Knowing that one has little power to fix an unjust system can feel frustrating. In spite of increased opportunities to shame oligarchs in the town square and hold jerks accountable for unethical behavior—Democrats, Republicans, no matter—the basic terms of life remain unchanged in the US—food insecurity, housing problems, war, disease, dangerous levels of inequality, problematic relationships to the developing world, to say nothing of unprecedented governmental and corporate access to individuals’ private lives. Rampant exploitation of the economically vulnerable by the wealthy is the norm, and some would elevate that norm to a good.
Little power, however, is not the same as powerlessness. To a far greater extent than is the case with political power in representative democracy, consumers wield power in capitalism. Hence George W. Bush’s exhortation to Americans to fly in the wake of 9/11, to “get down to Disney World in Florida, enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Hence Barack Obama’s description of the threat posed by people simply not spending money, and the seriousness with which his administration approached that threat (a generous bailout to banks and financial firms).
This consumer power of “saving” money instead of “striking” (or refusing to work at all)—of rebuffing corporations rather than patronizing them—is rarely employed, and almost never as a deliberate act. The choice not to spend is made only under dire circumstances, such as a recession, or fear of a terrorist attack. The system is set up to reward people who participate in consumerism, and punish—socially, economically—those who abstain.
Not a Critique of Capitalism
This is not intended as a criticism of capitalism. The criticisms of consumerism enumerated below can apply to capitalism as well, but not necessarily. Capitalism only becomes actively disruptive and damaging when secondary motivations are introduced, such as the desire to impress acquaintances, or the determination of a dependent relationship between individuals and businesses wherein creativity, nutrition, stimulus, and self-worth are all purely and ultimately transactional.
Nothing in capitalism necessarily describes a relationship between people and each other or people and businesses. Capitalism simply asserts a situation where people use money to trade their labor for things they want or need (others’ labor). Capitalism seems to have originated in part as a way to keep track of debts, at a technological moment when agrarian and pastoral communities needed ways of trading with each other and establishing land use throughout the year, although human labor fluctuated from season to season. Furthermore as the technology to farm developed, the artisans and specialists required to create and maintenance implements and tools also demanded ways of measuring and exchanging labor that transcended barter.
All this is to say that capitalism is a system that evolved to fit a need. There are meaningful and convincing criticisms of capitalism as it exists today—this essay is not intended as one. The criticism offered in this piece concerns the ways in which people approach the deeply flawed system within which we all work.
Consumerism v Capitalism
Consumerism provides some measurable positives. Shoppers who possess sufficient means can choose from an extraordinary array of goods and specialized services, due to relentless competition for consumer interest. Also, necessities tend to be cheap (not always)—food, clothes, and electricity being those most conspicuously available at affordable prices. Unsurprisingly, people who tend to focus on those positives claim that the success of the consumer-driven capitalist economy is good for everyone. By their reckoning, the more wealthy people there are, and the wealthier those wealthy are, the more generosity there is in the world.
But many powerful negatives mar consumerism. Here are a few of them: the majority of goods produced for consumption are frivolous, including some with no use whatsoever. Society therefore wastes a great deal of energy to develop these items of dubious utility, dollars that could profitably be spent almost anywhere else—an effect that is magnified over generations. Every merchant must be tempted to cultivate sentimental and irrational dependency in their customers—whether or not the product/products they sell offer any actual benefit to their communities beyond enriching a select few. Citizens interact with each other and with businesses differently from citizens in non-consumer cultures. Traditions are eroded or exploited, community is based on fad, whim, and capital. Novelty (necessary for consumption) replaces the mastery of certain fundamental non-quantifiable knowledge. Ethical behavior is replaced inexorably by cynicism. Ultimately, politics itself becomes the realm of “what can this person do for me” rather than “what is needed for the community to prosper.”
There are small, trivial advantages to consumerism, balanced by deeper, systematic disadvantages.
What can be done
As implied earlier, consumerism depends on people spending money out of psychological desire, rather than existential necessity. The purchase of certain items offers comfort and identity in places where the struggle for survival has been forgotten. Momentary happiness or satisfaction, while important to consumerism (though not necessary, as evidenced by the airline industry and the health care industry), does not or should not lead to permanent happiness or satisfaction, because people would then have no incentive to continue consuming. Consumerism relies on hotel stays during business trips, and plane travel, and car rentals. It relies on eating out at restaurants and drinking beer at bars. It relies on fashion—the idea that one should require new clothes each year, (or even each season, depending on one’s disposable income). It relies on repeatedly purchasing items of intentionally limited utility.
The way individuals can strike back against consumerism all depend on spending less money, and spending it more carefully—“voting with your wallet.” To be clear, in this framework spending less is not a means to accumulating wealth—it is an active, and hostile action against organizations that do not have an individual’s best interests at heart (quite the contrary, in fact).
This does not mean that one cannot spend money at restaurants or bars, or on vacations, or on frivolous clothes or other bullshit for which one has no need. It doesn’t mean spending no money—that would bring society and civilization as we know it to an end, and have grave consequences for people interested in living better lives. Consumerism’s manifest hostility to individuals requires only that one should be more careful about spending habits.
Here are a few ways to change one’s own relationship with businesses that operate in a consumerist framework:
1) Only patronize businesses where you like the people and service. Patronizing a business should always be more than a transaction—what you’re getting out of the place should never just be goods or services, it should also be part of the fabric of your community. Speak to whomever is conducting the transaction, ask them questions. If you dislike the people at the business, do not go there again for the thing you’re getting.
2) Garden. Either use yard space to grow your own food, or, failing that, use community space. It is prohibitively expensive in terms of time to produce enough food, regularly, to feed a family of four or more, but the process of gardening connects one to the land, and gives one a different, better perspective on what goes into populating one’s refrigerator. It’s also a heck of a workout!
3) Repair clothes and shoes rather than buying new clothes. If you’re partial to a particular tailor or cobbler (assuming your town is lucky enough to still have these assets) you should rely on them for resoling shoes, or relining coats or jackets. Buy good, sturdy clothing from reliable merchants, and expect to keep them in good shape.
4) Exercise regularly. Exercise costs you little (gym memberships at even the least sophisticated gyms start at $10 per month) to go to a gym, or nothing if one has the discipline and space to work out at home. Gymnasiums are an important public resource because they furnish the means of exercise under all climates and to those individuals for whom working out without machinery would be a hardship (myself, for example—because of a fractured heel, most calisthenics are unavailable to me, I depend on the elliptical machine and stationary bike during wet or icy conditions, which is much of the winter in Connecticut). Under the right management gyms offer substantial benefits beyond a space to use expensive and convenient exercise equipment—community being the best of those—so laying out $100-$120 per year isn’t the worst deal. Furthermore, regular exercise is one of the best ways to maximize one’s good health, reducing one’s reliance on an increasingly broken health care system and improving cognition and basic quality of life.
If no good gymnasiums with pools are available, and one does not live near a body of water in which to swim, it is always possible to work out outside, which has the secondary benefit of bringing one into closer harmony with the environment in which one lives.
5) Take on quality of life projects around your home. Some people do this already out of necessity: collecting firewood for use in wood-burning stoves because gas and oil are too expensive or inaccessible, fishing / hunting to supplement diet (~2% of Americans depend on hunting as a source of meat, according to one recent report), and various other DIY projects. In this specific arena, those Americans who are not forced by circumstance to procure warmth, shelter, or food for themselves should look up to their poorer cousins and fellow-citizens as a model for behavior—buy less, do more.
6) Celebrate your lifestyle with friends. Spending less money only works as a social movement if more people participate. Don’t be a jerk about it, either—simply model good behavior. If there’s a downed tree somewhere nearby, invite friends over and have a woodcutting festival (I learned this trick from observing the habits of Chris “CJ” Chivers, who does this sort of thing regularly). Do work as a community, as much as possible. Not for profit—for prosperity, spiritually as well as socially.
7) This involves deliberately eschewing “bargain” and “discount” hunting, as these lead to megastores like Walmart and Amazon thriving with little or no accountability. Rather than this, one should seek to pay full freight on needed items from local businesses. Similarly, one should avoid corporate or “brand” name items, minimizing one’s dependence on them for clothes, equipment, and technological convenience.
8) Recognize intellectual consumerism, which is the consumption of ideas that are designed to facilitate or celebrate consumption, and avoid or resist those where they exist, too. Mainstream books (the Harry Potter series), movies (Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Marvel universe movies, virtually anything made by Disney), media that deliver a product as a business, branded public celebrities, and soforth.
I’m sure I’ve missed some ideas, and that certain things haven’t occurred to me. Shooting clubs / small local quasi-militias are groups of people who see communal self-defense as an important part of civilian life, and approach gun safety and defense readiness as an activity that cannot be solely entrusted to the federal or state government. Preserving open spaces for recreation (parks, forest, mountains) is also important for preserving something of the original American character—that of the explorer, the discoverer of high, lonely places in which to build a castle away from the corrupting influences of civilization. All those things that our grandparents and great-grandparents knew and of which they were proud, which consumer capitalism has sought to monetize and render commercial, which are at the moment still available to us as a birthright.
The goal of these actions, again, is not to destroy commerce or upend capitalism. It is to root transactions back where they belong—as a true expressions of need, offered as exchanges within a community rather than a trick by which to hustle people out of money they do not have in exchange for trivial bunko. If observation of cultures without well-entrenched consumerist culture is any guide, the results will include increased bonds formed with neighbors, increased resilience of towns and cities, and measurably increased happiness. It is a way to truly make America great in a way that it has not been for decades. We’ve taken many deliberate and accidental steps away from our natural lives—but it’s never too late to start reclaiming what was once ours, and can be again.