Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism

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Introduction to the Readings in Part One

The Consumer, the Laborer, The Capitalist, and the Nation-State

In Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism we suggest that the culture of capitalism can be understood through the relationships between four historically unique social entities: the consumer, the laborer, the capitalist, and the nation-state. The role of the consumer is to accumulate goods, that of the laborer to accumulate wages through the sale of his or her labor, and that of the capitalist to accumulate capital by profiting from his or her investments. The nation-state serves to regulate, in some fashion, the relationships between consumer, laborer, and capitalist largely by gaining a monopoly on the use of armed force, ensuring the orderly circulation of goods, and taking for itself a share of the national income. We suggest further that money is the language of social relations in the culture of capitalism. At it simplest level, these relationships can be represented as follows:

Relations in the Culture of Capitalism

We assume, also, that understanding the relationships among these entities is necessary if we are to appreciate the impact of the culture of capitalism on the world.

The readings for Part One all address, in one form or another, the origin, nature, and consequences of the actions of the consumer, the laborer, the capitalist, and the nation-state.

I Readings on the Consumer

From Adbusters

Illustration from Adbusters
with permission
The consumer is essential for the culture of capitalism. Not only must consumers buy, they must buy more every year, and still more the year after that. Without perpetual consumption, the economy would either decline or collapse. The sign of a healthy national economy, after all, is measured by the Gross National Product (GNP), and the GNP is a measure of the quantity of goods and services people consume. This raises four questions that will be addressed in the following articles. First, historically how was the consumer constructed; second, why do members of the culture of capitalism feel compelled to consume as much as they do; three, what are some of the consequences of our levels of consumption; and, finally, how would you characterize your own commitment to consume?


A. The History and Nature of Consumerism

In Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism we suggest that the emergence of the consumer represents a unique development in the history of the human species. The following articles discuss this development in the United States.

Reading 1. The State of Consumption Today
An overview of the material on global consumption contained in the Worldwatch Institute's publication, State of the World 2011.  The overview contains information on the growth of global consumption, inequalities in production, and the social and environmental problems created by the growth in consumption.


Reading 2. The History of Affluenza in America
answer_pad.jpg (2605 bytes) To accompany its documentary on the history of consumption, or affluenza, as they called it, PBS developed this timeline of the development of consumerism. Read each stage of the process and learn, not only about key developments in the history of consumerism in the United States, but also about the periodic resistance to it. Later you will have an opportunity to check the extent to which you are infected with affluenza.


Reading 3  Washed Up
Our culture often masks from us the consequences of some of our most simple acts.  Take washing our clothes, for example.  How much water do you think you use to keep your dresses, slacks, shirts and other items of apparel "sparkling clean"?  This brief set of statistics from Grist Magazine should give you some idea.


B. Turning People into Consumers
People have, of course, always consumed things, either making these things themselves, bartering or trading for them, or purchasing them at markets. But it is only in the past few centuries, and largely in the past 100 years, that mass consumption has become an essential ingredient of our culture. Furthermore, as we discuss in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism people are not naturally consumers; consumers had to be created. The following articles discuss how people, particularly children, are transformed into consumers.


Reading 4. Consuming Kids
Advertisers are quite specific on who they target.  This article discusses how different corporations target different youth groups, summarizing a number of different books on the exploitation of children.


Reading 5. How Do Our Kids Get Caught Up in Consumerism?
In Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism we describe how the meaning of childhood was transformed in the United States in order to turn children into a key segment of the consuming public.  In this article Brian Swimme maintains that "Advertisements are where our children receive their cosmology, their basic grasp of the world's meaning, which amounts to their primary religious faith, though unrecognized as such.... The advertisement is our culture's primary vehicle for providing our children with their personal cosmologies."   See if you agree.


Reading 6. Zapme! A New Corporate Predator in the Schools
This press release from Commercial Alert, an organization devoted to exposing the dangers of advertising to children,  describes some recent attempts by corporations to infiltrate schools. This is not the first, nor is it likely to be the last, attempt. Corporations and advertisers have long been interested in getting access to this captive audience in a setting in which their message is imbued with the legitimacy of our educational institutions.  


Reading 7. The Fast Food Trap: How Commercialism Creates Overweight Children
This article by Gary Ruskin discusses the rise of childhood obesity in America.  Childhood, says Ruskin, has been redefined by American commercial culture to make children increasingly vulnerable to corporate marketing.  The corporate redefining of childhood, says Ruskin, "employed four main tools: television, the marketing of junk food, the commercial takeover of the schools, and the starvation of the public sector."  These factors, combined with the decreasing influence of parents over their children has resulted in, among other things, the fattening of American children.  At the end of the article, Ruskin lays out some actions that parents and others can take to deal with the problem.  You also need to be aware that the food industry has its own campaign to convince people that "food freedom" is under attack, and that scientific studies that indicate that obesity is a problem are flawed.  Check out the website for the Center for Consumer Freedom, particularly the section on food police.  The website is a good example of how industry responds when their interests are threatened,


Reading 8: Children as Consumers
  Anup Shah's Global Issues page on how kids are targeted as consumers.  Excellent articles and some basic facts about consuming kids.


Reading 9: $14 Trillion Spent Annually On Trying To Look Cool,17125/
  A report on how much American spend on looking cool.  Great spoof from The Onion


C. The Consequences of Consumerism
One of the essential features of the culture of capitalism is masking from the consumer the effects of his or her consumption patterns. Yet the effects are far-reaching; our patterns of consumption influence virtually every facet of our lives, from the way we allocate our time, to the nature of our social relations, to the state of our environment, even the meaning of our bodies. The following articles discuss some of these effects.


Reading 10. Waste a Lot,Want a Lot: Our All-Consuming Quest for Style
How do you drive people to consume? One way is to ensure that they are dissatisfied with what they have, make them, in effect, slaves to style. In this article, Stuart Ewen traces the history of style in America, and discusses some of the consequences of this for our society.


Reading 12: The New Cannibalism
In the culture of capitalism virtually everything is available only as a commodity, that is something to be bought or sold.  The neccesities of life, for example, such as food, shelter, and health care, exist only as commodities; without the means to "buy" them, people starve, are homeless, or do without medical treatment.  Even our bodies, as this article from New Internationalism by Nancy Scheper-Hughes illustrates, are becoming commodified.  She describes the booming market in human organs, as increasingly impoverished peoples sell  their body parts for transplants to rich buyers.  The results are the reduction of the human body to bits and parts that can be bought or sold on increasingly globalized markets, and, in some countries, a terrified citizenry that fears they will be killed for their organs.


Reading 13. Emulation and Global Consumerism
At the end of the first chapter of Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, we pose the question of what happens when the rest of the world tries to emulate the consumption patterns characteristic of the culture of capitalism? In this article, Richard Wilk discusses the reality of that prospect, and offers some suggestions for other scenarios.


Exercise 1. Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping is devoted to bringing the message of the dangers of consumerism to whoever will listen.  At the site you can get all kinds information (and links), as well as the movie, Preacher with an Unknown God.


D. How Badly are you Infected with Affluenza?
It is sometimes difficult for us to appreciate the extent to which our behavior is a consequence of what we really want to do, and how much is a consequence of our culture. In Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism we use the analogy of the Navaho sandpainting to illustrate the extent to which our culture determines our behavior. This exercise is designed for you to discover the extent to which you are embedded in the sandpainting of the culture of capitalism.
Exercise 2. Do you have affluenza?
Take this test yourself and see to what degree you're infected with affluenza.


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