I grew up in a working class family, with an emphasis on community and helping each other during times of need. Those of you who have listened to my reflections in the past know that these experiences were far from perfect, especially when it came to understanding and resisting oppressive systems, from racism to misogyny. Despite these limitations, it was still in my working class family that I received the first tools for deciphering this mess of injustice and oppression that we’ve collectively come to accept as normal. My father especially extolled the importance of labor and unions, as well as studying and understanding history. And even the conservative religious community that hurt and alienated me so thoroughly, also gave me a lens to understand justice, peace, and a vision of healthy, happy society beyond the long reach of exploitation, violence, and inequality.
I held these values in tension with the world around me. As a small child, everyone I knew was part of this working class, and our economic experiences were not that different. Outrageous wealth mainly existed as a plot in books and movies, but I didn’t have any personal experience of it. When I went to junior high, I met and befriended people whose economic world was different than my own. Suddenly, I felt a social pressure to desire things that I had never wanted before. I took extra odd jobs to buy golf clubs (a sport I was both terrible at playing and couldn’t afford to play) and my first pair of branded shoes (white Nike cross-trainers with an orange swoosh). I copied a friend by buying a poster of a huge house with a four-car garage, with each open door revealing a different luxury car parked inside. I bought a CD player and joined those mail-order music clubs so I could own the most popular music of the day. I even felt like something was missing in my life because I couldn’t afford to buy a designer leather jacket, the must-have fashion item of my friend group. My family had never been in poverty; my dad had a stable factory job with good benefits, and we had the good luck of being relatively healthy and accident-free. But when I visited friends at their big suburban homes, I began to see and feel the influence of a whole other way of life in the United States.
When I encountered the academic study of economics at university, the first lecture of the first day of class introduced economics as “the study of how people satisfy unlimited wants with limited resources.” Our professor sped through the choices we have for dealing with this scarcity. Using resources wisely held some importance to her, but she told us it was not very practical. Reducing our unlimited wants was basically dismissed out of hand. After all, one of the basic traits of being human was to never be satisfied and this, she stressed, was really a virtue. Insatiable greed is the driving force of creativity, innovation, and productivity. So we were left with only one real option, which would be the focus of the class: maximizing economic growth.
What this emphasis amounted to was a romanticization of economic growth, or growth for the sake of growth. At the individual level, the economy would be sustained by everyone always envying those above them in the social order, their envy inspiring more and more consumption. At the macro level, the economy would be sustained by constant expansion: new resources to extract, new labor to exploit, new technology to develop, and new consumers to entice. In both cases, contentment was the enemy. And while my professor spoke about meeting people’s needs, she wasn’t describing an economics centered around care, community, or human thriving. Humans mainly existed for the purpose of fueling the economic machine, which must be fed, at all costs. If we allowed it to falter, everything would collapse. In that world, a certain amount of economic injustice, of exploitation and inequality, was a small price to pay to save civilization.
I didn’t have a word for it at the time, but I was being taught a neoliberal approach to economics. First coined in 1938 by such economists as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, neoliberalism became the favorite ideology of the very wealthy. The version I received at my conservative Christian university espoused competition as the highest value. The market is the ultimate arbiter of who succeeds and fails, who lives and dies. The good citizen is the good consumer. Democratic choice is freedom to choose what to buy and what to sell. And anything that limits competition is an enemy of freedom, such as taxes, ethical and environmental regulations, public services, labor unions, and collective bargaining. Everything is an opportunity for profit and consumption, so everything must be privatized. Even inequality is seen as the result of merit. In a neoliberal version of the world, an unrestrained market makes sure everyone gets what they deserve. If you are rich, you earned it. If you are poor, you just need to work harder, hustle harder, innovate harder, and exploit every moment, circumstance, and person you can to get ahead. If you don’t, then that’s on you.
There’s historical context for the rise of neoliberalism. For example, the real threat of totalitarianism and fascism made arguments associating social democracy with totalitarian regimes sound more plausible. That suspicion carried over to policies, such as public assistance programs championed by Roosevelt’s New Deal, the bureaucracies that administered them, and the taxes that funded them. Culturally, another shift had been gaining momentum in the late 1800s, and which continues to play a key role today.
William Leach, in his book Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, described the emergence of consumerism following the Civil War. American capitalism produced “a distinct culture, unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy.” Its culture was oriented around business, “with the exchange and circulation of money and goods at the foundation of its aesthetic life and of its moral sensibility.” Its prominent features, Leach explained, were fourfold: “acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society.” (3)
Leach saw the roots of this transition in American and European history, particularly in the religious mythos of many Christians. “For generations,” he wrote, “America had been portrayed as a place of plenty, a garden in which all paradisiacal longings would be satisfied.” (4) By the 1900s, the literal, millennial promises of Jesus’ second coming and the New Jerusalem were “being transformed, urbanized and commercialized”. People were increasingly enticed focus on “personal satisfaction,” and “the cult of the new” made certain that they always had something newer, better, improved, to satisfy those desires. “Innovation became tied to the production of more and more commodities,” Leach explained. Fashion appropriated folk designs, “reducing custom to mere surface and appearance.” In fact, Leach called this “the most radical aspect of this culture, because it readily subverted whatever custom, value, or folk idea came within its reach.” Although Science was often seen as a threat to traditional ways of life, it was “not intrinsically hostile to custom or tradition or religion. Market capitalism was hostile; no immigrant culture – and, to a considerable degree, no religious tradition – had the power to resist it, as none can in our own time.” (5)
Parallel to this movement was “the democratization of desire.” Around the second half of the 19th century, rapid industrialization brought profound cultural and social changes, perhaps most powerfully symbolized in the shift away from owning and controlling land toward owning and controlling capital. And though inequality continued, and even increased, industrialization made it possible for people to imagine and desire more than they had ever dreamed of before. Leach summarized the argument of John Bates Clark, an influential economist:
“despite the ‘vast and ever-growing inequality’ of wealth in America, democracy could be ensured through the benign genius of the ‘free’ market, which allocated to Americans an infinitely growing supply of goods and services. … the new conception included … equal rights to desire the same goods and to enter the same world of comfort and luxury. American culture, therefore, became more democratic after 1880 in the sense that everybody … would have the same right as individuals to desire, long for, and wish for whatever they pleased.” (6)
When considering how all-encompassing consumerism as a way of life has become, it’s a little strange to realize it is still relatively recent, and its success in dominating the socioeconomic terrain is astounding. Leach puts “democratizing individual desire” in contrast with other possibilities, choices we collectively had – and have – to democratize “wealth or political or economic power,” and concludes that the “market notion of democracy … was perhaps one of the new culture’s most notable contributions” to the modern world. But the consequences of its success included a focus on competition, an increase in anxiety, a denial of mortality, a growing dependence on money as a measure of all things, including morality, and the prominence of marketing and advertising. Consumerism produced alienation, and alienation perpetuated consumerism. As Leach wrote, “It fostered anxiety and restlessness and, when left unsatisfied, resentment and hatred.” (7)
Now, about a century after the victory of the democratization of desire, this competition has become more than familiar; it is simply the way things are for most of us, most of the time. Scarcity remains an important backdrop, especially as it interacts within oppressive systems. When we talk about consumerism, materialistic values, and scarcity, we must keep in mind how our wellbeing has been fragmented, individualized, and set against one another. Economic and social disparities create the constant experience or threat of deprivation. Andrew Stanley of the IMF rightly calls this “a lopsided world” – “Some 10 percent of the world’s population owns 76 percent of the wealth, takes in 52 percent of income, and accounts for 48 percent of global carbon emissions.” And it is human choice that creates and maintains these disparities. As Dr. Richard Ryan wrote,
“At this point in human history we have enough material resources to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate every living individual on Earth. Not only that: we have at the same time the global capacity to enhance health care, fight major diseases, and considerably clean up the environment. That such resources exist is not merely a utopian fantasy, it is a reality about which there is little serious debate. Nonetheless, a quick look around most any part of this warming globe tells us just how far we are from achieving any of these goals.” (ix, The High Price of Materialism)
These disparities are both between and within nations, with “insulated pockets of wealth surrounded by ever widening fields of impoverishment.” This is the flowering of the democratized desire; in Ryan’s words, we live by the maxim, “to each according to his greed.” Selfishness and materialism have been transformed from “moral problems” to “cardinal goals of life” in increasingly “winner-take-all economies.” We are socialized into this system and successfully navigating it is key to survival. As Ryan pointed out, we are conditioned to evaluate our worth, our “well-being and accomplishment,” not by our integrity, “wisdom, kindness, or community contributions,” but in terms of what we “what we can buy. … it is not simply about having enough, but about having more than others do.” (ix-x)
Dr. Tim Kasser, in The High Price of Materialism, examined the research about wealth, consumption, and happiness and concluded that materialistic values “lead people to organize their lives in ways that do a poor job of satisfying their needs, and thus contribute even more to people’s misery.” (28) Consumerism turns out to be good at perpetuating economic systems organized around endless growth, but bad at perpetuating economic systems organized around human and ecological wellbeing. This is because, once our basic needs are met, “increases in wealth do little to improve people’s well-being and happiness.” Instead, “when people follow materialistic values and organize their lives around attaining wealth and possessions,” those pursuits divert time, attention, energy, and resources away from “goals that could fulfill their needs and improve the quality of their lives.” In terms of wellbeing, these materialistic pursuits are essentially wastes of time. (47)
Part of this wastefulness is connected to the limited ability these pursuits have in meeting social-emotional needs like self-worth, connection, and contribution. When we achieve a goal, we usually expect our feelings of self-esteem and competence to increase. But this doesn’t happen with “materialistic goals,” which are instead correlated with lower self-esteem. With such an emphasis on comparison and competition, in a context of scarcity, our self-worth becomes dependent on both our “accomplishments and others’ praise.” In such a scenario, our sense of well-being is constantly threatened, and our “feelings of competence and worthiness are tenuous, even when they succeed.” Just as there are always more things to buy to make us happy, there are always more things to prove before we can feel secure. In Kasser’s words, “people with strong materialistic value orientations experience persistent discrepancies between their current states and where they would most like to be.” With these “chronic gaps between ideals and actual situations,” it’s difficult to feel good about ourselves and our relationships with others; it’s difficult to be happy. (47-48)
And that is our starting place. This has been our starting place, because there have always been those among us who resisted this reduction of life to buying and selling, consuming and craving, exploiting and hoarding. The ways forward are both disarmingly simple and overwhelmingly complicated. It is simple because we know the values and practices we need to cultivate: moving from competition to cooperation, consumption to care, craving to contentment, indifference to compassion, exploitation to regeneration, harming to healing, scarcity to abundance, and oppression to justice.
But it is overwhelmingly complicated because our survival is so often, and in such complex ways, tied to this current system. Psychologically, we can’t help but get this message all the time, in advertisements, entertainment, job descriptions, expectations from family and friends, or even the inner voice that pushes us to prove our worth by what we produce and what we consume. Financially, we face the limitations of our debt; ever-increasing expenses in housing, transportation, and food; the looming costs of medical care and the threat of being without insurance; and future financial uncertainties related to social and political instability and the impacts of climate change. Socially, we find ourselves increasingly polarized, fragmented, and isolated, often without clear pathways or valuable experience for understanding and supporting our mutual wellbeing. Holding all this together, getting what we need to live, while also resisting the cruelties of consumer culture, is sometimes more than we can manage.
So we need to be gentle and patient with ourselves and each other, even while we insist on moving forward. This means being honest about our own desires, goals, and consumption. We need to understand the ways that we relate to this buy-and-sell world, and how we relate to one another. This is not easy, especially for those at the economic margins. When the only jobs we can get don’t pay enough to live; when we work full time and the world still tells us to go harder, to hustle, and we will finally get what we deserve; it can be difficult to not reduce relationships to transactions. So, we also have to be honest about economic oppression and injustice. There can be no platitudes here. “Money can’t buy happiness” might be the message that financially secure people need to hear, but it doesn’t apply when we can’t afford rent and groceries.
Still, it is important to realize that being caught in consumer culture is one of the key dynamics that maintains our unjust economic systems. And our collective breaking-free from consumerism is an important part of transforming that larger system. If we can see that consumerism as a way of life is built on empty promises, that wellbeing lies instead in those beautiful, interwoven spheres of care, community, contentment, and human thriving, then that awareness is a powerful resource in itself. The scarcity that human society has assumed and then created is both real and a lie. It is real because our society has chosen to organize in ways that create those huge economic and social disparities. But it is a lie that those disparities, and the scarcity that everyone, especially those at the margins, experience, are inevitable or natural. They are not. We made them; they are ours. And we can change them.
Just as neoliberalism positioned itself as a preferred alternative in the 20th century, humans are working together to imagine alternatives to neoliberalism today. One example of this is Kate Raworth’s conceptualization of “doughnut economics,” which uses the shape of a doughnut to create a framework that acknowledges and honors a social foundation (the inner boundary, representing human needs) and an environmental ceiling (the outer boundary, representing the limits of our planet’s health). Between these boundaries lies an abundant space for human safety and justice. As Raworth explains,
“Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend … .”
This vision is not far from the questions my economics professor asked, and dismissed. With the neoliberal emphasis on maximizing endless economic growth (instead of growing responsible, regenerative economic systems), we glossed over areas where we can make a big difference in creating societies that prioritize human and ecological wellbeing: wise use of resources and reducing human wants. An ethic of care brings a focus to those ways we can relate to resources wisely and gratefully, instead of as objects of extraction, exploitation, and commodification. We can learn to work with greed, to notice the ways we are encouraged to solve our problems with purchases, and to make intentional decisions that realign economic and social realities with mutual wellbeing. The more often we choose to understand and act with one another in terms of cooperation and care, instead of competition and craving, the more resources and skills we’ll have to live, enjoy life, and find ways, together, to change the world.