Sunday, April 5, 2015

Christians vs Consumerism

As a followup to my other post about consumerism and capitalism (summary: yay consumerism, ehh capitalism), I looked it up to see what other people on the internet are saying on the subject.  There seem to be a lot of conservative Christians who say the opposite of what I said: "boo consumerism, yay capitalism."

And yes, Christianity is relevant, because it seems to tie into Christian values.  For instance, take this quote:
Consumerism believes that this world is all there is. While most people would not say that they believe this, their consumeristic actions speak otherwise. This worldview believes that happiness and fulfillment are achieved with material possessions. People think, “If I could only afford that house, that phone, or that car then I would really be happy”. However, once they get that thing, they discover that it’s not nearly so fulfilling as it was advertised to be. But not to worry! There is always something better that will surely fulfill them next time.
In case you aren't sufficiently attuned to detect the Christian values oozing all over that quote, the author goes on to say that consumerism "finds its foundations in atheism."

Another post associates consumerism with "caring more about material possessions than our neighbor", gives "church shopping" as an example, and offers the 10th commandment as a solution.  Another one from a more anti-capitalist perspective, quotes the Pope as decrying "the daily vanity, the poison of emptiness that insinuates itself into our society based on profit and having (things), that deludes young people with consumerism."

I hadn't realized how Christian the trope of anti-consumerism really was.  This provides a gold mine of ideas to deconstruct:

-They believe material goods will never satisfy people, implicitly because the only way to truly be satisfied is through God.  This is the standard Christian superiority complex.  It's like if I really liked math, and concluded that math was the only way to be truly satisfied, and everyone who believes they're getting satisfaction elsewhere is deluding themselves.

-They believe advertising deludes people into thinking they'll be satisfied by material goods when they won't.  I find myself wondering if these people are just dwelling on experiences of buyer's regret.  To me, this just seems like the inherent risk of trying anything new--there are hits and there are misses.

-They believe consumption of goods means caring less for other people.  But if you give to other people, aren't you just allowing them to consume more?  The very reason that generosity is a good thing is because consumption is a good thing, and we'd like more people to be able to consume.

And, oh my, I'm not even going to touch "church shopping".


miller said...

Although I think you're far less wrong than Christians, I don't think you're entirely correct about consumerism.

I've known a lot of people who are continually disappointed seeking happiness in more and more material possessions. "Consumerism" may be an Aristotelian virtue: a virtuous mean between real poverty and out-of-control consumerism. It really sucks hard to not have enough to eat, not have warm clothes, not have a convenient way of connecting to society, but there are people who are continually unhappy because they do not have the next new gadget. And the conspicuous consumption of some of the ultra-rich seems particularly loathsome.

Some Christians, I think, are just wrapping the Aristotelian virtue in Christian language, and that's ok, I think. Some, however, (Mother Teresa comes to mind) seem to find incredible "virtue" in the most abject poverty (well, others' abject poverty; MT herself lived quite the material good life); this kind of fetishization of poverty can serve just as an excuse not to concretely overcome the material conditions of poverty.

miller said...

As far as capitalism goes, Marx's critique includes the idea that capitalism reduces all value, all social relations, to the "cash nexus": under capitalism, all social values and virtues become subsumed into the desire for infinite cash. Aristotle wrote on this vice as well.

miller said...

I agree.

Status goods have the problem that they're a zero sum game. What I gain in status, someone else loses.

There's also the problem of people not knowing what they want or what they'd enjoy.