Saturday, March 28, 2009

consumerism - curses and causes

MonthlyReview | The idea settled into US culture that consumption was the proper goal of work and the measure of personal worth, of one's "success" in life. Business boosters and ideologues pushed that idea, but they were hardly alone. Advertisers made it their constant message. Trade unions focused also on raising wages and consumption -- just what US capitalism could and did deliver -- rather than challenging the organization of production. So too did most left movements. Economists did their part by building modern economics on the unquestioned axiom that labor was a burden for which consumption enabled by wages was the compensation. This definition of economics required banishing the alternative of Marxian economics from schools. The mass media proceeded as if it were likewise obvious common sense that all any employee really cared about was the size of his/her wage/salary. Of course, some dissident voices -- especially on the left -- rejected these ideas and this capital/labor deal, but consumerism usually all but drowned them out.

Consumerism's deep roots in the psyche of US workers explains their reactions when real wages stopped rising in the 1970s and since. They simply kept on buying more commodities. To pay for them, workers took on more hours of labor and borrowed vast sums. Worker exhaustion rose accordingly, likewise the number of family members sent out to work (straining "family values" to the breaking point). Anxiety intensified over frightening family debt levels. In this situation, the current scandal of sub-prime mortgages was a predictable disaster waiting to happen.

The 150 year deal has been broken. The business side no longer needs it; it hasn't since the 1970s. That is why real wages stopped rising. Most workers just postponed facing that reality and its implications: by having more family members do more work and by heavy borrowing. Meanwhile, able and willing laborers abroad who accept wages far lower than in the US beckons. US corporations are moving to produce there. They will ship "home" the goods and services they produce abroad so long as US citizens can afford them. When that no longer pays, they will redirect shipments to the rest of the world market.

Consumerism was a necessary component of US capitalism from the 1820s to the 1970s. As an ideology uniquely suited to that capitalism, it was articulated, cultivated, and supported by different social groups. Whatever fun comedians and critics poke at consumerism, it was not some lovable human foible, nor some quirk of our culture. It was the glue holding US capitalism together for a long time. Even more important, business dissolved that glue in the 1970s, and now US workers have exhausted ways to postpone the results of that dissolution. Storms are rising.