IN PRAISE OF CONSUMERISM
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Priests are thundering the loudest. But scholars do not let the grass grow under their feet either. “What contemporary thinkers describe as consumerism seems to be something more than merely a modern modification of hedonism and utilitarianism. The consumer model is based on an anthropocentric, secular vision of the human being, a conqueror and master of nature,” writes Antonina Sebasta, an associate professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Papal Academy in Krakow.
The whole problem can be viewed from another standpoint: anybody can make a pot, but people want to have pots suitable to the dignity of their status. A shepherd should not eat grass like his sheep. One can wash a poor man's feet from time to time, under the condition that the poor man does not demand shoes; meanwhile capitalists are building parking spaces in front of supermarkets and, tempting them with luxuries, are robbing their souls.
Priests of faith or exalted intellect unite their attacks on consumerism with bold criticism of a too-speedy development of science and technology. Usually those scholarly opinions are uttered by very well-nourished people who have access to the best medical care and who do not show disdain towards any achievement of science and technology which can aid their comfort and, what is more important, for dissemination of their superstitions. (The internet is a threat to the layman, but nobody mentions the threat from religious pornography.)
From his private jet, loaded with latest electronics, a religious leader condemns the consumer society and calls for spiritual rebirth: “Man must not be sacrificed on the altar of a machine...”
Since the time when Cain killed Abel we have gone a long way from hunting and gathering and living only on the bounty of nature; we have learned better and better how to produce things that make our lives easier. The process of accumulating knowledge and skills has been accompanied by another process - perfecting the art of seizing the work of others. It could be suspected that Abel was saintly, but not a saint, and his rams were fat, because all too often (and not without the owner’s knowledge) they were causing damage. His spiritual heirs are no longer playing at animal husbandry, they are ordering the delivery of sacrificial lambs and God forbid that their fleece should be only like the fleeces of other lambs destined for sale or for home consumption.
Recently I read that during the last ten centuries one statement has always been true: the church was corrupt and the middle classes were rising. Well, in some countries the middle class grew faster, in others slower, and here there is a correlation with both the degree of the church’s demoralization and the potency of incestuous relationships between the altar and the throne. The increase of the middle class has always stirred anxiety among the shepherds.
A very old recipe for an Easter cake begins with these words: “set twelve wenches to beating the eggs”. I do not think that those egg-beating wenches had a sense of their “Human Destiny” or dignity. Today eggs are beaten by a kitchen mixer run on electricity. To be sure, the Christian doctrine says that suffering ennobles, but those who proclaim this theory in their hour of need invariably demand anaesthetic, and don’t even have a tooth pulled without it. Inventions have allowed us to change the quality of our lives. Not only have they allowed the production of a food surplus, the social division of labour, or saving the sick, but even the rise of culture and arts.
To the outrage of many religious and secular shepherds, machines have liberated (and not enslaved) huge masses and allowed them an existence a bit more comfortable and less full of suffering. Shepherds call it consumerism and condemn it from the summits of their spiritual development. An old Polish proverb, "Give a peasant manure, and not a watch", is repeated with relish to this day by numerous representatives of Polish intelligentsia. Of course, they are extraordinarily democratic, they just do not like it that the janitor has the same, or a better, TV, computer, or car. In the old days you wouldn’t meet the hoi-polloi in the same shop as people from high society. This ideal world got coarsened no end.
A populace brought up on Jesuitical morality, does not believe that you can grow rich on honesty and sometimes holds the opinion that it is better to be without bread than day after day see how the baker becomes richer. Also the shepherd prefers to see hungry, ill and suffering people who come to his temple to beg God’s mercy, than well-nourished and serene people who -on top of everything - are instructed in book-keeping.
Secular shepherds (usually with a sociologist’s diploma) look with loathing not only on consumerism, but also on mass culture. As co-creators of mass culture they do everything to ensure that this culture does not differ from their image of it, and at the same time that it should give the means both of the creation of elite culture and of such symbols of status that ensure that the shepherd can be distinguished from his sheep. Outstanding intellectuals, in their role as newspapers editors, mindful of their popularity, do not hesitate to replace scientific information with horoscopes, and an interview with a scientist with an interview with a crystal-gazer. Sage professors, without any pangs of conscience, work full-time in three places, drastically curtailing their efforts in places they think they are ennobling with their names alone.
To be sure, it is capitalists who supply goods bought by the much-loved poor, but we should not think that the left is blameless. One could imagine that communism delivered only noble poverty, but reading what others have to say I am coming to the conclusion that I’m wrong. In a homily delivered on 23 April 2005 Bishop Stanislaw Wielgus of Plock in Poland, said: “In the last century in Western societies Christianity and higher values were eliminated from public life methodically and according to plan. Egotistical hedonism was propagated. Secularization and a leftist worldview were encouraged. Universities, schools, mass media, social organizations of different kinds, etc. were taken over by freemasons, neomarxists and atheistic liberals.”
I suspect that the bishop is wrong. During the last century the West rather ignored religion, and it was persecuted in the East, but maybe I’m wrong and in reality it was the other way round. We can indeed observe the process of secularization in Western societies; however, it was not carried out by indoctrination based on the Jesuit model (which was done in the USSR and in the Soviet sphere of influence) but marginalizing religion was rather a consequence of the growth of general affluence and many different forms of the citizen’s participation in social life.
In a way, a dislike of consumerism is justified here because it really demoralizes the believers who - given a choice – often don’t choose what the shepherds are recommending. By the way, the most consumerist nation in the modern world is the United States of America. It was there (and not, as Bishop Wielgus supposes, in the circles of atheists and Marxists) that patterns of what the clergy and some sociologists call consumerism have grown. Who knows, maybe it is worthwhile to recall a tiny fragment from the history of consumerism.
We should start with St Thomas More and his Utopia. The English thinker and politician was honestly afraid that sheep were going to eat England. He was also afraid that the populace could slip out from the care of its shepherds. In his ideal state he imagined an order that would later be called a primitive communism. Sheep, however, did not eat England, and the populace did not manage to slip wholly from the care of their shepherds. But the middle class had grown, which meant the systematic growth of the number of consumers who bought goods they needed with money. Capitalism, even in its initial stages, differed from the feudal and Catholic economy, preferring a mass clientele over forced labour. Centuries later the Russian Communists would use the crystal clear advice of St Thomas more often than the not so clear instructions of Karl Marx.
St Thomas More was beheaded, maybe not so much for his opinions about free trade, as for his opinion about the King’s consecutive marriages. Nevertheless his publications, his political activity, and even his death became a part of the complicated debates about free trade. He might be recognized as a martyr in the fight against consumerism, which is so unhealthy for the soul.
Of course, neither St Thomas More nor any other fervent preachers concerned themselves with the consumerism of the leisure classes, and works devoted to the greedy (as Bishop Wielgus would put it) consumption by the aristocracy and the clergy (not to mention the Vatican) do not take up too much space in the libraries of theological seminaries. The consumerism of the leisured classes does not threaten moral values, but the consumerism of artisans decidedly does. Every man to his trade, and remember that it is excessive to buy colourful clothing for your children. To buy something that the bishop already has is a serious sin; to buy something that even a bishop doesn’t have yet is a deadly sin.
Let us return to the United States, where we can see such bizarre co-joining of religiosity and consumerism. I have just got a new selection of Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America and I’ve found a letter dated 25 July 1997 under the intriguing title “The End of Civilization”. On the previous Friday, Cooke wrote, the F. W. Woolworth’s chain of American shops, one of the cornerstones of American consumerism, closed down.
In this letter Alistair Cooke wonders about the singularity of the year 1879. It was a year when a Scottish immigrant, Robert Gair, who made paper bags, invented a machine to produce cheap cardboard cartons. It increased his productivity from 50 paper bags to 7,500 cartons per hour. A saloon keeper in Dayton, Ohio, invented a cash register, which not only added the sum of daily transactions, but also allowed a client to see what sum the clerk was putting into the machine. Telephones already existed, and in the whole of the United States there were about 50,000 of them. It was an extraordinary luxury and a symbol of status. An electrical engineer concocted a company switchboard that allowed the number of telephones to increase. Ten years later there were over a quarter of a million of telephones. In the same year, says Cooke, a dairy in New York started to deliver milk in bottles, so going to the shop with a jug ended (and in the 1950s in Poland I still used to go for milk with a jug). In December 1879 Thomas Edison announced that he had invented a light bulb and that electric light would become so cheap that only the rich would be able to afford candles.
In the same year, in a small town in the state of New York, a shop assistant, 27, tried to convince the shopkeeper to put the same price - five cents - on all the goods. The shopkeeper thought about this slightly crazy idea and told him to try it. Frank Woolworth borrowed $400 from a businessman and opened a shop. The business failed, but the businessman, who carefully observed the experiment, gave him another loan and the advice to price some goods at five cents and some at ten cents. This time it worked.
Young Mr. Woolworth, writes Cooke, had a strange ambition: to build a chain of self-service stores where poor people could have access to a whole range of goods for the lowest price possible. His charitable passion appeared to be extraordinarily profitable. He died in 1919 and left his heirs over a thousand big stores in the United States and hundreds more in other countries.
Those ideas from 1879 had one thing in common - to enable people to buy goods they previously could not afford. (Thus a concern exactly opposite to the one that gives sleepless nights to those opposed to consumerism.) Another common feature of these ideas was that their proponents had started their careers as poor people. Edison’s school education ended after three months. They knew perfectly well what it meant not to be able to afford necessities and, as Woolworth liked to repeat, they were seeking a way to “apply democracy to human needs and desires”.
Automobiles were for the rich but, writes Cooke, Henry Ford invented the assembly line and made the first car intended for everybody. The ambition of an American watchmaker was to make a good watch that would not cost more than a dollar. Europeans, or rather the European elite, looked at all this with astonishment and often with dislike. People like Woolworth were undermining the social order and were changing status symbols into things anybody could have. Today advertisements assail me with proposals to buy an imitation Rolex, as well as a cheap charter to Greece or Italy, a cheap car or computer. In the field of tools consumerism made a revolution too, bringing closer universal ownership of means of production that would astonish Karl Marx.
“Democracy in satisfying human needs is not a prospect which alarms me,” writes Alistair Cooke in his letter from America, "this American impulse lifted millions out of a threadbare living, and gave them a better material life than all the generations before them". And he concludes, winking at the youngest: “Never forget, children, that if it hadn’t been for Thomas Edison, you’d be watching television by candlelight.”
Alistair Cooke is one of my journalistic heroes, and while living in London my wife and I listened every Sunday morning to his letter from America, going to a car boot sale afterwards to browse among old books. We treated it as a religious ritual - so much more interesting than homilies with curses heaped on consumerism.
"...the time has come to gather the fruits of those actions, and they are,” continued Bishop Wielgus in his homily, “the collapse of all authority, nihilism, the decline of religious life, the disintegration of the family, the crisis of marriage, abortions on an astronomical scale, criminal tests on human embryos, corruption, the younger generation’s loss of a meaning of life, extreme egotistical individualism and greedy consumerism, and finally, the decline of civic activity and responsibility...” In my small town more and more children have computers at home, nearly all have mobile phones and are able to let their parents know where they are, and their clothes and books are colourful. Forgotten are the days, when you had to go outside to relieve yourself. These children use much more soap and water, and they also have more to eat. I do understand that some opponents to consumerism might find it alarming.
Dobrzyn, September 2005