The Problem of Consumerism
An Existential Risk to the Ideals of Western Civilization
All the major industrialized economies have adopted a consumer model, by which I mean an economic model in which consumer spending (as well as consumer debt) plays a major role in the economy. As a result, today we have no alternative vision of a modern, industrialized economy in which consumerism (consumer products, consumer spending, consumer debt) is not a major, if not the major, sector of the economy.
Why should we care that all the largest and most technologically advanced economies in the world are consumerist? Consumerism tarnishes everything that it touches. Like the Golden Calf of the Israelites, worshiped while Moses was absent on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights, the idols of consumerism — the bigger, the better, the garishly glittering, the proudly vulgar — become a fetish that is celebrated by the people even as it degrades and humiliates them. Eventually, nothing matters but the fetish and the pursuit of the fetish.
A people that willingly if not willfully degrades and humiliates itself must end in a degraded and humiliated condition, and no people in a degraded and- humiliated condition can achieve greatness. If advanced industrialized economies inevitably turn to a consumer economic model, then advanced industrialized economies will inevitably fail to achieve greatness, if they even possessed the capacity to aspire to greatness.
Of course I realize that in phrasing my critique of consumerism in these terms I am clearly not speaking in the utilitarian language of economics, innovation, opportunities, jobs, and growth, or even in the equally utilitarian language of households, employment, family, and healthcare. There is very little space in the contemporary world to formulate problems in terms of degradation, humiliation, and greatness, and what space there is has been largely co-opted by frauds and bad actors. And virtually no one today wants to get involved in judging the greatness of a civilization, as that courts so many problems it is not worth the effort.
But it has been said that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, so allow me to be the fool, so that I may rush into this breach. I don’t think that we are anywhere near a quantifiable account of degradation or greatness, but it is probably possible to formulate comparative concepts of civilizational degradation and greatness. As it would be unpleasant to make too close an inquiry into degradation, for the moment I will confine myself to greatness (though I acknowledge, without hesitation, that an inquiry into degradation must also be made eventually). Also, I will confine myself to examples from the western tradition.
So, comparative greatness. Is there any sculpture from medieval civilization that equals or exceeds the greatness of the Nike of Samothrace (now in the Louvre)? I would say yes: Bernt Notke’s Saint George and the Dragon in the Storkyrkan in Stockholm. These two works are radically different in conception and in execution, and each says something distinctive about the ideals of the age in which they were conceived and executed. The Nike of Samothrace is representative of the ideals of late Hellenism; Saint George and the Dragon is representative of Northern European late Medievalism. Both civilizations aspired to ideals, and both ideals manifested in works of art both great in themselves, and representative of the greatness of the respective civilizations.
Is there any sculpture from the modern period that is an equal in greatness to the above two examples of ancient and medieval greatness? I suppose many would select Michelangelo’s David; this wouldn’t be my personal choice, but we can use it as an example. Still, it is an example that dates to before the three revolutions: scientific, political, and industrial. “Modernity” has this ambiguity in it, that it means different things to different historians. So let’s further narrow our scope: is there any work of sculpture created since the industrial revolution, i.e., in the past two hundred years, that is the equal of the Nike of Samothrace, Notke’s Saint George, or Michelangelo’s David?
There are contenders, certainly. Rodin’s The Thinker is a contender, and Contantin Brâncuși’s Bird in Space is arguably a visual quote of the Nike of Samothrace, but I would hesitate to identify these as the equals of the earlier works. It is easier to name a great painting since the industrial revolution than a great sculpture. This is significant. Sculpture plays a distinctive role in civilization, because great works of sculpture are usually placed in public locations in a city and are a focus of civic life (Michelangelo’s David is a perfect example of this). A civilization with a thriving urban life will tend to produce monuments to itself that can thereafter be incorporated into public ceremonies (like Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow), and so serve a prominent symbolic role in civilization.
Civilizations that achieve nothing of greatness, that produce no great symbols around which the life of that civilization can be organized, are of interest to the historian and the archaeologist, but they are no model to follow. They inspire nothing. Our civilization, which includes much greatness in its past, by taking the path of consumerism, is condemning itself to an existential risk that has been called “subsequent ruination” — although I here mean “ruination” in a moral sense, and not in the technological sense that I believe is usually intended in discussions of existential risk. Greatness followed by garishness is a ruination of greatness, and casts a pall over that greatness that causes us to judge it with suspicion in hindsight. In other words, consumerism is an existential risk to civilization.
Bostrom defined subsequent ruination in this way:
Humanity reaches technological maturity in a way that gives good future prospects, yet subsequent developments cause the permanent ruination of those prospects.
This is a technocentric definition, that assumes a technocentric conception of civilization. An axiological parallel could be formulated in this way:
Humanity reaches axiological maturity in a way that gives good future prospects, yet subsequent developments cause the permanent ruination of those prospects.
Consumerism is one of those subsequent developments that causes the ruination of the prospects promised by axiological maturity, but it isn’t the only cause, and I don’t think that it is necessarily permanent. On the contrary, consumerism is almost certainly a temporary measure, but whether it is followed by further moral degradation and humiliation, or whether it is followed by some kind of axiological recovery and the possibility of fulfilling the promise of future prospects, is another question.
What if consumerism eventually proves to be a bootstrap, which, in driving the exponential growth of industrialized economies, facilitates the emergence of some other kind of industrial and economic organization as different from consumerism as consumerism is different from the traditional societies that preceded it? In this case, the existential risk of subsequent ruination that consumerism poses will not be permanent, and may even be necessary, or, if not necessary, perhaps an accelerant to a transcendence event in which a new form of civilization appears.
With the appearance of a new form of civilization, new ideals would appear, and new ideals imply the possibility of new forms of greatness that could be manifested in great works of art. However, this still leaves us with a question. Suppose we identify a period of consumerist civilization from, say, the middle of the twentieth century until the next form of civilization emerges, if and when it does emerge. Will consumer civilization produce any great works of art at all? I don’t see great works of sculpture coming from consumerist civilization, but certainly there is and has been great architecture. The Empire State Building is a great monument to the kind of economy that creates a consumer civilization. Can the Empire State Building be placed next to the Nike of Samothrace? That is a question for another time.