Several ideologies have tried to dominate our society; communism, fascism, democracy and religions are some examples. Among all ideologies however, the one that’s achieved complete supremacy is consumerism and here’s why.
Throughout the human history, scarcity was our biggest problem. We experienced it in the form of hunger, poverty or deprivation. Overtime, we developed an urge to seek beyond what we basically need. Nothing seemed enough and we continued to be dissatisfied. Dissatisfaction was strengthened further by conspicuous consumers – like the rich and the powerful – to whom, buying more simply distinguished them from the powerless. With the flourishing international trade of the 17th century, flaunting one’s wealth became respectable too.
At the same time, economists like Adam Smith argued that the pursuit of luxury worked as an economic driver to make everybody richer. So people were encouraged to pursue their own economic interests for a better economic system. Capitalism was born out of this economic model and consumerism stood at its heart.
Scarcity was gradually overcome as a result of the Industrial Revolution, and factories were producing large quantities of goods that society demanded. Things became cheap too. For instance, with Henry Ford’s assembly lines, cars were no longer just the privilege of the rich. New markets were created and businesses made fortunes by manufacturing luxury items at affordable prices.
It wasn’t just the production of goods that was revolutionised, the process of buying was itself transformed with the opening of departmental stores such as Macy’s and Marshall Field. Shopping was now seen a respectable leisure activity and departmental stores offered a dream world of material luxury, while promoting shopping as an experience to savour. Ordinary Americans now believed that affluence was their birth right and access to wealth became an integral part of the American dream. This philosophy quickly spread to the rest of the world; consumerism became a way of life.
While stimulating people’s desires to subtly create envy, consumerism took a different turn. Temptation and seduction became at least as important as providing information. Big business and its advertising agencies turned to psychology to understand consumer behaviour and motivation; to influence them into buying even more.
With advertisers working on our subconscious minds, products no longer matter; it’s the kind of person they promise to make us feel that really counts. We all consume and have been wired to consumerism – it’s now deep in our heads. Because we’ve all been trained to desire, consumerism will continue to be our principle pastime, and remain the most dominant ideology of all.