After World War I, mass production was on a roll in the United States. Assembly-lines had been vitally used for the production of tanks, planes, ammunition and more. After the war ended, millions of personal goods were able to be produced through the same efficient assembly process. Corporations were worried about overproduction.
Up until that time, the average person bought things primarily on need. Necessity, functionality, and durability. What would happen when nearly every person had all of the things they need? How would stuff continue to be sold if most everyone felt like they had enough?
Business executives realized they would have to transform the way people think in order to keep turning a profit. Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers declared, “we must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire—to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
A new desires-based culture took shape in a short amount of time. An anonymous journalist declared in 1927 that, “a change has come over our democracy. It is called consumptionism. The American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer.” Thanks in large part to the propaganda techniques of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the masses were effectively manipulated into buying things they didn’t need. It’s more subtle than ever. From Bernays to today there has been an active effort on the part of businesses, media, and others to nudge you into fulfilling desires with stuff. This is what keeps the gears of our economy turning.
Black Friday is nearly here. It’s the perfect storm of the tradition of gift-giving during the holidays and modern consumerism. You’ve probably already seen enticing deals over the last few days. In 2015, American holiday retail sales totaled over $626 billion. Whether it’s out of nostalgia, a desire to be generous or seen as generous, a sense of obligation to do what everyone else is, getting a little something for yourself, or otherwise, we all collectively spend an absurd amount of money during the holiday season.
We have allowed too much room for wants in a world of needs. We get nudged from all directions and spend without much pushback or critique. It would be banal to point out the major, persistent human problems that could be fixed with $626 billion. But I’m sure that you can think of a handful. What if we addressed some of those problems instead of keeping the consumerist machine running?
I often wonder how many people have been sucked into maxing out credit cards or the promise of layaway because they feel like there isn’t another choice but to handover hundreds of dollars this time of the year. But after a major recession less than a decade ago, with many people struggling to find full or liveable employment, who has a bank account that can keep up with the desires culture we’re tangled up in?
This holiday season, don’t be a consumer. Be a person. Consumer is too simple and loathsome for the complexity and uniqueness of who you are. The common good is not contingent on buying everyone you know something wrapped in a box with ribbon.
I love Christmas. I will shamelessly bump Christmas music at every opportunity and make and eat all of the holiday treats I can. But this season does not have to be about stuff. What are the wants on the wish list–on yours, your children’s, your significant other’s? Can we maybe indulge fewer of those?
What are the needs around you? Everyone is going through something. Tight finances, health battles, struggling to find reasons to wake up and go out in the world. Sometimes the depth of the holiday season is not the blissful cheer of cookies and carols, but the way you can humbly and simply be there for people.
Perhaps your “gift” to others this season is just to be a better human. Is there someone who could really use you taking them out to coffee and listening for awhile? Can you cook for friends or family? Can you do someone’s chores? If there’s gotta be something wrapped up with a bow, can you figure out a thing they need and will use for awhile?
If that sounds simplistic or boring, it’s likely because we’re so saturated in the culture of consuming. Being a better person is not something you can gift-wrap. Getting people things they need is not as flashy as breaking the bank. But it shouldn’t be about the extra–about “packages, boxes, or bags”. When we do holidays right it’s about the people and the moment. The extra is truly extra, and we likely could do without. If you want to show someone this holiday season that you care about them, be sensitive to what they need and come alongside them. Presence, not presents.