Tuesday, 4 August 2015

MATERIALISM AND CONSUMER CULTURE

This article is part of a 13-question interview about American society that Jaime Ortega, president of "The Daily Journalist" conducted with me by submitting questions in writing. The first three essays appear below and the rest will follow in the coming days. 


7) Jaime Ortega: Has the US become such a materialist society that even the people without qualifications think of the American Dream as a quick stage of success without working hard to achieve its goal? Is materialism and laziness in America intertwined, in other words, living the credit life without earning hard cash? 

JVK: Some scholars believe that the US is the most materialistic society in history. The Papacy under the current and previous pope has criticized the US for its devotion to material possessions and its general orientation toward wealth accumulation and hedonistic lifestyle. Despite public opinion polls indicating a large percentage of Americans believing God, there is an apparent absence toward spiritual matters in a society where wealth is the measure of all things and where collectivism and collectivist endeavors are absent from the social fabric.  

 Everything from personal happiness to religious and secular holidays is measured in terms of materialism as much as is the American Dream. There is even an underlying assumption that there is a direct correlation between wealth and intelligence, wealth and character, wealth and success, wealth and power, wealth and patriotism. Regardless of whether wealth was acquired through creative endeavors and diligence, through inheritance or illegal activities, popular culture and the media project the image that the wealth of an individual is somehow a manifestation of positive innate traits. While many positive attributes can be assigned to the wealthy, a commitment to social justice is not one of them, although some try to include this as well by arguing philanthropy by the rich is indicative they are committed to social justice. Never mind the manner by which wealth was acquired and maintained in the first, place as long as some of it makes its way back to the “riffraff of society” on whom the wealthy take pity.  

Given these assumptions about the correlation between wealth and intelligence and all other positive character traits, it is easy to understand why “American Exceptionalism” would take hold in the political culture. After all, America has been the world’s wealthiest nation in absolute terms since the Second World War, thus it must be the country with the most intelligent, judicious, diligent, ethical, and patriotic people. This implication is that traditional collectivist societies in non-Western areas must be less diligent and less ambitious as far removed from the American Protestant work ethic as possible, therefore they pay the price of lower living standards than the US. 

The assumption that the Protestant work ethic made America great and it is a reflection of its economic superiority also assumes intellectual and moral superiority and a connection to “happiness”. If the US is losing its global preeminence and the American Dream is elusive for more and more people, there must be something wrong with the generation ignoring the Protest work ethic as the key to success. Is there a crisis in the Protestant work ethic in 21st century and the values on which America laid the foundations for world economic status in the 19th century or is there a structural problem in the political economy and society? Conservatives who believe that the social welfare state has diluted traditional values to the detriment of productivity conclude that the fault does not rest with capitalism developing irresolvable contradictions under globalization and neoliberal policies, but cynical less diligent and less ambitious people refusing to adhere to the Protestant work ethic.
Never mind that the US economy is structurally driven by consumer demand on which corporate quarterly reports depend for stock performance. Whereas the consumer demand as a percent of GDP was just below 62% in the 1960s, it rose to 70% in the first decade of the 21st century; Interestingly, for the corresponding decades in Canada the percentages were 56 and 58 respectively, representing a drop of 2% rather an increase of 10% as in the US. The American marketing machine constantly pushes people toward consumerism while the entire culture is based on it. If shoppers stop worshipping at the mall, the US economy will lapse into recession. On the surface of it and in the short-term this may seem just great for quarterly corporate profits. However, longer term it poses a serious problem for a consumption-oriented society with a large service sector that is parasitic – recycling existing money through Wall Street and main street consulting and others that offer nothing to raise productivity.

In comparison with defense/domestic security allocations, the US has very low levels of investment in infrastructure, especially mass transportation, schools, public parks, and facilities for pre-school, the elderly and mentally ill – human security-based economy that is also labor-intensive instead of just capital intensive. The focus is on consumption, and increasingly on high-tech workforce that makes society less labor-intensive without generating new productivity fields for good-paying fulltime jobs. In other words, the nature of the high-tech capitalist economy is creating its own contradictions and seeds of its self-destruction because the neoliberal ideology encourages individual capitalists to pursue their individual interest that invariably run up against obstacles of the capitalism as a system with inherent distortions owing to inter-sector competition collective overproduction, etc.
America’s dominant culture and value system rest on the “who wants to be a millionaire” mindset that many people associate with American democracy. Does consumer democracy and millionaire hero-worship by the media and popular culture accounts for the attitudes of the “millennial generation”, or is there more to it than this? There are public opinion polls indicating the post-1990s generation is indeed much more materialistic and less interested in hard work than their parents growing up during the Vietnam War. But who exactly influenced the values of the ‘millennial generation’, if not their parents and society as a whole becoming more materialistic during the Vietnam era, despite the civil rights, women’s and anti-war and anti-materialism movements – all of which were eventually set aside for the American Dream. 

Is the value system based on worship of material objects and Hollywood-style entertainment lifestyle the root cause of indoctrinating the “millennial generation”, or have their Vietnam War era parents and teachers spoiled the new generation because the previous generation was really not much different below the surface of civil rights and environmentalism as a cause to fill the void that materialism cannot fill? Consumption values are at the core of contemporary American culture because the mass media, businesses and politicians equate such values with freedom and democracy. Citizen identity with the nation-state during the age of romanticism in the era of literary figure Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1840s was replaced with consumption values prevailing during the Age of Materialism in the late 19th century. 

The idealism imbedded in American nationalism that can be seen by the time of Emerson and Alexis de Tocqueville had been replaced with the age of advertising focused on propagating “wants and needs” of the growing middle class during the era that Mark Twain called Gilded Age (last three decades of the 19th century). The legacy of the Gilded Age remains deeply imbedded in American culture because it serves the privileged interests of the socioeconomic elites. Some scholars argue that the US as a pluralistic heterogeneous society without a common majority religion or a homogeneous ethnic group shares the common goal of work to acquire wealth, which is the reason most immigrants came here.  

Historically, in all societies the life of leisure and materialism has always been associated with the upper classes. Certainly the aristocracy of ancient Athens and Rome enjoyed the material fruits of life while their slaves worked. In the 19th century China and Russia, peasants were no more immersed in materialism and leisure any more than American slaves, small farmers and workers. Even the Catholic Church claiming to represent all things spiritual was immersed in the life of materialism and leisure linked with the upper clergy that had much more in common with the European nobility than the devoutly religious serfs and peasants. In other words, materialism and leisure has always been part of the lifestyle of the secular and spiritual elites, while the masses merely aspire to such things but never achieve them.

A product of the Age of Reason and the birth of bourgeois liberal democracy, the US democratized the material lifestyle, promising it was theoretically possible for anyone to have access to it, minus Native Americans and black slaves. The American Dream promises the “potential” of the lifestyle and possessions of the elites provided the masses adhere to the Protestant work ethic of hard work and discipline that the elites presumably follow. The assumption is that everyone wants to acquire this dream of materialism that includes:  a) owning a home, b) car, c) college for the kids, d) a private retirement fund and a savings account, e) health care, and f) family vacations. If you do not have these six things, you too are in the shrinking “debtor middle class” according to the definition of the US government and mainstream institutions. But even if you have all six of the above, it is simply not enough because you are not an internet billionaire. 

Why not have a bigger and better house and car; why not more money and more luxurious vacations; why not more of everything because more means you are more intelligent, ambitious, superior to the wretched masses dying a slow horrible death while you feel like you will live forever because you possess more than most? If the rich and famous have more of everything, why can’t the millennial generation join in? If liquidity shortage is the problem, just charge the American Dream and worry about paying it off later. These prevailing attitudes existed in American society but were largely among the middle class until the Reagan administration propagated the myth that in the country closely adheres to neoliberal policies than everyone can have what the rich people have. Through the trickle-down economics process of the rich having more and their wealth will trickle down to the cleaning lady and the dishwater at the local restaurant will mean everyone can enjoy the American Dream. 

Materialism skyrocketed in the late 1980s early 1990s under the Reagan-Bush conservative presidencies. This continued under Democrat President Clinton during the internet and cell phone revolution in the last decade of the 20th century.  According to a recent public opinion polls, about two-thirds of young people 25 years of age and under expressed desire to be very wealthy, but 39% of them admitted they did not want to work hard to achieve wealth. These statistics represent a rise in materialism and desire for leisure in comparison with similar surveys conducted when Jimmy Carter was president. How do people then acquire the American Dream without much effort? They simply charge it with the blessing of the banks and companies offering credit cards to shop. Who bails out these corporate giants when they have a liquidity crisis because of bad loans? The taxpayers of course to the detriment of lower living standards for future generations that must consume less and produce more! 

Coming to office amid the deep recession erupting in 2008, the Obama administration expressed concern that the American Dream is fading because the credit middle class is weakening, a point many Democrats and even some Republicans concede. Because the “middle class dream” (synonymous with the American Dream) is fading fast, the Obama administration had a task force operating on the assumption that everyone wants the American Dream, but cannot have it because of the low wage rates and high cost of living. 

Effective demand is limited by the earning power of workers and the middle class in the post-credit crisis of 2008 has experienced sharply reduced personal wealth (drop in real estate values, private pensions, and stock portfolios). The illusory middle class "wealth effect" will remain low and accumulated surplus capital high, thus keeping the world economy under limited growth prospects for a long time. Given existing conditions in the advanced capitalist countries, what impact will they have on the social order and specifically the “millennial generation” that expects a lot more than the neoliberal economy is able to deliver? The individual’s "real worth" is "creditworthiness" bundled as part of net worth completely unrelated to the humanity and compassion of that individual, devoid of that person’s creativity. This materialistic definition affords the illusion to a large percentage of people that they are part of capitalism's success when they are in fact victims of debt beneath the veil of credit. 

As proletarization of the middle class becomes more apparent, the current global crisis will evolve into a middle class crisis of alienation, stratification, and erratic class/status identity. A more acceptable solution for US government and mainstream institutions is: a) find another job to supplement existing income, b) work harder to secure higher wages, c) plan and invest better and pray for lcuk, d) return to school for more education or re-training; and e) wait for “lady luck” to ring your doorbell because having conformed to the Calvinist work ethic is just not enough! If indeed the assumptions of the US government (and the entire mainstream institutional structure) that “securing a middle class” is the key the American Dream, how do we explain US public opinion polls indicating that the “happiness” level (granted the obvious difficulty of quantifying it), has been under 50% and steadily declining since 1970, despite enjoying the world’s highest GDP? 

Is the current culture of heightened consumerism a reflection of the decline in spiritual orientation as people identify happiness with possessions? It is true that the entire world views the US as the Mecca of capitalism, materialism and hedonism. It is just as true that is the image the US projects of itself by its behavior in daily life, in its popular culture, books and magazines TV and motion pictures, country fairs to trade fairs, schools to sports, all placing materialism and hedonism above all else. Americans living in a modern secular society where science and technology promise to deliver all solutions to problems cannot possibly take religion as seriously as their European ancestors did during the Middle Ages when the Church was the last resort for human happiness. Nor is escaping to religion and spiritualism address fundamental social justice problems any more in America than any other country.

The value system is largely economically-determined in 21st century America as it was in 15th century Europe amid the plague. When German theologian and university professor Martin Luther was a teenager in the late 15th century, society was surrounded by churches and monasteries. Like all others, young Luther worshipped for the salvation of his soul because eternal spiritual life mattered much more than temporary material life. Teenagers in contemporary America spend a good deal of their day worshipping via cell phones, laptops and electronic devices connecting them to a virtual material world. 

Corporations producing and marketing modern techno-devices promise society that they need nothing else in life to be complete and happy. These techno-devices will do everything from online banking and shopping to online virtual human contact. Whereas spiritual convictions and religious worship are free, worshipping at the mall costs money. Will there be a rebellion against the corporate and political hierarchy in the 21st century as there was in the early 16th century in Germany that Luther inspired against the hypocritical ecclesiastical hierarchy?
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