic".  If so, that's a massive shift in the dominant cultural view of Americans over the past half century, although it might be a return to a mode of thinking that was once the common one, or perhaps more accurately somewhat akin to an earlier one.

Harrop's article is provocative, and not surprisingly hasn't met with universal acknowledgment on the part of her readers.  When she speaks of "post consumerism", what she speaks of is a type of non consumerist behavior focused on experiences and living, for lack of a better way of putting it, and which de-emphasizes material goods as a part of that, while not proposing that they be eschewed all together.  Basically, she proposes a view of life and economics that those familiar with the writings of Belloc, Chesterton or the Southern Agrarians would recognize.  Indeed, those who have persisted in admiring the Southern Agrarians, should they run across her article, must be rejoicing a bit that what they've advocated since the early 1930s is actually gaining ground, assuming that it is.  The general thesis of "post materialism", apparently, de-emphasizes material acquisition in favor of simply living, with family, friends and experience taking precedence over items, particularly those which are temporary in nature.

Early in it she poses the possibility of a shift to this sort of view in a significant percentage of the population, noting a slow start to the typical Christmas big retail season:
Certainly, some of this frugality is a hangover from the economic trauma of six years ago. The recession smashed Americans’ comfort with debt, belief in real estate and faith in an ever-more prosperous future. Many feel the sting of stagnant wages. Even winners in this strengthening economy seem to be holding back.

But a more fundamental change may be afoot, a change in belief systems. Americans may be moving into an era of post-materialism. If so, retailing faces a whole different ballgame.
What does she mean by this?  We're so used to the concept that capitalism equates with consumerism, that the two are indistinguishable to a lot of Americans, and particularly a lot of Americans in commerce and government.  In fact, however, that's not the case, however, and as various social theorist and critics have long noted, its perfectly possible to have a capitalist economy that isn't consumerist.  She then goes on to discuss the concept of "post materialism"
Post-materialism is defined as a reorientation of values away from the big-ticket luxuries, such as fancy cars, and toward self-expression and quality of life. It could mean choosing more free time over working longer to support a big home.
This trend is strongest in rich countries, where the basics of food, shelter and security are taken for granted. The World Values Survey shows Australia having the highest proportion of post-materialists, 35 percent, followed by Austria, Canada, Italy and then the United States, at 25 percent.
If this is the case, and frankly I have my doubts, it would truly be a revolutionary development, although one that a person can see having gained some steam in recent years.  That 25% of the American population would self identify in this fashion would truly be stunning. But careful students of slow trends and thought in society might find that this isn't quite as surprising as might it might seem, and it might actually reflect the rise of Generation X and Generation Y and the beginning of the the decline of the Boomers.

Consumerism, what Harrop and others sometimes call "materialism", which is an apt description, wasn't always with us, in fact, in the form which we now see it, although it has been for about a century or so in the US, and the rests of the Western world to varying degrees.   The super heated consumerism that we've had in recent memory, however, is really something that arose in the post World War Two world, although the roots of it were there before that.  It's a complicated story, but if we look back into the 19th Century, what we tend to see is that almost all Western economic thought out side of Socialist thought. was highly family oriented and did not tend to acquisition oriented.  This isn't universally true, to be sure, as in the unregulated economy of the industrial late 19th Century there were those who grew fantastically wealthy and exhibited a tremendous drive towards acquisition.  But at every level, the thought that the function of people was to act as the purchasers of stuff was something that was not only not there, but which would have been regarded as highly offensive.  Most common people viewed economic activity as a means of trying to support their family in a decent manner. Even socialism, which is highly materialistic in its world view, had this as its basic premise, albeit in a very materialistic manner.

It wasn't until after World War Two when this began to change in a significant manner.  Consumerism was already there, but the goods starvation caused by the Great Depression and the Second World War created a post war consumer demand that was enormous in the US.  Truth be known, it also created the same in Europe, but Europe was in such poor shape after the war this wouldn't really begin to express itself there until the late 1950s.   The impact of the Depression and the war, combined with the American economic revival of the 40s and 50s, followed by the European economic recovery of the late 50s and 60s, caused a sort of one-two punch on how people valued goods and how they valued their own societies.

The real explosion in this view got really rolling in the 1970s, and in a manner that was highly ironic.  The social upheaval in the 1960s seemingly espoused a very non materialistic view of the world, which at the same time rejected almost any traditional value. But that really didn't last very long and the youth trend of the 1960s towards rejection saw the commercial hedonism in advertising of the 1950s fully adopted by the 1970s. The same generational cohort that was responsible for the upheaval of the late 60s and early 70s very quickly adopted a hardcore consumerist, money generation ethos by the early 80s.  Gordon Gecko's "greed is good" type of view was, ironically, a view espoused by many in the same generation that saw Woodstock as the pinnacle of their generations experience.  Termed the "Me Generations" in the 1970s, this saw its expression in consumerist behavior in the late 1970s and has dominated American economic output ever since.

Consumerism/Materialism has received real criticism for a long time, and has been defined as a  societal evil by its critics for years, receiving erudite analysis from everyone from hard left critics to the Popes at various times.  And that consumerism or materialism pose real dangers to society really cannot be challenged.  As recently analyzed in the Catholic Things You Should Know podcast, consumerism has given rise to a lack of attachment to goods and a lack of attachment to nearly everything by extent.  It's been deeply challenged by moral theorist but its also been attacked by liberal economist as well.  Environmentalist have also deeply attacked it, as it gives rise to a throw away culture that creates obvious environmental problems.  And sociologist have been in the fray as well, noting that a consumerist economy seemingly erodes a societal attachment to any meaningful standards or thought and gives rise to a deeply unhappy population. 

That last item alone has been the subject of extensive analysis in recent years, all of which has demonstrated that the purchase of goods at bests only gives rise to a very temporary sense of happiness followed by the opposite, but on the other hand experiences, shared with close friends and family do the precise opposite. As that's highly demonstrated, what Harrop observes that people may be electing to do would be to elect to act wisely. 

What she doesn't note, but what might very well be worth noting, is that this is arguably a generational change.  Observers of Generations X and Y have noted for some time that they are seemingly unimpressed and unattached to much careerist thought, to a degree that is sometimes maddening to Boomers and the World War Two Generation.  This has been frequently noted, but rarely addressed.  They seem to have low attachment to their occupations, or at least to employers, and in some fields that have traditionally demanded big sacrifices of personal time, they just don't.

Less noticed is that they do seem very attached to experiences and friends.  And they have slowly and conservatively adopted practices and modes of thinking that the Boomers claimed to liberally espouse in the 1960s, but didn't really seem to.  As a generation, they're more interested in what we could regard as Distributist and Agrarian thought, with all sorts of "buy local", know your farmer, etc. etc., type of practices and thoughts.  Activities that seemed in decline only a decade ago are now going the other way.  Local produce and small scale farming are on the rise. Small, just middle class, businesses that have no hope of big time entrepreneurial success are as well.  Hunting, a big activity in more rural and simpler times, has seen an enormous increase in recent years, with women joining the ranks in large numbers for the first time ever.

This would all seem to be a good trend, really, and its one that economist, sociologist and religious advocates have argued in favor of for a long time.  Harrop, however, frets a bit about it, noting
Before going on, let’s put in a good word for consumption. The lust to amass stuff associated with The Good Life is not entirely bad. It fuels the economy, and if budgets aren’t broken in the process, a splurge now and then can at least temporarily raise the spirits — doubly so when done in the company of other merrymakers.
But she also goes on to note:
Sadly, many of today’s shopping experiences do not raise the spirits. Picking up a cheaply made import at a big-box store on a drab strip is not quite the same thing as shopping for toys on a festive Main Street. Surely, the sameness of mall shopping has driven many a consumer online, where prices are transparent, the selection broad and traffic is zero.
If her observations are correct, this is a massive shift, or perhaps a massive return, to the value system of an earlier era, but more so.  Given that, those who have criticized materialistic thought might take some solace in her factual observations.  If people are really making this philosophical shift, it will alter out economy, but it will also mean that people are electing to live deeper lives. 

And if that's so, perhaps its not as surprising as it might at first seem.  Entire generations have shifted the values of their times, their countries, and even the entire world.  From time to time a large number of people do in fact adopt an outlook that has huge changes, sometimes positively, and sometimes negatively.  If she's correct, and this reflects a change in outlook, rather than a simple lack of buying power, this might be a good development.  It'd hard to see it as being a bad one.


Rich said...

"...capitalism equates with consumerism..."

It makes more sense to me that capitalism equates with consumer debt which then makes consumerism possible. Without going into debt, it's harder to be materialistic.

Americans might just be broke and/or unable to take on more debt instead of being post-materialistic. I know that I hate being in debt and that way of thinking has kept me from buying a bunch of junk that I don't really need.

Pat and Marcus said...

I wouldn't agree that capitalism must equate with consumer debt. Prior to the late 1970s it really didn't, except as to certain big ticket durable items, such as houses. People whose means were more modest often had debt on items such as appliances, but that was about it. Even as late as the 1970s I remember people not buying new cars unless they could simply pay for them.

Credit cards, which most Americans didn't really have until the late 1980s, really acclimated people to carrying debt. But that need not have been the case. Credit cards could have been regulated to prevent their general use, or interest rates greatly restricted, which in the high interest 1970s would have really kept them from getting much of a start. Putting that horse back in the barn, however, would be very difficult now.

I would agree that heated materialism, however, does depend on consumer debt, as consumption at the level we've seen in the last couple of decades depends on a fairly significant percentage of the population purchasing on credit.

Pat and Marcus said...

Froma, fwiw, has returned to this theme in an article she just wrote which is based on the recent observation that even while the economy has improved, consumer spending is not rising and the savings rate is actually slightly increasing.