Consumerism - An Enquiry into the Origin Of Moral Virtue / by Chris Baldwin

By Justin

Week 3

Back in the Day

When things like consumerism and capitalism are discussed, it’s often in relation to the beginnings of the industrial revolution. Names like Adam Smith are often mentioned but consumerism actually has a much longer history.

60,000 years ago Homosapiens left the continent of Africa and moved around the world heading to Asia, Australia and Europe. Starting settlements wherever they ended up.

Around 40-50,000 years ago some of them settled in Turkey, and that’s where modern day archaeologists made a pretty big discovery; hand crafted beads from around 43,000 years ago. Now, this may not seem like a big deal but it was actually a phenomenon!

Up until this point humans have only made tools and other objects needed for tasks, hunting and food prep etc! What is phenomenal about these beads is the fact they were made for decoration. This is one of the very first signs of human culture and using objects for status. There were beads to show what clan you belonged to, beads to show you had given birth to children, beads to show you were a warrior etc.

By the time Humans had settled in western Europe they were mass producing these beads and other cultural indicators.

In essence, life didn’t change too much from early settlements to around the 17th century. Cave dwellings became shacks etc etc, but in terms of life not much had changed. People didn’t own too much; except the now established “ruling class”, who owned a the majority of things, used as cultural indicators to show who was “on top”.

In the early 18th century transport links were improving, towns and cities were growing at an increasing rate and improvements in manufacturing meant there were more goods and higher concentrations of people to see/buy them.

This was the beginnings of consumerism which was soon hit with a backlash from religious groups who declared that people seemed to care more about the condition of their houses than their “souls”.


The Fable of the Bees

In 1723 Doctor by the name of Bernard Mandeville wrote a story called The Fable of the Bees. Mandeville already had a reputation as a scandalous libertine! This story only further cemented that. The basic crux of Mandeville’s argument in the fable was that private vices were, in fact, for the public good.

Basically, buying things meant more things needed to be made, which meant more people being employed in production, which meant more wages being paid, which lead to more disposable cash being available to buy more things. He was, of course, totally correct! This lead to vast social improvements, more money for society in general and the birth of the middle class.

Not long after Adam Smith released The Wealth of Nationssolidified the idea of consumerism, and laid the ground work for capitalism. There main difference here being  that Adam Smith’s version of capitalism held that the value of an object was based on labour, which stayed central to most economists’ ideas until it, ironically. became central to Marxism.

Here, I’d like to just remind you of 40,000 years before this when beads were first used as status symbols. This was being repeated, but this time with trends moving towards fashion and were indicators of wealth, status and success.


Something Changed....

The first world war marked a turning point in advertising, “following the experiences of war time propaganda and the need to manipulate public opinion in the first total war, psychological advertising was introduced” (Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present - page 6, David Welch). Here is where we begin to see the widespread usage of the new nomination of behavioural psychology with advertising.

The main change in advertising here was from using adverts to inform the public of a product and its usage to using psychology to create a need for the product, to create a reality where buying the product would somehow improve the person’s life/wellbeing. This was largely based on the works of Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays’ 1928 book Propaganda was an exploration into the usage of propaganda to effect politics, social change etc. He went on to promote the idea of using similar techniques in the marketing and advertising of products. Historically Bernays is know as the father of modern public relations.

This is also around the time where we departed from the Adam Smith school of thought around value being based on labour, and moved towards value being based on how much the product was desired, the desire which was created by inventing the need to own the product, using slogans like “a universal symbol of achievement” to align ownership of a product with social status and evidence of success!


Next week we would look over the ground covered so far and connect a few dots before moving onto the next few sections.