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Capitalism Isn’t The Reason We’re Unhappy – OpEd

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Many critics of capitalism have given up trying to claim capitalism makes people poorer. Faced with so many obvious gains in the standard of living, and in reducing poverty worldwide, markets have won the economic debate over whether or not capitalism is the path to material riches.

But the doctrinaire anti-capitalists have other strategies. They’ve now branched out into blaming capitalism for a host of other social, ecological, and psychological ills.

Sometimes, the tactic is to blame capitalism for destroying the earth. Other times, it’s to claim that capitalism, in spite of the material plenty it delivers, makes us miserable.

For example, George Monbiot, columnist at The Guardian blames pro-capitalist ideology for making people, sad, lonely, and unhealthy. Writers cite polls claiming people in richer countries — i.e., more capitalistic ones — are more miserable than people elsewhere. Holly Baxter at The Independent suggests capitalism is the reason elderly people are now so lonely and isolated: capitalism makes us more concerned with buying things than with visiting poor, dying Aunt Ethel.

Claim: Capitalism Wants Us to Be Sad, Needy Consumers

And it’s all by design, it seems. According to Monbiot and other critics of “neoliberalism” — by which they just mean anything resembling a market system — the capitalist ideology is designed to isolate us, and turn us into soulless consumers. This then paves the way for an endless cycle of misery and consumption.

For a more academic phrasing of this idea, we could consult Ankita Singh’s article “Capitalism, Consumerism, and Popular Culture” which examines how capitalism creates a downward cycle of despair. This persistent unhappiness, Singh explains, “is caused [by] the sense of alienation one feels in today’s urban corporate culture.” Consequently, consumers attempt to “compensate” for their capitalism-caused “emptiness” by “indulg[ing] in inanimate objects offered by the consumerist culture.”

At this point, all that is left for the capitalists to do is to tell us what products to buy. And fortunately for the capitalists, Singh tells us: “The power of advertising is such that it can create a demand where none exists, of a commodity which is not needed.”1

Much of this general concept can be traced back to Marxist psychologist Erich Fromm, who in Escape from Freedom (1941) wrote:

In capitalism economic activity, success, material gains, become ends in themselves. It becomes man’s fate to contribute to the growth of the economic system, to amass capital, not for purposes of his own happiness or salvation, but as an end in itself.

That is, through capitalism and its propagandists (i.e., advertisers) human beings are reduced to “a cog in the vast economic machine” who no longer pursues his own happiness, but only serves the interests of “capitalism.”

There are a couple of problems with this theory, though.

One is that a capitalist economy does not rely on endless consumption to sustain itself. The second is that advertising doesn’t work the way many assume it does.

Capitalism Doesn’t Cause Consumerism

For starters, it is not the case that the capitalist system is built on consumption or that it requires us to mortgage our future in order to buy ever-larger amounts of consumer goods. After all, it is for a good reason that capitalism has historically been much associated with misers — the quintessential literary example being Ebenezer Scrooge — who shunned consumerism. Saving (i.e., deferred spending) is every bit as essential to capitalism as is consumption. It is governments and their central banks, not markets, that seek to maximize consumption always and everywhere.

Moreover, saving and investment are key ingredients in increasing wages, growing the capital stock, and increasing future consumption. In a market economy, many firms, such as retirement funds and banks, directly profit from more saving and investment.

Spending every last dime on another trinket or bauble is not a recipe for robust capitalism.

How Advertisers Are Supposedly Making Us Miserable

At this point, the purveyor of the capitalism-makes-you-sad theory could still insist: “sure, maybe capitalism overall doesn’t require us to relentlessly consume. But certainly there’s a portion of the capitalist system, such as toy sellers and auto makers, who need us to consume. And to get us to do so, they use advertising designed to keep us hoping we can fill that hole in our souls with just one more trip to the mall.”

There’s a (small) kernel of truth to this. Many capitalists do indeed want us to buy consumer goods, without much regard to the consequences to each consumer personally. In hopes of getting us to spend, they employ advertising. And advertising often promotes feelings of inadequacy to get us to consume more.

This particular kind of advertising was developed at least as early as the nineteenth century. It was then perfected in the 1920s.

Typical examples of the formula include:

  • Why be ugly … when you can use Zenith Cold Cream?
  • Why be fat … when you can take Acme Diet Pills?

This formula was so widespread by the 1920s and 1930s, in fact, that Sigmund Freud joked the “boldest and most successful piece of American publicity” would be an ad using the phrase “Why live if you can be buried for ten dollars?”2

Nowadays, a lot of modern advertising is more nuanced and less in-your-face than this formula. Modern advertising often appeals to humor. Nevertheless, advertisers nowadays still rely on the strategy of presenting consumption as a sort of self-improvement. They offer a glimpse of a life of better looking people, more luxurious cars, and more fulfilling friendships. It’s the life you might have if you only consume the right products and services.

But do people actually believe what advertisers tell them?

Clearly, people don’t buy everything advertisers tell them to. If they did, as Ludwig von Mises noted, candle makers could convince us to abandon light bulbs with a few ad campaigns.

Indeed, studies conducted to determine the effectiveness of ads have never been conclusive. A 1931 consumer survey revealed the “only 5 percent of the public believed any of the more obviously outrageous claims made by ads.” Only 37 percent believed any ads at all.3

A 2013 survey concluded only 21 percent of consumers agreed “ads are somewhat accurate.” 21 percent also said they will even “refuse to purchase products due to brand advertising.”

Some might claim this is only survey data, and thus questionable. But then there are countless cases in which ad campaigns failed to achieve results. A 2015 study from the University of Texas, for example, showed alcohol ads have increased 400 percent over the past forty years. Meanwhile, per capita alcohol consumption has gone down. Yes, advertising can be helpful in promoting a certain brand. But it hasn’t been shown to increase a person’s overall spending.

So, it seems people don’t spend more just because capitalists tell them to. And its unclear that many even believe what ads have to say. If this is the case, it’s hard to see how “capitalism” has succeeded in its nefarious plan to make us miserable consumers, assuaging our loneliness with another round of mindless spending.

Are We More Miserable than Our Forebears?

In spite of the unconvincing reasoning behind the capitalism-makes-you-sad narrative, many continue to find it plausible. This is largely because many people remain convinced that people were happier — or at least had an easier time — in the past.

Certainly, there’s no statistical data to support this. Those happiness measurements we sometimes read about in the popular media (such as this one) are usually based on totally subjective self-reported survey data and offer absolutely no means of comparing the present with the past. Attempts to systematically asses “happiness” in the past were virtually nonexistent.

Quality-of-life indicators reconstructed from the past (such as working hours, living space, life expectancy, and homicide rates) don’t often make the era of our grandparents or great-grandparents look especially wonderful. The nineteenth century — an era before modern methods of mass marketing and mass consumption — wasn’t an era of carefree indifference to the requirements of daily work and toil. The poverty of the “good old days” was not exactly a source of personal fulfillment and contentment.

But perhaps we need to look deeper into the past?

On this, Murray Rothbard suggests the imagined Golden Age before capitalism existed. It was, according to the myth, an era of “Happy Craftsmen and Happy Peasants” who had a “sense of belonging” and all were “sure of his station in life.” No one suspected he ought to be buying a new car or a new bedroom set. No such options were available at all.

Was living in poverty with no access to advertisements or capitalism the real key to happiness? Rothbard is skeptical and notes that people — should they really want to flee capitalism — are largely free to pursue this supposedly happier type of living in communes like the utopians or hippies of old. He concludes:

Not only has almost no one abandoned modern society to return to a happy, integrated life of fixed poverty, but those few intellectuals who did form communal Utopias of one sort or another during the nineteenth century abandoned these attempts very quickly. And perhaps the most conspicuous non withdrawers from society are those very critics who use our modern “alienated” mass communications to denounce modern society.

It’s comforting to think there is some time or place in which human beings were not troubled by feelings of unhappiness, emptiness, or inadequacy. It’s unclear, however, where or when this place has existed. In the mean time, few seem willing to give up their modern amenities to investigate first-hand.

*About the author: Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Source: This article was published by the MISES Institute

Notes:

1. Singh calls to mind a line from the 1999 film Fight Club in which a main character declares modern workers in a capitalistic system are “slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes. Working jobs we hate so that we can buy sh-t we don’t need.”

2. Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty:Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: The Noonday Press, 1995), p. 144.

3. Ibid., p. 68.

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Saoirse McHugh: We need to talk about capitalism

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N HER FORTNIGHTLY column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.   

A most ludicrous situation is taking place in which we are disrupting weather systems we have relied on for centuries, poisoning drinking water, destroying habitats that provide food and fuel and pushing ourselves outside of the relatively stable climate we have enjoyed for the past few thousand years.

Despite all of this, most of our media and the great majority of our politicians refuse to talk about the reason why I believe this is happening. What is driving us to continue down such a grim and unpredictable path? The answer is capitalism.

Extracting profit from resources (often privately owned) and labour only to reinvest in further extraction has wreaked havoc on our world. The accumulation of profit as a shaping force in society leaves so much unaccounted for and undervalued.

In general, there is no cost given to implications such as resource use, pollution, and (much and all as I don’t like the term) ecosystem services such as air and water cleaning, pollination and nitrogen cycling.

When these are factored into cost it can have an alleviating impact, but of course the natural world does not trade in dollars and no amount of money can ever compensate for species extinction, coral reefs dying or the damage caused by oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The need for growth and the relentless expansion into and enclosing of new commons, such as carbon use and genetic information, means that capitalism is entirely incompatible with a finite planet and a just world.

Despite all this it is rare to hear our economic system discussed openly in Ireland outside of a few groups or lone politicians. It has developed the impression of being outside of our control, almost like some God imposed this system upon us.

When the conversation comes up politically, our elected representatives shy away from it and speak in vague terms about prosperity and growth. They do not delve into the idea that not only do we have the power to begin changing our economic system, but we have a moral and environmental imperative to do so.

‘But look at North Korea and Cuba’ 

I am not fully sure why there is such hesitancy to speak about capitalism. Is it because decades of American television have well and truly damaged the ability to talk about it without somebody bringing up the Soviet Union and communism?

I myself have had so many conversations where capitalism comes up and is met with: “But look at North Korea and Cuba, look at how many people died in Soviet Russia.” No doubt atrocities occurred in countries which were under a different economic system.

However, that argument ignores and minimises the atrocities that have been carried out in capitalist countries. The suffering and destruction capitalism has caused and is continuing to cause in the world is immeasurable.

It is a system with its origins in colonialism and to this very day there is a massive extraction of wealth from previously colonised countries. The social, physical, and economic violence used to keep these relationships in place is beyond comprehension and much of it has become accepted as normal.

It is ridiculous to talk about environmentalism without talking about capitalism, yet many people do so. Not only is it a part of our lives but it is the system within which we all operate.

It is all that most of us have ever known and for that reason people tend to avoid the conversation, perhaps for fear of looking radical or outside of the world of common sense.

The promises of green growth or sustainable capitalism are tempting, yet I fear that every year spent chasing these will-o-the-wisps is a year lost while continuing to worsen our predicament.

There will be no climate justice until we move to a different economic system. We need to halt the extraction of wealth from previously colonized countries and, more than that, repay and compensate these countries as fully as possible.

Obviously, it is not just capitalism that damages the environment. There are discussions of petroleum-based socialism and of communism focused on growth, which are extremely damaging too but we have arrived at a time where capitalism is the dominant economic model.

There is no point in skirting around the issue, we need to transform our economies and recognise that any politician who is not engaging in the conversation about our economic model and ways to change it is wasting everyone’s time. 

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Letter: Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness

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Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness. All Hanson offers is more of the same prescriptions that brought us to climate change, inequality, huge government, corporate and private debts, erosion of our infrastructure, a health care crisis, international turmoil, etc.

How about some ownership and something new? If we redefine the goal as sustainability instead of growth, universal equity in services and opportunity, building community instead of dominance, and building a world for the seventh generation in the future, then we must acknowledge that capitalism as we have known it is broken.

Rather than try to pigeonhole the opposition with a derogatory label, let’s find a way to utilize human character to fulfill the promise of a better world for all living creatures both now and in the future.

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Let’s restore our values, do away with capitalism

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One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures, the writer says.

In this past decade, we witnessed a degeneration of politics across the spectrum, with social media, notwithstanding its use, becoming the worst platform for corrosive politics.

We also witnessed moral degeneration and character assassination as influenced by capitalism.

The moral degeneration in SA is very high and that directly reflects the politics of our country.

This open letter is an invitation for us, more especially ANC and Alliance partners, to think critically about who we are as a society and perhaps champion ways in which we can restore some of the values that we have lost.

No more buyers for the escapism Top Billing is selling

Of all the feasts and feats of Top Billing in the past 23 years, there are perhaps not enough Gucci slides that can quite help it dodge its flip and …Opinion1 month ago

One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures. And one of our loopholes as the ANC from 1994 onwards was not to restore our values of ubuntu and revive the black family unit.

Twenty-five years into democracy, it is in our hands as ANC to dissociate ourselves with capitalism because capitalism is an evil that causes the corruption we are seeing now.

It is capitalist ideas that are behind killings of our comrades.

Capitalism is an inherently evil system that thrives on hate, jealousy and inhumanity.

Viwe Sidali, Duncan Village, East London

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