The gospel of consumption
Today “work and more work” is the accepted way of doing things. If anything, improvements to the labor-saving machinery since the 1920s have intensified the trend. Machines can save labor, but only if they go idle when we possess enough of what they can produce. In other words, the machinery offers us an opportunity to work less, an opportunity that as a society we have chosen not to take. Instead, we have allowed the owners of those machines to define their purpose: not reduction of labor, but “higher productivity”—and with it the imperative to consume virtually everything that the machinery can possibly produce.
In the sidebar of this blog there is a widget that shows what books I’m reading. I put it there because it might interest someone else who is reading or has read some of the same books. But I was always a bit worried about the name and the philosophy behind it: All Consuming. It actually doesn’t show which books I’m reading, but which I am “consuming”. But such is the world today that an act like reading is transformed into an act of consumption, which has, as the article quoted above suggests, become an ideology.
The immediately preceding article in this blog, about the New York Times’s views on Vladimir Putin’s views on religion illustrates this — the author of the NYT article clearly proceeds from an assumption that the consumer ideology is good, and evaluates everything else, including religion, in those terms.
One of the books I have been consuming (or rather “reading”) is Henry Thoreau’s Walden, which starts from an almost diametrically opposed point of view, as the following extract shows. Thoreau, while fishing, is caught in the rain, and takes shelter in a hut that he thought was unoccupied, but finds it inhabited by John Field, an Irishman, and his family, who worked “bogging” for a neighboring farmer.
I tried to help him with my experience, telling him that he was one of my nearest neighbors, and that I too, who came a-fishing here, and looked like a loafer, was getting my living like himself; that I lived in a tight, light and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent of such a ruin as his commonly amounts to; and how, if he chose, he might in a month or two build himself a palace of his own; that I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter nor milk, nor flesh meat, and so did not have to work to get them; again, as I did not work hard, I did not have to eat hard, and it cost me but a trifle for my food; but as he began with tea, and coffee, and butter, and milk, and beef, he had to work hard to pay for them, and when he had worked hard he had to eat again to repair the waste of his system, — and so it was as broad as it was long, indeed it was broader than it was long, for he was discontented and wasted his life into the bargain; and yet he had rated it as a gain in coming to America, that here you could get tea, and coffee, and meat every day. But the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous things which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things.
When I’ve finished reading Walden I think I shall rate it as “worth consuming”.