Posts Tagged ‘sustainable economy’

The ‘ism’ that rules America

Got a book you must read if, like me, you’re wondering how it is consumption came to rule our lives. Check out “An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America,” by Gary Cross, a history professor at Penn State. It isn’t exactly hot off the presses, having been published in 2000. But it’s no less relevant now, as the urgency to build a more sustainable economy grows each day.

As a long-time marketer (previously in high tech), I’m well aware that marketing, advertising, public relations and the like are big reasons why, in Cross’ words, “Consumerism was the ‘ism’ that won” in the 20th Century. But, as Cross shows, it was hardly just the power of advertising that explains why this ism prevailed.

“Consumerism,” he writes, “succeeded where other ideologies failed because it concretely expressed the cardinal political ideals of the century — liberty and democracy — and with relatively little self-destructive behavior or personal humiliation.”

Cross considers consumerism one of the “meaning systems for human life.” Among his keen observations is that 20th Century critics of mass consumption on the Left and the Right failed equally to create credible alternatives. Those on the Left who advocated simple living and downscaling “all too readily ignored the deep psychological and cultural meanings of goods.” Their counterparts on the Right, meanwhile, decried the threat to “family values” by an overly permissive consumer culture. And yet they also stood with conservative politicians (most importantly Reagan) who worshipped the free market and tore down “the walls that held back the market from seeping into every corner of the American psyche and society.”

Unlike many writers of history who would let the facts speak for themselves, Cross couldn’t resist closing with a chapter on the need to confront the social costs of unleashed consumption. He calls on the Left and Right to find common ground. “A society that reduces everything to a market inevitably divides those who can buy from those who cannot, undermining any sense of collective responsibility and with it, democracy.”

Consumerism has provided meaning for Americans unlike any other alternative system. Cross isn’t optimistic we can replace it anytime soon. Americans, he said, perfected 20th Century consumerism. Now we have to figure out ways to control it.