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

The parallels are strong—and troubling.

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 and trap us there. They bombard us with messages about much we need their products and how much those products will improve our lives. They contrast their products with their competitors, arguing happiness is found in their brands and not the other guy’s.
  • We come to identify with particular brands and so make being consumers of those brands (or fantasizing about someday owning those brands) central to our identity. This divides us from people who prefer competing brands, or leads us to elitism about fans of “inferior” products.
  • We come to identify being a contributing member of society with being a good consumer. Our duty is to support our fellow citizens and our economy, and that means buying stuff, even if you don’t need it. We’re told that all this buying, in the aggregate, makes the country better off.
  • We come to believe that the path to a better, happier, more successful nation is through buying more of what capitalists want to sell us.

This does sound quite bad, destructive, and dangerous. For the sake of argument, let’s grant it’s true of free market economies. For many who raise such worries about consumerism, the remedy is to undo the system driving it, first by exposing the causes and effects of consumerist culture so we can more mindfully ameliorate its effects in their own lives, and then by making institutional and structural changes to the economy and its incentives to limit the power of capitalists to manipulate or coerce us into consumerist roles.

Remaking our culture and economy to undo capitalist consumerism would mean shifting power from markets to politics. We’d expand the might of the political sphere to force actors in the economic sphere to change their ways. If that’s a path we want to take, though, we ought to be clear-eyed not just about the effects of capitalist consumerism, but also about whether politics suffers from similar or worse pathologies. Replacing markets with politics is only advisable if a politicized system is better than a market-driven one.

With that in mind, let’s look at political consumerism.

Political Consumerism

Government is an institution, or set of institutions, through which a group of people labeling themselves “the state” provide the rest of us with goods and services, and ask or demand our support and resources in return. Politicians, bureaucrats, and everyone else working for the state need us to consume their services and pay them for it. They need us to support what they’re doing and, ideally, to want them to do even more.

Given the parallel between corporations and governments, we can restate the capitalist consumerism argument above in political terms.

  • The political class depends for its livelihood on us wanting what it provides, and always wanting more of it. The state never seems to grow to the “right” size and stop, but to always demand more, whether in terms of the number of laws on the books, the areas it has control over, or the quantity of resources it extracts from its citizens. (And if it does approach the “right” amount, and actually solves the problems, the politicians whose constituencies financially benefit from working in institutions and agencies tasked with addressing those problems will argue they haven’t been solved, for they don’t want to anger their constituencies by taking away their jobs.) Thus, we pay a lot, in taxes and restrictions on our liberties, for what government provides. We can choose to stop doing so if enough of us vote to limit the state’s power, reduce taxes, or kick out specific politicians, so the government needs us to need it. Furthermore, like any organization, the state wants to grow. Just like everyone else, the political class wants more wealth and more power. It depends not only on us buying the service it provides today, but demanding more services tomorrow.
  • Our desire for more government action leads to unsustainable consumption, as the state consumes resources and takes on debt. We’re encouraged to invest greater time in the political sphere by paying attention to what the government is doing, thinking about what it could do, engaging in activism and campaigning, joining political organizations, arguing with fellow citizens, and giving our attention and money to politicians. This crowds out time and resources that could be spent on other pursuits.
  • The growth of politics is unsustainable because it’s never satisfied. We want to use politics to make the world better, but when a new policy, law, or politician doesn’t solve our problems, or creates new problems, we become convinced we just didn’t do enough politically, and imagine satisfaction will be found in using politics even more. Political actors, who we have no reason to believe are less self-interested than anyone else, try to convince us more is needed, even if there isn’t a problem to solve or if it would be better solved through non-political means.
  • Politicians, the political media, and political organizations use rhetoric to lure us into this cycle and trap us there. They bombard us with messages about how much we need their political proposals and how their political proposals, if only implemented, will improve our lives. They contrast their policies with their competitors and try to convince us happiness comes from embracing their party or ideology and not the other guy’s.
  • We come to identify with particular politicians, parties, or ideologies and so make being supporters of them central to our identity. This divides us from those with competing affiliations or leads us to elitism about supporters of opposing parties.
  • We come to identify being a contributing member of society with being politically active. Our duty is to support our fellow citizens and our economy, and the way we fulfill that is by voting for the government to do more and to take more control. We’re told that all this activism, campaigning, and voting, in the aggregate, is how we make the country better off. If we turn our backs on politics, or reject calls to expand its reach, we’re letting each other down.
  • We come to believe that the path to a better, happier, more successful nation is through giving the government more power over the economy and our lives.

This is also a pretty negative picture. But perhaps it’s an unfair one. After all, maybe the parallels are only superficial because the fundamental moral nature of politics and capitalism differ. Politics is about helping others. Capitalism is about helping ourselves. Politics is self-less, while capitalism is selfish. This could mean that the very beliefs and activities we identify as bad about political consumerism are in fact good when found in politics. Again, a glance around at our political culture ought to, at the very least, blur this bright line. More troubling, just as we can argue that capitalist consumerism depends for its success on making us believe it’s something it’s not, we should have some degree of skepticism about the altruistic claims of the people encouraging political consumerism, especially if they benefit from it.

One might also object that government institutions are fundamentally different from capitalist corporations, though. Government exists for us, to benefit us, and the people who run and work for it are public servants. Capitalists, on the other hand, are in it for themselves, and any degree to which their products actually benefit us is just a happy accident of them trying to convince us to buy them. But the altruism of state actors doesn’t seem borne out by history — or even a quick glance around the world — which is filled with rulers, bureaucrats, military leaders, and police taking self-serving actions at the expense of their citizens. Likewise, we can see them motivated not by a desire to serve the public, but to aggregate more power and resources to themselves. Perhaps our own rulers are the exception, but it’s rather unlikely. Of course, governments would like us to believe they have our best interests in mind, but then, so would corporations.

The state has seen great success in convincing its citizens that it’s necessary, that its solutions are better than the alternative, that we should constantly give it more, and that it’s a moral failing to think otherwise. We constantly downplay the damage caused by the political sphere, “stan” our favorite politicians, sneer at those who aren’t as zealous in advocating more use of political power as we are, and choose our friends and enemies by political affiliation. What’s more, our culture teaches us that all these things are good, instead of a kind of false consciousness inculcated by state and political interests.

Comparing the Dangers of Capitalist Versus Political Consumerism

Can we say that one kind of consumerism is worse than the other, that if we’re going to trade them off against each other, we should prefer less political or less capitalist? One way to answer that is to ask where the real danger is with each. Let’s start with the environment. Capitalism needs resources to make its products, and without a check against overuse, it could drive us into poverty, or even extinction. But there’s reason to believe this won’t happen, because markets use prices as signals. If a given resource becomes scarce, without a corresponding drop in demand, the price of that resource will rise, eventually to the point where it’s no longer economically viable for use in many products, and corporations will seek out alternatives. Thus market signals will conserve the resource.

Such mechanisms exist in a political system too, but they’re not as responsive, and so there is greater danger of things getting out of hand before we can rein them in. Governments can tip from democracy to authoritarianism quite suddenly if enough political consumers demand the wrong people or policies, and that suddenness makes it harder for opposing consumers to push back in time to stop the state from going over the cliff. Likewise, governments can increase taxes or take on debt to pay for greater levels of political consumption, and set tribes of political consumers against each other to maintain that growth. We’re told we can always soak the rich more by making them pay a “fair share” that’s constantly growing, or that we can borrow more because national debt isn’t something to worry about. Most citizens don’t see the negative effects of this until it’s too late and the system is near collapse, because they’re not the ones paying. Thus the signal of overconsumption won’t become obvious until the state has dramatically overconsumed. Market prices, on the other hand, show a more immediate signal, and one that scales in urgency more closely to the actual rates of resource use.

Turning to the personal danger, in a market, if I buy too much, or the wrong things, I hurt myself, and potentially those close to me. I make myself less happy and my living situation more precarious. But I’m unlikely to do much harm beyond that. In politics, my consumption is ultimately about getting the government to take action, and those actions impact everyone subject to its jurisdiction. (And, in the case of foreign policy, well beyond it.) If my consumerism is for the wrong things, and too much of them, I don’t just hurt myself, but potentially do catastrophic harm to countless others. Capitalist consumerism might make us buy the wrong things. Political consumerism can make us call for wars, oppression, subjugation, and policies that will result in tremendous loss of wealth and lives.

We should keep this in mind when listening to calls for increased political control as a remedy to capitalist consumerism. We are political consumers, and if we’re worried about consumerism, we ought to be worried about it wherever it occurs.

Political ethicist. Writer. Podcaster. Free Market Buddhist.

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