Present society in the west is characterized by a capitalist economic system that is founded on private ownership of property and a profit driven economy. This economy has consequently produced few super rich individuals and further stratified the western society, (Banish the bloated overclass, p. 71). Capitalism is different to a socialist economic system where ownership of property is by the state or communally (Shachtman, p.96). The profit driven economy encourages businesses and enterprises to exploit the market for the sole purpose of making a profit. The marketing strategies of capitalism have therefore created a society of consumers whose benefit is through consumption on the individual level while the monetary profits go to the capitalists.
Capitalism has created a society that consumer based and the new phenomenon has been labeled as consumerism. Consumerism has extended even into those areas, which were previously under state control as opposed to being under the control of private corporations. These include the health sector and education among others. The presence of numerous corporations which provide all kinds of services and merchandise have expanded the choices available to consumers. This has created societies, which are based on consumerism as opposed to the earlier societies, which were work based.
A consumer society can be identified by the consumption habits of individuals while a work based society’s identity lies in the citizenship and occupations of individuals, (Shachtman, p.101). In addition, the consumer society has evolved into a new culture, which has diverse and often contradicting principles to those of work and citizenship. Consequently, capitalists, out to maximum their revenue realization venture into global markets to exploit new markets. This will eventually lead to a single global culture based on consumerism, and individual consumer patterns based on cultural uniqueness and other such factors will be eliminated. As capitalists devise new ways of maximizing their profits, the consumers in a society based on consumerism look for goods of high quality and with the lowest cost. Consequently, both the consumers and the capitalists are not driven by social responsibility and do not try to deal with issues that are created by capitalism and consumerism. Social responsibility is in the hands of the government and the society but the culture of consumerism and capitalism encourages individualism as each entity is in pursuit of its own goals without considering how some of these goals might be affecting others and the society in genera, (Shachtman, p.106).
The nature of the western society made it possible to be targeted for consumer society. A society full of egocentricity, deceptive advertising, nihilism, and values subjectivism to academic goals is easier to sway to the path of consumerism. In such a society where economic growth is the only important thing to any individual and has the capabilities and the power to displace or degrade moral values as we traditionally knew them, the gauge of self worth is always buying power. Those in a position to buy and own property have a more reinforced worth in a society upholding consumerism. The contribution of the media can not be ignored as it continues to create an image which everyone in the western society tries to fit in thus distorting the self worth and self awareness of each person. It is the goal of every capitalist to seduce a large television audience into identification of his personality with specifically designed consumer ideas and advertising fantasies. We no longer possess the ability to do our things independent of consumerism justification. Advertising duplicity and consumerism are now potential threats to the individuation process and consciousness regardless of continued linking of capitalism to the beginning of consciousness. Social cultural meaning diminishes as it is exploited further by media which siphons inexpressible content in order to attract more consumers.
The ability to control consumption gives most capitalists the power to influence the evolvement of different consumption patterns over time. They employ different but simple mechanisms like the promise of a simpler life. The end result is a consumer revolution which in turn forced a relevant reaction in terms of information, communication and technology leading to even more production of goods and services. The goods which result from this high production forces the capitalist society to convince more people to consume goods and alters the basic institution through generation of new ideologies for pleasure. A completely new description of pleasure can also result. One of the major set back of capitalism and consumerism is witnessed at times of economic crisis. The capitalist system has been able to solve the entire crisis but considerably harming the environment especially when we consider the waste created and the resources utilized.
A consumer culture is exploitative, both indirectly and indirectly. Consumption of goods and services involves spending money, which is not equally available across a society that is founded on capitalism. Considering that most resources are not infinite, there must be mechanisms that ensure that they rationed. In this context, consumption does not allow full choice for all individuals but only to those who have the purchasing power, (could you afford to be poor, p. 75). This means that vital services under the control of capitalist structures are not accessible to those who cannot afford them. Scott, (2005) states that good medical care and education is not accessible to the poor meaning that people in loose their lives if they do not have the money to have their illnesses fixed. This brings in the question of whether these divisions should only be for the wealthy or should be available for all. In this regard, consumerism culture may work more towards protecting the possessions of the wealthy through a consumerism culture, which is divisive in nature.
The illusion that consumerism puts forward is that of choice for all, which is an effective way of ensuring that the deprived do not harbor sentiments that the capitalist system is short charging them. Consumerism therefore divides the haves from the have-nots and further stratifies the society. In the essay ‘Going to extremes: CEOs vs. Slaves, the author notes the wide margins in terms that exist between the capitalist and consumers, noting that CEOs earn as much as 260% more that the third highest executive, (p. 70). The essay further notes that billionaires, created by capitalism exploit the labor market by subjecting employees to slave-like working conditions with a peanut salary. As much as consumer goods are available across the society, only those who have the money to purchase will benefit. This, according to Karl Marx, is the root of most societal problems, which arise from controlled consumption because of poverty.
In a consumerism culture, individuals are motivated by the ability to acquire what they desire. This is not an obstacle for those who can afford it, but for the poor, it is continuous challenge to keep up with consumerism. Although this culture may make products, especially technology readily available in the market, those whose purchasing power is limited will not have access. Technology like PCs, hi-tech communication devices such as phones, LCD TVs and so forth remain unobtainable to the poor. The resulting economic disparity serves only to paint a dreary future for the affected economies. As the rich gain more control and the poor are left with fewer alternatives, the political hierarchy in turn adheres to these policies which violate the commonly held ideas regarding peaceful coexistence and human rights resulting to a self propagating system of exploitation. The corporate capitalist view the consumer only as a target and only embark on factors which control interests thus altering culture; putting this up for sale is always made easier by the media advertising. Although there exists some constitutional guarantees, the corporate capitalist anyway subjects the public to economic and political systems which only exploit the rights of the many to the benefits of the few. The major contributors are always the movers of government policies which results to political agenda based on their cravings.
This inability to access what they desire will lead individuals, especially those from poor backgrounds to engage in all manner of crimes in order to afford what they want. Juvenile burglary, drug peddling and prostitution are some crimes that are associated with people from poor backgrounds. Individuals driven by what they want will engage in activities, which violate the rights of others just to have enough power to purchase commodities. Just like the elite and the wealthy who own the manufacturing and distributing franchises and are solely driven by maximizing their profits, the consumers are driven by the ability to purchase as much as they can. This individuality, by the capitalists and the consumers alike, often infringe on the rights of others and over exploit available resources to achieve individual ends.
Capitalist engage in unethical practices in order to maximum their revenue. In a society that is increasingly being taken up by the consumerism culture, the capitalists are faced with stiff competition as many more industries and companies come up to get their share of the profits. This creates an atmosphere of intense competitiveness among the capitalists who want to attract and retain a bigger market share. In order to this, they need to advertise their goods so that they are widely recognized by the consumers. Consequently, most of these advertisements are misleading to the consumer who in the end is unable to make an informed decision about the quality of the goods or services. A good example is the Macdonald’s fast food chain, which previously advertised meals as healthy for children. This statement had to be revised when it was established that the meals so called healthy were responsible for childhood obesity, not to mention other lifestyle diseases that are rooted in the consumption of greasy food. Therefore, the capitalists not only exploits the consumer by providing sub-standard goods, but may also provide false information, which may ultimately pose a serious risk to the health, life and overall well-being of the consumer.
Every individual in the society has the capability of selling his or her labor products. Capitalist mode of production does not support this system. All what they need is a disjointed tie between producers and the means they use for production. This simply means that, the peasant farmers to loose their farms, artisans and constructors to loose their tools among other means to deny these people access. With deprived access, these people have no choice but to seek those who have the means of production to use their land and tools and in return gain some wages. The means of production is therefore the ultimate control as it gives you the opportunity to control the goods produced which are in turn bought by back by the same people who labor to produce them. The gap between the two groups is widened as the laborers are turned once again into consumers and the money taken back by those who own the means of production. They just lend you the money for sometime; but they own it.
Consumerism has also led to environmental degradation in so many ways. In order to meet the demands of consumers in such a society, and in a world where resources are increasingly becoming depleted, manufactures will look for alternative sources of raw materials in other countries or localities. After they have exhausted the resources, they will move on to the next stop, without concern of how their activities are affecting the environment. In Harding’s, (2001), ‘before you finish eating breakfast this morning,’ he cites the production of rubber, which has led to extensive deforestation in Thailand, which has consequently resulted to increased urbanization. It is no wonder, that the issue of global warming has become a worrying reality to many governments around the world. Global warming has led to climatic changes, whose effects are felt more by people in the developing countries. This is because most of them rely on agriculture and the major source of GDP and unpredictable weather cycles, droughts as well as floods means that agriculture can no longer be relied on for national revenue. Developing countries are constantly faced with food shortages and global warming has worsened the situation.
Global warming is also caused by industry emissions, which destroy the Ozone layer in the atmosphere. Global warming is deeply rooted in industrialization, which in itself was fueled by capitalism and later consumerism. The means used to obtain these resources further destroys the environment. Harding, (2001) notes, tuna from Somalia is fished using explosives, which destroys the coastal eco system. Bananas obtained from the Dominican Republic are grown using chemical fertilizer, which destroys the soil balance.
Consumerism and capitalism are enemies of the people. Behind the fancy advertisements, symbolic values, and the promise of merchandise lays their true value characterized and driven by profit making. It is a mechanism by which big businesses ensure continued buying by the consumers not only aimed at profit making. Obsession with consumerism coarsens the moral fiber to a state where the society no longer up holds tradition, but allows itself to be oppressed by structures of consumerism and credit obligations. Consumerism is nothing but a myth meant top make those who believe in it that they can gratify all their needs only through consuming. Cultural fulfillment and social obligations are sacrificed in the altar of gratification associated with owning property and buying goods. The truth is, this gratification is short lived and adds joy for a short moment to those who cal afford to gratify this need and leads to sadness to those who can not afford to fund this need. However, this gratification deprives us the overall fulfillment of other important cultural mythologies. When culture is commercialized, there is always a lot to loose in terms of perceived reality. Our perception looses its depth, richness and periphery.
For these, and other negative reasons that are associated with capitalism and the consumerism culture, it is imperative for the society to take action sooner than later in order to avoid inflicting permanent damage to the society fabric and the environment, which sustains it. Capitalism has created a materialistic society based on individual gratification without much thought of the impact on other people, cultures and environment. Such individual gratification has facilitated societal evils such as human trafficking; drug trafficking, prostitution and forms of crimes.
To begin with, changing the consumerism culture in western society is not going to be an easy task, and will definitely not happen overtime. This culture is so ingrained in western societies to the extent that it is now second nature. A more difficult task will be changing the mentality of capitalism from profit realization to moral and social responsibility.
Presently, there are groups and movements that are emerging which set an example in the way to change the consumerism culture in American people. The social groups and movements engage in activities such as garbage bin hunting. These people scour dustbins in supermarkets and hotels to get food that has been thrown away but is not spoilt. The foods included canned foods and packaged vegetables, which are thrown out simply because they have minor blemishes. This may seem like an extreme method but it is sending the message to society. That wastage leads to depletion of resources, in addition to denying them to other people who need them.
Achieving change is not a task that can be accomplished by one element in this chain of capitalism and consumerism. To begin with, the government should establish policies and guidelines that will ensure that resources are not exploited or depleted. Secondly, the government should also tighten regulations that will protect the environment from abuse by unscrupulous capitalists. Current measures are not effective, evidenced in the current BP oils spill in the Mexican Gulf, which is threatening marine life over a large area. With these guidelines by and punitive measures incase they are violated; the society will be ready to begin the journey towards self-transformation without the use of extreme means that characterize revolutions.
However, this kind of change can only begin when the society becomes conscientious about the damage of their current habits and their long-term effects. People may perceive consumerism as a convenient lifestyle where they are able to buy anything to make life easier. However, people should realize that this convenience has adverse effects on the freedoms of others and the environment. Industries should also become more conscientious, and ensure that they do not destroy the very environment that makes their businesses possible in a bid to make quick profits. The industry should acknowledge their moral and social responsibility and ensure that their practices are environmental friendly, do not exploit resources or the market. This can be achieved through civic education of the industry management on safe practices as well as the consumers on how to minimize waste and consider how the products they choose to buy are affecting others. This aspect is demonstrated by the current campaign being made for the use green products.
In the background of global warming that is threatening the very existence of planet earth, numerous campaigns have been launched that admonish individuals to become environmentally conscious. This movement is referred to as ‘the green revolution’ where society is going green and demanding only those products that are manufactured in ways that do not harm the environment. The green movement is making progress, as manufactures and merchandisers are compelled to use products and processes that do not destroy the already fragile environment. Even for those who are reluctant to make changes, they have no alternative, as the environmental conscious consumer will simply shun purchasing such products. The effectiveness of the green revolution has been great, and consumers should subsequently step up the movement by demanding more products to go green or else loose their market. Products that have gone green include foodstuff, clothing, technology, which includes phones and computers, furniture, toys and even cars. Everyone in the society can contribute to the green revolution by encouraging recycling, avoiding wasteful buying especially packaged food and the use of recyclable goods.