Capitalism has defeated its rivals. Experiences from the last century indicate that a free and prosperous society must be based on some form of market economy. But the fact that capitalism is a necessary basis for a free society does not mean that it is a sufficient basis. And it may be that a powerful enemy remains which it is not possible to defeat entirely – capitalism itself. By this we mean here not primarily the obvious fact that capitalism’s rapid transformation of society and the economy gives rise to political opposition in different forms. There are tendencies within capitalism itself which cause it to saw off the branch on which it itself is sitting. It encourages behaviour on the part of consumers which, perhaps in the long term, makes them into worse producers, and above all into infantile citizens (Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, 1976).
Capitalism has constantly to stimulate our desires and encourage us to want to satisfy them immediately. This stimulates an infantile character, whose attitude to life can be summed up in three words: I. Everything. Immediately. It is not certain that an attitude of this kind makes it possible to hold one’s own as a producer in global competition. There, what still applies to a great extent, are those demands Max Weber characterised as the Protestant ethic. Is it our duty to consume more and more in order to keep the economy going, even if we then as households live above our means? While we are focusing on the bubbles in the financial markets – sub-prime, asset-backed securities and others – the largest bubble in terms of long-term impact is the consumption bubble. At some point, the Western world will come into a period of considerably lower consumption levels. This is a structural change that will obviously have a dramatic impact on retail and consumer goods companies as well as on advertising, media and ultimately on our standard of living. Can we cope with such a development? Would it even have beneficial aspects?
The critique of modern society has been remarkably similar down the centuries. Ever since industrialisation took hold in the 19th century, people have mourned the loss of authenticity and complained that social ties have been replaced by market relationships. They have also warned repeatedly of the stress resulting from the rapid rate of change. The fact that there is a stock catalogue of complaints about modernity may lead us to suspect that this is in large part a question of hypochondria, imaginings rather than real problems. One of the great challenges faced by a new critique of consumption is to show that it is not merely an updating of this canon of grumbles, but can show empirically that something tangible has occurred during the latest phase in the development of capitalism. What is needed are empirical facts, not predicable ideological projections, in order to formulate a relevant criticism.