February 20, 2016 by jmw
In their new book, An Other Kingdom: Departing Consumer Culture, Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann and John McKnight offer a critique of what they call the predominate ideology of our age: Free Market Consumerism. In my own experience I have found that many people do not even realize that this ideology is both dominate and destructive. So, with the help of Block, et al., I wish to simply elaborate what “Free Market Consumer Ideology” means and how it impacts all of us.
FREE – indicates the idea that participants in the market (individuals and institutions) should be constrained as little as possible; regulation/limitation is bad. The freedom of the individual is what matters most. Recently I saw someone post on FB a video of Milton Friedman “destroying” a socialist debate partner. In the video Friedman says that what makes the world go ’round is “individuals pursuing separate self-interests.”
While most people (in the West) would agree with Friedman, most would fail to realize is that this opinion hides a fundamental anthropology (i.e. an assumption about what human beings are). This economic theory tells us a story about who we are and how we ought to be. There may be truth to the idea that human beings pursue self-interest, but Friedman’s opinion makes that truth a truism and a telos, it becomes the truth and the goal of human nature (see “ideology” below). As soon as we forget that this opinion is only a “take” or an “angle” on reality, we become prey to its all-consuming nature. This is how and why most people cannot imagine anything other than individuals pursing separate self-interests.
This assumption directly affects our understanding of supply and demand. If human beings are naturally selfish, then of course unchecked demand is okay. And of course unlimited creation of need (i.e. marketing / supply) is normal.
This freedom to produce commodities has led to the privatization of more and more: from land to air to water to ideas and even future ideas (e.g. domain names are really just “virtual real estate”).
The “free” of neoliberal free market capitalism means that we are “free” to pursue profit-making. It does not, ironically, mean we are “free” from the destructive effects of this ideology. Without a deeper understanding of what this economic freedom means, we become enslaved to a single-minded freedom: the freedom to produce commodities or consume them.
MARKET – means that the world is organized around commerce. The word “economy” actually means “household order.” The way we are taught to keep our global house in order is through trade, exchange, contracts, buying and selling. How, exactly, does the market organize us? Well, it just does(!). We have faith that something like an “invisible hand” will keep the world organized and balanced.
What this means for human relationships is that we are organized primarily by our place in the market economy. We are no longer tied to place and community. Instead, we have to move where the market (jobs) take us. (Oh what freedom it is!) One of the most destructive consequences of the market’s invisible hand is the increasing inability to put down roots anywhere. We are forced to live transient, fragmented, episodic lives.
The next time you are at your local grocery store, try something. Look around and see if you actually know any of the people standing in line. These people are more than likely your neighbours. Consider how interesting it is that so many people gather at the same location to purchase food and then scatter into their “individual, separate interests.” It might be worth considering how many of our interactions with other human beings are market-driven.
CONSUMER – means that our well-being is measured by our capacity to purchase in the free market. It means that our quality of life will be proportionate to how much we consume, i.e. how much we can buy. Consumerism seeps deep into our psyche, telling us that we can only be happy if we have more purchasing power. This mindset leads to the outsourcing of the very things that make us happy, such as our health (working 60-hr weeks) and raising our children (nannies who watch our kids so we can work).
If you want a good example of consumer mentality, listen to the way people actually talk about their life. Chances are you’ve heard someone who is always sharing about their latest deal. “What’d you do this weekend?” “Not much. I went to ‘X’ and found an amazing deal on ‘X’ – they were originally $140 but I got them for only $50.” I hear people talk like this all the time. Do you? This is an indication that they perceive their ability to purchase as the measure of well-being.
IDEOLOGY – is tough word. It’s big and scary. It’s also become a buzz word these days. To keep things simple, consider “ideology” as meaning the way that beliefs about something can become second nature. In other words, the beliefs about “Free,” “Market,” and “Consumer” become true. They are unquestioned. They are implied without stating it (which is exactly why I’m writing this post. Because we need to stop and think about what it is we take for granted).
We can see this perspective as ideology in the video Milton Friedman I shared above. Friedman offers his view as if it were a true take on reality. This is how ideology operates. As an ideology, Free Market Consumerism must be protected because it is the truth! This is why we see such worldwide protection, including military intervention.
In the context of Free Market Consumerism, ideology simply means that the three first ideas become central to our identity and our perception of reality.
In a world where Free Market Consumer Ideology dominates with little opposition, let us continue to reflect critically on what this ideology is, how it affects us, and what we might do in response.