|Cartoon by Grea (sangria.net)|
The idea of citizenship has been with us since Athenian and Roman times, but is was the Renaissance (14th to 17th Centuries) that gave rise to our modern day conceptions of what being a citizen means.
We also began to produce, with production taking off dramatically in the 18th and early 19th Centuries with the Industrial Revolution. Around that time our consumption patterns began to shift from consuming for our basic needs of food, shelter and warmth to consuming with extrinsic desires in mind.
Thus, by the beginning of the 20th Century we (at least, those in Western nations) were first and foremost citizens, although we were becoming consumers.
Citizenship (from the Latin civitas – plural civitates) provides us with rights of belonging to a collective as well as responsibilities to that collective. One of those rights of being a citizen is the right to participate in the decision-making of the collective (be it community, society or nation) that we belong to. It could be argued that Homo Sapiens had become Homo Civitas.
That was all about to change though. Following World War II western nations, in particular the US, decided that our economies had to be maintained via growth in order not to repeat the disaster of the Great Depression. How was that to be achieved?
The economist and retail analyst Viktor Lebow answered this in the clearest most hard-nosed manner. Writing in 1955 he laid out the foundations of consumer society. He is worth quoting at length:
“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. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.
These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. 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. The home power tools and the whole “do-it-yourself” movement are excellent examples of “expensive” consumption.”He couldn’t have been any clearer, or more blatant. Governments, industrialists and advertisers advanced the creed with glee.
Then came deregulation and privatisation in the 1980s – known as neo-liberal capitalism. This further advanced Homo Sapiens and/or Homo Civitas on the road to becoming Homo Consumerus – a condition in which we become nothing but consumers in the global economy.
We also began to lose our citizenship. Privatisation meant that governments began selling off telecommunications, transport systems, postal systems, electricity generation, even health care and education. No longer were these services that we all collectively owned and used, they were now part of the user pays approach. Yes – Homo Consumerus had arrived.
Since Viktor Lebow’s exhortation in 1955 we have excitedly embraced consumerism. The number of cars per person has tripled, we consume twice as much energy per capita. In the US the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) has tripled.
Not only does our rampant consumerism destroy the earth, it also destroys us by promoting external gratification rather than internal wellbeing.1
The Consumption of Democracy
Let’s return briefly to citizenship. Much of what determines the outcome of our citizens right to select our representatives has become less about who we vote for and more about which candidate or political party spends the most money.2 Much of these campaign funds come from wealthy businessmen/women and corporations.
Not only are we we individually becoming consumers; increasingly, our parliaments, councils and senates are being bought. Business is consuming our democracy.
We are in danger of losing any sense of being citizens. We are in danger of becoming nothing more than consumers – exactly as Lebow and the transnational corporations that followed him would want us to.
Furthermore, this consumerism isn’t about satisfying our needs; it is now focussed on acquiring status, prestige or coolness via the purchase of brands, styles and fashionable trends.
What is to be the outcome of this clash between Homo Civitas and Homo Consumerus?
There are signs that Homo Consumerus is being rejected by more and more individuals and communities. The threat of Climate Change is forcing many to reconsider a growth-oriented consumerist society.
Out of that change of mindset a number of movements are taking hold, amongst them:
- Transition Towns
- the Slow Movement
- Occupy movement
- the recognition of Indigenous wisdom
- Via Campesina International Peasants Movement
- Localism movement
- Climate Change action groups
- Center for a New American Dream
- David Suzuki Foundation
- International Society for Ecology and Culture
- Simplicity Institute
- Equality Trust
- new economics foundation
- Schumacher Centre
1. Interestingly, the word consume comes from the Latin consumere and initially meant: to annul, destroy/kill, to reduce or wear away.
2. In 2012, the average winner of a seat in the US Senate spent over $10 million.
3. These two lists are by no means exhaustive. World-wide there are numerous groups and movements devoted to seeking and pursuing a life that is less focussed on consumerism.