A couple good diaries have been written recently on consumerism.  (Here's one of them. There are links to others within it.)  Our society didn't become this way overnight.  In order for people to be able to buy lots and lots of things, we needed factories and mass production.  Below, I have written a very, very brief history of how industrialization led to the consumer culture that exists today.  Lots more can be, and have been, written about this topic, and I urge you to read about it.

The American Dream promises everyone the chance to be successful.  Anyone of us can become rich, even if we started out poor.  Look around.  Look at all the stuff!  We've got computers and cars and TVs and clothes and iPods and TIVOs and toys and sports equipment.  People come to America because they want all that stuff; they want success.  It's been like that for decades.  It's quite possible that you or your ancestors came here for that reason.  I know mine did.  They left Ireland during the Famine because they knew they could have better lives in America.  And, even though they probably lived in the worst neighborhoods when they got here, it was better than Ireland.

Mass production allows us to have all of our things.  Goods are mass-produced in factories and then shipped out all across the nation and world.  They're affordable because they're produced cheaply and efficiently.  Prior to industrialization, this wasn't the case.  Before mass production revolutionized the way people shop, many things were available only to members of the upper class.  Ownership of certain things was a sign of one's class.  Then, when factories sprung up, and goods became more affordable through mass production, more and more people could buy the goods that had been accessible only to the elites.  As historian William Leach writes, desire had been democratized.

With industrialization, many people lost their jobs.  They had worked in traditional occupations that were rendered obsolete by factories.  The artisan system with master artisans, journeymen, and apprentices vanished, and instead of becoming someone's apprentice, people accepted wage-earning jobs in the factories.  Having lost their independence in the workplace, people needed to find it elsewhere.  The democratization of desire allowed them to express themselves in the marketplace: they no longer defined themselves by what they did, but rather by what they bought.

Mass production and the growth of factories created a new poor working class.  This is probably the class that my Irish ancestors belonged to.  These people lived in the worst neighborhoods of the big cities; many Irish, for instance, lived in the neighborhood of Five Points (this is where that not-so-great movie Gangs of New York took place).  However, members of the middle and upper classes didn't necessarily associate industrialization with tenements and poverty.  They saw the proliferation of goods, consumer credit, and beautiful new stores.  Everyone could live the good life, according to them.  With so many goods available, it seemed that everyone could live the American Dream.

Shopping became a good thing.  Buying = less poverty.  However, people still needed to be told what they should purchase.  People do have natural desires, but the consumer culture channeled those desires.  People were told what they wanted.  As more goods became available, merchants and advertisers learned how to tell people what to purchase.  Promises were attached to goods; people could gain self-fulfillment if they bought certain items.  People could become popular, make friends, secure happiness, become more powerful.  They just needed to buy things.  But, the gratification that people sought (and still seek) was always deferred.  Since the promises were, in fact, empty, people were never satisfied.  There was always something else that they needed, something else that would give them happiness.

Of course, that last paragraph could have been written in the present tense, even though I was talking about the late 19th century and into the early 20th century.  We're still told what to buy, through various forms of marketing.  We live in a consumer-based economy; we need to buy things to keep everything humming along.  Buying things makes us feel good about ourselves; it makes us feel like we're successful.  Henry Ford raised his workers' wages just enough so that they could purchase his cars.  The workers were happy, but Ford did it so he not only could make money, but so the workers would be placated enough not to fight for anything more.  As long as people can buy things, people believe that everyone can achieve the American Dream.

Originally posted to Unusual Suspect on Thu May 04, 2006 at 06:26 AM PDT.

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