Capitalism: Never Enough?

By Jim Selman | Bio

New York is a consumer paradise. That’s one of the reasons it is a shopping mecca for so many people from around the world. Folks who can afford it want to have an apartment here, the ‘Big Brands’ want to have a store on 5th Avenue, and the rest of us want to look in the store windows and buy stuff. New York, of course, doesn’t have an exclusive on being a magnet for shoppers—most big cities have their own version of a street lined with designer stores overflowing with opulent offerings. As I travel from city to city, I find myself wondering how all of these stores stay in business. How many Rolex watches, Chanel handbags and Mont Blanc pens can one use? And now these ‘pushers’ for shopaholics and the rich are invading airports like ants at a picnic.

I understand capitalism. And I understand business. But in the wake of last year’s financial meltdown (attributed mostly to greed), the impact of the recession on ordinary lives, and trillions in consumer debt, it seems like a good time to ask, “How much is enough?” If we as a society are really committed to the notion that “more is always better” and if we believe we can sustain economic growth indefinitely, then we are ‘hooked’ going to make that next purchase just as surely as an alcoholic derelict on Skid Row is ‘hooked’ as they reach for another drink.

I think the epidemic of designer stores is just symptomatic of the buying binge we’ve been on for the last half-century. To be sure, it has created unprecedented prosperity and a higher standard of living for many. In Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” she quotes retail analyst Victor Lebow, one of the architects of our current economic system, as saying, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life … that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption… .We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever accelerating rate.”

But as an engine for humanity, it is not sufficient to simply buy and sell. Many economists today are suggesting we must not rely on growth as our sole criteria for judging a ‘healthy’ economy—that we must find ways to measure the quality of people’s lives and the impacts we are having that are not based on just dollars and cents. We have all heard that money can’t buy happiness. Now we’re having to acknowledge that happiness is not a commodity to be bought and sold, and we can no longer afford to be addicted to consumption.  

If we look at our current economic woes through the lens of addiction, then conventional wisdom and all the 12-Step programs would agree that there are at least two ‘facts’ that seem to apply:

1.    An addict cannot get ‘out of the box’ of their addiction by themselves, and
2.    Addicts live in denial until they ‘hit bottom’. 

I don’t know how all of this will play out at the national or international levels, but I believe we’re beginning to see a lot of people waking up and challenging their faith in capitalism.  I have not yet seen Michael Moore’s newest documentary, Capitalism: A
Love Story
, but from what I have read, I suspect he is once again showing the price we pay when we give our power and hand over our future to technocrats and mechanistic institutions.

I am not against the theory of Capitalism as a means for distributing goods and services, just as I am not against alcohol. I am, however, against Capitalism or any economic theory when it becomes an ideology, just as I am against a pervasive culture of drinking and drugs in which individuals lose their capacity to choose (or even question their choices).

When our practices become so pervasive that they ‘take over’ people’s thinking to the extent they self-destruct (for example, through excessive drinking or excessive debt), then we need to stop and ask what is really going on. We need to challenge our most basic beliefs and assumptions about what we want, how we are living and the choices we are making.

Creating any new habit is difficult. And getting beyond an addiction can be extremely challenging. But having the courage to take stock and get clear about what we want is the essence of what makes us who we are. This is exactly what we need to do to create the foundations for whatever possible future we want.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.