Criticicism of consumption has a long history. Over two thousand years ago the Roman poet Lucretius criticised his fellow citizens for always seeking something new. In 1744 Elizabeth Haywood, editor of The Female Spectacle, criticised excessive consumption among English women on the grounds that it “interfered with the basic management of household budget”. She went on to fulminate against the growing habit of tea-drinking, which she characterised as “debauched and pernicious”.
Modern consumption criticism dates from 1899, when Thorsten Veblen’s A Theory of the Leisure Class introduced the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the phenomenon of people choosing to buy certain goods in order to advertise their social standing rather than on strictly functional grounds or from the intrinsic enjoyment derived from actually consuming the goods. Throughout the twentieth century critics of consumption appeared at regular intervals. In the early decades, English novelists like HG Wells railed against the “public advocacy of anti-bilious pills, pickles and soap”, whose advertising “disfigured the countryside and spread an atmosphere of pampered lower-class consumerism that he found offensive”. In the 1930s and 1940s the cultural critics of the Frankfurt School argued that consumerism was a capitalist conspiracy designed to keep the workers in subjection and prevent them from assuming their true role of toppling the established order. In mid-century, the charge was taken up by heavyweight economists like JK Galbraith and lightweight social critics like Vance Packard. As the century drew to a close consumption reached new heights, fuelled by record levels of economic growth, but antagonism to consumer culture was still powerful enough to unite philosophers of the right like Roger Scruton (“consumer goods are perpetually recurring illusions which vanish at the very moment when they loom into view, destroyed by the appetite that seeks them”) and of the left like Terry Eagleton (“its infinity is a ghastly parody of infinities and its dynamism only serves to conceal its deathliness ‑ for all its flashy eroticism the commodity is an allegory of death.”)
Defenders of consumerism initially based their case on the necessity of consumer spending for continued economic growth. In a widely quoted paper from 1948, US retail commentator Victor Lebow observed that “our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption; we need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing rate”. For the remainder of the twentieth century people in the developed countries did just that, but their activity was also endorsed by more academic commentators. The most widely quoted was distinguished anthropologist Mary Douglas, who has used her studies of remote societies to show that goods have always had significance beyond their utilitarian character and commercial value. Her research showed that the individual’s main objective in consumption is to help create a social universe and to find within it a credible space. This led to a more celebratory image of consumers. Instead of being seen as victims of powerful forces beyond their control they were depicted as free-thinking creative individuals constructing a sense of self out of their consuming culture in ways that ignored limitations of class, gender or geography. Critics of consumption also came under attack for being puritanical and snobbish, for criticising the “getting and spending of others” while arrogantly assuming that their own spending was absolutely necessary and completely free of manipulation by popular opinion or the mass media ‑ because they are so intelligent. Consumers, not surprisingly, paid little attention to all this philosophical malarkey and continued to “shop till you drop, spend till the end and buy till you die” under the all-embracing umbrella of retail therapy.
But there are indications that some kind of change is afoot; a new vocabulary is beginning to emerge; conspicuous abstinence, sufficientism, voluntary simplicity, un-consumption and collaborative consumption. It is too soon to define the nature or scope of the change with any certainty but there are a number of converging factors which suggest a societal shift from that which has characterised the period from the late 1970s up to the Great Recession. Although the economic indicators in Ireland are now fairly positive I suspect that the damage to the national psyche is still deeply felt. Not only did we suffer a bigger crash than most other countries, we endured a greater disappointment, because our economic boom appeared to finally assuage a long history of famine, economic failure and mass emigration. The full extent of the damage is brilliantly evoked in Danielle McLaughlin’s recent debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, where the crash is never directly referred to but forms a continuing backdrop to the “lives of quiet desperation” movingly described in her stories. No matter how much the economy improves, a number of recent surveys, suggest that there is little appetite for returning to the heady pre-recession days.
But there are other ingredients in the post-recession stew which are also causing us to rethink our consumption habits. The first is a feeling that there is such a thing as too much stuff. This was the subject of James Wallman’s Stuffication, which argues that people are feeling overwhelmed and suffocated by a surfeit of goods which they are slowly beginning to realise they don’t really need. Not alone is much of it harmful ‑ the stuff that leads to obesity ‑ it also leads to clutter, which causes stress and can result in a feeling of being on a hedonistic treadmill from which there is no escape. Wallman argues that people are becoming more interested in experiences and less so in goods and that in future keeping up with the Joneses will be based more on what you are doing than on what you own, more Camino Way less Dolce and Gabbana.
Another ingredient is the new technology which increasingly enables us to escape the treadmill. This is the theme of Rachel Botsman and Roo Rodgers’s Collaborative Consumption. Beginning with the observation that the average power drill is used for only approximately twelve minutes every ten years the authors suggest that an increasing range of apps will enable us to share rather than buy an increasing range of goods They predict that if in the twentieth century we were defined by our credit rating and what we owned we will now be defined by reputation; by what we can access and share and by what we give away: “ … sharing is clean, urbane, post-modern, owning is dull timid, selfish and backward”. Sharing within communities, bartering, swapping and renting facilitated through technology are trends that are likely to increase with new businesses like Airbnb and Uber leading the way.
Underlying these ingredients are two all-pervasive flavours, the environment and the search for meaning. The direct link between excessive consumption and climate change is increasingly recognised, especially by younger people whose future is more threatened and as the deniers are now few enough to be absorbed by the flat earth society the impact of a more sustainably minded population on consumption is likely to increase. It has also been noted that increased sensitivity to environmental issues necessarily challenges the priority of maximising business profitability.
The search for meaning is a more complex phenomenon but this too is a subject that is attracting much attention. Recent national surveys suggest people do not want to return to the buying behaviour of the 90s and noughties, that there is a desire to re-engage with family and community and a new questioning of the national obsession with economic growth as the be all and end all of national endeavour. Qualitative research suggests that the urge for the transcendent, the search for meaning and the human need for a greater purpose in life than the pursuit of material gains hasn’t gone away; it was just drowned out by the consumer frenzy that characterised the last quarter of the twentieth century. John Armstrong in his In Search of Civilisation argues that the drive for material goods is too deeply entrenched to be eliminated but that “we have material prosperity beyond our spiritual competence to deal with it well so our main task is the development of spiritual prosperity that can hold its own against the material drive”. As a result we may see more thoughtful, considered, reflective patterns of consumption.
It is difficult to believe that these trends won’t have an effect on consumption patterns in the immediate future but we can only speculate on the likely extent of any significant societal change. Wallace Stevens warned that it is in the nature of the modern imagination to always feel oneself at “the end of something” but there are too many factors converging at the moment not to feel that some kind of crossroads has been reached. The age of retail therapy was ushered in by the political upheavals of the late 1970s, which brought to an end the Keynesian consensus of the postwar era. The “gilded age” in America, from the 1870s to the turn of the twentieth century, was also a period of technological change, rapid economic growth and growing inequality. The excesses of the time gave way to a progressive era more concerned with equality of opportunity and the common good. Perhaps history might repeat itself?
Books discussed in this essay:
Stuffication, by James Wallman, Penguin, 366 pp, £6.99, ISBN: 978-0241971543
What’s Mine is Yours, by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rodgers, Harper Collins Business, €26.99, 304 pp, ISBN: 978-0007395910
Dinosaurs on Other Planets, Danielle McLaughlin, The Stinging Fly, 198 pp, €12.99, ISBN: 978-1906539511
John Fanning is former managing director and chairman of McConnell’s Advertising.