I asked the president, “What can we do to show support for America?” He said, “Mom, if you really want to help, buy, buy, buy.” – Barbara Bush, 2001
During the 1950s, at a time when the U.S. was in recession, Victor Lebow outlined what was to become one of the enduring tenets of global capitalism in the years to come:
Our enormously productive economy demands we make consumption our way of life, that we convert buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things to be consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate.
And so mass consumerism was ushered in.
Indeed, the inescapable need for us to work hard and spend hard is now instilled in us, virtually from birth.
But while this mass materialist mantra is highly effective in funneling huge profits to the super-rich, the consumer dream is fast becoming a nightmare of cataclysmic proportions which threatens to suck us all into its destructive vortex.
Unmistakably, the consumer dream now pervades every area of our lives and, in an era of globalisation, virtually every corner of the planet.
Mass marketing and advertising are used to hook us into the mass consumer frenzy which teaches us that in order to have value and happiness, we must spend, spend, spend. (Easy credit also helps, of course.)
The increase of shopping malls on every major intersection [and in every township] is a sign of a growing culture of consumerism.
The debate has always been that when we consume more, we grow the economy. The problem is that this culture of consumerism fuels debt, eating disorder and ultimately income inequalities.
When delivering the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in 2006, former President Thabo Mbeki had this to say:
“Thus, everyday, and during every hour of our time beyond sleep, the demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realisable dream and nightmare. With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity – get rich! get rich! get rich!
And thus has it come about that many of us accept that our common natural instinct to escape from poverty is but the other side of the same coin on whose reverse side are written the words – at all costs, get rich!
In these circumstances, personal wealth, and the public communication of the message that we are people of wealth, becomes, at the same time, the means by which we communicate the message that we are worthy citizens of our community, the very exemplars of what defines the product of a liberated South Africa.”
He further more said:
“In these circumstances, the meaning of freedom has come to be defined not by the seemingly ethereal and therefore intangible gift of liberty, but by the designer labels on the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the spaciousness of our houses and our yards, their geographic location, the company we keep, and what we do as part of that company.
In the event that what I have said has come across as a meaningless ramble, let me state what I have been saying more directly.
It is perfectly obvious that many in our society, having absorbed the value system of the capitalist market, have come to the conclusion that, for them, personal success and fulfilment means personal enrichment at all costs, and the most theatrical and striking public display of that wealth.
What this means is that many in our society have come to accept that what is socially correct is not the proverbial expression – “manners maketh the man” – but the notion that each one of us is as excellent a human being as our demonstrated wealth suggests!”
In quoting George Soros, Mbeki continued to say:
“Unsure of what they stand for, people increasingly rely on money as the criterion of value. What is more expensive is considered better…People deserve respect and admiration because they are rich. What used to be a medium of exchange has usurped the place of fundamental values, reversing the relationship postulated by economic theory. What used to be professions have turned into businesses. The cult of success has replaced a belief in principles. Society has lost its anchor…
Indeed the world has lost its anchor.