"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Materialism–It’s Who We Are As Americans, So Get Over It

The Consumer Society has taken its licks over the years; and although buying-and-selling has been the engine of economic growth since the days of the caveman, it is always looked at with some suspicion. It might be acceptable to trade essentials, said Medieval scholars, but not to go overboard and charge interest, market prices, or compete too much. Leave all that to the Jews.  Every society has dealt with consumerism – or materialism – in its own way.  The Soviets outlawed every kind of private transaction and dictated who got what, when, and at what price.  The Soviet Union was the first serious experiment to expunge all traces of a market economy from its territory, and see where that got them. 

Countries within the Soviet socialist orbit, like India, did their best to stifle demand by limiting supply. Very little was available in stores, one had to queue for years for a phone or a car under the assumption that such control of foreign supply would stimulate the local economy.  ‘Import substitution’ was the official policy, and for decades neither did the economy grow nor did consumers find more goods in the market.  India did not go into debt like other countries, but it simply sat on its federal reserves, and nothing happened until the early 90s when the discredited socialist model was jettisoned in favor of a free market economy.  India had GDP growth rates approaching 10 percent before other countries caught up.

Even under the socialist system, India was always a consumer-oriented country.  Small merchants were as savvy as the Jews, Wolofs, or the Chinese Singaporeans in selling at a profit even under restrictive conditions. Consumerism never disappeared under Indira Gandhi.  It just went underground.  Pent-up demand increased along with the population.  As soon as the artificial barriers to economic growth were lifted, Indians went on a buying spree equal to none.

American Puritans were suspicious of displays of wealth.  Although Calvinists believed that the material success was a good indicator of personal salvation, it didn’t do to flaunt your wealth.

Samuel Willard theorized that “riches are consistent with godliness, and the more a man hath, the more advantage he hath to do good with it, if God give him an heart to it.” William Adams regarded economic endeavor as worthy of a Christian’s affection; he wrote that the Christian “hath much business to do in and about the world, which he is vigorously to attend, and he hath … that in the world upon which he is to bestow his affection.” (A Puritan’s Mind)

Puritans saw no contradiction in being suspicious of wealth – that materialism, above all else, led to temptation and sin.

The Puritans saw an inverse relationship between wealth and godliness. It did not have to turn out this way, but in their view it usually did. “Remember that riches do make it harder for a man to be saved,” warned Richard Baxter. Samuel Willard believed that “it is a rare thing to see men that have the greatest visible advantages…to be very zealous for God.” Richard Sibbes noted that “where the world hath got possession in the heart, it makes us false to God, and false to man, it makes us unfaithful in our callings, and false to religion itself.” (A Puritan’s Mind)

We all know how that internal debate ended – materialism won, and the Protestant Work Ethic was firmly established as the bedrock of American capitalism. Early Americans soon learned that it was fun to spend and have things.  The memories of the Old World, of serfdom, taxation, and inhibitions to personal liberty were too fresh in their minds to overlook.  America offered unlimited promise.  Free Labor meant that you were entitled to what you earned, the more the better; and capitalism grew commensurately.

No one is immune to the siren call of wealth and the things it can buy.  The Hippies of the Sixties gave it a good go.  They lived in communes, baked bread, made their own clothes and rummaged through thrift shop bins.  They walked rather than rode, disparaged bourgeois consumer culture, and vowed to create a new, simpler, world.

That dream didn’t last, and the hippies of yesteryear are now driving SUVs, shopping at Whole Foods, and filling the living room with presents on Christmas Eve. That historical blip in America’s consumerism disappeared without a trace, except in a few utopian redoubts in the Idaho panhandle, Humboldt County, and upstate New York.  The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal compete for the high-end luxury market and publish high-gloss Style and Fashion magazines.  Watches for $2000, jewelry for $20,000.  Porsches, Lamborghinis, Maseratis. 

Toys ‘R’ Us offer hangars full of toys, play figures, and gadgets.  Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and other big box stores are overflowing with everything from screws to lipstick.  Ads for unimaginable products are everywhere.  In the junk mail, in the seat pockets of airplanes, in newspapers, magazines, and online.

However, it is wrong to assume that American ‘materialism’ has gotten bigger or grossly exaggerated.  It simply has kept pace with our growing, consumer-based economy. It has simply morphed with the times. Now that the Great Recession of 2007 is over, we are in a particularly exuberant shopping mood; but this is no different from the years following the Depression and WWII – enormous pent-up demand.  Time to capture lost ground and buy the car, renovate the house, landscape the yard, stock up on single malts, and start planning the trip to Italy.  In the case of the Depression demand was so pent up that the spending spree lasted over ten years.

George Monbiot, however, is very unhappy.  Writing in The Guardian (12.10.13) and commenting on photos of gift-laden shoppers, he says:

The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanized by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl's head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled on her vast bed. It's captioned "shoppy shoppy" and "#goldrush", but a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She's alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.

This, I’m afraid, is taking things too far.  Civilization is not coming to an end.  Although most people suffer through some Holiday Season Stress, it passes quickly.  Ordinary Americans go back to their lives shopping for food, tires, and running shoes.

Much of the criticism of ‘materialism’ has a patronizing cast to it.  It is not just brand product shopping that galls the upper-middle class intellectual – Valentino, Blahnik, Lim, St. Laurent, Dior and their cheaper knock-off cousins – but the excess.  Who needs 10 pairs of designer shoes or a closet full of runway dresses, handbags, and accessories?  Crass materialism at its worst.  

The French have always prized style and fashion, and even less well-to-do Parisian women own one great outfit – not two or three nor an armoire-full; but one.  It has always been considered crass to purchase to excess.  Many Americans have adopted this model.  They purchase well, within their means, and never to excess. It is rare to find anyone in the tony, WASP enclaves of Spring Valley, Sausalito, or Nantucket who are coming home from Saks or Neiman Marcus with a trunk full of bags; nor is anyone in the more modest professional neighborhoods of any big American city so guilty. In other words, crass materialism is not endemic, it is class-based.

At the same time, these tasteful shoppers only think they have avoided the consumer culture of middle America.  While they might eschew the retail excesses of their country bumpkin relatives, they are still shelling out thousands on consumer products.  The skiing trip to Gstaad, the $300 meals at Delfina, the dozens of premium kusshis and kumamotos at Aquagrill, the $100k kitchen renovation and $50k landscaping of the back yard, the 18th century Colonial silver salt cellars, the 19th century Meiji print all are consumer purchases.  All are quiet transactions, well under the crass materialism radar, but worth hundreds of thousands of dollars nevertheless.

Materialism forces us into comparison with the possessions of others, a race both cruelly illustrated and crudely propelled by that toxic website. There is no end to it. If you have four Rolexes while another has five, you are a Rolex short of contentment. The material pursuit of self-esteem reduces your self-esteem.

Thorstein Veblen, 19th century economist, was the first to identify the phenomenon of Conspicuous Consumption.

Veblen was a harsh critic of what he thought was the manipulative, exploitive leisure class:

The titular manifestation of those with the power of exploit is the "leisure class" which is defined by its lack of productive economic activity and its commitment to demonstrations of idleness. As Veblen describes it, as societies mature, conspicuous leisure gives way to "conspicuous consumption", but both are performed for the sole purpose of making an invidious distinction based on pecuniary strength, the demonstration of wealth being the basis for social status. (Wikipedia)

Veblen was more perceptive than he knew, for conspicuous consumption expanded outside the confines of the leisure class and into the mainstream; and ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ became the mantra of advertising and marketing.  If there is something toxic here, it has been around for a long, long time.

Monbiot cites a number of studies which suggest that materialism is linked to all kinds of psychological and social dysfunction. The methodological error in all these studies is a failure to define ‘materialism’.  Is wanting a bigger and better refrigerator wrong when the 40-year old Amana on the front porch stops working? Or buying a few $5.00 Bangladeshi factory reject dresses for your children so they can look nice for Bible study?  Or is only the desire for luxury goods? 

As I have suggested above, I would be very unhappy if I eliminated my twice-yearly $1000 weekends at my favorite Rappahannock River resort; or the thousands spent on fabulous but infrequent meals in San Francisco and New York; or the hundreds of dozens of oysters eaten from Scotland to Washington State.  Am I desolate, depressed, and disconsolate because of such luxuries?  Far from it.  More importantly, what is the difference between buying a closetful of inexpensive dresses and a long weekend at The Tides?  None whatsoever.

Monbiot concludes thusly:

Materialism is a general social affliction, visited upon us by government policy, corporate strategy, the collapse of communities and civic life, and our acquiescence in a system that is eating us from the inside out.

This is hyperbole and fevered classism at its worst. As importantly, it is hypocritical.  Monbiot like the rest of us benefits from the exuberant spending of the unwashed masses. Our liberal economies are based on consumer spending – not on the heavy industry, nickel smelters, and steel mills reminiscent of the old Soviet days – and our standard of living depends on it.

So, it is all well and good to have a good at the crass materialists among us, but their irrational retail exuberance buys our oysters.

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