Note — Feb 14, 2021

A Brief History of Consumer Culture

Kerryn Higgs reviewing the history of the rise of consumerism. This is probably the frustrating piece for this issue, seeing how there were a couple of points (notably the early 1920s) where western countries could possibly have taken a path towards “a steady-state economy capable of meeting the basic needs of all.” Instead, companies quickly realized that to keep the almighty growth machine going, they needed to make people want things, evermore things, and set out to do just that, to great “success.”

The short depression of 1921–1922 led business leaders and economists in the US to fear that the immense productive powers created over the previous century had grown sufficiently to meet the basic needs of the entire population and had probably triggered a permanent crisis of overproduction. […]

“Mass production is profitable only if its rhythm can be maintained.” He argued that business “cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda… to assure itself the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable.” […]

”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 satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.… We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”