Wednesday, 28 October 2009

'Consumption' or 'Consumerism' ?

This week's post arose serendipitously. A Friend who is part of the Quakers and Business group left me an article from Prospect magazine, assuming (correctly) that it isn't a magazine I normally see. It's an article by Amitai Etzioni, adapted from an earlier one he wrote that appeared in a US publication called New Republic. You can read the full article he wrote there, but you have to be a subscriber to read the full article in Prospect.

I can’t ‘read’ where Etzioni sits on the normal divisions of politics that we’re used to in this country. I don’t think his own position of being ‘communitarian’ works with UK right, left, liberal, or green! I suspect that in British terms he looks more ‘right’ than he does in the USA.

What he’s discussing in this article is the difference between 'consumption' and 'consumerism'. And he has an interesting outsider’s perspective on European affairs. He looks at how various countries have fared during the recent economic turn-down, and argues that France has done well because it is highly ‘statist’; Germany is less statist and has done less well; and the USA and UK are the least statist and have suffered the most. He points out that it is interesting to see the Economist magazine, usually in favour of the free market, praising France; but at the same time insisting that such a statist outcome can’t possibly last. Etzioni remarks that the French and German people have proved much less willing than the British or Americans to work ever harder, ever longer hours, just to buy more goods. So, he wonders, should we embrace the continental model more? If you follow the economic news in the mainstream press, you may have seen discussions of how France and Germany resist the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model.

‘The good life’, he points out (so now you see why this article was passed to me!) has meant many different things, and there have been many variations over time and place in terms of whether material success and conspicuous consumption form part of ‘the good life’, or not.

What Etzioni wants to do is to eradicate consumerism, which does not – he says – mean doing away with capitalism or consumption. The difference he is pointing to is framed in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: when consumption is focussed on satisfying basic needs (food, warmth, shelter, etc) it is appropriate; but when acquiring goods and services is (mis)used to satisfy higher needs, consumption turns into consumerism, which in turn becomes a social disease – and the link to the global economic crisis is obvious.

It is also self-defeating – numerous studies have shown conclusively that, beyond a certain level (about $20 000) increased income does not lead to increased happiness; and that many people in capitalist societies feel unsatisfied. What kind of culture would enhance human flourishing, rather than human consumerism?

Etzioni answers this by referring to ‘communitarian and transcendental pursuits’. In ‘communitarian’ he includes relating to family, friends and others; and also service to the community – not altruism, but ‘mutualism’. By ‘transcendental’ he means religious/spiritual pursuits, but also artistic and even sporting activity. A society focussed on these two areas would, he points out, use less of the Earth’s resources, and have a lower carbon footprint. As well as being kind to the environment, it would exhibit a greater degree of social justice, he argues.

The question, then, is whether and how the economic crisis could lead to cultural transformation. And this is why passing the article to me was so timely – this coming weekend we have the second part of the Zero Growth Economics conference: representatives from Area Meetings coming together at Woodbrooke to follow up on the inputs of the London day (see earlier blog), learn new things, and plan for practical, local outcomes. I’ll be writing about that next week.

A couple of other items of relatively recent interest link in with this discussion.

Between July and September 2007, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked the public to consider what social evils face the UK today. This was undertaken as a modern follow-up to Joseph Rowntree’s original memorandum when he set up the trusts that bear his name:
“I feel that much of the current philanthropic effort is directed to remedying the more superficial manifestations of weakness or evil, while little thought or effort is directed to search out their underlying causes.”
I responded to the public consultation, writing about ‘competitive consumerist individualism’ – thinking that I would be a minority voice among many more people writing about racism, poverty, child-abuse, family breakdown, etc. I was, however, making the point that I believed that many of these other modern societal ills actually stemmed from our collective thrall to capitalist market economics. It turned out that I was far from alone, as is clear from the overall results. A book has now been published – a collection of essays by experts in their fields, drawing on the issues raised by the consultation. You can see a rather badly formatted Table of Contents here; or a Google preview here.

The other related item is the little film called The Story of Stuff. It’s a 20-minute animated film, with narration by Annie Leonard. You can download the whole film, or watch clips. There’s a book forthcoming, a blog, and all the other attendant campaigning bits and pieces. It’s very USA-focussed, but it’s good material, applicable anywhere in the developed world. Be warned – when you load the website you get a blank grey screen! You have to scroll down to get the page contents.

We’ll be showing this film at the Zero Growth Economics weekend coming up – more on that next week.

1 comment:

  1. After writing (above) that I find Etzioni hard to 'read' in the context of UK left/right political understanding, I emailed a friend who lives near Berkeley, California, to ask her about him. Here's what she sent back:

    Wikipedia has a good piece on 'communitarianism'.

    Some people here do think Obama is extreme left-wing. I don't get it. We are getting increasingly polarized (almost viciously). I am beginning to think that the left-right continuum is a less appropriate way to think of the US political spectrum. Maybe it is
    more star-shaped, with people at the tips of the stars armed with pitchforks and torches. What we think of as real political differences seems to be more like strange stances shaped by exaggerated fear, suspicion and anger. US experience of the left-wing is very muted....for instance, someone like Ken Livingstone, no way could he be politically active over here. My Canadian cousins visited last weekend. They laugh about the US snarl around health
    care. Their understanding is that our system is made to prevent the President from taking action. Also, they stayed in a B&B in Berkeley. On an early morning walk, they were appalled to see homeless people within the first 5 minutes of their walk.