The American Cult of Consumerism

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The Philadelphia Inquirer

The American Cult of Consumerism

Tirdad Derakhshani

A Black Friday mob of frenzied shoppers breaks down the doors of a Walmart on Long Island, N.Y., and tramples an employee to death. Four others are injured, including a woman who is eight months pregnant.

Most of those condemning the incident treat it as an aberration, a display of craven greed in an otherwise healthy community. One commentator even blamed the tragedy on the severe pressures and anxieties caused by the economic meltdown.

Perhaps it would be more fruitful to treat it as a symbol of a fanatical, hyperconsumerist ethos, which has come to define us as individuals and as a community.

Trampling incidents evoke images of mindless crowds whipped into a frenzy by an ideology that arouses an uncontrollable, irrational desire.

If there's an antidote to such an ideology, surely it's consumerism, which promises individual freedom, autonomy and rational choice. Yet at its extreme, consumerism creates the same fanatical crowd behavior that has led to trampling deaths at rock concerts, European soccer games, and the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Sadly, hundreds were trampled at the hajj between 1987 and 2004. Those deaths are used by some Westerners as proof that Islam engenders a mob mentality and destroys individual autonomy.

Consumerism, no less than any cult or religion, has the power to level individual difference and independence and render citizens into a homogeneous mass. Advertising companies, celebrity spokespersons, movies and TV shows conspire to render the consumer object - be it a $2 ice cream cone or an $80,000 luxury sedan - into a fetish imbued with magical, if not downright divine, powers. (Consumerism also has its rituals and its holy days, most notably Black Friday itself.)

If this sounds excessive, think of the frenzied desire someone like Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Britney Spears or Allen Iverson has evoked in otherwise rational people. The primitive, visceral reaction we feel as fans is the same infantile desire aroused by consumer goods.

The consumerist message has become the wallpaper to our lives.

"Enjoy," flashes a billboard-size red neon Coke sign. Enjoy [COCA-COLA] . . . Enjoy [COCA-COLA] . . . Enjoy . . . This is not merely a cheerful suggestion. It's a command.

In the 21st century, pleasure is equated to consumption, and consumption has become an imperative that has all but replaced the moral imperative issued by teachers from Abraham to 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant and 20th-century liberators Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The old moral tradition gave birth to our grandparents' credo, the so-called Protestant work ethic - work hard, sacrifice, and invest wisely in the future.

Today, the country's economic health is measured more according to how much we are willing to spend, our consumer confidence, and less in how much we produce, the gross national product, or even how we invest.

If previous leaders preached self-sacrifice and service, our commander in chief tells us that our duty is to consume. Since Sept. 11, he has consistently told Americans that if we want to help the country, we must . . . buy.

To be American once meant having the right to pursue happiness, where the emphasis is on the road taken toward a goal that is difficult, if not impossible, to reach - at least in one lifetime. Today our right is to be happy. (Enjoy . . . enjoy . . . enjoy.)

Consumerism infantilizes us, alienates us from one another, and makes us apathetic as citizens. What's ironic is that even if you base human worth not on social responsibility but on individual happiness, consumerism still fails us.

A consumer economy only works if consumption of goods provides only temporary pleasure. That is, if happiness is infinitely deferred, so that buyers continue to buy more and more goods and services. By definition, the consumer can never be satisfied, at rest or happy. Which means she will always feel lacking. The pursuit of this sort of happiness creates a vicious circle of growing anxiety and dissatisfaction.

Perhaps what's most dismaying is that so many consumers have become sophisticated enough to know they are manipulated, yet choose to remain passive.

We are like the 30-something characters in Seinfeld, who know they are immature, who know they are avoiding the responsibility of building meaningful relationships and of leading meaningful lives - and who don't really care.

The reason is simple: We are, for the most part, comfortable.

But, given the global economic crisis and the rapid rate at which we are consuming Earth's resources, how long can our little comforts last?


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