Capitalism is often blamed for consumerism. It is almost a certainty that whenever leftists run out of other arguments, they will make an argument related to consumerism. Consumerism is almost universally despised by people who have higher ideals, so it is easy to point out consumerism and then act as if it is an argument against capitalism. One reason for this is that socialism, the other major economic system in the modern world, eventually leaves people with nothing to consume, so capitalism is an easier target. But socialists make multiple critical errors in blaming capitalism for consumerism. While it is certainly true that capitalists benefit from a consumer culture, and that the capitalist system will not be toppled when people are attracted to consumer culture, this does not mean that capitalism as a system of free enterprise and private property is by necessity a cause of consumerism or oriented around consumerism. Furthermore, the capitalist class itself will be subject to consumerism and themselves be as hurt by it as anyone else.
When we look at why people engage in consumerism, we can see several major trends that cause consumerism. The first is having a corporate structure when it comes to enterprise. This means that for there to be consumerism there must be people who advance consumerism. There would be no consumerism if there were no beneficiaries of consumerism, and honest businesses do not need consumerism. Corporations are not honest businesses, as they hide behind a legal fiction created by the state. Without corporate structures, which are entirely constructed by the state, there is no party who would advance consumerism. Second, there must be people who are willing to engage in consumerism. Whereas people who have their lives figured out and have purpose beyond themselves do not turn to consumerism, these must be people who have nothing better to do than to consume. Such people see their lives as a series of capital transactions in which they seek immediate gratification. Consumerism cannot develop within healthy societies where people have cares beyond their own immediate interests. Third, consumerism requires that these people have money, as they cannot consume without first gaining access to a sufficient amount of capital. Thus, consumerism requires an abundance of consumer goods and services. Fourth, there must be a high social time preference within the society because people need to seek immediate gratification to value consumerism instead of being personally disgusted by engaging in consumerism. Finally, it is not only necessary that people have personal abundance, but that the capital structures that produce consumer goods are well-maintained. These capital structures will be maintained when people consume, but high time preferences will necessarily cause a form of stagnation, as there is insufficient investment to facilitate growth.
It is undeniable that the modern economy is largely driven by giant corporate structures, and it is similarly undeniable that these corporate structures are based on making as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time. Making profit is not inherently bad, but it is necessary to account for time preferences. The strategy used by megacorporations once they have attained their status is not to build up a honest reputation and a good name as valuable providers of quality services, but rather to profit in the moment and then leverage this profit for future gain. This is why many corporations operate in debt; they hope that they can be propelled by their profit and obtain investors by providing the potential for returns. This has much to do with the nature of corporations. Corporations are entities partially separate from the people and property legally represented by them. They shield people from personal responsibility, which creates a wide range of perverse incentives. If businesses were fully accountable, then there could not be such a large amount of corruption within them or such a high time preference by them. Without the ability to sustain debt through lack of responsibility, businesses would have to lower their time preferences.
Not only does the state indirectly advance predatory business practices in allowing corporate structures to take shape, the state also directly allies with corporations. Whereas attempting to create a corporation without involving the state will have no effect, incorporation is a government program and a corporation is a public-private partnership. Furthermore, politicians are funded by corporations, and corporations get special benefits from the state as a return on their investment in political connections. The result is that the state has been overtaken by corporate power, and the two work symbiotically in order to enhance their parasitism upon the rest of society. The largest corporations need their licenses, privileges, regulations, and other such competition-stifling measures to maintain their position, while the state needs to have control over the economy to maintain its position. Corporations are the only entities that can truly ensure that the economy is not outside the state. The entire modern political system is based on a mutual reassurance between corporations and the state, and separating the two at this point will cause an economic collapse.
At the highest level of business, the image of the humble CEO or board manager who does what needs to be done is a misconception; the people who run megacorporations are not the most virtuous people. Big business is not oppressed, and is not some heroic figure from an Ayn Rand novel who is fighting against the state for the freedom to compete in the free market. Rather, through regulatory capture, big business uses state power to oppress small businesses and individuals who seek to compete with them. For these reasons, the corporation is a fundamentally anti-capitalist institution.
There are the situations in which the state directly incentivizes high time preferences. People who are struggling financially are far easier to control than those who are financially secure. By contrast, when people save money and accumulate wealth, they are less influenced by the state. The state can make use of this to artificially create and expand a consumer culture by inflating away savings. This is done by printing fiat currency that loses its value over time, then watching people impoverish themselves by using that currency. People may have an abundance of consumer goods, but they are constantly struggling financially and feel as if they are much poorer than they are. These reckless spending habits that are bound to impoverish the spenders are extremely beneficial to the state and the politically connected corporate elites. Furthermore, the state can tax people more on their purchases if they spend beyond their means. It will also create more possibilities for taxing artificially successful businesses when they inevitably expand due to the calculation with inflationary currency being favorable towards them. However, this is unsustainable and always results in an economic contraction. Unfortunately, the state can also exploit this by picking winners and losers, bailing out favored megacorporations, creating new social welfare programs, and expanding the grip of central banking over the economy.
Having high time preferences also leads to an economy based on debt, in which people spend more than they have, and both governmental and private institutions support this spending. Banks earn most of their income from this overspending and from people who are unable to pay them back in full. Due to this over-reliance on debt, the population as a whole is saddled with debt that can feel impossible to ever pay off, which can cause them to lose their motivation in life. The population will be easier to control by both the state and the banks that run this debt-based economy, as the agencies who provide the debt for the economy are the agencies who make the reliance on debt possible. Easy debt also leads to price inflation, as there is more market demand without a corresponding increase in market supply.
People get addicted to debt when they need to spend more than they have. However, this results in a problem when a person’s available collateral shrinks in comparison to their debt. They will eventually hit a wall where they can take no more debt unless and until they pay off their old debt. This is a debt trap in which people must repeatedly take on new debt to pay off old debt, all while interest accumulates and clearing their debt is impossible. This keeps people from being able to prosper, and the number of people trapped under such a burden is increasing. This, in turn, causes much greater class divides, as lower-class individuals who do not keep a store of capital that they can use for various ventures will be unable to make profitable investments. They will always be subject to one boss or another and will never experience true independence.
None of this is the fault of a capitalistic economy, but rather the high time preferences exhibited by the consumerists. On the contrary, capitalism is the most benevolent aspect of this situation, as it punishes the destructive habits of consumerism. These people are stuck in poverty not because of capitalism, but because of their own consumption habits amplified by state interference. Their lack of advancement is not an unfair punishment, but rather a sign that they should change their ways. This requires a particular mindset of growth and improvement that is most often stunted by public education and the degenerate culture which most people inhabit. This mindset requires that people actually trust the market signals they receive instead of seeing capitalism as a repressive entity. Escaping poverty requires a willingness to do what must be done instead of waiting for someone else to provide a handout. People who blame capitalism for holding them down while engaging in mindless consumerism are as children who eat too much candy, become ill, and also complain that they have too little candy.
The modern society allows people to live a life without meaning. It removes church as a higher spiritual goal, community as a higher social goal, family as a higher personal goal, and even denies the importance of individual goals that a normal person might have. Through the lens of modernity, it is better to remain free and untethered rather than have a family. Looking out for one’s own interests at an individual or group level is derided as selfishness that ignores the greater good of society or hateful racism. By society, modernists do not refer to the disaffected small villages or the impoverished sections in urban communities that are in the greatest need of strong and healthy communities. Instead, they almost exclusively refer to a central state and imply that people are only worthwhile when they work for the state or when they work for nothing of value. They only see the state as a representative of society, with the only acceptable substitute to focusing on the state being pure hedonistic nihilism. Ironically enough, this mindset is most often heard coming from people who oppose capitalism on the basis of it being anti-social.
People are thus left without a greater meaning to work towards. They are left not providing for themselves, their family, or something else they hold dear. People are left as freely floating agents who are reduced to nothing other than consumers, and material pleasures are the only things that allow these people to tolerate the otherwise meaningless lives that they lead. They are not some great paragons of modernity, but rather embody the lowest state of rot and decay.
Consumerism is caused by progressivism, corporatism, and impatience. Capitalism is nowhere near the root cause of consumerism. Free enterprise and private property do not create such a propensity to consume over doing more meaningful things. The reason why consumerism is such a prevalent phenomenon is not because there is too much capitalism, but because people lack self-restraint or purpose and are encouraged by the state to live in such a manner.