Consumerism as a Cultural Characteristic
Thus far, our focus has been upon the decentralization of the traditional authorities of Western culture and the subsequent centralization of the self-conscience individual. In simplest terms this is modernity. What began with perhaps a well-intentioned, albeit misguided, desire for certainty in knowledge in the Cartesian agenda, has gradually resulted in the irrelevance of knowledge for knowledge sake. Francis Bacon’s agitation with the uselessness of traditional knowledge in the sixteenth century has become a cultural characteristic in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. As was pointed out above, the church in America, ironically, has been an all too willing participant in this shift.
The natural result of course, has been the rise of what has been termed the therapeutic culture, an ethos that looks to knowledge (including Scripture) as a source of psychological well-being, rather than a source of truth and morality. One of the glaring legacies of the Enlightenment, especially as it has been played out in America, is the need for knowledge to be legitimated upon utilitarian grounds-upon the basis of its usefulness to meet the perceived needs of the individual—especially in regard to the betterment of living itself. This constitutes a reduction to irrelevance anything outside of an individual’s immediate desires and aspirations. “The external world,” writes Wells, “in which meaning and morality were once rooted has collapsed. Only the inner world of need and experience remains. Meaning has become a matter of psychological connectedness to various communities.”
When knowledge is thought of in this way, the individual and his perceived needs become authoritative and traditional sources of authority—especially divine revelation—become a means by which needs are met, rather than sources of morally binding authority. In such an environment narcissism is institutionalized, rationalized and becomes itself a component of an entire society’s cultural make-up. Consequently, religious propositions are increasingly thought of in terms of their usefulness and marketability. Once the individual’s ‘felt needs’ are elevated to determining which religious propositions will be used and how they will be communicated, the religious community assumes the role of producer and the would-be convert a consumer not substantially different than the ‘closed system’ of supply and demand.
The Social Dimensions of Consumerism
Consumerism as it will be used here, must be distinguished from the normal consumption of goods and services. All societies, whether rural or urban, agrarian or mercantile, are made up of consumers. One must consume to live. The subject here is not consumers, but rather consumerism. It is a phenomenon in which society does not consume to live, but lives to consume. Richard Neuhaus provides a felicitous definition of consumerism in Doing Well and Doing Good, his commentary on Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus:
Consumerism is, quite precisely, the consuming of life by the things consumed. It is living in a manner that is measured by having rather than being. As Pope John Paul II makes clear, consumerism is hardly the sin of the rich. The poor, driven by discontent and envy, may be as consumed by what they do not have as the rich are consumed by what they do have.
In such a society Rene Descartes’ dictum, “I think therefore, I am,” becomes “I consume, therefore, I am.” In other words, a consumer culture actually legitimates its existence and draws meaning through consumption.
The tragic result of consumerism as a cultural characteristic is the tendency to evaluate relationships, communities, and cultural institutions on the basis of their abilities to bring about a greater fulfillment to the individual. Within a context of consumerism the individual no longer sees himself as serving the greater good of a community, but rather looks to the community to serve his greater good.
Consumerism, however, should not be thought of as what Craig Gay calls, “abnormal or aberrant behavior within a modern society,” but rather it “discloses modernity’s highest ideals.” Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the modern democratic mindset of Americans of relying only on oneself might actually produce a mentality that judges everything by its ability to fulfill “immediate material pleasures.” He also indicates, “that the love of money is either the chief or a secondary motive at the bottom of everything the Americans do.” This he notes, “gives a family likeness to all their passions and soon makes them wearisome to contemplate.” The modern project, it seems, was in inaugurated with the deliberate intent to forswear philosophical and theological judgment for the sake of comfort and convenience, and this made possible by scientific and technological development.
When one seeks to analyze consumerism it becomes quite evident that causes and influences are not easily deduced. Yet for the present purpose it would not be inaccurate to maintain that consumerism is generally a product of two key developments of the modern era. The first, discussed above, involves the centering of the Self and the absolute sovereignty of personal fulfillment. The second involves increased production due to industrialization, technology and urbanization. But as to specifics, one immediately finds that consumerism is far from a “field of study” and is more like a “spaghetti junction of intersecting disciplines, methodologies, politics.” Modernity then can be thought of as the starting point or ‘first cause’ of consumerism, the context in which it rises. But to understand what consumerism is, it must be understood as an essentially social phenomenon. This understanding does not preclude the philosophical and theological critiques, but merely understands that philosophical and theological shifts are played out within a social context.
According to the book of Genesis, for instance, when the first humans desired the personal fulfillment offered by the Tempter, a philosophical and theological shift took place—the decentralization of divine authority and the crowning of personal autonomy. But this shift had an impact on and was played out along social lines, as the long history of human autonomy reveals.
Thus, it is imperative that comprehensive critiques of consumerism take into account the “top down” Marxist interpretation of institutions of power—fed by free market capitalism—that oppress the masses with their constant flood of otherwise unneeded goods and services, by means of manipulative advertising. The weakness of the Marxist critique, however, is its general assumption of the innocence of the masses and its failure to factor in the natural inclination toward self-centeredness inherent in human nature, as espoused by traditional Judeo-Christian interpretations. Consequently, it seems that a ‘both and’ rather than an ‘either or’ critique be followed. Institutions of power can be and often are oppressive and exploitative, but the genius of consumer-oriented capitalism is it’s understanding of the darker forces of human nature: The all-consuming drive for self-aggrandizement.
If such a conclusion is assumed, then it explains quite adequately the roots of modern American consumerism. As corporations increase production of a given product, the tools of marketing generally and advertising specifically, are employed in a manipulative way to create need on the part of the consumer and crush all alternative sources. It is not important whether such a need is in itself legitimate, only that it is perceived as legitimate. The billion dollar a year market of drugs such as Ritalin and Prozac, for instance, is evidence of the degree to which a society can be manipulated by powerful pharmaceutical companies into believing that they need these drugs. Parents are told that they need sedated children and for 50 to 100 dollars a month they can receive a quick fix that will give it to them, while at the same time blocking or maligning information about viable alternatives.
Yet it is not only in the realm of marketed drugs that the spirit of consumerism is seen. Every facet of American society is driven, shaped and conditioned by the market. You need respect and prestige, and this or that product will give it to you. You need a better sex life, and this book or that plan will help you obtain it. You need an escape from the humdrum of daily life and Disney World will provide it in any historical or technological context you prefer. The modern market, especially in America, specializes in turning every marketable desire and pleasure into full-blown needs, without which life cannot be lived.
The hallmarks of a consumer culture, therefore, are an insatiable appetite for fulfillment on the part of those who consume and an equally insatiable appetite for control on the part of those who produce. Such emulates Max Weber’s “iron cage: with stunning accuracy, a society if dehumanized automatons mindlessly reacting to corporate controlled stimuli. Rationality, creativity, and freedom, all crucial elements of healthy cultural development, are increasingly suppressed under the offer of the instant satisfaction of the modern market.
In Andy and Larry Wachowski’s blockbuster film The Matrix, the entire human race, reduced to copper-tops incased in Plexiglas pods, provide energy for a massive intelligent supercomputer. The supercomputer in turn feeds sense impressions directly into the brains of the immobile humans, controlling every aspect of their virtual environments and subsequently their realities. Whatever the intent of the writers, the film provides an effective parable of the nature of consumerism: An entire society willfully exploited for the purpose of augmenting the power of a corporate elite.
Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter, Centesimus Annus, echoes the dehumanizing exploitative nature of consumerism by suggesting that Marxism and consumerism are essentially the same in that they fall to the same fatal weakness. “It [consumerism] seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than communism, while equally excluding spiritual values.” He goes on to indicate that while Marxism has failed to contribute to a humane and better society, consumerism agrees with Marxism in that “it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.” While John Paul’s critique is essentially a new subtle form of Catholic liberation theology, it provides a helpful analysis of the oppressive and dehumanizing nature of modern consumerism.
In the final analysis, it is probably inaccurate to refer to a “consumer culture” in that consumerism actually represents a debasement of true culture. As was seen above, in a culture driven by the consumption of material goods and services, corporate elites actually create culture. Culture is transformed from a bottom up enterprise in which rational beings interact historically, linguistically and religiously with their environment, to a top down manipulative one in which individuals are told what to need and what will give them the sense of fulfillment and identification they are told they need. As a result, traditional institutions such as family, nationality, ethnicity, language and religion—customarily components of cultural development—become displaced by a common identity shaped by advertising and marketed goods and services. Rodney Clapp recounted a conversation that he had with Lendol Calder, a historian in New Hampshire who devoted his doctoral dissertation to consumerism. Clapp asked when he first noticed the depth and breadth of consumerism in American culture.
He recalled a Christian camp for college students of several nationalities. A get-acquainted exercise divided campers by nationality, charging them to choose a song representing their culture, once that all could approve and sing to the rest of the assembly. Most nationalities reached consensus, practiced, and were ready in 10 to 20 minutes; nearly all the groups chose folk songs from their native lands. Not the Americans. They debated over 20 minutesm then an hour. Some wanted a rock song; others suggested a series of country songs. At last they settled on the Coca-Cola jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” The tune ringing in his ears, Lendol realized that commercial culture was what really bound these Americans—these American Christians—together.
American culture over the past one hundred years has become thoroughly commercialized in which unrestricted material consumption becomes the chief and highest end, the ultimate goal of all human energies. Additionally, any worldviews that Americans—and American Evangelicals for that matter—might have had has been replaced with an incoherent fragmented collection of corporate generated realities and an unprincipled desire to consume for consumption’s sake.
It would not be inaccurate to conclude, therefore, that the vast majority of Americans in the twenty-first century actually possess no real worldview at all, being what Carl Bernstein has brazenly called “the idiot culture.” Jean Baudrillard said it best when he referred to America as the “land of the non-event,” a people who live in a perpetual present, a “Utopia Achieved” with no past and an irrational optimism about the future. All that is left is a culture in which tradition, truth and idealism, in all its forms, has died the death of a thousand disqualifications and has been replaced by the mindless pursuit of immediate self-aggrandizement. Where American culture goes from here is anyone’s guess, but unless the course is changed very soon America’s “Utopia” will crumble. And if it is true that American culture is defined by consumption, what will happen when Americans lose the ability to consume?
To be continued:
The Church goes Corporate or "Walmart Christianity"
 Wells, God in the Wasteland, 220.
 Richard Neuhaus, Doing Well and Doing Good (DoubleDay: New York, 1992), 62.
 Craig M. Gay, “Sensualists without Heart: Contemporary Consumerism in Light of the Modern Project” in The Consuming Passion: Christianity and the Consumer Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 19.
 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 645. Tocqueville also expressed his fears that the unbridled pursuit of material gain might extinguish the spirit of Americans when he said, “The prospect really does frighten me that they may finally become so engrossed in a cowardly love of immediate pleasures that their interest in their own future and in their descendants may vanish, and that they will prefer tamely to follow the course of their own destiny rather than make a sudden energetic effort to set things right.”
 Ibid., 614-15. He went on to observe that as a result, “they [Americans] have little faith in anything extraordinary and an almost invincible distaste for the supernatural.”
 Gay, “Sensualists without Heart,” 19.
 Don Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), 2.
 Wells, God in the Wasteland, 61.
 John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, may 1, 1991. www.newadvent.org/docs/jp02ca.htm n. 19
 Rodney Clapp, “Why the Devil Takes Visa,” Christianity Today (October, 7, 1996).
 Carl Bernstein, “The Idiot Culture,” The New Republic (June 8, 1992), 28, 25.
 Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 1988), 75-105.