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Burkhard Bierhoff

Consumer Capitalism

Machine translation from German to English, partly improved.



 The changes in the capitalist mode of production in Western industrialized societies since the 1920s can be roughly described as the shift from industrial capitalism to consumer capitalism. The change comes at a time when inside and outside of the socialist movement doubts were formulated, whether a revolutionary subject still exists. Capitalism increasingly integrated people by consumption, lifestyle endowed on the reproduction of labor power beyond with amenities that previously were considered luxury over the decades. In the second half of the 20th century, the changes in production and working conditions the consequences for the way of life clearly come in the foreground. The double face of consumer capitalism was reflected in an enormous increase of goods prosperity on the basis of mass production and at the same time in the worsening forms of misery, poverty and discomfort. The transformation of the consumer capitalism towards a form of human society requires both a solution of social problems (distribution of prosperity) and environmental problems (resource use).

The consumer capitalism is a stage of economic and social development of capitalism in which consumer demand is of steadily increasing importance and controls market activities. It is based on the belief that the increase of goods consumption offers an economic advantage for all. The prosperity that has become ​​possible can be achieved in principle by each member of society who submits to certain standards.

Mass production, which is at the core of consumer capitalism needs large markets, which are embedded in a social and economic order that is based on the systematic generation and the continuous stimulation of desires. These are intended to buy and use consumer goods and services in ever increasing quantities. In addition, the methods of marketing, stimulate, in the interests of producers and sellers, consciously, purposefully and in a well-planned manner the demand. The incitement of direct consumer demand alone creates a market for mass-produced goods. The mass production can only be maintained if a demand arises continuously on the consumer side. This demand is produced systematically and kept artificially alive.

By consuming the consumer capitalism succeeded to expand economically and to integrate the people as consumers in work and leisure. The consumer-capitalist expansion of the products on offer was economically and politically rated as a very successful model. In German Federal Republic the capitalist expansion started by domestic demand and mass consumption in the 1950s and led to a "formed society" (Ludwig Erhard) of prosperity with the notion of a "leveled middle-class society". Historically, there is a line from the early consumer capitalism of the 1920s in the United States to today's consumerism, which effectively paralyzes and integrates people establishing itself as a new global totalitarianism.

Consumerism in general refers to the disproportionate consumption, the overconsumption. This is as a matter of course part of the everyday life of the people in our society. If we do not sit in front of the television, we go shopping - whereby shopping also has the character of a pastime. It is not just about buying to have the buns or the steak on the plate, but buying generates covetousness. Buying can also calm down or activate, in addition it can causes illusions and hallucinations of receiving gifts, as consumer researchers found out.

Studies on the shopaholics by Gerhard Scherhorn stated that 5% of the German population, who can be considered as shopaholics feel stimulated by addictive buying or apparently may resolve their fears, looking on the face of this activity. They feel stimulated, for example, by the offers of the commodity market. If they buy, they do not refer generally to the usefulness of the purchased item, but only to the act of buying. This becomes visible in the fact that the purchased items are stored afterwards carelessly in the cellar, stored unpacked on the wardrobe, given away or sold on ebay.

In the compulsive buying there is no distinct use-value orientation anymore:this fact is basically consistent. For the shopaholics is the consumer as the mass production needs him, because he quickly destroys the produced goods, so that can be further produced. Therein is the essence of mass production: the determination of the produced items is nothing else than to become waste. If these items at the time of purchase were not already waste, they become at the latest waste if they are not in use, can not be used – or the owner do not remember a few days after the purchase that he has bought them.

With such behaviors the people move as in a hamster wheel. On the one hand a certain stimulation can take place, that is, the shopaholic feels alive and esteemed as buyer, when he or her is courted by the saleswomen in the boutique. In another variant relaxation and calming are set by compulsive buying. Unwanted internal states such as fear, boredom and restlessness are hidden or reduced when buying. The consumer who buys for the sake of sedation, corresponds to the desired effect of taking tranquilizers. In spite of the difference between stimulation and sedation by buying both Shopaholic types have something common. It's not about the product and what you can do with it, but it concerns the buying itself; here too the items are stored carelessly, there arise warehouse in apartments and cellars.

Changes in the capitalist mode of production in Western industrialized societies since the 1920s can be described as the change from industrial capitalism to consumer capitalism. The change comes at a time when inside and outside of the Socialist Movement doubts arose about the continued existence of a revolutionary subject. The underlying question was how the class by itself could become the class of its own. It was controversial whether the struggle for freedom should happen in the revolutionary sense as class warfare or social integrative in the meaning of reformism. Both - the class struggle and reformism - were historically plausible justifiable strategies.

A number of theorists contributed to a critical theory of consumption, which referred partly to capitalism, partly to the consumer society, and described the impact of socio-economic changes on work and life. Even though the conclusions appear to be comparable, the topics and theses has been developed independently from each other.

Following the The Society of the Spectacle (1967) by Guy Debord the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard developed his theory about the myths and structures of the consumer society (Baudrillard 2015). In buying activities the consumer obtains the social participation, which however is reduced to the world of commodities and is connected to a "liturgy of the things". The acts of buying and consuming are part of the daily worship in the temples of consumerism where the service of others, the consumers, takes place. The ceremonies of shopping and consumption of objects and services are combined with the proclamation of salvation by consumption. The acts of purchase become detached from the real use value, confirm the exchange value of things and create a commodified totality of experience, in which the productive activities are replaced by mere purchase acts with symbolic value. The liturgy in the consumer society revered growth, abundance and prosperity. Contrary to the idea of abundance Baudrillard describes the consumer society as a de facto economy of scarcity, because the increased needs and desires let the means of satisfying needs fall behind, so that a cycle of desire arises that can not be satisfied.

Other descriptions emphasize that the consumer society has become a priority against the work society, since the paid work gets scarcer and the goods and services richer. The Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman represents in Consuming Life, published in 2009, the thesis – which is also found in other critiques of consumerism – that the work society has lost much of its importance and changed towards a consumer society – with a variety of problems that concern the way people live.

The consumer capitalism has the function by using advertising to cause people to buy things they do not need. It is not about human use of the goods, but about to maintain mass production. The production does not serve the satisfaction of needs primarily, but to keep the system running smoothly, whereby human needs are used as a transmission belt for producing. A current generation of goods has to be replaced continuously by an allegedly improved product generation, which is promoted by built-in obsolescence into the products. Taking as an example the mobile phone that was up-to-date 15 years ago, we no longer find this today in, at least among young people. The adolescents have devices such as smart phones or i Phones of the latest generation. This is associated with the fact that the consumer expectations promote servitude and flexibility, forming a conformist adaptation which runs subliminally and is hardly perceived as submission to the imperatives of consumer society. The social integration takes place today predominantly through participation in the consumer society (Zygmunt Bauman). So-called "defective consumers", who lack opportunities, permanently, to participate in the mass consumption, are "excluded" and "de-sozialized" (Peter Brückner). At the same time, new forms of poverty and alienation have emerged that remain oriented to the ideal of participation through consumption.

Despite all the efforts in providing information there are no clear solutions. Erich Fromm refers to a cultural process of suppression that is linked to the prevailing social character and the social unconscious. In this context also relevant is the concept of ambiguity, Henri Lefebvre has used in his sociology of everyday life. It suggests that the integration is carried out through consumption in such an extent that ecological problems can not sufficiently fall into consumers' attention. Figuratively speaking the consumers stand at a historic parting of the ways and have not yet decided for saving options. This circumstances are still in need of clarification, since the signs of the crisis are known since the 1970s.

Consumerism and consumer capitalism can be regarded as two competing concepts, which understand themselves both as critical. Consumerism is sometimes used in an apologetic sense as by Norbert Bolz, who has written the Consumerist Manifesto, which is a praise speech on the consumerism. Bolz refers to the consumerism as the immune system of the world society. If all people experience the healing function of consumption, there would be no fundamentalism and also no terrorism anymore. Then the world is pacified. Anyway, this is the simple denominator of the restricted and false testimony. But behind it still hides a very special problem that of illusory freedom. The people are compelled to consumerist behavior. The consumer as the object of advertising is constantly suggested, what he still needs for his happiness.

In contrast to the insights that are found in Fromm’s oeuvre, the recent publications on consumption in principle do not offer deeper knowledge. In recent decades, consumption has expanded in the post-modern, neoliberal societies. Education and learning as well as health have increasingly been functionalized in terms of the economic utilization and efficiency thinking so that commodified relationships has extended as the basic model of social behavior and consolidated in consciousness. The development of neoliberal capitalism and the relative arbitrariness of postmodern life fit into the framework of the analytic social psychology of Erich Fromm and his concept of social character and can be examined in this theoretical context. In the past studies on consumption and consumer capitalism by Benjamin Barber (2007), Zygmunt Bauman (2007) and Justin Lewis (2013) show the undiminished importance of the topic. Critique of consumerism mainly concerns the general trend of commoditization and infantilization of the consumer, but also the structure of consumerism as a totalitarian system with global leadership.

In his social diagnoses of the capitalist society Erich Fromm has strongly related to the way of life, which is determined in its unproductive variants by alienation, passivity and destructiveness, and in its productive variants by reason, attentiveness, interest and love. The peculiarity of his social diagnosis is that he turns his attention to the social character of the people as well as to the socio-economic structure of life.

Fromm has used the concept of consumerism synonymously with consumer behavior, without working it out systematically. The following features of consumerism are scattered throughout his oeuvre, finally presented in a concise summary in the form of the thesis:

The consumerism stands for the socially desirable high consumption (overconsumption) of goods and services in an economy that needs people whose primary goal and purpose in life is consumption.

Consumerism generates the consumer’s attitude to acquire the world passively and receptively; by this attitude the world becomes a world of consumable objects. "It is important to look at the modern consumer as an attitude or, more precisely, as a character trait. ... The world in its wealth is converted to an object of consumption."

The consumerism corresponds to a social character, which has a tendency to excessive consumption due to its traits. Its character dynamics drive the consumerist people to change things and people to consumable objects, and turn the whole world to consumer goods.

Consumerism is rooted in character traits such as envy and greed that lead to a persistent consumption of things and services. "There is a consumption that is compulsive and refers back to greed. There is an urge to eat more and more, to buy more and more, to possess more and more, to use more and more."

Consumerism leads to a restricted and alienated experience and view of the world. With the help of the consumption the human comes into contact with the people and things in the world in an alienated way. The alienated consumer reduces the world to objects that suit his desires to use them without finding a deeper interest in them. "The consumer attitude is the alienated way to be in touch with the world, because the world is made ​​a subject of greed, instead to be in contact with the world in deep interest and mutual relatedness."

Consumerism has used sexual liberation to expel the people's attitude of renunciation. At the same time it has subjected sexual behavior to marketing to increase sexual attractiveness and marketability on the personnel market. Overall, the permissive sexual behavior stimulates the need for consumption directly and indirectly. "... The current sexual behavior is part of a general consumer behavior" - "The historical development ... has shown that the sexual liberation served the development of human consumerism and – if at all – weakened political radicalism."

Consumerism leads to a pathogenic syndrome of boredom, chronic depression, fear and powerlessness, coupled with the desire for affiliation by conspicuous consumption, self improvement and image cultivation. At the same time it weakens the commitment to political action in the community, makes people passive and induces them to a non-binding contact taking that protects against proximity.

Consumerism works like a drug, although it does not restrict – in contrast to the abuse of alcohol and other material drugs – neither the fitness for work of the people nor their social obligations in general. While consumerism only causes a compensatory buying behavior, its increase in compulsive buying is considered as a non-substance-related addiction.



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Bauman, Zygmunt, 2009: Leben als Konsum. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition. 

Bierhoff, Burkhard, 2002: Das Unbehagen im Konsumismus. In: Ferst, Marko (Hg.): Erich Fromm als Vordenker. „Haben oder Sein“ im Zeitalter der ökologischen Krise. [BLICK INS BUCH] Berlin (edition zeitsprung) 2002, S. 57–74. [DOWNLOAD]

Bierhoff, Burkhard, 2006: Vom Homo consumens zum Homo integralis. In: Hosang, Maik / Seifert, Kurt (Hg.): Integration. Natur – Kultur – Mensch. Ansätze einer kritischen Human- und Sozialökologie. München (oekom) 2006, S. 109–171.

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Bierhoff, Burkhard, 2010: Links Between Work, Character, and Education. The Actuality of Erich Fromm’s Analytical Social Psychology. Social Change Review, 2/2010, pp. 165–187.

Bierhoff, Burkhard, 2013: Arbeit im Wandel. Zur Begründung eines bedingungslosen Grundeinkommens. In: Johach, Helmut; Bierhoff, Burkhard (Hg.): Humanismus in der Postmoderne. Rainer Funk zum 70. Geburtstag, Pfungstadt (Intern. Erich-Fromm-Gesellsch.) 2013, S. 259-283.

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Bierhoff, Burkhard, 2015: Aufstieg und Elend des Konsumkapitalismus – Ambiguitäten und Transformationschancen heute. Erscheint voraussichtlich in: Fromm Forum (German Edition), Nr. 20/2015, hg. von der Internationalen Erich-Fromm-Gesellschaft. Tübingen.

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COPYRIGHT © 2015 by Burkhard Bierhoff

Reproduction only with permission of the author


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