The Poverty of Consumerism
Shameless self-promotion alert!
For those interested, the MB Herald—the denominational magazine of the tribe I happen to belong to—has published an article on consumerism that I co-authored with friend, fellow-Menno, and thesis-weary Regent student Jonathan Janzen. In it, we attempt to both describe and critique this prominent cultural mentality which views many, if not all, decisions as needing only to pass through the grid of individual preference and choice. We also suggest some areas of Christian theology that may have been lost or obscured and might serve as correctives in attempts to resist this cultural trend.
The Herald has decided to devote a series of columns over the next months to themes of individualism and consumerism, and I’m curious to see how these unfold. I think that ultimately these twin themes are a danger not so much because they turn us into acquisitive and ungrateful people (although they certainly can do this), but because they betray both a deficient anthropology and an inadequate theology. We ascribe unwarranted autonomy to ourselves, isolating and inflating one dimension of human experience at the expense of others, and we betray our lack of trust in a God who claims not only to satisfy but to reorient our desires both now and in the future. Ultimately, I think, consumerism and individualism reveal how little we think both of God and ourselves.
I am kind of suspect of your definitions. Individualism especially stands out to me. “I am numero uno in the universe, free to do what suits me” does not describe individualism at all. It describes a reckless irrational attitude. Individualism I think could better be described as a belief that person has a right to their own life and respects the right of others to their own lives. An Individualist would understand that a peaceful society rests on the recognition and protection of these rights.
I think that consumerism is a deceptive term as well. It seems to gloss over any proper attempt to pursue material prosperity as something legitimate. Instead it is used to define an ideology that considers material goods as end in itself rather a means to achieve a value. I do not know that I have ever met anyone who lives with this ideology.
Anyways, as a staunch defender of individualism and capitalism I just felt like I would like to respectfully[I hope I came across that way] differ with you on a few points.
I think the basic problem with these ‘isms’ is that there really are very few (with perhaps the exception of jc’s qualified redefinition of individualism) who would admit to being consumeristic or individualistic. Commonly these terms are understood to mean greedy and selfish respectively and I daresay none of us are really willing to admit that we are either. In comparison to others however we have no qualms about pointing out other people’s greed and selfishness. And it is all too convenient for us to superimpose these characteristics onto society as a sort of thinly veiled conspiracy theory against our altruistic will – either collectively or individually.
I would say that the task of spiritual leaders ought to be focused on holding to account the lives of adherents to the faith; helping them to identify and own these systemic problems as deviance against the will of God. People need to own this stuff personally. We can’t allow these ‘isms’ to remain abstractions that no one takes responsibility for – constantly moving targets.
I thought the article was well written. Kudos
We did not define consumerism as the pursuit of “material goods as end in itself rather a means to achieve a value.” In the article, we clearly state that “consumerism denotes a ‘lens’ through which we look at the world, the idea that individual preference and choice are the defining and most important factors in all areas of life.” We are also clear to point out that consumption is not a bad thing in and of itself. As long our consumption is characterized by gratitude and responsibility (to one another, to ourselves, to the natural world) there is nothing wrong with it.
Re: individualism, the comment you’re reacting to was more of a colloquial passing remark meant only to demarcate it from the phenomenon which was the focus of the article. While I fully agree with you that people have a right to their own lives and ought to respect the lives of others, and that a peaceful society depends upon a recognition and protection of these rights, I do suspect that we disagree about the primacy of the individual. I think that we are accountable to God and others for the way that we live our lives (including the manner in which we consume, and to what ends). Individualism, as you’ve described it, might be a kind of minimal prerequisite for political stability, but it still seems to fall short of traditional Christian conceptions of what God intended for the world.
I think you’re right – the tendency in discourse about “isms” is that they stay at arms length. We tend to think of them as “things” which are something separate from us, when we’re all implicated, to varying degrees.
I think you’re right to question our definition of individualism. The way we defined it certainly wasn’t “technical.” (Part of that, of course, is that our mandate in the article was to begin to unpack what consumerism is and what a Christian is supposed to “do” with it.)
I also think that you pick up on exactly what we’re suggesting: that individualism can become “a reckless irrational attitude.” I agree that a more robust (healthier?) description of individualism should include the belief that “a person has a right to their own life and respects the right of others to their own lives,” and that an individualist “would understand that a peaceful society rests on the recognition and protection of these rights.” (Of course, I would want to hear a bit more about what is meant by some of those things, and what some of those things look like. Like Ryan, I might differ on some of the details.)
When it comes to consumerism as a “deceptive term,” one of the things we wanted to do was remind people that consumerism isn’t “all bad.” In fact, I agree that (to loosely quote you) “proper attempts” to “pursue material prosperity” are “legitimate.” The question, of course, is what those “proper attempts” are, and we make a few suggestions as to how we might, from a Christian perspective, determine what in fact are “proper attempts.”
One of the things we’re critical of (in a gentle way) is exactly that tendency to “mis-define” consumerism. I think you’re right to suggest that consumerism “is used to define an ideology that considers material goods as end in itself rather a means to achieve a value.” It’s also wrongly defined in other ways.
So will we see a letter from you printed in the next MB Herald?
You probably wont be seeing any letters from me in the MB Herald. That elitist magazine snubbed me when I used to belong to that denomination. I paid my tithe like everyone else and they never sent me one copy. I was always a Bibel and Flug guy anyway.