Friday, August 22, 2008

Consumers, Producers, and Capitalists

Consumerism is an oft-criticized force in these blogging circles. There can also be a backlash from those who feel such critiques are implicitly critiques of capitalism itself. I'm thinking of this guy.

At any rate, I recently came across an elegant statement of why consumerism is bad. In the short book "Handoff," Jeff Myers says that today's youth have been "raised to consume rather than produce" (92).

In this way of looking at it, consumerism is not a choice made in a vacuum. It is the flip side of production. It is taking rather than giving.

As for the assertion that today's youth are more consumeristic than previous generations, that at least seems a reasonable hypothesis. In my picture of the past (by definition idealized and incomplete), it seems like Americans found their identity more in their occupation or their trade. Just look at all of the surnames that are trades - Mason, Baker, Smith, and so on.

In college I noticed people still defined themselves by their (future) occupation, but I think more indirectly. People want to be investment bankers not for the sake of the work that investment bankers do, but for the lifestyle that they lead. In other words, not for what they produce, but for what they consume.

Now, I don't think it's right to find identity in an occupation. The Christian finds his identity rooted in Christ, and what the Gospel says he is - a saved sinner, a child of God. There is no need, nor any real possibility, of adding to this with our own works.

But there is real value in being creative (in the most Genesis 1 sense of the word), in doing good works for the Lord. In fact, these are to adorn our lives as sweet offerings to God, and we look forward to a reward for faithful stewardship.

Consumption in itself isn't bad - for, as Jesus says, the laborer is worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7). But as a mode for finding our identity, it is quite dangerous.

In sum, consumerism is empty because it finds identity in taking. "Producerism" is still off the mark, but perhaps less so.

And this need not be a critique of capitalism, which is based on the premise that we all benefit from exchange - in other words, from simultaneous giving and taking.


M. Weed said...

The attitude is summed up well in a line from High Fidelity, describing meeting a girl in a bar: "The important thing is WHAT you like, not what you ARE like -- books, movies, music, these things matter."

Jonathan said...

Whoah. I thought I'd left a comment on this post when you first posted it, but it seems blogger ate it. That was Friday, I think.

Anyway, I'll make a post (or two, or three) on this topic soon. I have a couple of drafts that are relevant.

Nicholas said...

For another recent writing on the same theme, check out this post from Lee Huang.

kp said...

i like para 5.

RXH said...

I also like paragraph 5, especially the "we are what we consume" mentality.

RXH said...

I meant to say I agree that is many college students' view not that it is what I hope we aspire to be. Phew.