World's Fair

The Gospel of Consumption

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Won’t you read this story over at Orion? Choice, consumption, citizenship.

Then reread Charles Kettering’s 1929 article, “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.” Says Kettering:

If everyone were satisfied, no one would buy the new thing because no one would want it. The ore wouldn’t be mined; timber wouldn’t be cut. Almost immediately hard times would be upon us.

You must accept this reasonable dissatisfaction with what you have and buy the new thing, or accept hard times. You can have your choice.

Says Jeffrey Kaplan, in “The Gospel of Consumption,” to give a sample of the link:

As far back as 1835, Boston workingmen striking for shorter hours declared that they needed time away from work to be good citizens: “We have rights, and we have duties to perform as American citizens and members of society.” As those workers well understood, any meaningful democracy requires citizens who are empowered to create and re-create their government, rather than a mass of marginalized voters who merely choose from what is offered by an “invisible” government. Citizenship requires a commitment of time and attention, a commitment people cannot make if they are lost to themselves in an ever-accelerating cycle of work and consumption.

Says The World’s Fair.


  1. #1 derek
    June 11, 2008

    Isn’t it a funny bit of language, that capitalism is about what capital should get, and laborism is about what labor should get, but consumerism is about what consumers should *give*?

    There again, capitalism is all about the capital-labor-consumer triangle, and how the other two corners should be revved up more and more to feed the first. Labor in order to consume, consume, then labor some more, harder and harder, and always the slight money difference between what the labor achieves and what it’s compensated for, and what good the goods are and what they’re sold at, always flowing in the direction of the existing money pile…

    (I’m not against *a* return on capital, only against the cult of capital being entitled in law to *infinite* return, and labor and consumers entitled to nothing but what the market will allow them)

  2. #2 Jonathan Badger
    June 13, 2008

    What Kettering is saying in seriousness reminds me of what Dave Barry said in jest:

    “You may have decided that, this year, you’re going to celebrate it the old-fashioned way, with your family sitting around stringing cranberries and exchanging humble, handmade gifts, like on “The Waltons”. Well, you can forget it. If everybody pulled that kind of subversive stunt, the economy would collapse overnight. The government would have to intervene: It would form a cabinet-level Department of Holiday Gift-Giving, which would spend billions and billions of tax dollars to buy Barbie dolls and electronic games, which it would drop on the populace from Air Force jets, killing and maiming thousands. So, for the good of the nation, you should go along with the Holiday Program. This means you should get a large sum of money and go to a mall. “

  3. #3 Metro
    June 13, 2008

    What do you mean “overconsuming”? Get your credit cards out and hit Wal-Mart, dammit! Don’t you know there’s The War Against Terror on?

    The picture resonates deeply with me. I used to work in garbage–literally. Used to collect it from the curb. Often we would find brand-new cell phones, still in the box, latest model. My cohort explained that people get comfy with their current model, and all they want to do is get a new service contract. But the service companies always throw in a free phone.

    If everyone did a turn slinging trash cans I guarantee you that a lot of people would rethink their consumption.

    As an aside: Why is it that economic growth is celebrated when it rises? Isn’t one percent or so enough? Yet when it hits 10% or so (as in China) it seems to be great cause for concern.

  4. #4 Paul
    June 15, 2008

    Metro —

    It seems to me that, once you’ve achieved some tolerable standard of living, the economic growth rate would be just fine matching the population growth rate. Then, assuming you have the available resources to do so (which we in the “First World”, unfortunately, do not under our oil-based system), you could maintain said standard of living for your society indefinitely. Instead, we get hung up on the idea that more is unquestionably better (because humans, like birds, apparently have a natural tendency to try to use their wealth to attract mates) and want the growth rate to increase so we can get more stuff faster. Then we get hysterical when growth slows down and call it a recession even when the economy is still growing.

    I think what it comes down to is, “humans are greedy and weird.”

  5. #5 Tom Buckner
    June 15, 2008

    The Boston laborers may have been aware that their idea goes back as far as Aristotle: “Aristotle condemns forms of manual labor because he thinks that they do not allow for virtue.27 For example, in VII. 9 he states that occupations involving manual labor do not support sufficient skole, leisure, which is required to develop moral virtue and deliberate about public matters.” from

    It isn’t only the labor activists who understand this; oppressors seem to understand it too. The Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza once said, “I don’t want informed citizens! I want oxen!” I am given to understand that Reagan’s destruction of California’s tuition-free state university system was intended to clean out a nest of activism.

    In an unfettered robber-capitalist society the carrot and the stick are one. *waves black flag*

  6. #6 Wyatt
    June 15, 2008

    I would also recommend “In Praise of Idleness” by Bertrand Russell. Excerpts can be found online using a Google search.