Sunday, January 19, 2014

Post-Consumerism and Prosperity

[Note: This post has been delayed a bit due to the surprising complexity of the topic, new information, my own confusion about some of the issues involved, and -- unfortunately -- continuing physical issues that can make it difficult to sit for an extended session and read... Oh well!]

A while back I wrote a post called, "Full Employment and Enforced Savings = No Economic Depression Without War."  I'm sure the title confused a few people, because it may have seemed I was arguing that it's not possible to have an economic depression without war, but that wasn't it at all.

What I was trying to get at was that by implementing strategies and policies that ensured full employment and enforcing savings rather than spending of income, as was the case during World War II, the periodic economic depressions that afflicted capitalism -- including the current one -- could be and largely would be avoided. "Prosperity" -- of a sort -- would become institutionalized, and no one would need to suffer from want of anything necessary for material well-being. It was simple. Full employment began as the nation geared up for World War II, and it was the policy prescription after the war right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Enforced savings occurred during the war because there were limited consumer goods available -- most production being blown up for warmaking. That was stupid, of course, because it was perfectly possible to utilize production (and excess production) for positive ends, or not necessarily to produce so much excess, while still maintaining full employment.

I was making an argument against the policies that were maintaining the Endless Recession at that time, policies which are still in place and which still maintain a Permanent Recession economy for the many millions.

If there is anything positive about this Endless Recession is that it has begun to curb the rampant consumerism that has long been a hallmark of Western Civilization (that thing that Gandhi is said to have snarked "would be a good idea.")  The consumerist curve is bending downward, at least it is in the West; not so much in China and India and much of the rest of Asia. But for consumerism to be reduced in the United States is remarkable and it is clearly a matter of (unstated) policy decisions at the very top.

World War II provided essentially everyone who could work with employment, some of it compelled labor at risk in the military, but most of it in the civilian sector producing war materiel and modest amounts of civilian goods. Most civilian jobs did not pay that well, and military pay was a joke, but that hardly mattered as there was little to buy with one's earnings. Price controls and rationing meant that what was available stayed affordable. One saved one's earnings from employment whether through purchase of War Bonds and Stamps or by some other means. In those days, surprisingly enough, interest was paid on savings, something unheard of today, and so by the end of the war, many Americans had saved up quite a lot of money, typically in the thousands of dollars, something most had never been able to do before.

During the war, of course, civilian infrastructure had been badly neglected, as it had been throughout the Depression as well. The civilian sector was in tatters, falling to pieces, held together with bailing wire and Scotch Tape, when it was held together at all. Everyone longed for and looked forward to "The Wonderful World of Tomorrow," fantasy worlds to come that had a long history in popular literature.

With Victory, some of those fantasy worlds started to be realized. Suburbia exploded, the cores of whole cities were abandoned and raised, freeways criss-crossed the land, television became a reality for almost everyone, and the world was bright and cheery and sunny. If you were white. And if you conformed. Products -- consumables -- made for happiness. Being like everyone else and believing what they did was considered gracious and right.

The maintenance of prosperity during the Post War Era required consumption and destruction/disposal on a massive scale however -- much as World War II had done. There was no other operative paradigm at the time, and we really haven't developed an broadly based alternative since then.

The question now is whether a broadly based alternative is even possible. "Prosperity" as we commonly understand it requires things, having things in massive quantities, disposing of older things and getting new things, on an endless treadmill, one that can only be sustained for many -- perhaps most -- people by surrendering to massive debt. Incomes for the masses have stagnated and in many cases declined substantially in the last fifty years. The production and destruction/replacement of so much product has led to enormous levels of environmental degradation, some of which has been mitigated to be sure, but much of which remains toxic though out of sight for most of us.

The central global problem of climate change, of course, is exacerbated if not directly caused by the overload of carbon emissions incumbent upon the production/destruction of so much stuff. This leads to cries of Utter Doom Soon that we're hearing more and more of (and which will always gain an enthusiastic following on the InterTubes; I wonder why that is?) and calls to fucking do something about it, already!  from all the usual quarters and many not so usual.

Consumerism is clearly a big part of the problem, though more serious people than I sometimes am lay the blame squarely at the feet of Capitalism itself. In that view, capitalism requires growth, and one cannot have growth in capitalism without ever greater levels of consumerism, but I'm not so sure that's the case. There have been efforts to curb consumption by the masses while maintaining -- even expanding -- capitalist growth for decades. I'm not sure that's recognized in the general discussions of the topic. And the meaning of "growth-capitalism" in the midst of strategies and tactics that are ratcheting back consumption is a mystery.

I wouldn't say capitalism itself is a good thing but it seems to be able to sustain itself and expand its reach with rather low or lower levels of consumption; in other words, it appears that a highly consumerist economy is not necessary for the survival/success of the capitalist economic system. The system itself seems to be able to go on indefinitely almost regardless of the level of consumption of its plethora of product so long as... something (what could it be?) is available or in place.

Could it be access to resources (at little or no cost, this is important to the bean counters) and a nearly impervious (but not completely impervious) inequality/class system?  Resources include raw materials, fuel, and -- glory be -- money. Resources also include labor, workers, the lower paid and closer to homelessness and starvation, the better for the capitalists.

Is prosperity sustainable for the masses?

Or should prosperity be limited to the interests and well-being of the capitalist class itself, nothing more or less.

I realize I'm going far afield here and may have some difficulty circling back to the point.

The point I'm getting at is that we (in the West) are currently in a post-consumerist phase of a capitalist economic system. It has meant that the consumption of goods and services by the masses has been held in check for decades, and recently has been progressively reduced by such factors as the forced impoverishment of many millions of Americans due to the Endless Recession and the recent discoveries of the remarkable levels of vulnerability of digital transactions (the Target Hack, for example).

Production of goods has largely moved out of the United States to new homes in Asia, Latin America, various outposts of the Former Soviet Union and so on, wherever labor is abundant and (relatively) cheap, scared, and submissive. Whole cities and regions in the United States have been partially or extensively depopulated, whereas other areas have been packed tighter and tighter with refugees and residents competing for fewer and fewer scraps and benefits from their ever more authoritarian and arbitrary masters.

For more and more Americans every day, subsistence has become the economic standard, and relief from it or rising from the subsistence level of existence is becoming less and less possible. That's the reality that really isn't taken into account by those who are most panicked by climate change, for example. While they tend to become overwrought that "nothing is being done" about climate change, they tend to ignore what is being done and what the effects are on more and more people all the time.

I have little doubt that the economic policies which ensure such high and apparently permanent levels of poverty in this country -- let alone the effects of those policies abroad -- are integrated parts of a program to "address" climate change (say what you will about its effectiveness) by the High and the Mighty for their own protection, comfort and convenience, bugger the rest of humanity. Which has been their attitude all along, hasn't it?

Forced impoverishment means forced reduction in consumption, which in turn means less production, less environmental destruction, eventually less carbon emission, which -- maybe in a few generations -- will begin to mitigate greenhouse warming. Maybe. Maybe not. If not, what then?

One of the constant cries of Doomers is that "there are too many people!" -- and recently, they've become much more specific about what they believe the carrying capacity of the globe is.  No more than a billion humans; that's it. So what do they propose to do with the other 6/7th of humanity? Oh, they won't say, but because they are by and large humane rather than cruel about these things, I suspect they'd be delighted to have a global Game in which everyone on earth participates, draws straws, and the one out of seven who draws the short straw prepares the Kool-Aid and the mass graves for the other six -- who will then cheerfully and with much appreciation take their own lives. Is there some other less objectionable means of reducing global population by 6/7th?

And what, exactly, does such a precipitous drop in human population accomplish? Doomers say it will "save the earth" by reducing carbon emissions to tolerable levels and so on, which I suppose it will for a time, but there won't be, and can't be, an immediate turn around in climate trends due to feed-backs and so on. What it would mean is more space and initially at any rate more stuff for the survivors.

I suppose that's what some people really want more than anything else in the whole wide world. More space and more stuff. OK then.

But back to my question: is it possible to have prosperity for the many in a post-consumerist economy?

Depends somewhat, doesn't it, on definitions of prosperity. When the New Guinea Highlands were "discovered" in the 1930's, it was a shock to explorers and anthropologists at the time to find millions and millions of people living "primitively" but abundantly in these remote highlands, living really quite well without the trappings of capitalism and consumerism as it was practiced in the "civilized" world, without conquest -- though not without conflict and struggle -- without rapine and destruction, and under a surprisingly well-considered and thought out sustainability routine. For the natives, life was good, about as good as they could want it to be, and their ancient ways of life -- which had neither knowledge of or particular interest in the outside world -- were by their own standards quite egalitarian and prosperous.

Of course all that's gone now. Or rather, it's not the same. Now the Papuans are infected with the disease of consumerism, impoverishment, and all the rest.

But what they showed is that it is quite possible for human societies to live prosperously -- by their own standards -- without capitalism and consumerism, just as many Native societies have demonstrated over the centuries. Of course most of those societies were vulnerable to blandishment and conquest and were more or less destroyed with the introduction of capitalist economic ideas and the imposed necessity of adopting them -- or else.

Americans know very well how to be prosperous under a capitalist system, and how to become prosperous outside a consumerist context, but do Americans have any idea how to live prosperous, rewarding lives with neither capitalism nor consumerist props to prosperity?

So far, the signs aren't very encouraging.


  1. Ché, please excuse my lack of commenting here. Since Google shut down Reader, I haven't been following blogs nearly as much as I used to, and RL has been pretty rough lately. I've been trying to make a point to start following you again, however.

    I wanted to point out something that you perhaps overlooked; what has been happening since the Reagan/Thatcher Revolution is that the emphasis is increasingly being placed on consumption by businesses, and not workers. Consequently, while workers are decreasingly able to consume commodities, commodity production is increasingly shifting toward products that businesses can consume, i.e., capital goods, instead of what we would traditionally consider consumer goods; of course, in a lot of cases, the difference is merely where the things are located and the uses to which they are put, not the goods themselves. In this way, capitalist production can be maintained even with low levels of worker consumption, because the money is being poured back into expanded production, rather than "wasteful" consumer consumption.

    Capitalism has a built-in bias toward expansion for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that greed is one of its foundational principles; furthermore, it's "productionist." Previous economic systems ("modes of production," in Marx's language) were run by people who were consumers, not producers; although modern capitalists are not direct producers, they play a role in the productive process. The feudal nobility and Roman patriciate did not; they were strictly rentiers. The whole point of overthrowing the feudal nobility was to remove the fetters that fuedalism had placed on the growing productive capacity of capitalist industry and commerce; to be able to grow the economy so as to allow people to consume more commodities. It's part of the DNA of the system.

    1. Glad to see you're still around, IngSoc.

      Your insight regarding the location-shift(s) of consumption is helpful for what I'm trying to puzzle out here.

      There's a lot of ferment among folks trying to conceptualize "Post-Capitalism" but most of it, so far, seems to be so mired in the capitalist mindset that it's almost impossible to imagine any social or economic system in which one doesn't buy one's way to Happiness and cleanse the planet at the same time with all sorts of technological marvels -- which are produced and marketed just like everything else in the capitalist system.

      This is "Post-Capitalism?" No it's not. It's the same damn thing. It's just redirecting objectives, and enforcing sets of restrictions on some -- but not others.

      I'm starting with the notion that the current push to post-consumerism in the biggest consumerist society and economy on earth is what will lead by degrees to post-capitalism, largely without intent to do so, but by a kind of natural progression, as more and more people are forced into material poverty -- but realize they don't need the capitalist system for their survival or 'prosperity.' Ultimately, capitalism doesn't go away, it becomes irrelevant.

      We're in the laboratory right now. The question is whether we (the Rabble -- or as some would put it, "rats in the cages") will have any say in what becomes of us and our Fate.

      It's still somewhat of an open question at the moment.