Our Consumer Society

Today we explore Our Consumer Society, looking at the history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology of what consumerism really means. Is it a useful concept? Where did it appear from? Are there alternatives? How is the desire that drives consumption manufactured? Are we shallow? Is there any possibility of ethical consumption? To help answer some of these questions we draw from thinkers including Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, and David Harvey.

Already by 1655, philosopher and scientist Robert Boyle had written that while “other creatures were content with easily attainable necessaries”, humans had “a multiplicity of desires” and “greedy appetites”.

In 1741’s Fable of the Bees, Bernard Mandeville had argued against the received wisdom of Christianity, the Ancient Greeks and the Romans that private vice and selfish individual desire were pernicious. Instead, he said, they were socially useful – they created more trade, more commerce, and in the end made everyone better off.

Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume agreed to an extent, writing that indolent luxury was still pernicious but that an “increase and consumption of all the commodities, which serve to the ornament and pleasures of life, are advantages to society”.

When Oscer Wilde was writing in the 19th century, Paris was becoming an international hotspot for new department stores, which placed a universe of exotic goods on display.

In The Ladies Paradise, Emile Zola wrote about the allure of the new stores. He called them “alters” – a miracle – a “machine” – and remarked that “mad desires were driving all the women crazy”. continue reading

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