Consumerism’s irresistible appeal

We tend to forget that the effects of the industrial revolution in second half of the 19th century went far beyond technological innovation with decisive increase in productivity and, consequently, a substantial drop in unit prices for literally all kind of products. Seen from a life style point of view the effects were enormous and changed societies not only in the Western world, but in societies worldwide. Consumerism was borne, and it did not start with food stuff or mechanical things, – it started with cloths.

“Spinning Jenny”, the revolutionary spinning machine invented in Britain in 1764 by James Hargreaves, and put to its first operational modus a decade thereafter, was improved steadily until these new spinning machines could produce cotton with such efficiency that unit prices for cotton wear declined by approximately 90 per cent some 40 years later. Not only did cheaper clothing overflow the British and other Western markets, it spread out to the whole world. Traditional clothing disappeared from every-day dressing around the world. Such clothes were kept for celebrations. Only in a few places people hold out against this general trend, one being the mountainous area of the Andes in Peru, where women still wear their colourful dresses and peculiar hats.

Today people dress in much the same way around the world. First out, and very eagerly so, were the Japanese. With a slowdown represented by Mao and the dull dress code he imposed on the Chinese, China is today about to overtake most Asian societies when it comes to Western way of dressing. How come? Is it only because of the price? Of course not, – and the Chinese and the Japanese make cloths much cheaper than Europeans and Americans. But they don’t focus on making their traditional cloths cheaper, they produce jeans and T-shirts and they follow Western fashion and trends.

This phenomenon started out with cloths and has continued with almost everything else: music, film, food, electronics, vehicles, etc.. Consumerism has brought Western life style to the rest of the world; one could even say the Western civilization came with consumerism to Asian and African societies. A distinct difference between urban and rural societies, though. Traditions tend to stick more in peoples’ hearts and minds in rural areas, as is the case also in Western countries.

The interesting question I dare to ask then, is the following: Isn’t the very fact that most people and societies around the world take on Western behaviour and consumer goods not only an indication, but also a proof, that Western civilization is the supreme and preferred civilization – the winner among all civilizations – both the present and the past? I will argue that a civilization which die out and is replaced by another is not a “winner”, as it has proved to be non-sustainable; like the Ming dynasties in China.

Religion is definitely playing an important role in this context. In some societies a dominating religion and its priesthood may literally be an efficient obstacle to innovation and new way of life. A Muslim dominated society forced to live by Sharia laws and regulations stands a less chance of building competitive knowledge and economy than a Christian North European secular society, where Luther’s reforms prevail. Is this what they see, then, the Muslim fundamentalists and the extreme militant leaders among them, that the Western civilization is like an irresistible wave hitting their societies and eating the souls of their youth – with consumerism as the most devilish weapon of all?

They may even be right – up to a point, that is – as consumerism could be a dangerous and undermining “weapon” also in Western societies, if it is not balanced by other and more lasting values.

Knut Harald Nylænde is a Norwegian based businessman and investor. Partly through his company, Moxie AS, he invests and is active in the development of a number of companies both in Norway and abroad. He is also an active participant in discussions online about a number of issues both related to business and also a number of political and cultural issues.