Think Capitalist Consumerism is Bad? Wait Until You See Political Consumerism

The parallels are strong—and troubling.

Aaron Ross Powell
9 min readSep 18, 2020

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A common worry voiced by critics of our modern, market-driven economy is that capitalism leads to — and depends on — consumerism. For capitalism to sustain itself, corporations need us to always be buying whatever it is they sell. They thus work to make consumerism central to our culture, and even to our very sense of ourselves. Anti-capitalists argue that because this consumerism is so destructive — to us, our society, and the environment — free markets must be reined in and consumerism opposed. But what if there’s another kind of consumerism, just as worrying, yet which we rarely notice, and would likely grow through our attempts to limit the capitalist variety?

Capitalism and Consumerism

Capitalist consumerism, it’s said, leads to myriad pathologies, hurting our well-being, relationships, health, economy, and planet — and it does so without providing much value in return. Worse, consumerism corrupts our basic sense of what’s valuable in the first place, tricking us into finding value in the wrong places, and so creating chronic dissatisfaction with what we have. We’re trained not just to want the wrong things, but to always feel we don’t have enough of them.

Here’s the basic case against capitalist consumerism.

  • Corporations depend for their livelihood and existence on us wanting what they sell, and always wanting more of it.
  • Our constant desire to acquire what capitalists sell leads to unsustainable consumption of natural resources and personal debt. We dedicate more and more of our time to pursuing consumerist ends, paying attention to what corporations are producing, and thinking about market products, to the exclusion of time spent on more meaningful, positive, and valuable pursuits.
  • Consumption is unsustainable because it’s never satisfied. We want the next product to make ourselves happy, but the product provides, at best, temporary satisfaction before we’re convinced again that happiness is one more purchase away.
  • Capitalists use advertising, in increasingly sophisticated and invasive ways, to lure us into the cycle of buying…

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Aaron Ross Powell

Host of the ReImagining Liberty podcast. Writer and political ethicist. Former think tank scholar.