The unbridled search for profit by capitalists has been condemned by social reformers as a major cause of the prevalence of injustices in today’s modern societies. There is an increasing plea in many societies today, whether developed or developing, that the maximisation of profit in business should be tempered by more important goals of society such as a more equitable distribution of income and wealth and a more sustainable environment. The triple P—people, planet and profit—should be considered in the difficult balancing act of attaining a more humane form of economic development. The blame usually falls on a professor from the University of Chicago named Milton Friedman who was the advocate for an extreme form of free market economics. He became famous (or notorious) by saying that the only business of business is to make a profit.
It must be pointed out, however, that it takes two to tango. Businessmen represent only one side of the market, the supply side. We must take into account also an extreme philosophy defending the rights of the consumers to live their lives as if maximum material satisfaction is the end all and be all of life. Consumerism is the other side of the coin of liberal capitalism. As discussed in a series of notes from the MCC Library at Mandurah Catholic College, the term consumerism was first coined in 1960 to describe the prevailing social and economic order that encouraged the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Since the 1960s, consumerism has become a prevailing belief in western societies with the development of television, mass advertising, and brand marketing promoting the benefits of greater amounts of consumer goods and services. The more you possess material goods, the more fulfilled and happier you are supposed to be.
Consumerism is the belief that personal wellbeing and happiness depends to a very large extent on the level of personal consumption, particularly on the acquisition of material goods. The more the happier has become the philosophy of life. The belief is not simply that wellbeing depends upon a standard of living above some threshold, but that at the center of happiness is consumption and material possessions (accumulate, accumulate, accumulate as Karl Marx mocked the sins of capitalism). A consumerist society is one in which people is one in which people are obsessed with “consuming.” Consumption is good and more consumption is even better. The United States became the most famous example of a hyper-consumerist society as first described in a best-selling book called “The Affluent Society” by Harvard economist John Galbraith (who, I am proud to say, was one of my outstanding professors when I was pursuing my Ph.D. in economics at Harvard in the early 1960s.)
The desire for consumer goods and services with moderation is obviously not a moral evil in itself. Some form of consumerism has without doubt led to the improvement in the quality of life of whole nations, with China as the most recent example of a country going from mass poverty to a more affluent society in less than three decades at the end of the last century (with the market reforms introduced by Deng Xiao Peng). Consumerism (expressed through market mechanisms) has created a process by which people can access different goods and services that fulfil their basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter. By helping people meet these needs, consumerism has improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Consumerism has also helped boost innovation and creativity since consumers are constantly looking for the next best products/services to purchase, producers/ manufacturers are always under pressure to innovate. As consumers are provided with better goods/services, living standards improve. Consumerism has also been praised for providing individuals with opportunities to develop their talents and uniqueness on both sides of the market, i.e. the producers and consumers.
Increasingly, however, the dark side of consumerism has been exposed by moral leaders, foremost of which was St. John Paul II who as Pope wrote about the evils of consumerism in the encyclical Centesimus Annus. Treating material consumption as the primary goal of life—that is, focusing on “having” instead of “being”—is detrimental to human dignity. It can be demonstrated that hyper-consumerism leads to less fulfilling and meaningful lives than does a less manically consumption-oriented lifestyle. A good number of empirical research projects in the social sciences have shown that people are happier and more fulfilled when they are interested in the work they do, consider themselves useful to others, feel part of a community and have more time with friends and family. As someone quipped “Nobody on their death bed every says ‘Gee, I wish I had more toys and spent even less time with my spouse, my friends and my kids.’ Consumerism promotes the false message that material things can make a person happy. It can also foster greed, envy and even lust. Pope Francis says it all: “Indifferent individualism leads to the cult of opulence reflected in the throwaway culture all around us. We have a surfeit of unnecessary things, but we no longer have the capacity to build authentic human relationships marked by truth and mutual respect. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’”
In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis describes consumerism as doubly damaging to the social fabric when it is combined with inequality. Inequality inevitably engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. It serves only to offer false hopes to those clamoring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts. Some even go to the extent of blaming the poor and poorer countries themselves for their troubles. Finally, excessive consumption, especially by the rich countries, threatens the earth’s environment, which is also morally unacceptable. There is increasing scientific evidence that our planet simply is incapable of supporting American-style consumption everywhere. Unfortunately, through the tools of advertising and marketing (the “hidden persuaders”), the US has become the role model for all nations aspiring to become consumerist societies. In fact, there are signs that the biggest economy in the world, China, may outdo the US in adopting consumerism to the highest degree, since the vast majority of its citizens are really materialist at heart.
Consumers as Guilty as Capitalists (Part 2)
January 29, 2021
An antidote (not the only one) to the rise of consumerism is Catholic Social Doctrine. From the beginning of the modern Catholic social thought in the pathbreaking encyclical of Pope Leo XIII entitled Rerum Novarum (A New Order) in 1892, popes have cautioned that growing consumerism has been a threat to Human Dignity, Solidarity, the Preferential Option for the Poor, the Common God and, more recently , Care for Creation. The emphasis on accumulating more and more wealth and consuming more and more goods goes against the Catholic social tradition, bolstered by empirical research by social scientists, that human happiness and fulfilment is fostered more by human relationships, especially friendship, rather than material possessions.
Among the major reasons why there should be a limit to consumption-driven growth are three prominent principles in Catholic social doctrine, as enumerated in Religion & Life ATAR Unit of the MCC Library at Mandurah Catholic College:
First, excessive consumption by some individuals and nations, while other individuals and nations suffer from hunger and want, is morally reprehensible. St. Paul VI articulated this point in his encyclical, Populorum Progressio ( No. 49): “The superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the service of poor nations…Otherwise their continued greed will certainly call down upon them the judgment of God and the wrath of the poor.” This scenario has been clearly played out in the Philippines with the Hukbalahap movement against the Japanese occupation forces being transformed into the communist-inspired New People’s Army (NPA) that rebelled against the many social injustices found in the highly unequal distribution of wealth (especially in the form of land holdings) that existed and still exists in the countryside. Unfortunately, mass poverty continues to be a serious problem in the rural areas because of a failed agrarian reform program. The alleviation of poverty among our rural masses must be on top of the priorities of Philippine Governments for decades to come.
Second, excessive consumption threatens the earth’s environment, which is also morally unacceptable. This point was thoroughly discussed by Pope Francis in his Encyclical, “Laudato Si” (On Care for our Common Home) where His Holiness critiques consumerism and irresponsible economic growth, laments environmental degradation and global warming and calls all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action.” Before him, St. John Paul II already wrote: “Equally worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it. In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his life in an excessive and distorted way “ (Centessimus Annus, No. 37).
Third, considering the maximization of the consumption of materials goods and services as the primary goal of life, that is, focusing on “having” instead of “being”—is seen as detrimental to human dignity. It is a fundamental Christian belief that man is not pure matter but is a composition of body and soul, matter and spirit. Once he has attained a minimum of material comfort, a human being must assign higher importance to his spiritual aspirations. As St. John Paul II wrote in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, (No.28): “All of us experience firsthand the sad effects of this blind submission to pure consumerism: in the first place a crass materialism, and at the same time a radical dissatisfaction because one quickly learns … that the more one possesses, the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.”
Catholic social thinking calls for a great deal of educational and cultural work, especially among the younger generations, the millennials and centennials who predominate in Philippine society, thanks to our not having succumb to the contraceptive mentality that is widespread in most developed countries. St. John Paul II in Centessimus Annus calls for the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities. Citizens, whether Christians or not, are invited to a make a “serious review of their lifestyle, which in many parts of the world is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences”. (Caritas in Veritate, 51).
There is no substitute to personal responsibility. Christians can lead in learning to differentiate between wants and needs. As St. John Paul II wrote in Soliticitudo Rei Socialis (28), “an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of ‘possession’ and of immediate gratification with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of ‘consumption’ or ‘consumerism’, which involves so much ‘throwing away’ and ‘waste.’ “ When Pope Francis visited Cuba, the United States and the United Nations Headquarters in September 2015, he could have not been clearer in exposing the extremes of consumerism: “The result is a culture which discards everything that is no longer ‘useful’ or ‘satisfying’ for the tastes of the consumer. We have turned our society into a huge multicultural showcase tied only to the tastes of certain ’consumers’, while so many others only ‘eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table’. This causes great harm. I would say that at the root of so many contemporary situations is a kind of impoverishment born of a widespread and radical sense of loneliness…Loneliness with feat of commitment in limitless effort to feel recognised.”
The unlimited access to consumer goods and services actually leads to unhappiness. It fosters insecurity, blinding people to their intrinsic worth and authentic identity, convincing them that they must buy particular consumer goods—whether a car, fancy clothes, cosmetics, or anything else—so that they can be cool or normal or even worthy of love. It gives the deceptive message that the abundance of material goods can make a person happy. Consumerism actually leads inevitably to unhappiness because it distorts the real source of human happiness and fulfilment: relationships with other persons. As Pope Francis said in an address to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, “Indifferent individualism leads to the cult of opulence reflected in the throwaway culture all around us. We have a surfeit of unnecessary things, but we no longer have the capacity to build authentic human relationships marked by truth and mutual respect.” (To be continued).