When considering a metaphor for describing a reality that is inherently difficult to grasp, it can be easy to lose your grip on the thing to which the metaphor points. The authors’ of Affluenza follow their metaphor closely and it works for the most part. The best part of their metaphor is that it makes the book more fun to read, gives it a hook and is actually helpful in understanding the reality of what the metaphor describes. I think the metaphor of consumerism as a disease remains helpful and describes an aspect of the reality that we might lose if we dismissed it completely.
As a theologian (aren’t we all), however, I am also interested in the idea that consumerism is a religious enterprise (that’s a simile, not a metaphor). William Cavanaugh has pointed out how notoriously difficult it is to define religion. He criticizes the work of many scholars of religion, pointing out that they often don’t abide by their own definitions. They are usually too broad or too narrow to be helpful either excluding examples most people consider religions like Buddhism or including things that most people would not consider religions like football (either American or soccer, both would fit).
The way I am thinking about religion is more on the broad side. Nevertheless, I feel the danger of being too broad and it becoming useless both as a definition and as a metaphor. There are difficulties here because there are other words used to describe similar phenomena. Ideology, culture and worldview attempt to describe some network of underlying beliefs or assumptions that animate, motivate or dictate someone or a community’s way of responding to the world. Ideology is similar to religious belief in that in its mature form it is something freely chosen and adopted as one’s own. Culture can also be similar to religious belief in that it arises in a social or communal context and involves the influence of the community. Some aspect of both are at play in consumerism. Worldview is perhaps the most similar, but attempts to encompass aspects outside of religion like culture that are at work in the way we perceive, interpret and respond to the world. Tomes have been written with various theories about all these words and what they mean.
In considering whether religion is an appropriate way of talking about consumerism, I am primarily concerned with the way that religion functions, particularly religions that claim a universal mission, such as Christianity, Islam or Mormonism. I could easily write a book in the vein of Affluenza, naming the high priests, describing the rites and rituals, basically making a comparison between something called religion and something else called consumerism. What I am more interested in is in what ways consumerism actually is a kind of religion. This is a more ambitious and difficult task, which is probably why I have only thrown out references to the idea without exploring it in depth yet.
It would be helpful first to unpack what exactly I am trying to understand in religious terms. Consumerism, or the consumer economy, are related to globalization, global economy, growth economy and perhaps also the idea of development. Almost all of these terms are somewhat vague. Therefore they will need some clarification in their definitions and relationships to each other. Globalization is the overarching concept that seems to encompass the others. It is the corollary to Christianity or Islam. Consumerism is the vehicle that spreads this religion, while the consumer or growth economy (and maybe even the idea of development) are the message, or gospel, that consumerism intends to spread in order to support this overarching project of globalization.
I hope to explore this more in depth in the future, but for now here are the features that I see these aspects of globalization sharing in common with religions, primarily the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
- Belief/Faith- As much as economists want their field to be a science it remains a field that relies on untested assumptions about how human beings behave and what is best for them and the world.
- Universal Message- The message is for all people. Obviously not everyone agrees with the tenets of globalization and consumerism, but the belief is that everyone should.
- Universal Mission- Because there are people who resist the message, or adhere to contradictory beliefs from other religions, there must be a mission, universal in scope, to convert people to the truth of these beliefs.
- Evangelism- This grows out of the other three aspects, but it is important to recognize that those who believe in and practice this religion reveal it through their actions. Advertising executives, CEOs, government officials and even NGOs make statements and actions that reveal their assumptions and beliefs.
Of course this preliminary post only sets the stage and raises lots of questions. Here are some of my initial questions which come to mind:
- Is there a distinction between those who are believers in this religion and those who participate unwittingly, a sort of cultural consumer (like cultural Christians, etc.)?
- What are the origin stories/creation myths of globalization/consumerism?
- What are the rites and rituals of this supposed religion? How do they function and relate to what we normally consider religions?
- Is Global Consumer-anity in direct competition with the other religions? Is it functionally exclusive to other belief systems?
- In what ways do we adhere to multiple belief systems simultaneously? Are there Christian, Islamic, Latin American, Russian, or indigenous versions of Global Consumer-anity? Do they compete with each other or on the level of Global Consumer-anity do they basically get along?
It’s clear that the same issues that are present in studying other religions arise when trying to understand the phenomenon of consumerism and globalization in these terms. How does this “religion” relate to other religions and across cultures? What are the different sects, denominations or cults within the religion? What are the orthodox teachings or doctrines? I hope I get to write this book someday. But if someone else beats me to it, I will just keep growing my own food and trying to need as little as possible.