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
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.
How Canadian churches are helping their communities cope with the wildfires
As wildfires burn across Canada, churches are finding ways to support their members and the broader community directly impacted by the crisis.
According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, as of June 13, there are 462 active fires across Canada – and 236 of them classified as out of control fires.
Whether it’s through phone calls or donations to community members, here’s how a few churches across Canada are handling active wildfires and the aftermath in their regions.
Westwood Hills, N.S.: St. Nicholas Anglican Church
In Nova Scotia, St. Nicholas Anglican Church and other churches in the area are collecting money for grocery cards to give to families impacted by the Tantallon wildfire.
The fire is now considered contained, but Tanya Moxley, the treasurer at St. Nicholas is organizing efforts to get grocery gift cards into the hands of impacted families.
As of June 12, four churches in the area – St. Nicholas, Parish of French Village, St Margaret of Scotland and St John the Evangelist – raised nearly $3,500. The money will be split for families’ groceries between five schools in the area impacted by the wildfire.
Moxley said she felt driven to raise this money after she heard the principal of her child’s school was using his own money to buy groceries for impacted families in their area.
“[For] most of those people who were evacuated, the power was off in their subdivision for three, four or five days,” she said. “Even though they went home and their house was still standing, the power was off and they lost all their groceries.”
Moxley said many people in the area are still “reeling” from the fires. She said the church has an important role to help community members during this time.
“We’re called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless and all that stuff, right? So this is it. This is like where the rubber hits the road.”
Is it ever OK to steal from a grocery store?
Mythologized in the legend of Robin Hood and lyricized in Les Misérables, it’s a debate as old as time: is it ever permissible to steal food? And if so, under what conditions? Now, amid Canada’s affordability crisis, the dilemma has extended beyond theatrical debate and into grocery stores.
Although the idea that theft is wrong is both a legally enshrined and socially accepted norm, the price of groceries can also feel criminally high to some — industry data shows that grocery stores can lose between $2,000 and $5,000 a week on average from theft. According to Statistics Canada, most grocery item price increases surged by double digits between 2021 and 2022. To no one’s surprise, grocery store theft is reportedly on the rise as a result. And if recent coverage of the issue rings true, some Canadians don’t feel bad about shoplifting. But should they?
Kieran Oberman, an associate professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom, coined the term “re-distributive theft” in his 2012 paper “Is Theft Wrong?” In simplest terms, redistributive theft is based on the idea that people with too little could ethically take from those who have too much.
“Everybody, when they think about it, accepts that theft is sometimes permissible if you make the case extreme enough,” Oberman tells me over Zoom. “The question is, when exactly is it permissible?”
Almost no one, Oberman argues, believes the current distribution of wealth across the world is just. We have an inkling that theft is bad, but that inequality is too. As more and more Canadians feel the pinch of inflation, grocery store heirs accumulate riches — Loblaw chair and president Galen Weston, for instance, received a 55 percent boost in compensation in 2022, taking in around $8.4 million for the year. Should someone struggling with rising prices feel guilty when they, say, “forget” to scan a bundle of zucchini?
The homeless refugee crisis in Toronto illustrates Canada’s broken promises
Canadians live in a time of threadbare morality. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Toronto’s entertainment district, where partygoers delight in spending disposable income while skirting refugees sleeping on sidewalks. The growing pile of luggage at the downtown corner of Peter and Richmond streets resembles the lost baggage section at Pearson airport but is the broken-hearted terminus at the centre of a cruel city.
At the crux of a refugee funding war between the municipal and federal governments are those who have fled persecution for the promise of Canada’s protection. Until June 1, asylum seekers used to arrive at the airport and be sent to Toronto’s Streets to Homes Referral Assessment Centre at 129 Peter St. in search of shelter beds. Now, Toronto’s overcrowded shelter system is closed to these newcomers, so they sleep on the street.
New mayor Olivia Chow pushed the federal government Wednesday for at least $160 million to cope with the surge of refugees in the shelter system. She rightly highlights that refugees are a federal responsibility. In response, the department of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada points to hundreds of millions in dollars already allocated to cities across Canada through the Interim Housing Assistance Program, while Ontario says it has given nearly $100 million to organizations that support refugees. But these efforts are simply not enough to deliver on Canada’s benevolent promise to the world’s most vulnerable.
The lack of federal generosity and finger-pointing by the city has orchestrated a moral crisis. It’s reminiscent of the crisis south of the border, where Texas governor Greg Abbott keeps bussing migrants to cities located in northern Democratic states. Without the necessary resources, information, and sometimes the language skills needed to navigate the bureaucratic mazes, those who fled turbulent homelands for Canada have become political pawns.
But Torontonians haven’t always been this callous.
In Ireland Park, at Lake Ontario’s edge, five statues of gaunt and grateful refugees gaze at their new home: Toronto circa 1847. These statues honour a time when Toronto, with a population of only 20,000 people, welcomed 38,500 famine-stricken migrants from Ireland. It paralleled the “Come From Away” event of 9/11 in Gander, N.L., where the population doubled overnight, and the people discovered there was indeed more than enough for all. It was a time when the city lived up to its moniker as “Toronto, The Good.”
Now, as a wealthy city of three million people, the city’s residents are tasked with supporting far fewer newcomers. Can we not recognize the absurdity in claiming scarcity?
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