Capitalism, Consumerism and Materialism: The Value Crisis

The Continuum of Crisis

The global economic, ecological and energy crises we face –” as well as associated crises (terrorism, conflict, and so on) — are not separate but fundamentally interlinked:

at the source of our ills is an excessive exploitation of hydrocarbon resources that is tied to the escalation of CO2 emissions with no recognition of limits or boundaries, fuelling global warming and the acceleration of climate change, devastating eco-systems, facilitating the deaths of millions of people and the extinction of thousands of species.

The logic of “growth” is simultaneously driving us to deplete hydrocarbon and other natural resources at unprecedented, and unsustainable, rates –” such that oil and gas are for all intents and purposes running dry. Both climate change and energy crises are impacting on our ability to sustain global food production. Water shortages and hotter weather are destroying the viability of agriculture, while portended fuel shortages are set to undermine the continuity of agribusiness which is heavily dependent on oil and gas. The increasing inability of food production to meet consumer demand is also linked to the destructive “growth”-driven technologies of a hierarchical agribusiness industry monopolized by short-sighted corporate conglomerates, within a skewered international system of food distribution that marginalizes two-thirds of the world population.

Finally, the world economy on its own terms is on the verge of self-imploding. Geared to serve the interests of corporate profit maximization, the world economy systematically generates widening inequalities that result not only in the deprivation of the majority of the world’s population, but death-by-deprivation on an increasing scale. But in doing so, the economic system ignores its own internal contradictions, even while leading financial analysts from within the IMF to Morgan Stanley are now warning of an imminent global economic meltdown.

So we are nearing critical points simultaneously on four fronts –” the climate, our energy dependence, our economy, and even our food supply. The scale of these crises has been sorely underestimated by officials, and even some experts, because their cumulative impact is not properly understood. Western experts tend to look at these crises as separate processes, and thus to offer separate analyses and solutions. The problem is that these crises are not separate at all –” they are fundamentally tied into the way the global political economic system functions, and as they accelerate they are, and will, feed into and exacerbate one another.

The worst thing is, amidst the chorus of condemnation suddenly coming from Western governments themselves about the catastrophic dangers and costs of climate change, there has been a gigantic obfuscation of the true extent, scale and impact not only of climate change, but of its intimate interrelationship with other global crises.

The Matrix: Dysfunction and Disorder

The “Matrix of Control”, made up of special interests linked largely to powerful financial actors, through its dominance-by-donations of the political party system, is able to influence the agendas of our mainstream political parties on issues we really care about like education, health, social welfare, and so on. Corporate imperatives mean that the government is pressured by its key donors to rollback all sorts of social spending, privatize public services, and open up society to the rampaging whirlwind of corporate financial speculation: Profit over people.

The rollback of social welfare has undermined standards of living and well-being while escalating social tensions and crime, across the West. Simultaneously, the prevalence of consumer culture that is also promulgated by the corporate-owned, advertising-driven mass media has led to dangerous, skewered lifestyle choices. Although consumer goods and services are often sold on the premise that they make life easier and more fulfilling, hidden costs lie beneath the surface.

Take a dream home in the suburbs. A study of more than 200,000 people in 448 US counties found that those living in low-density suburban communities weighed 6 pounds more on average than those living in densely populated areas. Suburbanites were also found to be as likely as cigarette smokers to have high blood pressure. Fast food or highly processed food is typically marketed as saving time and money. Yet, in the US, an estimated 65 percent of adults are overweight or obese, leading to an annual loss of 300,000 lives and to at least $117 billion in health care costs in 1999.

Here in Britain, we now know that the majority of British citizens will be obese at current trends within twenty years; and not even the state-backed media hype around Jamie Oliver’s food revolution seems to be working. We’ve also just heard about how alcohol consumption is at “dangerous” levels among the more affluent middle-class. Those are just two simple examples.

But things look grim from a deeper perspective, the question of well-being. Does money make you happy? Findings from the World Values Survey, an assessment of “life satisfaction” in more than 65 countries conducted between 1990 and 2000, indicate that income and happiness tend to track well until about $13,000 of annual income per person. After that, additional income appears to yield rather modest additions in self-reported happiness, to put it mildly. Although most governments make ongoing growth in the gross domestic product (GDP) a leading priority, under the assumption that wealth delivers well-being, the truth is that undue emphasis on generating wealth — particularly by encouraging heavy consumption — is hardly working. Overall quality of life is suffering in some of the world’s richest countries as people experience greater stress and time pressures, along with less satisfying social relationships.

Based on World Health Organization data, British psychologist Oliver James showed that English-speaking nations are twice as likely to suffer from mental illness as mainland European ones over a twelve month period. Deeper analysis exposes a direct link between mental illness and social inequalities generated in the context of neo-liberal capitalism, “which largely explains the greater prevalence among English-speaking nations”, according to James. “By this I mean a form of political economy that has four core characteristics: judging a business’s success almost exclusively by share price; privatisation of public utilities; minimal regulation of business, suppression of unions and very low taxation for the rich, resulting in massive economic inequality; the ideology that consumption and market forces can meet human needs of almost every kind.”

James encapsulates this specific tendency to generate mental illness linked to neo-liberal capitalism using the metaphor of a virus, which, he says, is actually a kind of disease: affluenza. “Selfish capitalism causes mental illness by spawning materialism, or, as I put it, the affluenza virus – placing a high value on money, possessions, appearances (social and physical) and fame. English-speaking nations are more infected with the virus than mainland western European ones. Studies in many nations prove that people who strongly subscribe to virus values are at significantly greater risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorder. Follow the logic? Selfish capitalism infects populations with affluenza; it fosters mental illness; English-speaking nations are more selfish capitalist – ergo, more prone to illness.” So what’s the bottom-line for us Brits? “Blair’s encouragement of free market capitalism has boosted spiralling levels of British mental illness. The net consequence for true Labour voters has been to force us to become more or less severely virus-infected.”

The New Fundamentalism

Thus, consumer culture, itself a product of neo-liberal economics, is encouraging us to make disastrous life-style choices that are systematically eroding our quality of life, and in fact potentially killing us. So while the question of values might seem a surprising one to start off with, it’s now becoming increasingly obvious that the global political and economic order operates on the basis of a very specific value system rooted in what Oliver James depicts as a rampant materialism. Some of the most vocal critics of globalization have recognized this. Take Dr. David C. Korten, for instance, a Stanford University Business School graduate who went on to work for the US Agency for International Developent (USAID). After more than a decade of work at the agency, Korten grew increasingly disillusioned with official aid policies. He could no longer deny that the government of the United States “was actively promoting — both at home and abroad — the very policies” that were “deepening” regional deprivation: “For the world to survive, the United States must change.”

After writing his seminal book, When Corporations Ruled the World, Korten was quickly recognized around the world as a leader in “the movement of movements”; and he has followed it up with a series of books and educational programmes aimed at generating awareness of the dangers of globalization. One of Korten’s most intriguing observations, however, is his contention that behind the global economic system is not merely an ethical and ontological philosophy of life and human nature, but what borders on being a fundamentalist theology in which unlimited profit is the sole criterion of value:

“In the quest for economic growth, the free market ideology has been embraced around the world with the fervour of a fundamentalist religious faith. Money is its sole measure of value and its practices, advance policies that are deepening social and environmental disintegration everywhere. The economic profession serves as its priesthood, it champions values that demean the human spirit. It assumes an imaginary world divorced from reality and it is restructuring our institutions of governance in ways that make our most fundamental problems more difficult to resolve yet to question its doctrine has become virtual heresy.”

Korten’s indictment of free market ideology has important implications. But to understand them, we need to first make clear what we mean by “values”. And to do that, we also need to understand how “values” are embedded in social systems.

Any given social system is linked to its fundamental conception of nature, and a corresponding value-system. Energy is the bedrock of society. The way a society derives and makes use of energy defines its relationship to nature, because nature’s resources are our source of energy. In turn, the way a society exploits natural resources, produces, consumes and functions, is therefore inseparable from the way a society conceptualizes its relationship to nature, the way a society views both itself and nature. In other words, any given social system consists not only of a set of particular social, political and economic structures, but rests on a body of (often implicit) assumptions about human nature, the way nature works, and the way humankind ought to relate with nature. It is within these assumptions that one finds a set of (equally implicit) values about what is good and bad for human life.

This is where we get specifically to the notion of a moral or ethical “value”. One of the most interesting attempts to get to grips with the value-system underlying the neo-liberal politico-economic order is from the Canadian philosopher John McMurtry. Professor Emeritus-Elect at the University of Guelph in Ontario, McMurtry came to philosophy after a rich and diverse career as a professional football player, print and television journalist, academic English teacher, world-traveller and a student of Eastern philosophy. Selected by the United Nations as organizing editor of the philosophy volume of its Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, he is a leading intellectual voice among those critical of the global market system, a system which, he argues, is deeply destructive precisely because of its deification of the market.

Moral values may well be human constructs. But they are more than just constructs. They are categories constructed to differentiate between the usefulness of different kinds of social behaviour. Value, in other words, is tied to action. But the essential core of the concept of “value” is exactly that: worth. Something is valuable if it’s worth doing. But if it’s not worth it, it’s not valuable. So value is all about worth. An ethical value is thus a category that implies certain types of action are intrinsically worth doing. Moral values therefore designate special kinds of social behaviour as having this sort of intrinsic worth. All social systems are tied to values, because they encourage certain types of behaviour while discouraging and prohibiting others. So why certain types of behaviour are encouraged and others discouraged depends on the nature of that specific social system; it depends on the way that social system conceives human beings and nature; it depends, in summary, on a particular conception of life and nature –” whether or not that conception is unconscious and implicit. There is therefore an objective dimension to values –” which is whether they work or not, whether they lead to forms of behaviour that generate well-being, or do the opposite. Values are more likely be useful, if they reflect reality –” human nature, the nature of the world, and the way their mutual interrelationship.

One of Professor McMurtry’s most well-known and disturbing areas of focus is his analysis of global markets as an ethical system. He points out that the global economic regime is based on “an unexamined and absolutist value system.” Capitalist scientific technology, transnational trade apparatuses, Anglo-American wars and the intensifying suppression of civil liberties are all symptoms of a “new totalitarianism cumulatively occupying the world and propelling civil and ecological breakdowns.” Conventional neo-liberal economic theory is supposed to be value-free, objective, scientific. But it isn’t, at all: “To the contrary, the positions of a ‘value-free’ or positivist economics still presuppose as given and self-evident the value system of private property rights, the pursuit of self-interest and profit, and the monetized production and exchange of needed goods as the foundational, regulating norms of their analyses…. The principle of self-serving for money accumulation in all conditions, with no constraining obligation to one’s own society or to use-value production, has become the overriding, abstract imperative of market doctrine. The promotion of the public interest, on the other hand, has become a token mantra with no demonstrated connection to money self-maximization.”

Like David Korten, John McMurtry sees in this free market ideology subtle but deeply engrained fundamentalist strains that elevate materialist market principles of self-interest and profit maximization to unquestionable levels of God-like status. “We find that government and their leadership now assume that the value system of the global market is to be the proper order to social organization and that societies must be made to adapt to this order as the needs and demands of the market requires. The market is not now seen as a structure to serve society, rather society is seen as an aggregate of resources to serve the global market.” He continues, “No traditional religion had declared more absolutely the universality and necessity of its laws and commandments than the proponents of the global market doctrine.”

So the question is, how do we overcome this hidden theology of market fundamentalism that is so deeply embedded in our dysfunctional social systems?