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ESSAY: Consumerism 101

Sometime a lie is so big that it's hard to perceive, much less comprehend.

Adapted from the forthcoming book
Renegade Consumer: The Battle for Your Economic Freedom.
Consumerism is one of the biggest “big lies” ever propagated. It’s so pervasive, so woven into the fabric of everyday life that it can be almost impossible to detect. It’s a con game of unimaginable scale, so sweeping that even when one facet is exposed, the razzle-dazzle of its other sides quickly obscures the meaning of what you’ve seen. It has managed to create that most elite of positions for a societal threat: a problem that is endemic but has rendered itself culturally invisible and almost taboo to discuss. Seeing through that invisibility and understanding it from the outside, for what it really is, may be one of the biggest intellectual leaps you ever make.
This chapter is meant to be a beginning, the simplest possible introduction to what consumerism is, why it's so devastating to individuals, families and nations, and why it's essential to oppose it until it is destroyed. The remainder of this first part is the supporting text that delves into the details and the justification of these claims, so if this chapter is in any way unconvincing, you’ll find support of its theses and claims further on.

The Secret Word is “Consumerism”

Most people have at least some familiarity with the word consumerism. Although once obscure and used mostly by niche economists and, later, by anti-establishment writers, it’s no longer rare to see it in mainstream news stories and popular feature writing. It’s even more frequently encountered in humor, usually in a dismissive manner (e.g. with a corresponding punchline about buying too many pairs of shoes). It is rare, though, to find the word or the concept discussed in any depth; it’s most often used as a deprecating side reference. Just using the word in passing conversation is likely to evoke a wry dismissal from listeners.

The word also has been grievously misused and misapplied in recent decades. It sometimes seems that every writer of economic cant has slapped ‘consumerism’ on some aspect of business, economics or behavior they don’t like. It most often appears as part of a sweeping dismissal of people who buy something the author doesn’t, businesses that sell things he or she doesn’t like, or—all too commonly—entire economic systems seen as being insufficiently free of the exchange of filthy lucre. Because of both casual and calculated misuse, different people have different levels of understanding of the word; in my experience, most people’s grasp of it is shallow. This is not their fault, or yours. Besides those who would devalue the word through misuse, the system that fosters consumerism works hard to conceal itself in plain sight, in part by discounting the very meaning of its identifying label.

My intent is to rescue the word from the general list of pseudo-academic swear words and redeem it for specific and honorable purposes. It is not a generalized condemnation of our social and economic system; it is a very specific and inarguable description of how our world works. It is equivalent to say that the planet is a globe; that we are mammals; and that our socioeconomic system is based on consumerism. Reasonable arguments—that Earth is an oblate spheroid and we are primates, for instance—can only descend from these points, not replace them. In the same way, all meaningful economic discussion must acknowledge that our economic systems are based on consumption, and that this consumption shapes our lives and world; all search for solutions must begin with the understanding that we are a consumerist society.

There are perhaps three general categories of reaction to the word consumerism. The first group would be that minority that is deeply familiar with the term, who likely already think along renegade lines or those of a parallel anti-consumerism effort. [1]

Another group would be those who have little idea what the word means and are willing to admit it. Such individuals are usually open to further discussion of the topic; simple ignorance can be overcome by a willingness to do so, and is preferable to blind denial.

It is those deniers who form the third and largest group, and the most challenging one. It is composed of those who may or may not know the word, but have a grasp of its meaning, perhaps in other terms, and reject it as a concept. Many in this group will react defensively to the topic, ready to blunt any claims that they are subject to the cycle of consumption. They dismiss the notion that they are controlled by any outside force, or that their buying and consumption habits are set by anyone but themselves. They can even elaborate arguments that consumption is a meaningless side issue in socioeconomic systems and lives. Their touchiness on the topic speaks volumes.

Aware or unaware, accepting or dismissing, all three groups are equally affected by consumerism, even those who have developed some tools to overcome its lure. (Knowing that there’s a current in the ocean doesn’t keep you from being pushed around by it.) The solution is the same for all three, as well. Coming to a common understanding of what consumerism is and represents is the starting place for change. Acknowledging the monumental role the cycle of consumption plays in all our lives and the need to bring it under control is the starting point of the renegade movement.

Consumerism Defined

There is, of course, a dictionary definition of consumerism:

consumerism—noun—1. (obsolete) the promotion of the consumer's interests; 2. the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable; 3. a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods.

Like most dictionary entries, this brief listing doesn't really tell you what consumerism is, and the first, obsolete definition completely confuses the matter. For the record, using “consumerism” as a term for things that benefit the consumer is as archaic as calling a person who performs calculations a “computer.” It’s rare, but take it as a warning sign should you see it—those who use the term in that manner are either clueless or working to subvert the current meaning.

One of the things that makes it hard to pass on an understanding of consumerism is that the concept is tied into other social, political and economic matters. It’s far too easy to stray into other areas and confuse the central message—one minute you’re talking about consumerism, the next you’re hip-deep in Marxist dialectic. Or green movement dogma. Or an anti-tax or anti-materialism rant, or even Calvinist theology. Consumerism can be a component of all those things and more, and when the subject is raised, many schools of thought are quick to try and claim it as an exclusive element of their beliefs.

Consumerism is more fundamental than any political system, philosophy or belief.

The concept of consumerism does not stem from any individual school of thought, but is a core building block of nearly all of them. That’s how pervasive and yet invisible consumerism is: unrecognized, it underlies nearly every other aspect of modern life and modern thought.

Because this is meant to be an introduction to the concept, let’s keep it simple and ignore the myriad ties into almost every political and economic school of thought on Earth. We’ll consider consumerism here as an independent entity, and leave the connections and influences for later. Let’s begin with a clarified definition:

Consumerism is the idea that buying goods is the central engine of an economy, and that the purpose of a population is to spend money on goods.

The usual extension of this is that the more goods a population buys, the stronger its economy becomes. Like many briefly-stated theories, this one is accurate… to a degree. Any population (be it a village, city, state or nation) does buy goods, usually with money derived from income from working, and often from producing those goods. It's hard to separate this cycle from the basic needs and demands of a population, no matter how simplistic a model you use.

But like most theories expressed in a vacuum, that's too dry and elementary and assumes the cycle will be self-limiting and self-balancing. The cycle of consumerism is not. Although it has the potential to be self-regulating, the application of any force pushes the cycle out of balance. The present cycle of consumption has many forces, many of them extremely strong, all pushing it to move as fast as possible. Each of the forces gains from each of the others; a push from one is a push for all. It easily can—and has—become a synergistic spin-up to destruction.

The basic cycle of a population working to produce products and using the income derived from that work to buy those products is a reasonable practice, one that’s replicated all over the globe, across cultures and throughout history. Humans are consumers. Only at a very primitive level can they not also be producers, and so the natural state of humans in any large collection is that of mutual producer-consumers. There are other systems, but historically, they have worked only in limited circumstances and for brief periods, before something much like this cycle of consumption replaces it.

The problems arise when some clever human figures out that if he produces more, he can earn more and thus consume more. Well and good, to a point, because if he consumes more, it means that someone else has to produce more… and thus earn more, and thus consume more themselves. As long as this cycle is limited by some natural brake, it is normal, economically and socially healthy, and sustainable without becoming predatory on any group or individuals within the cycle.

But the problems always arise: some especially grasping boyo figures out a way to produce a lot more and sell that produce to his kinsmen… and then he’s suddenly a lot wealthier, which leads to a sudden and localized spike in consumption. It doesn’t take long before there are many smart boyos and girlos, each trying to outproduce the other and keep up the income stream so they can keep up their higher level of consumption. Before you know it, the entire village is caught up in a frenzy of working to produce to earn to spend to consume.

Replace “village” in that last sentence with “nation”—or even “planet”—and you have the current cyclone of insanity in a nutshell. Ordinary life for most people becomes working to earn to spend to consume. All else is illusion—patent and comforting lies we tell each other to cover up the horrid truth. You may not have ever thought so, but a few moments of reflection on your life, work, career and habits might make you realize that you are that population member whose purpose is to buy goods. Not a voter. Not a person of faith. Not even a husband, wife or parent… just a cog whose function is to buy, and forever strive to buy more. Everything else is window dressing.

I can only hope you feel some ripple of the horror that I do at this realization.

Like a motor spinning at such speed that it begins to disintegrate and throw off shrapnel, the cycle becomes overloaded in too many ways to list. Nearly every part of it becomes diseased and predatory. Workers become more bound to their jobs in many ways—they are driven to produce more at less cost, “less cost” often translating to lower wages. This produces a push for longer work hours and higher-paying positions to keep up a desired standard of living. At the same time, advertising and marketing efforts goad the population into ever-increasing consumption. In the end, labor goes up and up only to feed the cycle of producing enough to keep up with expanding consumption, and the rewards of labor (income) increasingly go towards that same consumption. The cycle is complete, feeding on itself… or, more precisely, feeding on the population that drives it. You.

The predatory aspects increase as the cycle speeds up. The most evident of them is an increase in consumer spending to the point where individuals and families are routinely spending all remainders of their income on nonessentials (“crap,” as you’ll come to know it) and are well into the robotic consumer pastime of “shopping”—seeking out goods to soak up excess money. [2] As no ad in existence says anything like “buy this only if you can afford it,” there is no brake on this part of the cycle and it becomes common, nearly universal, for people to not only spend all their income on nonessentials, but to pledge future income against purchases, the better to consume early and consume often. This is, of course, an elaborate way to say consumers go into debt to acquire what they have been pushed to acquire… all to the benefit of the producers and the cycle itself and rarely with much benefit for any individuals within it, even as producer-employees.

When the cycle’s markets are saturated and stable, new markets must be created. Products that never existed before come into being, filling needs invented by their manufacturers. Something humanity has managed to live without for thousands of years becomes first desirable, then utterly necessary, often spinning off additional products and markets in support or collusion. Whole industries have sprung into being simply to create a need and then fulfill it, with careful social and financial engineering to reap maximum income from the effort. Whether these innovations bring real improvement, to individual lives or collectively, is often debatable.

The final and basest level in the consumerist cycle is reached when individuals, families, communities and nations begin to shape themselves and make choices to further their advancement in the cycle. Jobs and careers are chosen to maximize income… and thus consumption ability. Working adults are conditioned to think in terms of buying power (e.g., maximum payment ability, often calculated on future increases in salary and home valuation) rather than affordability or actual need. Families are organized around consuming activities—and around parents’ working schedules. Children are indoctrinated from the earliest ages, mostly via television commercials, to become even more innately grasping consumers than their parents. The indoctrination, increasingly prevalent at all levels, creeps earlier and earlier, to the point where there are now programs, commercials and products aimed for sale to the under-two set.

We are in at least the third generation, and possibly the fourth or fifth, that has been subjected to the ever-increasing speed, pressure and insanity of this cycle. The indoctrination begins early, never lets up, rarely lets itself be recognized, and controls most people’s lives from birth through death. Any competing idea that there are options, different ways to see individual and family life or different ways to base community and national economies is marginalized and forgotten. People, families, communities and nations exist only to consume, and to feed that endless consumption, generation after generation.

It is an illness on the order of systemic cancer, yet everyone’s feverish symptoms are taken for the best of good health. Should the fever slack, as it did in 2007-2010, it is taken as a sign of imminent disaster. The return of febrility is celebrated. It is madness.

All of which leads to a more forceful statement of the definition:

Consumerism is a socioeconomic system that fosters and demands maximum consumption of goods and services from all members of the population, survives only through continually increased consumption and enters failure mode when consumption drops for any reason.

Consumerism: B-B-Bad to the Bone

I’ve made no attempt to make this introduction even-handed by finding good things to say about consumerism and fostered consumption; I don’t think any aspect of the cycle of consumerism is defensible. It’s a socioeconomic cancer, and it’s eating away our lives and future. If you’ve read this far and aren’t starting to agree, you might want to jump back and reread the above.

Or perhaps you’ve read along until now and your reaction is a shrug—“So what?”

If you see consumerism as beneficial, or benign, or believe it doesn’t affect you, you are wrong. Assuming you don’t collect your paycheck from some branch of the marketing industry and are thus voting your own livelihood, the error comes from giving heed to a lifetime of powerful conditioning, along with the usual mental inertia and resistance to uncomfortable change. To think this way is to be at the denial stage. Unless you can move past it, you can be no part of the solution; you can be only among the casualties. That’s not meant, by the way, as anything but the most welcoming challenge. We’re all prone to disbelieving or wishing away unpleasant truths and doing all we can to justify our current beliefs. You’ve read this far; I sincerely hope you’ll stay with me now and try to keep an open mind.[3]

One of the biggest hurdles to comprehending consumerism (and one of its biggest faults) is that it has displaced almost all other notions of how life should be. Everything about individual satisfaction, contentment and achievement has been bent to fit the earn-spend-consume cycle. Contrary ideas about how one might organize a life without submitting to the cycle of consumerism are not just discouraged and deprecated, but absent—it takes an effort to even begin to imagine a life not bound to that crushing wheel. The major effort, then, besides comprehending consumerism and its many tentacles, and learning to recognize its presence and effects throughout the social, political and economic spectrum, is to begin to visualize individual and family life—and eventually community and national life—of a wholly different nature.

But why? Why should you, and we, and all of us seek to destroy what has become the very core of our identities and lives? Whatever the downside, isn’t it better to let things be? No. It’s not. The downside of consumerism is so enormous that there’s no justification for letting it continue. The benefits of destroying the cycle and seeing that it never re-establishes itself are too great to pass up. Consumerism has made a wasteland of our lives, our nations and our planet—a wasteland filled with glittering crap we have been taught to prize and hunger for above all else.

Put it this way: what advantage is there to spending your life working and earning past your needs? What do you gain from piling up wealth for which you have no conceivable need, or worse, acquisitions you would be no poorer without? We are certainly each free to spend our time in acquiring this “extra” if we choose… but aren’t there better choices, more truly rewarding possibilities for a lifetime’s effort?

I believe there are. I believe we can do better. I believe we must.

James Gifford (sig)



[1] There are also those who grasp the term just as deeply but see it from the promotional side, either as a positive term or as the description of an element that must be managed for marketing purposes. There’s a word for them, too.

[2] If not, as is becoming more and more popular, hiring one service or another to essentially spend money for them—personal shoppers, subscription boxes, and other programs to spend money when the exhausted consumer is too tired or uninspired to find their own crap to buy.

[3] Note that “open mind” never means uncritically accepting ideas. Being a renegade consumer—being a useful citizen at all—means remaining skeptical of all new claims. Unlike cynicism, dogmatism or denial, though, skepticism allows new ideas past the barriers once they’ve met the tests of validation. I've tried hard here to give you an initial understanding. Remain as skeptical as you wish … but please continue your education here until you have a basis for being solidly convinced one way or the other.