Western consumer culture gives rise to an attitude advocating material affluence and ignoring the problems of materialism and consumerism. This could also be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out the tremendous mental health crisis of our generation…

In my last post I described a new kind of “health fascism” we haven’t seen before, and also the rise of the protestant work ethic and to the capitalistic work ideal. During the 20th century the market-based economy took a turn from the farmers market ideal as so often depicted when describing a market-based economy to something entirely different. This change was predicted by 20th century economist Victor Lebow in 1955:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms.

The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats – his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.

These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.”

They way we consumed things had to change if capitalism was to continue to flourish. And as a self-fulfilling prophecy the infantilist ethos was born. But what is the “infantilist ethos”? Benjamin Barber describes it as a set of habits, preferences and attitudes that encourage and legitimate childishness.

Barber: Infantilist ethos – culture is supporting consumer from DeepChange on Vimeo.

  • On the one hand this is the way the market tries to evolve in reaching an ever younger consumer base, where today’s children are well able to associate Ronald McDonald with positive things, before they even learned the language.
  • But on the other hand, it is also a way of shaping adult consumers into children, or kidults as Barber coins it, to make them servants of capitalism and susceptible to a new kind of market of goods.

To that notion it is important to recognize the emergence of brands instead of goods. Naomi Klein writes about this phenomenon in her book No Logo, where she describes how selling real goods has been replaced by the selling brands and lifestyles. Donald Trump is the most current example, in that he estimates his last name to be one of his biggest assets.

According to Barber the infantilist ethos can be summarized by a series of dichotomies to describe it:

  1. Impulse over deliberation, feeling over reason,
  2. Certainty over uncertainty,
  3. Play over work,
  4. Pictures over words,
  5. Pleasure over happiness,
  6. Egoism over altruism, individualism over community,
  7. Private over public, right over responsibility,
  8. The near over the remote, ignorance over knowledge.

In short, the infantilist ethos can ultimately be reduced to three simple dualisms: fast over slow, easy over hard and simple over complex.

When I speak about this, it is important to note that behind these ideologies or ethos’s there is no stand alone author, even less a secret society of cloaked men that decide and control the economy or the psychological landscape of the world. It is merely an observation, or an idea, of how the world has come to be, and what different forces, or discourses, have evolved through history.

A study of American students symbolizes this change.

  • In 1966, 83% of American students saw their university studies as a means of achieving a meaningful life philosophy while 43% only saw it as way of making money.
  • Thirty years later, the numbers were reversed, 42% saw their higher education as a way of acquiring a meaningful life philosophy while 77% only saw it as a way of making money.

Interestingly, the ones that had been watching the most TV, were also more susceptible to the money-making attitude. The work and research of sociologist Christian Smith and professor William Damon (among many) confirms this finding. Their studies show that increasingly moral values are characterized by individualism and relativism where emerging adults cannot fully and logically defend their own moral philosophy.

This gives rise to an attitude advocating material affluence and ignoring the problems of materialism and consumerism. This could also be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out the tremendous mental health crisis of our generation. Not only has modern day consumerism created the idea that happiness is a matter of money. It has also brought about a whole new mentality, an ethos, that is shaping a new type of human, homo consumo, who is looking for fixes in an ever increasing pace, at the expense of both nature and man.

Consumer culture is something that has been written extensively about. For further reading I recommend a Google search on Annie Leonard, Micael Dahlén, Tim Kasser, Naomi Klein, Benjamin Barber, Nicholas Freudenberg, and Michael Norton. That will give you a great start to this topic.

For the record, I hope that anything of what I am writing is not interpreted as an attack on or critique against today’s youth, far from it. Considering the fact that we gain a couple of IQ points for every generation, we should be the smartest generation to have ever walked this planet; combined with all the technological advancements, we should have great possibilities to become the leaders of tomorrow and guide our planet towards a brighter future.

The studies I am referring to are mostly conducted in young Americans, and serve as broad generalizations in this debate. I should say that I have also seen examples where the young adults of our time stand up for humanist and solidaric values, where politicians and the rest of society fail to take responsibility for the cruelties that we see. Nevertheless, I think generalizations serve a purpose in understanding how we are affected by the structures and dominant ideologies of our time and how we can work to transform these structures.

In my next post you’ll find my last thoughts on the emerging youth generation and how ideology and globalization ties into so called “health fascism”.