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The Consumer Society

Visions of an Alternative
Overview Essay

by Neva R. Goodwin

A Revolution in Values
The articles summarized in this section assume that the values of the consumer society are far from ideal -- they are values whose impact should be much reduced if society is to change in ways that these authors (and, by and large, the editors of this volume) see as desirable.

A fundamental value shift is likely to have an effect on a society that is at least as great as the most transformative material changes. Truly fundamental value shifts occur rarely, and in modern times they have normally coincided, as both cause and effect, with a concatenation of changes in technical possibilities, basic resource availabilities and/or social relations. One such shift was the validation of self-interest in the late eighteenth century, supported by the productive possibilities of increased division of labor and new mechanical inventions, and confirmed by the development of economic theory. This was primarily a shift in the mind set of producers and in the attitudes taken toward producers. It still rested upon a comfortable assumption of religious and moral foundations, of the sort that permitted Adam Smith to write about "The Wealth of Nations" in a context of such "Moral Sentiments" as the self-respect that depends upon viewing oneself as a decent and honorable person.

In the ensuing two centuries of industrialization a shift to the values of consumerism was enabled and necessitated by the productive revolution. Again self-interest was validated and even exalted, this time on the demand side, by the convergent messages of commercial advertising and neoclassical consumer theory. These forces have combined (with, of course, the commercial sector having a far greater weight than the voice of theory) to preach a powerfully attractive lesson. Neoclassical economics methodologically supports its assumption of "consumer sovereignty" by defining social welfare in terms of preferences revealed by purchasing decisions. This is the theoretical sanction for the commercial message that the prime human motivator not only is but should be the gratification of any and all personal desires.

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