I can’t imagine a single area of nonprofit work that isn’t affected in some profound way by American Consumerism. Directly and indirectly it undermines all our social change efforts. It narrowly frames our actions, blinding us to the forces that keep so much of the world in misery. It engenders habits of mind that transform world-be activists and supporters into passive collectors (or consumers) of information. And it weakens our resolve to change a system from which we benefit at significant cost to people in other parts of the world and to future generations.
Here are the two basic elements of American Consumerism as I see them:
1. A radical shift in our frame of understanding and discussion. The primary shift is one from a conception of the human species as Homo sapiens, the animal that thinks and deliberates, to Homo mercatus, the creature that purchases. Thus we measure the health of the nation primarily in economic terms—our rates of consumer spending, the growth in our GDP—rather than in our knowledge of history, our fitness for self-governance, and our ability to deliberate intelligently as free citizens. In the Consumerist/Corporatist framework, the primary purpose of education is to prepare our young people for the workforce rather than for engaged citizenry. Foreign policy is designed to create and maintain “an international order in which U.S.-based business can prosper, a world of ... societies that are open to profitable investment, to expansion of export markets and transfer of capital, and to exploitation of material and human resources on the part of U.S. corporations and their local affiliates.”* Thus we topple democratically elected governments, trade with regimes that torture their citizens, and engage in other forms of barbarous behavior to guarantee the free flow of goods and profits. Domestic policy aims to keep alive the myth of the American Dream, which is essentially a dream about ownership. In this dream, the home represents not a base from which we set off to engage the world and make it better, but a place that we pack full of the crap we unceasingly purchase.
2. A weakened ability to resist Consumerist/Corporatist forces. As Chomsky writes in his latest book, Imperial Ambitions, “If you’re trying to turn people into mindless consumers so they don’t interfere with you while you’re reordering the world, you have to keep at them from infancy.” The first order of business might therefore be to undermine public education so that of the 70 percent lucky enough to graduate from high school only a few are able to locate Afghanistan on a map. Childhood is also a good time to start building brand allegiance and underscoring the idea that one can simply use the latest product to point and click one’s way to a better world. We should refuse to teach our kids media literacy—unlike other enlightened countries—so our children can grow into adults easily beguiled by advertisements as well as by the illusion of news. Some of the hard work has already been done for us: National and statewide elections long ago turned into cynical exercises in brand-building and marketing, presenting to the political consumer a narrow range of neatly packaged Candidate Products® to choose from. We don’t exercise democracy in the voting booth: We purchase a product shaped as much by polls and focus groups as the flavorless bran flakes in our cereal bowls.
Consumerism presents two great challenges for those of us who work at nonprofits and foundations, and in civil society organizations more generally. First, we are bought in—literally. This is the challenge of complicity. We benefit from a system that purchases for us some degree of comfort at significant cost to the environment and to the people who are the victims of our country’s economic imperialism.
The second challenge is one of consciousness. Many of us work locally, in this little part of the world, on education, or in health, or in the arts, and we fail to see the connections between our efforts and the broader forces that shape the intellectual and moral contexts in which we work. I would claim that we are doomed to failure, doomed to waste great wads of donor money, unless we understand these connections.
The great liberal theorist Isaiah Berlin championed what he called a negative conception of liberty, one that left fairly unconstrained the actions of citizens. The state was to remain neutral on questions regarding the ultimate Good, providing a framework of rights in which individuals would be free to pursue their own visions of the good life. He imagined, perhaps, a society of knowledgeable and engaged citizens, deliberating, arguing with one another, holding their political leaders accountable. Their deliberations would inflect the teachings in their schools, the conduct of their businesses, the prayers rising from their houses of worship. Did he ever imagine that the Great Axiological Machine—the generator and clarifier of values—would not be the polis but Madison Avenue, funded by powerful interests to increase even more their already magnificent wealth?
* Noam Chomsky: On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures (1987).