What if you could buy social justice? (Part 2: The One True Religion: Consumerism)

(To read part 1 of this post, go here.)

A couple weeks back, I finally got around to watching What Would Jesus Buy, an anti-consumerist documentary that follows Reverend Billy Miller and his “Church of Stop Shopping” choir as they tour the U.S. in the consumer-frenzied run up to Christmas. The film begins with images of crazed, stampeding shoppers and various news channels reporting on “Black Friday,” as well as other Christmas-induced shopping mania.

It is the perfect film to watch at this time of year as we enter the manic descent into the mindless consumerism of the holiday shopping season and the directive to buy, buy, buy is everywhere. This directive comes through the mailbox via catalogues, through the television via ads, even via one’s email inbox via messages about “lowest prices of the season.” In general conversation, people pepper their speech with Christmas shopping “must-do’s” or share news of recent “bargains.”

As a professor quoted in What Would Jesus Buy clarifies, Christmas successfully convinces us to buy because it “combines commercialism with this true feeling of love and affection.” Or, in other words, we have come to associate the giving and receiving of gifts with love – the better the gift, the more gifts, the more we are loved – or so goes the loving-through-buying narrative, a narrative that translates into 5 million tons of extra waste generated from the holiday season via all the wrapping paper, packaging, etc (and this is in the US alone).
Yet, where all the stuff we buy during the holiday season will go is not a question we as consumers are encouraged to ask. This point is made clear by the “stop shopping counselor” featured in What Would Jesus Buy. Noting that many people are quite literally addicted to shopping, she encourages breaking the cycle via asking questions such as: “Do I really need this?” “Where will I put it?” While we don’t tend to consider where purchased items will go in the short term, neither do we think about where they will go long term.

The “disposing” side of consumption, so well captured in the film The Story of Stuff as well as in the garbage filled earth featured in Wall-e, is not a side we are prompted to think about. In fact, even given the popularity of the “go green” and “save the planet” paradigm we are now in, we are encouraged to SHOP to save the earth – BUY more green products, PURCHASE a hybrid car, GET re-usable shopping bags! This is not to say that these directives do not have their merit on some level, but that we are rarely given directives to NOT BUY, to STOP CONSUMING, let alone to consume less.

Driven by what the film refers to as the familiar god of “buy now pay later,” we are very reluctant to give up our consuming habits and instead create more palatable alternatives, ways to keep shopping that make us feel better about doing so while simultaneously doing nothing to stop our consumerist mindset. This is hardly surprising given the deification of consumer capitalism in the United States. It is, I would argue, the one true religion – the one that speaks to (nearly) all US citizens, that transcends race, class, gender, sexuality, and belief- the worship of the dollar and the joy in spending that dollar is the foundation of the “American Dream.” We are, as the story goes, a country where the streets our paved in gold, where anyone can make it, where Joe Six-Pack can become a millionaire!

Even in times of national crisis we are encouraged to identify as consumers, rather than as citizens. And, just as GW directed Americans to go out and shop post-9/11, so to are we being encouraged to buy our way out of the current economic crisis. As Anthony B. Robinson writes in “Articles of Faith: Consumerism is a greedy society’s religion”:

“House Minority Leader Boehner, a Republican congressman from Ohio, celebrated the recent passage of the economic stimulus package by saying, ‘The sooner we get this relief in the hands of the American people, the sooner they can begin to do their job of being good consumers.’ Your title: ‘consumer;’ your mission: ‘buy stuff.’ Echoes of the president’s call, amid the crisis of 9/11, to get out and ‘shop.’

We learn this lesson of ‘good consumerism’ our entire life span in the US. As children, Disney hawks its wares to us, promising hours of endless fun and adventure. As tweens, we have entire genres of film, television, and music marketed to us – not to mention a whole slew of fashion and techno gadgetry. With college and the era of one’s first credit cart, we are tantalized with cars, stereos, and endless dorm/apartment ‘needs.’ As we enter the ‘real’ world, we are prompted to buy houses bigger than we can afford, cars bigger than we need, vacations we cannot pay for, and enough clothes and accessories to outfit a small country. As we age, we are incited to think about devices that can supplement our slowing bodies (purse finders and lights that turn and off with a clap!), as we near death’s doorstep, we are not allowed to go gently into that good night, but are tantalized with designer coffins, special headstones, and snazzy urns. Not consuming is, in US parlance, tantamount to being dead.
This is why, to Robinson’s question “Is it too much to suggest that consumerism has become a kind of alternative faith, a religion of sorts?” I would answer “Heck, NO!” Consumerism is the most popular, and most impervious to critique, of all US faiths! As What Would Jesus Buy makes clear through its witty conflation of faith and shopping, Wal-Mart has become our Temple, Disney our Church, the mall our place of worship.

Stay tuned for the next installment of What if you could buy social justice, “The Temple of Wal-Mart.”

9 thoughts on “What if you could buy social justice? (Part 2: The One True Religion: Consumerism)”

  1. Some food for thought, being greener involves keeping things smaller and more local. That equates to less trade, less travel, lower consumption, and most importantly, consumption with real, earthbound material purpose.

    Consumerism operates not only as love and affection outwardly to others but inwardly as love of self, and the perception of oneself as having status. So many engage in consumption for the purpose of making a statement. The real value and utility of a purchase pales beside such rewards.

    We’re at a point in our economic history where we can explore a post-global market, something beyond the contrived market capitalism we’ve known. It may start witha true materialism, one in which a purchased object says nothing to anyone but has only value, such as utility or beauty.

  2. Harold,
    Thanks for the comment. You make some very good points. As to “consumption with real, earthbound material purpose,” I really like that way of putting it. Your point about consumerism as a love of self is very apt too — although I think sometimes it functions as a lack of love, or to supplement low self-esteem. Your definition of “true materialism” is also interesting but seems to be at odds with the popular conception of being “materialistic.”

  3. This relates so directly to the point I made on your first post about the importance of buying used. We so often discard perfectly functional items in our desire to needlessly consume. This terrible for the environment and does not lead to the kind of personal satisfaction that we think it will.
    My philosophy is that buying used or refurbishing older items can bring its own form of satisfaction we learn to reassess what is and isn’t valuable.

  4. Renee,
    Yes, I think buying used and handing down items is a good way to lessen consumption. We worship the ‘shiny and new’ though, especially in the US (I think what that really stands for is United Shoppers.) I have always loved “thrift stores” — not only shopping at them, but also donating to them (as well as to orphanages, women’s shelters, etc.) Especially as so much is made from things that will NEVER decompose, many toys can last through generations of kids. Ah, the wonders of plastic crap!

  5. Hi Prof.–
    I’m excited that you’re taking on the politics of consumption, and I hope that by publicizing your series on my own (more business-school academic focused) blog, I can get some readers and students to think more about these issues from a feminist&beyond perspective. thanks so much! cvh

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