The neo-classic economic worldview and the consumer society
We are consumers: Our economics inherited its worldview from religion and political theory. Religion contributed the idea of the sacredness of the individual; political theory contributed the idea of the ‘rights of man,’ or individual rights. Economics combined these ideas to create a new creature: homo oeconomicus – the human being who has the freedom to pursue his or her own personal economic interests.
But in the 18th century, when neo-classical economic theory first arose, people lived within communities. In the 21st century, most of us see ourselves as individuals. Our assumptions about human life no longer begin with a strong sense of connection with others; we see personal financial and personal fulfillment as our primary right.
The supremacy of the neo-classical economics’ worldview has led some to describe it as a religion – consumerism. (If a religion, most basically, makes us understand the world and our place in it, then market capitalism and its worldview is not only a religion, but surely one of the most successful on earth.)
This worldview is not only the basis for our own lifestyle, but the ideal for the 5 billion who aspire to it.
The trade market is now deeply embedded in every political and economic structure in the world. This market has five major players: producers; advertisers; the media; national governments; and transnational corporations. Consumers are the desired goal of all these forces. (Approximately 150 billion dollars a year is spent on advertising in the US alone, more than on all of higher education.)
We don’t need to become experts to judge the basic assumptions of neo-classical economics theory; but we do need to ask some questions: Does the consumer society make us happy? Is the consumer society the good life for all people? Is the consumer society the good life for the planet?
Does the consumer society make us happy? For the very poor, increased consumption is essential. But does the consumer society make middle-class people happy? The percentage of Americans calling themselves happy peaked in 1957, even though consumption has more than doubled since then. It appears that having more money (after a certain level) doesn’t always make for greater happiness. So can we say, as the religion of consumerism suggests, that humans find happiness in buying and owning goods, or even that happiness is the goal of life?
Is the consumer society the good life for everyone? The problem is not consumption, but who is consuming and what are they consuming. Today North Americans are consuming much more, while others are consuming less. (In Africa, the average household consumes 20% less than 25 years ago.) Are we entitled to all we can get, or are we under obligation to share? Consumption should be seen as a means to human development – for all people. The western economic model is in trouble, and we need to see our own involvement in its problems.
Is the consumer society the good life for the planet? As long as the world was relatively empty of people, decay and loss could often be reversed, or at least stabilized. We are now using up resources at an unsustainable pace. As natural resources degrade, each resource contributes to the deterioration of the others. If the planet is viewed as an organism, after a certain level of decay in its various members, it will (like any ‘body’) become sick at its core, to the point of not functioning properly. When particular aspects are degraded beyond a certain point, the domino effect can be dramatic. Global warming is an excellent example of this mutual degradation. (see p. 91-91)
McFague’s assessment of the consumer society
The neo-classical economic worldview has two main faults: it sees every human being as a separate individual, and it isolates the economy from the planet’s well-being. Even with today’s globalized markets, neo-classical economics still views each human being as independent; even though the planet’s resources are being stressed, neo-classical economics does not acknowledge the limits of the planet.
If we do live in one world, then we need to embrace a worldview that calls for the just distribution of the world’s resources to all its beings, as well as the permanent health of those resources. We need to ask the economists to devise ways to allocate scarce resources to bring about the good life. Instead, we have allowed economic theory to tell us who we are; we have let it become our ideology, even our religion. We have become consumers – not citizens, nor children of God, nor lovers of the world, but consumers.
‘Consumer’ is a state into which we enter through gradual but relentless formation from the moment of our birth. (Do we really believe we rationally choose what we ‘want’? Haven’t we allowed economics to determine who we are and what we want?) All human beings live within models of who they are and what they should do. Will we see ourselves as private individuals with rights and freedoms, each of us taking all we can get; or will we see ourselves as citizens of planet earth, living sustainably and justly?
We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace.
But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produced beggars
needs restructuring. Martin Luther King Jr.