The last half century has witnessed an explosion of mass consumption with far-reaching economic, ecological, political, cultural, and moral consequences. This explosion is not due to any innate impulse – even if it can be admitted that there is a tendency to excess in human beings – but to a structural and historical situation: capitalism, an intrinsically expansive socio-economic system that can only function by incessantly expanding the scale of its intervention. Capitalism has installed the tendency to growth at the very heart of the economic system.
There is a relationship between the necessary and the superfluous, where at first sight the distinction between the two concepts seems clear: the superfluous we can do without, the necessary we cannot. But there is a universal tendency to turn objects and practices that were previously born as superfluous into necessities. Luxuries such as protecting one’s feet with footwear end up being redefined as necessities and are adopted by all members of the community. Indeed, thanks to permanent innovation, new possibilities for human life appear that, at first, are only within the reach of a powerful or extravagant minority, but which then become generalized and become symbols of human self-realization for all people, to such an extent that it is unimaginable not to make use of them.
When electric light is within everyone’s reach, using oil lamps is inconceivable. There are several dynamics that push us in this direction. The adoption of novelties sometimes results from the logic of distinction: privileged groups wish to show their social superiority by means of signs that distinguish them from ordinary mortals. They dress differently, eat differently, live in different houses.
Another dynamic is the logic of imitation: those at the bottom want to resemble those at the top and imitate them. This only happens when there are sufficient material means at the disposal of those at the bottom and when egalitarian values prevail. In societies such as modern ones, which proclaim the principle of equality – coexisting with enormous de facto inequalities – the logic of imitation represents a driving force behind mass consumption as a mimicry of the popular classes with respect to the privileged, in an indefinite race towards growing consumption in all classes of society. Some and others satisfy their need for self-esteem, recognition, and self-realization by buying more and more things, in accordance with the acquisitive and possessive values that predominate in the collective imaginary.
I invite everyone to read Matías’ post on the topic of the day
Finally, I encourage everyone to reflect on the concept of the day. No one else but us can re-signify our own being