Consumerism versus Citizenship

I’m quietly sitting in the predawn, sipping the first of the day’s coffee, waiting to wake up, and wondering whether the values of the consumer have displaced the values of the citizen in America.  I’ve no idea why, but for several mornings now, my mind has scrambled over that topic before I’ve fully woken.  What does it mean to a republic if its people are better consumers than they are citizens?

It seems to me the “good consumer” is someone who is only in it for himself.  Maybe that’s changing now as people become more aware of how their purchasing decisions affect other people and the environment, but traditionally consumers have sought little more than what they deem best for themselves.

On the other hand, it seems to me the “good citizen” seeks some kind of balance between what’s best for herself and what’s best for others in her body politic.  In a way, it doesn’t matter whether she thinks of her body politic as her community, her state or province, her nation, or even the entire of humanity. The point is, she not only takes her own needs into account, but also the needs of people other than herself.

In a way, the consumer is disengaged from others, while the citizen is engaged with others.

So far as I can see, consumerism is spreading across the globe and most likely displacing citizenship as it goes.  What I wonder is whether consumerism — as an alternative to citizenship — is compatible with freedom and liberty?

Somehow, I don’t think it is.  Of course, I’m barely awake at the moment and sailing on hunches rather than on reasons.  So I’m not sure why I think consumerism is much less compatible with freedom and liberty than is citizenship.  But that’s what my gut is telling me as the sun begins its ascent today.  So, what do you think?  Have I drawn an adequate distinction between consumerism and citizenship?  Is consumerism compatible with freedom and liberty?  Or, should I drink more coffee and then rethink everything I’ve said?

10 thoughts on “Consumerism versus Citizenship

  1. Studies show that people see possessions as extensions of the individual. For many consumption has become a resource in their construction of identity. I think that for many people there is a lot to Helga Dittmar’s idea that ‘to have is to be’.
    Like you I would rather have citizens than consumers, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. The corporations are in the ascendant.

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  2. Consumerism invites us to take pleasure in what we have, and particularly in things we have that others don’t, citizenship invites us to take pleasure in what others have. The former’s a bit of a zero sum game, whereas the latter is more conducive to having lots of happy people.

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  3. Paul: “It seems to me the “good consumer” is someone who is only in it for himself. … traditionally consumers have sought little more than what they deem best for themselves.”

    It’s worse than even that. “Good consumers” are conditioned not to distinguish between “want” and “need.” They’re told that they “need” a drug to address a trivial condition, regardless of the fact that the side effects listed in the fine print may be worse than the original condition. They’re told that they “need” to be carrying more music than could be listened to in 10 years on a device smaller than a cigarette pack. They’re told that they “need” to be in contact at all times, by phone as well as online.

    And they buy it, in both senses of the word.

    This is not even what’s best for themselves. It’s what the corporations believe is best for them, and screw the consumers.

    – M. \”/

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  4. The word “consumer” hints at a voracious maw, glutting itself on – everything useful – to excess.
    The citizen is the inhabitant of a common place with responsibilities in balance with rights ,not more important or foregoing than any other’s. I’m happier being a citizen because that way lies riches – in community. G

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  5. Consumerism is built on valuing the consumer (and the distributor) over the producer. Mega-suppliers squeeze everything in the channel on the way to the consumer so that the jobs within that channel that once supported families now support little at all. Consumerism is built on reducing the income and wellbeing of others so active consumerism,that is always going for the lowest price, of supporting multinationals in favour of local merchants, of valuing deals over knowledge or workmanship, can only diminish the lives of others. (Even taking the loss of income out of the equation, you still have the loss of esteem through the devaluing of knowledge and integrity, and of denying the centrality of being a creator of goods).

    As you said, consumerism is selfish, and unfortunately it is trumpeted in every media as the way to be. This, as well as the commercialization of most public spaces, all serve to divorce the person from not only fellow citizens but from their region. Why should you care about your city if everywhere you look you see malls, and the same businesses you see everywhere else? (I know, I’m off on a rant and slightly off topic….you should see what I already deleted. It all comes down to rehashing the brilliance of Christopher Lasch’s books now decades old).

    We can blame the corporations but it really comes down to them filling a need. The consumer drives the whole system, and the consumer could also change the course.

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  6. @ Stephen: Fascinating points! But I fear it doesn’t bode well for a sane world that people see what they consume as creating their identity. Changing one’s self-image strikes me as among the more difficult things people can undertake.

    @ Brian: Thanks! 🙂

    @ DOF: Thank you for the heads-up! I’d never heard of the guy before, but he’s quite interesting.

    @ Lirone: That strikes me as an excellent point that consumerism is a zero sum game!

    @ Meowlin: Spot on! The fueling of artificial needs is essential to consumer culture.

    @ Suburbanlife: Well said, G! I too think citizenship is much more fulfilling than consumerism — despite that it might not involve nearly the material wealth as consumerism.

    @ AOS: You’re going to make a radical of me in no time if you keep offering up such insightful analysis. It’s possible — maybe even likely — that I will steal some of your ideas in future posts. 😀

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  7. Thanks but the credit for some of my ideas (if not all) must go to smarter earlier thinkers (like Lasch, or de Botton’s great book Status Anxiety)….one last comment.

    Why do people talk about getting the best deal as if it is an accomplishment (I just have the feeling that this is a socially acceptable version of “look who I just screwed”) as well as the many commercials for “why pay retail?” which really means “why support your neighbors”.

    And, what, you don’t consider yourself a radical?

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  8. Hey AOS! Thanks for the references!

    I guess whether I consider myself a radical pretty much depends on my mood and what day of the week it is. 🙂 I don’t think about it that much, but I suspect I’ve become increasingly radical over the past decade or so.

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