Consumerism Qua Materialism: A Modern Confusion

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Materialism has become a rather dirty word, principally through its connection to consumerism. Indeed materialism seems to have become so thoroughly conflated with consumerism as to be wholly indistinguishable. For example, in the study, Changes In Materialism, Changes In Psychological Well-Being: Evidence For Three Longitudinal Studies & An Intervention Experiment, the authors write: “Studies 1, 2, and 3 examined how changes in materialistic aspirations related to changes in well-being, using varying time frames (12 years, 2 years, and 6 months), samples (US young adults and Icelandic adults), and measures of materialism and well-being.”

It would be mistaken to conflate a philosophy of materialism, with mere consumerism as behavioral practice. I am not here suggesting that this is what the authors of the document have done (indeed, it appears as if they are simply using ‘materialism’ as a placeholder for ‘material object; principally, those objects manufactured and distributed in modern western society’), however, at first glance, it is difficult to tell and this is the crux of the problem. When one word is conflated with another, after a sufficient period of usage the two become implicitly associated, regardless of whether they are actually interlaced in any meaningful way. Thus, when one deploys the term ‘consumerism’ one instantly thinks of ‘materialism’ and vice-versa. This, I shall argue, is wholly mistaken; however, before proceeding, let us define our terms.

Consumerism is a term which rose to prominence in the 20th Century with the advent of mass production and denotes a social order wherein goods are purchased and used (‘consumed’) in ever increasing quantities. It has a few other more technical definitions, however, this is generally the explicit meaning of the term when it is negatively deployed (and it is almost always negatively deployed, at least, as of this writing, though positive variations of the term were used, such as by J. S. Bugas who deployed the word to refer to consumer sovereignty). In this negative characterization, consumerism is keeping-up-with-the-Jones or Patrick Batemanism — normative behaviors which privilege non-noetic objects over noetic ones with the exception of the referent consumer (the individual who is consuming the non-noetic objects, who naturally does so, not because they care solely about the objects themselves, but because they gain something from the consumption of those objects).

Materialism, broadly, briskly and vulgarly speaking, is a philosophical position generally characterized by substance monism, which holds that because everything which has been observed is energy and matter, it is rational to conclude everything that exists is (or is likely to be) composed of energy and matter (the same inductive reasoning is at work in expanding the theory of gravity to all places in the universe, even those wholly unobserved). As a school of thought, it has gone through numerous incarnations ranging from Democritus the atomist, to the cosmic mechanists prior to Newton, to the scientistic physicalists of the modern age (such as Hawking, Krauss and Dawkins).

More rigorous, sophisticated and logically defensible forms of ontological naturalism (sometimes referred to as ‘realism’ in contradistinction to ‘idealism’) which have been referred to as various materialisms can be found in the work of such philosophers as Wilfrid Sellars, John McDowell and Jeremy Randel Koons and the neuroscientist, Paul M. Churchland.

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the ontological assertions or arguments of any variation of materialism – atomist, mechanist, Sellarsian or eliminativist – it should be clearly noted that consumerism is a descriptive set of social practices, not a holistic formal ontology. One may be a Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or Daoist and still be a consumerist. Indeed, the vast majority of those who have ever lived western consumerist lifestyles within modern society have been Christians (principally Catholics and Protestants), not scientistic materialists (as is sometimes alleged); this is demonstrable simply by reference to religio-demographic composition, as most consumer societies were, from their inception, constituted by Christians who are, obviously, non-materialists (philosophically speaking). Of course, it is perfectly possible to be a stalwart materialist (in the philosophical sense) and still be a consumerist, but it is not intrinsic to the position.

Drawing a clear distinction between materialism and consumerism is important given that because consumerism has become so thoroughly disdained, referent to it likewise besmirches any materialist ontology through negative moral assignation, RATHER than through rigorous logical refutation, thus engendering an impairment, not only of the thorough-going materialist diagrams, but also of critical, logical thought itself.


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