The Consumerist Problem

—Guest article written by Mr. E. Wolf

General Factors

There once stood states: composed of artisans, blacksmiths, bakers, farmers, poets, knights, martyrs, and heroes. There once stood states built by doctors, soldiers, and those who would sacrifice for their people. The child would look up to the doctor and the great soldier; the child would embrace the trade of his father; and the child would be aware of his grandfather, his great grandfather, and his ancestors. There would be genuine pride in one’s culture. Organic culture is under attack as consumerism is being stuffed into people’s lives. Historically the state has been an enforcer of tradition or at times even a vanguard, creating culture. However, now corporations have taken the reigns and are guiding how our culture evolves.

Culture and the Supplier

Why is it an issue if corporations are creating the culture we live in? How does a culture created by multinational corporations differ from one created by the “folk”? To begin, in this age the majority of the areas in our world are driven by capital—where capital is the rule of law and the blood of the state; and the domineers of the system are merchants and investors. An investor does not care about a company and has no personal feelings towards any company. If the value of the stock is up, he profits—if he does not see profit, he will jump to another corporation. Although this issue seems to apply more to economics than culture, the decisions made at this level are being applied to culture. “Culture” has now become yet another stock to buy—or dump.

Corporations sell lifestyles to the public. These cultures are sometimes called fads, but have also become purchasable identities—i.e. it’s not cultural heritage or what you have done personally which defines you, it’s what you’ve bought.

Should the power to invent culture be in the hands of a small percentage of people who do not have any incentive to preserve tradition or create healthy lifestyles? Shouldn’t sparking new ideas and showcasing a positive way of life be in the realm of the artist rather than the financier? Musicians and artists know that profit-motivated artistic expression “corrupts the canvas”.

It is not that profit is inherently detrimental to the creation of culture, but when it becomes the main driving purpose it certainly is. Let’s say a person opens a food shop which brings something entirely new. Of course this person would have the idea of making a profit, but this food, which might be created from his family history of dishes or his country’s traditions, is still likely to come from his heart—a chef trying to give people in his community a good meal. In contrast, a corporation might set up an assembly line rapidly popping out food products, at which the workers, also motivated primarily by money, detachedly prepare the food. The board members in charge would not care about the effects on the community because they are motivated by profit. This is why a consumer product could be of bad quality (fast food, planned obsolescence, etc) despite complaints by the public. If people buy it, they will just continue doing what they are doing. But there is a lack of authenticity if love is taken out of the product. Creativity is rare; cut-out, copy, and paste business modules are everywhere. It’s no wonder that so many companies offer ‘authenticity’ as part of their branding effort.

The Social Side of Consumerism

These new trends rapidly popping out are themselves an issue, but there is also the social side of the problem. Within a consumerist dominated society, there is a very powerful bond between the individual and the consumer product. These products do not just represent a ‘t-shirt’ or a ‘shoe’, but rather a whole material identity. This kind of bond used to be seen between individuals and their cultural traditions or religion. In a way, consumerism, which is a symptom of materialism, is a religion of the late 20th and 21st century. Consumerism has its own idolatrous followers, passionately worshipping corporate created images; aspiring to become like them as a Christian wants to become like Christ. In this religion, the expectations and values expressed, i.e. what the people say and how they behave, derives from media propaganda.

Within consumerism, there are those loyal to their brands of choice, ready to defame the others. People who are very deep into consumerism pressure others to conform. But this is not an issue of what is a ‘better product’, or who likes what product—it is the fact that consumerism has destroyed organic culture, destroyed tradition. It is the fact that it has become the religion of the people, and really, these corporations have become a state within the state for many countries. 

These General Factors Combined

With power being in the hands of very few powerful people who do not hold any positive intentions for the people, people have become dehumanized. Naturally formed cultures which have long passed down the traditions of their ancestors are being destroyed by quickly developed superficiality with profiteering in mind. Organic culture is spiritual, whilst the culture that the corporations create is synthetic and very materialistic. Even non-conformist subcultures, which were “anti-norm”, have been in the grips of the corporations and ironically, have become normalized conformists. There is no real connection between the people and consumerist culture. Many studies have even claimed that a materialistic lifestyle harms mental health causing depression, anxiety and dissatisfaction. In contrast, people become very connected to organic or traditional culture. With organic culture, socio-cultural elements such as ethnicity, family, and traditional elements are the primary influences (along, of course, with pioneering and innovation). These aspects of culture, when coming from the people, are really an entirely different thing. Even some consumers notice this as local, family brands––brands produced within one’s own country, and brands that offer quality not seen in the global mass production system––are seen as materially authentic.