Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption… We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.

– American Economist Victor Lebow in his landmark 1955 paper “Price Competition in 1955”

Anti-consumerism has become a buzz word nowadays, particularly with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement of the summer and fall which GG wrote about last week. While GG encouraged people to get involved, I’d like to tackle a couple of the major misunderstandings of anti-consumerism and the OWS movement. First is that it’s somehow anti-American (it’s not) and second that it’s anti-capitalist (I can see how this is confusing, but I disagree). As a public Pagan, I find this an important distinction to make because anti-consumerism is a common ideology in the Pagan community (although many of us prefer to use it’s cousin term “sustainability” to focus on the end goal*).

So let’s start off with the big question: What is anti-consumerism?

Anti-consumerism is the idea that buying lots of things does not make people happy, and the world is better off we we use and discard (consume) less junk.

That’s it. If you’ve ever debated making a purchase and decided against it because, even though it’s pretty, you know you won’t use it, you made a choice using fundamental anti-consumerist ideology. If you’ve ever looked around your house, been frustrated with clutter, and wondered, “How did I ever end up with all this useless crap??” you’re asking an anti-consumerist question. If you’ve ever repaired or re-purposed something when it breaks instead of purchasing a new one,you’ve acted like an anti-consumerist. If these things sound simplistic or obvious, look around at how many people are facing these issues on a regular basis. It is normal to have a household cluttered with stuff we purchased but never use and trash bins containing things like a shirt missing one button and a cracked picture frame that could be fixed with a little glue and a dot of paint. Waste and useless excess are the new norms of an American household. I know it’s a problem, but I live this way, too. I’m trying to change, but it’s hard.

From Wikipedia, based on data from The US Census Bureau Foreign Trade Division

There seems to be this idea, however, that by consuming less, I’m somehow damaging America because of GNP or something like that. First, if the success or failure of our country is based on everybody buying piles of junk they don’t need, there’s something fundamentally flawed in the way we’ve organized our nation. But let’s get real here. Where does our stuff come from and how does it get made? We’ve got a global economy at this point. Many of the things we buy are not from American companies. In 2010, the US had a $500 billion trade deficit (down from our record high of $817 in 2005 and 2006) – that means last year we imported $500 billion more in goods than we exported. Many of these goods are imported because they are made in foreign countries where labor and environmental laws are lax, allowing products to be made far more cheaply at the expense of human rights and the environment. So when I make a purchase of some piece of plastic crap that I may use once, I’ve just given money to a foreign country, hired foreign employees, increased my country’s debt to somebody else, and will soon be filling my country’s landfills with something which will potentially take centuries to biodegrade while leeching toxic chemicals into my country’s soil and water supply.

Not making that purchase is a far better way to love my country.

Second, do the people making anti-consumerist-is-anti-American arguments not remember that one of the events leading to the creation of our country was the Boston Tea Party? And what was that again? A multinational corporation with the financial backing to influence government was imposing its will on the people who then threw merchandise into the ocean instead of buying it. Our country was frickin’ founded by people thumbing their noses at big businesses who tried to throw their weight around. But now the same anti-corporate sentiment that founded our nation is anti-American? What changed?

The other major complaint I hear about anti-consumerism is that it’s the same thing as anti-capitalism or socialism. I can (sort of) see how this argument gets made (although, as I pointed out above, our Founding Fathers seemed to have had no confusion on how one could be pro-capitalist and also opposed to big businesses’ stranglehold on the market and over-influence on government). There is an anti-big-business feeling in anti-consumerism, and the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism are usually not considered okay in anti-consumerist ideology. Though not necessarily part of the philosophy, most of us anti-consumerists believe in fair labor laws and environmental restrictions on corporations. While not same thing as socialism (redistribution of wealth), often gets painted as it… I guess because we’re putting restrictions on what companies can do. To me the restrictions that should be placed on companies are the same responsibilities placed on freedom. For example, I don’t believe in the freedom to go punch my neighbor for fun. Freedom doesn’t mean the freedom to do harm. Same thing with companies; we’re not trying to unfairly restrict them; we’re trying to stop them from harming people and the environment (which harms people).*

I consider myself very pro-capitalist, but I believe that capitalism is damaged by consumerism. At its best, capitalism provides financial rewards to those who create the most desirable products in the most innovative ways. It engages personal responsibility and makes producers accountable to consumers for the quality and ethical standards of their products. Consumerism, though, teaches people to “buy trendy and upgrade (i.e. throw away) quickly.” This creates an environment where so many purchases are required to “keep up” that the cheapest goods are valued and there is little expectation of longevity or long-term customer service or product quality. We’re going to be done using this shirt, this computer, this non-stick pan within a year, so cost becomes the priority consideration, saving us the money we need to buy another one when this breaks or we are bored with it.

When we create an environment where price is the main standard by which products are judged, we no longer have competition for things that matter; we have factory pressed conformity (because that’s the easiest way to decrease cost) and a race to see who can cut the most corners while creating the biggest pile of product. Corporations work on a model of keeping us as dissatisfied as possible, feeling like we always need some new thing (that they want to sell us) in order to find a happiness. But that promised happiness is never attained because happiness doesn’t come from reckless or constant consumption.

Capitalism, like frith, works best when it’s person to person, not person to faceless corporation. I am so fortunate to live in a community where I have my choice of produce from local farms. I can choose the farm that best matches my ethical standards while giving me the best value. And I can visit that farm to see how my food is grown. Etsy is another beautiful example of capitalism at its best. I’ve started buying most of my jewelry there, and I can hop online to see all manner of handcrafted goods. I can talk directly to the artisans who made them and ask about materials and construction.

In Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which is set in Sweden), the main character says:

You have to distinguish between two things – the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day…

The Stock Exchange is something very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions, more or less. It doesn’t have a thing to do with the Swedish economy.

Replace “Sweden” with “America” (or whatever country you like), and I couldn’t agree more. In true capitalism, the Americans who make things should be the heart of the American economy, not people who push paper around or watch numbers scroll across tickers. Buying real goods from real people – that’s the economy. Buying and selling goods (not shares) – that’s capitalism. The way I see it, those proposing that anti-consumerists are anti-American or anti-capitalists are either ill-informed regarding what we’re about… or they’ve been blinded by that big paycheck they’re making at the expense of the American economy, the environment, and the consumers’ right to choose, all while in complete denial of a historically American definition of capitalism.

Real Americans dump products over the side of a boat rather than submit to the thumb of corporate oppression. The princesses are anti-consumerist, pro-capitalist, and pro-American. Where do you stand?

Plastic Ocean by Kevin Krejci (CC Licensed via Flikr)

* Sustainability is another buzz word right now that is a post in and of itself. Basically, however, it means living in such a way that our generation does nothing to the Earth that will lessen it’s ability to support the next generation. Anti-consumerism has a goal of increased sustainability because it’s about not forcing the to world to create more products than we reasonably need. Each creation of product uses up our limited resources in the construction and creates waste both in the construction and when we throw the item away. The Earth is used to reclaiming natural substances that have outlived their purpose (which is why ancient societies who used wood for construction left little archaeological evidence – when they moved out, what they built biodegraded). But we have now a product cycle in which many items are easily broken to the point that they are not useful, but they don’t readily biodegrade. This is unsustainable because it creates a rapid need for new products that far exceeds the Earth’s ability to biodegrade the product back into the natural cycle – hence disasters like The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

** Personally, I don’t understand why we have labor laws in this country and then allow the importation of items made in ways that don’t follow those labor laws, giving multi-national corporations with an unethical bent an advantage over companies who want to stay local and treat people fairly. THAT’S where I believe a big part of the problem lies.

+ Featured Image: Landfill Operation on Warner Road by Frank J. (Frank John) Aleksandrowicz