Christopher Tanaka-Mann, Defining Consumerism, Shaping Ideas of Capitalism

Posted: January 12, 2012 in Uncategorized
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So, after considerable thought and reading, and observing everyone’s contributions in classes, I would like to take this opportunity to fine-tune some ideas which have been presented in lecture. We spent some time in lecture defining certain key concepts, yet no matter how they ended up defined, the concepts (which continuously come up) are used in very certain circumstances, with very strongly implied meanings. I think it is important to be willing to criticize how we use these words in order to hone our understanding of why we use them in these ways, and I don’t think it needs to be discussed in lecture. Therefore, I encourage and look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts on these matters.

Without further ado, I would like to discuss how we define consumerism. We talked in class (and indeed, had quite an interesting list) about how consumerism may be defined. At the heart of it, though, I find that we all seem to focus on the negative connotations of what consumerism entails. Regardless of how we try to see the positives of it, we still think of consumerism, and more importantly, Capitalism, as negative concepts.

Why is this? Well, I’m willing to bet a lot of it is intuitive. I’m willing to bet that, without doing some research, most of us wouldn’t be able to sit down and just write up several succinct paragraphs about what both of these monumental terms entail. I’m not saying no one could, but it’s important to be able to draw from a variety of understandings, rather than our instincts about a subject. But I think this can be just as helpful for those who are very knowledgeable about the topic.

It’s important to remember, when considering Capitalism, that the term itself exists in two different ways: There is Capitalism as a system of economy, exchange and marketplace, and then there is Capitalism as an ideology. The “Capitalist” as we often identify those nameless people who control the vast majority of the world’s wealth, attained their status and position not because a Capitalist economy causes it, but because our system of Democratic governance allows it to happen. The “Capitalist” in that sense believes in the ideology of Capitalism, that the self possesses the greatest importance, that attaining more wealth is the eternal goal, and that the means justify the ends. The “Capitalist”, in so far as what they believe in and what we have come to despise and associate with Capitalism, is Machiavellian, Utilitarian, and believes in “survival of the fittest”.

Capitalism, however, is a wonderful system of exchange which allows us to exchange a predetermined and (ideally) universally agreed upon good (currency) for other goods, services, etc. The only other system of economy which I think could potentially reflect the meritorious nature of Capitalism is bartering; bartering becomes problematic when certain people possess a skill or good which is the only thing they have to offer, and they require a certain skill or good, but the people or person who offer that skill or good don’t want or need what the other person has. With currency, that allows exchange to be smoother and allows people to obtain things they require. It affords us a level of comfort that has never before been afforded to anyone, and continues to provide the means to increase that comfort.

The ideal Capitalist economy is cyclical in nature. Ideally, regardless of what is being produced, everyone is exchanging currency to get all the things they need, and all the things they want, and earning currency by working to either produce those things for themselves or other people. Ideally, Capitalism could conceivably be a global system of economy that works, with time and a lot of effort. Ideally, the citizen in a Capitalist economy has their individual value (to the rest of society, not on an actual personal level) determined by work, and through work, earns the means to live their life however they see fit. But unfortunately, our Democratic policies have, at the worst times, undone many relevant political and economic ideals.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Democracy is wonderful, and I don’t want to have anything else – just like I don’t want to have anything but Capitalism – but I think we need to change certain policies both to account for the increasingly globalizing economy and to hold people accountable. I own a button which says on it, “As long as money talks, we can have no true Democracy.” This holds a certain grain of truth to it; the problem is that money is capable of influencing certain things which it should not be able to influence, and there is no system of regulation in place to say that this should not happen. It is one thing to say that our politicians shouldn’t be allowed to take bribes in order to influence policy, which I’m willing to be no one doubts happens. It is another thing entirely to recognize that every step in the democratic process, from the voter right on up to political leaders, is influenced by money. Not only are such valuable institutions as news organizations, educational institutions, medical facilities and even now certain military outfits becoming increasingly privatized, but all of the finance which circulates in our economy is ultimately connected to privatization.

Privatization becomes increasingly problematic as it dominates these certain institutions which I hold dear, and I believe we all ought to. Private interests are almost always monetary; they don’t have an interest in what is good for the public. Their interests are what is good for their pockets. As I’ve mentioned, in an ideal Capitalism, that would be self-regulating: Everyone’s interests would be their own pockets, and competition would keep anyone from being too successful. But those are not the values upon which Democracy was founded. Democracy and Capitalism could work together by potentially providing the means to regulate each other. Whenever things become too out of hand with socio-economic inequality, the Democratic process should demand regulation. Whenever politics become too domineering, Capitalist thinking can divide people enough so that the importance of the individual is not forgotten.

With the Democratic process impeded by people whose goals align with Capitalist ideologies, it is not our system of economy we must blame, but ourselves. Ultimately, we are our government. If they do not represent us accurately, then we must stand up to represent ourselves. And ideally, this would have happened in much larger numbers, except that money has a way of turning heads like you wouldn’t believe.

Enter Consumerism. Consumerism can actually be a problem. Consumerism can be a problem when our obsession with products and goods distracts us from the importance of being Democratic beings. Consumerism and, particularly, mass culture add to self-importance, promoting the Capitalist ideology. Our form of Consumerism, at least, actually prevents us from participating in the Democratic process. But I have faith that Democracy will win out in the end; Democracy can be a slow beast to stir, but when it wakes, you get this:

Some of you may recognize these monumental photos, just a few of many. Movements in large numbers cannot be ignored. Ultimately, the same mass culture which was created to support consumerism and the “Capitalist” will also be its undoing. The moment we spread awareness and take part in this glorious process, any problems we may have with consumerism, Capitalist ideology or social inequality can potentially be navigated and made somewhat less problematic.

For those of you who had the patience to read through this entire article, thank you. I know it is long, and I tried to keep it short, but with a topic as massive as politics, sociology, and economics (for the three are inherently intertwined) it’s hard to discuss  prolifically  in fewer words. Please, tell me what you think.

  1. ct340blog says:

    Hey Chris, (and everyone else) I had the privilege of watching a film called BARAKA a few years ago with my brother in law.

    This movie changed my life and helped me to see the world very differently.
    I’m sure it would be available at a local library, or video rental place.
    I’ve attached a link to the film posted on YouTube (see below), but due to copyright, it’s soundtrack was removed. (which is a huge part of this visual film).

    A quick description (thanks wikipedia):
    “Baraka has no plot, no storyline, no actors, no dialogue nor any voice-over. Instead, the film uses themes to present new steps and evoke emotion through pure cinema. Baraka is a kaleidoscopic, global compilation of both natural events and by fate, life and activities of humanity on Earth.
    Baraka’s subject matter has some similarities to Koyaanisqatsi—including footage of various landscapes, churches, ruins, religious ceremonies, and cities thrumming with life, filmed using time-lapse photography in order to capture the great pulse of humanity as it flocks and swarms in daily activity. The film features a number of long tracking shots through various settings, including Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng: over photos of the people involved, past skulls stacked in a room, to a spread of bones. Like Koyaanisqatsi, Baraka compares natural and technological phenomena. It also seeks a universal cultural perspective: a shot of an elaborate tattoo on a bathing Japanese yakuza precedes a view of tribal paint”.

    If you get a chance, check out BARAKA. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it! 🙂

    Colin Drake

    ps – has anyone else seen this film?

  2. Jennifer St. John says:

    So, I’m not totally certain where your stance on Capitalism is. You have provided some comprehensive defintions along with some different interpretations of its meaning from economic and political perspectives. Are you taking the stance that you are an advocate for today’s capitalistic world? A world in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Where economic disparities between the middle class and the rich are becoming larger every second? We live in a world where the powerful have control over everything, and where the powerful are the ones who run for office. It is not a true democracy when the general public are choosing between one powerful and rich person over another. So, ‘we’ are not really choosing capitalism, it is the rich and powerful who are. The occupy protests that are happening all around the world exemplify this perfectly.

  3. I’m making the point that changing our system of economy – Capitalism – will not change that situation. If I thought that there wasn’t a problem, I wouldn’t have posted so much information about the Occupy protests. I think that a lot of people want the governments of the developed world to rally against Capitalism. They need to make their systems of governance stronger, not change their systems of economic exchange. I’ll expand more on it later, but thank you for asking me to clarify. I am an advocate for stricter trade regulations which prevent the disparities we see. And since you mention those disparities, I’m going to post a link that outlines just how bad it is.

  4. Nicole says:

    Good job Chris, you hippie you! That is just the kind of thorough and responsible thinking I would hope all those of your generation would embrace and display! Thumbs up!

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