Monday, October 9, 2017
Economic Insanity: Chapter 2
Consumerism: A Perfect Circle
That’s Empty in the Middle
[Note: This chapter seems a bit quaint after all these years, and I would probably disagree with a few minor points, but since my purpose is simply to see how well these ideas hold up after almost a quarter century, I’ll leave it as it was written.]
The small volume of saving by the average man, and its absence
among the lower-income masses, reflect faithfully the role of the
individual in the industrial system and the accepted view
of his function. The individual serves the industrial system not
by supplying it with savings and the resulting capital; he serves it
by consuming its products. On no other matter, religious, political,
or moral, is he so elaborately and skillfully and expensively instructed.
—John Kenneth Galbraith,
The New Industrial State
Before I address the topic of consumerism and the problems that arise from placing this enormous burden on a shrinking middle class, let me backtrack a little and make an observation. If we are to solve our deeper social and economic problems, we must reverse our thinking about growth and prosperity and start imagining ways in which we as a society can attain a comfortable degree of prosperity without having all our economic activities be dependent on endless growth. Perhaps the first step in this rethinking process is to come to grips with one simple fact about progress, the philosophical doctrine that undergirds our growth imperative: Progress is a journey without a destination.
In The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch debunks the notion that our belief in progress stems from either the Christian doctrine of the millennium, that thousand-year period of peace preceding the end of the world, or the ubiquitous secular ideal of utopia, a perfect society toward which all human beings should be striving. It is not my purpose here to recite Lasch’s arguments against the supposed millennial or utopian roots of progress. Suffice it to say that the fundamental distinction between our present-day conception of progress and the older notions of utopia and the Christian millennium is that the last two are end conditions, goals to guide our footsteps in the present. They are destinations toward which we are (or should be) traveling. Not so with progress. Progress has no destination, no culmination in something perfect or even desirable.
Progress is never satisfied. It assumes that what we have is never enough. We must continue to accumulate and consume, accumulate and consume, forever and ever, with no upper limit. This, of course, is insanity of the highest order. But the idea of progress is open-ended. It always looks beyond the present to the next step. It denies the existence of such a thing as the good life and focuses only on bettering our current state. But if there is no goal, no ideal to direct us, how do we know what progress even is? How do we know we are improving, moving forward instead of backward? Well, we don’t. Movement is all that matters. Direction is a nonissue. This is why so much of our material progress is accompanied by social and moral deterioration.
And this is the fatal flaw of the progressive ideology: it cannot admit to an ideal. It cannot say, “This is good,” for then the chance would exist that we might actually achieve that good, and progress would necessarily come to an end. But the doctrine of progress assumes we shall never arrive anywhere.
Progress can never answer the question “Where are we going?” because any answer would concede the existence of a destination, an ideal, a perfect pattern we are trying to achieve. It would also admit to certain moral absolutes, such as goodness, truth, and happiness. So, in the absence of moral certainty and a specifically desired destination, how can we possibly know we are “making progress”? We can’t. Such knowledge is impossible.
The only evidence of progress is movement. Not movement toward something, just movement. Any movement is better than no movement at all. And the more technically quantifiable that movement is, the easier it is to document. This is why we measure our progress in terms of technological advancement and scientific breakthroughs and the size of the economy instead of by how compassionate or cooperative or moral or happy we are. Measurement is everything where progress is concerned, and such intangible attributes are nearly impossible to measure.
This is why good is a nonconcept in our progress-minded world. Good can’t be measured. Better, on the other hand, can be measured, because it compares two different things. But in the absence of an ultimate destination, how do we know which of two different things is better? We don’t. And so to get around this obstacle, the ideology of progress quietly embraces one unusual absolute: more. More is better. This axiom lies at the core of our belief in progress, and yet, strangely, this one absolute is in perfect harmony with the relativistic idea of endless progress, for more is never a final destination. By definition, it implies instability, insatiability, expansion, and obsolescence.
Indeed, the governing reality in the progressive dogma is the notion of obsolescence. Every advance shall be superseded by a new advance. Nothing is best, because everything can be exceeded and, therefore, nothing is certain. “That nothing is certain,” says Lasch, “except the imminent obsolescence of all our certainties—our scientific theories, our technology, our artistic styles and schools, our philosophies, our political ideals, our fashions—naturally gives rise to the sense of impermanence that has been celebrated or deplored as the very essence of the modern outlook.”1 Impermanence, you might say, is the one permanent fixture in our progressive lives.
The upshot of this reasoning is that in terms of the rationale of progress, there can be no such thing as an American Dream. The Dream vanishes in the wake of an endless and measurable parade of technological innovations, because progress allows no ideals, no desirable and attainable stations where we can stop our goalless march and simply declare, “This is good. This is what civilization is supposed to be like. Let’s stay here forever.”
Let’s look at an example of the insanity spawned by the progressive ideology. An interesting scenario has been playing itself out in the software industry. WordPerfect and Novell, two companies headquartered in the valley where I live, recently merged, creating the third largest firm in the industry. They saw this as the best, perhaps even the only, option for staying in a game increasingly dominated by Microsoft. Novell and WordPerfect are not alone. Adobe and Aldus are joining forces, as are Electronic Arts and Broderbund. Consolidation is typical in this industry, as it is in many others. If companies do not grow, they die, and the easiest (and certainly the quickest) way to ensure future growth is to merge, to become instantly as large as possible.
The only problem with this is that ultimately growth in the software industry rests on only two pedestals: (1) new applications and (2) upgrades of existing applications. Unfortunately, both pedestals have inherent limitations. How many new applications do consumers really need? And how many can they afford? Likewise, why should consumers buy an upgrade when the current, “obsolete” version has more bells and whistles than they’ll ever use? Take me, for example. I am using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS to write this book. Depending on how you count, it’s either one or two full steps—and soon will be three or four—below the current top-of-the-line upgrade. Sure, I’d like to have WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows, but my current version has more features than I’ll ever use. Besides, I can’t afford an upgrade. What happens when most users reach my situation?
The growth imperative is illogical, yet Microsoft, WordPerfect, Novell, and all their competitors are caught in its irresistible pull. They must create demand out of thin air, especially for upgrades that people don’t need. Why? Because if they don’t, the competition will. Then they will lose market share. This example holds true for most other industries also, whether you’re talking about electronics or automobiles.
Perhaps no one else sees it this way, but it seems to me that most companies in these endless-upgrade industries have somehow misplaced the reason for their existence. They don’t see the company’s primary purpose in (1) providing a good working environment for members of the community, (2) bringing prosperity to the community by selling a quality product, or (3) serving society in general. Their primary purpose has evolved into an imperative to grow, even if growth means selling products no one needs. But the reasons for this growth rest snugly in the arms of self-interest. It is not good enough anymore for a company to produce a quality product, offer good working conditions for many members of the community, or serve society. It must become the biggest, the best. Market share is everything.
Can every company in a given industry afford to embrace this self-centered philosophy? No, because for every company that gains market share, there is another that must lose market share. But in this intricate dance of organizational survival called capitalism, every company is driven by the growth imperative.
This, however, is a false, illogical, immoral imperative. The economy simply cannot grow indefinitely. Every industry in the economy cannot grow indefinitely. Every company in an industry cannot grow indefinitely. Technological progress cannot play itself out in an endless panorama of repeated obsolescence and perpetual replacement. This is a bankrupt economic philosophy that will reach its logical conclusion in relatively short order. We cannot afford such insanity. No society can. And yet we are hell-bent on pursuing this course, regardless of what either reason or the hard facts tell us.
We consumers must continue to buy things we don’t really need—endless upgrades of nonobsolete products and a perpetual parade of new “stuff”—and we must consume it in increasing quantities. If we do not consume, overcapitalized businesses can’t make a profit, they lay off workers, disposable income contracts, consumption falls even lower, and a particularly insidious cycle kicks in. And yet, as unbridled capitalism unwinds along its inevitable course, we consumers are less and less able to consume enough to maintain high enough levels of economic growth.
As I write, the economy is riding the momentum of a four-year-old recovery, but the closer one looks at this recovery, says Time magazine, “the more it appears to be unlike any in recent memory. It is a split-level surge in which mass layoffs are continuing side by side with new hiring and heavy overtime; high-income people are making more money, while many others are working at worse jobs for lower wages than a few years ago and still others have seen pay raises, if any, fall behind even today’s slow (2.5 percent) pace of inflation.”2
National polls show that as many as 40 percent of the workforce think the nation is still in a recession. There has been no recovery in their personal economies. Even President Clinton admits that “this appears to be a recovery for investors.” That’s a nice way of saying that the capitalists are getting richer, while everyone else is getting left further behind. More and more people can’t make ends meet, and myriad others are using up savings and going into debt to maintain a subsistence level of consumption. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we’re going to recover from this economic malaise. Its source lies deeper than our repeated recessions and recoveries, which, like waves on the sea, are merely indicators of more profound forces.
Perhaps Bertrand de Jouvenel was right when he suggested that “societies are governed in their onward march by laws of which we are ignorant.”3 Maybe the dynamism that “carried them to their prime” is the same force that leads them to their doom. Perhaps there is nothing we can do about our addiction to progress and the illusion that we can pursue it like an ever-retreating pot of gold at the end of the technological rainbow. Still, I would like to think we can change course before it’s too late, that we the people can regain control of our wayward nation and rein in the extreme economic, political, and social philosophies that are driving us to the precipice.
Of the two opposing political orientations popular in America today, theoretically, you would expect the liberals to believe in progress, which they do. But Lasch points out the inherent paradox of a “movement calling itself conservative” that doesn’t “associate itself with the demand for limits,” and not only on economic growth, but also on “the conquest of space, the technological conquest of the environment, and the ungodly ambition to acquire godlike powers over nature.”4 Liberals and conservatives alike have always worshipped at the altar of unending technological progress. And progress, Lasch contends, has become our secular religion.
Contrary to the Christian millennial vision that it replaced, the gospel of progress has no culmination, no utopia or paradise in which mankind will find rest from the competitive arena, from the mercenary world of commerce. Progress simply goes on forever, changing, growing, consuming everything in its path. The reason the secular theology of progress does not aim toward some ultimately desirable and happy ending is because its roots are not religious. They lie rather in the soil of moral relativism, agnostic science, and economic Darwinism. Human society, as a species, is adapting and reshaping itself, but not with any particular end in mind. Survival is our only motive, and the process—progress—is all that matters. We are pursuing a means without an end. But that means will indeed have an end, an unexpectedly abrupt and tragic one—unless we mend our ways.
The notion that progress does not have any noble objective or purpose bothers most people, when they take time to think it through carefully. Even George Bush (or one of his speechwriters) expressed dismay at the idea in his 1989 inaugural address: “What is the end purpose of this economic growth?” he asked. “Is it just to be rich? What a shallow ambition. Is there really any satisfaction to be had in being the fattest country? . . . What will they say of us, the Americans of the latter part of the twentieth century? That we were fat and happy? I hope not.”
But what is the purpose of endless economic growth? What is the purpose of all our progress? According to our modern, technological definition, it has none. Progress is not actually taking us anywhere; it is merely a joyride we have pursued for the sake of what we might see and experience along the way. If, in the end, it deposits us back at the very beginning, where our journey began, then that, we must concede, is as good a place as anywhere else.
And what exactly do we experience along the way? The only experiences that count in the current progressive ideology are those we buy. Consumption is the name of the game, because consumption keeps the whole mechanism moving. Not only must we consume at ever-increasing levels to perpetuate the ride (like buying ticket after ticket at the amusement park so that we can go in circles until we’re dizzy and nauseated), we must also consume because without consumption our lives would be empty. With no end destination to all this growth and progress, we can achieve satisfaction only through the “ride,” through the illusion that we are going somewhere and experiencing something worthwhile. Laurence Shames decries modern consumerism as consumption without justification, without purpose:
During the past decade, many people came to believe there didn’t have to be a purpose [for consumption]. The mechanism didn’t require it. Consumption kept the workers working, which kept the paychecks coming, which kept the people spending, which kept inventors inventing and investors investing, which meant there was more to consume. The system, properly understood, was independent of values and needed no philosophy to prop it up. It was a perfect circle, complete in itself—and empty in the middle.5
Consumer-based, progress-driven capitalism is completely amoral. It must be. If our economic system were governed by a well-defined morality—say, for instance, that corporations were required to abide by the man-made laws that hold individuals in check or the absolute laws that regulate nature—it would die. It is, in fact, capitalism’s amorality that makes it so strong. It professes no inherent need to bend either its methods or its motives to conform to any but the most forceful external moral restraints. The sole purpose of capitalism is to provide goods for consumption, at ever-increasing levels.
John Maynard Keynes proclaimed that such abundance would produce a “decent level of consumption for everyone” and would free people to pursue more important noneconomic interests.6 The flaw in his reasoning is that capitalism can’t settle for a “decent level of consumption.” Its dependence on progress and growth dictates that consumption must increase without end. Hence, a “decent” level of consumption is always “a bit more than what I now consume.”
What this means is that production, likewise, will always increase. We can never say, “We’ve arrived. This is enough productive capacity.” More is always better. The engine of capitalism is specifically designed to create profits and turn those profits into new capital—forever. The engine may burn out, or we may turn it off, but it will never create something other than what it was designed to create. And what capitalism is designed to create is an increasingly capitalized world, a world filled to overflowing with both products and production capacity. More factories, more equipment, more products, for ever and ever. And we must consume everything that is produced. That is the other side of the coin.
A Nation of Consumers
Because we are expected to consume everything that capitalism produces, America has evolved from a nation of citizens (who are so necessary in maintaining a republic) into a nation of consumers (who are essential only in maintaining an economy). Consumerism is our second job, you might say. “One of the most pervasive myths in contemporary society,” write William G. Scott and David K. Hart, “is that, regardless of what people must do on the job, when they leave work, their time is their own. . . . The sacrifices and responsibilities that organizational obedience entails are amply rewarded by salaries that enable people to exploit their leisure time to the fullest. This is a cruel deception.”
They go on to explain that, even though the range of options is great, what one does away from the job is also determined to a large degree by the needs of profit-seeking organizations. This predetermination of leisure activities is a logical extension of the organizational imperative: “that all behavior must enhance the health of modern organizations. . . . The rule is: The primary obligation of the individual off the job is to consume.”7
One largely unrecognized difficulty with this obligation, however, is that even though “we call ourselves consumers, . . . we do not [really] consume. Each person in America produces twice his weight per day in household, hazardous, and industrial waste, and an additional half-ton per week when gaseous wastes such as carbon dioxide are included.”8 Perhaps what we need is not just a redefinition of our purpose as citizens of this nation, but a redefinition of basic terms, such as production and consumption.
If we were to redefine production to mean the creation of either fully consumable or easily reusable products, rather than simply the churning out of quantifiable, purchasable stuff, and redefine consumption to mean the judicious acquiring of life-sustaining, rather than lifestyle-enhancing, goods and services, we might begin to rein in the rampant growth imperative that governs corporate America and threatens to destroy our society.
We toss about the term economy, as if all it meant were an expanding smorgasbord of delectables to consume, but economy, in the more original sense, refers to the thrifty, efficient, frugal use of resources. Our “economy,” ironically, has come to represent the exact opposite of this original definition. It is, in fact, so uneconomical that its profligacy is consuming us.
1. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991), 48.
2. George J. Church, “Recovery for Whom?” Time, April 25, 1994, 30.
3. Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power, trans. J. F. Huntington (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), 378.
4. Lasch, True and Only Heaven, 39.
5. Laurence Shames, The Hunger for More: Searching for Values in an Age of Greed (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 80–81.
6. Lasch, True and Only Heaven, 536.
7. William G. Scott and David K. Hart, Organizational Values in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 72.
8. Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (New York: HarperCollins), 1993, 12.