I read an interesting article today about the future of consumer culture, and it taught me a few interesting things, and revealed (to my shame) that I’m as bad as the next consumer.
The premise presented in the article is this: everyone needs food, shelter, medicine, and other essentials.Â These expenses are intrinsic to a healthy, modern life, and don’t count against your spending habits.Â So, those are the essentials that you buy to survive, and beyond that, all of your purchases are optional.Â This is where all that disposable income goes- to guitars, jetskis, and Cadillacs.Â In my case, it goes to:
a. A motorcycle
c. A new car
This is an essential part of American capitalism- if you work hard, you get to reward yourself. What’s strange about American capitalism, in comparison to other empires, is the circumstances under which it developed.Â In days of former empires, there was an absolute maximum that a skilled labourer could produce, and that made his or her products valuable.Â Since shopping as we know it couldn’t take place, other institutions drove society- like war, religion, philosophy, literature, theatre, etc.Â Starting in the 20th century, for the first time in human history, mass-produced products are plentiful and cheap enough that there’s no limit to how much one can acquire, which reduces the value (both cost and emotional value) of those products greatly. This has made consumerism the driver of our society, and a national past-time that almost everyone indulges in.
So, we now find ourselves in the situation of having an unlimited number of cheap products to buy (made in Asian sweatshops for a nickel per hour), but at the cost of a decimated middle class, who were formerly skilled labourers and now face unemployment.
I’m not ready to tackle the 800 lb gorilla that characterizes the decline of the middle class; I simply want to point out that the society we live in is unique on account of our unparalleled potential to manufacture a glut of products without the need for skilled human labor.
As a small aside, I can also conclude that marketing as we know it is wholly the result of this flood of products- in a society that produces more than it needs, the need to advertise a certain brand or special product arose to convince us it is something we must have (Marketing all those products is a good job for the dwindling middle class that used to make them!).
So, all that background leads up to now, when the whole world has taken a break from rampant consumerism- not because we’re tired of it, but because savings, retirements, and even fortunes have been lost all across this country in the last 18 months.Â The question the article I mentioned earlier poses is whether or not this respite from runaway consumerism will make us wonder why we need it at all.
Now, the $64,000 question- how hard are you willing to work to have disposable income?Â I certainly don’t need a new car, and despite my craving for a new netbook, it wouldn’t really change my life at all.Â When I stop and tconsider the value of the products that I work all week to buy, it makes the 50 hour workweek seem grotesque.
After some thought and multiplication, I’ve concluded that I would willingly take a 20% cut in my salary to reclaim one day of my week.Â That is to say, I can easily meet my basic needs at 80% of my salary, and the extra 20% that I’m accustomed to is devoted entirely to my consumerist urges.
That might work for me, but would other people make a similar deal?
The end of the article supposed that a new societal driver would need to take consumerism’s place in order for it to be permanently reined in.Â My suggestion?Â Three words: 2011 Cat Olympics.