I was in the convenience store today, and stopped, astounded by the sight of Ruffles All Dressed potato chips. One of the (relatively few) disadvantages of having lived for a while in a foreign country is that there are always things that are only found there. In Canada, I used to have really neat toaster crumpets for breakfast almost every day; they were done by a local bakery, and good luck finding toaster crumpets in Central Texas. (The bakery that made them burned down a few years after I left, I believe, so even Canadians couldn't have them anymore. The past is the most foreign-country of all foreign countries.) But one of the things I had a lot of in Canada was All Dressed Ruffles, that potato chip flavor than which no greater can be conceived, or close enough to it, anyway. But they aren't distributed in the U.S.; you can ship them in from Canada these days, and once they were a special offer in the U.S. for a time, which you could buy online. But finding bags of them just sitting on the shelf of an ordinary convenience store was enough to stop me in my tracks.
We talk a lot about the problems of a consumerist society, and the problems are real, and sometimes serious, and, yes, some of them are serious enough to serve as signs that our society is in desperate need to be reformed from its decadence. It is a problem that you can most convince people of the importance of self-control if you package it as a consumer product (diet and exercise programs); it is a problem that the best way to get people to sign on, in principle, to fasting and repentance is by giving away free stuff (Ash Wednesday). It is a problem that will eventually break us. But I think all the criticisms, right as they are, often don't face squarely the fact that consumerist society has its advantages and charms, and that they are significant enough that we can be looking right at the degradations they cause and still have difficulty doing anything about them.
There is a story that Boris Yeltsin was visiting the United States -- Texas, in fact -- and on the way back from the trip they had to stop at a grocery store to pick up some things. It was just a random grocery story on the way to the airport, practically in the middle of nowhere. And Yeltsin walked up and down the aisles, astounded at all of the food, just an endless abundance of it, so much so that no one was rationing it out, that people didn't have to stand in line for it, that in this insignificant little store out of innumerable such stores, there was so much abundance that ordinary working people could just walk in, grab whatever they wanted off the shelf, pay for it, and leave. It is said that he turned to one of the people he was with and said something like, "If people back home in the Soviet Union were ever to know, really know, that this was possible, the next day we would have a revolution on our hands." And he himself attributed his drifting away from Communism to that stop at a random grocery store in the middle of nowhere. And one can see the point of it. To live surrounded by perpetual abundance is not the only sign of a good society; it is not the best sign of a good society; it is perhaps not even a very reliable sign of a good society except under very specific conditions; but it is one of the things we look for in a good society. A society without it might be good by making up for it with other things -- but it is something that would have to be made up for, and in spades. Given a choice between living in a land flowing with milk and honey and starving in Venezuela, people will endure quite a bit of awfulness to be in the land of milk and honey. And there is nothing unreasonable about that. This is something, and something of importance, that consumerist capitalism does better than any other kind of society of which we know. You can talk up the advantages of other kinds of society, and those advantages may be real and important and worth it, but it's still the case that they all require people giving up an endless ocean of comfort and luxury, because nothing you propose will be likely to compete on this particular point. When you're not swimming in it, it's perhaps not difficult to steer people another way -- although we should not underestimate the general attractions of the very idea -- but if a nation is in it, nothing will get it out except massive sacrifice and self-denial.
And we may criticize as we please; living in the midst of a consumerist society, we are already enmeshed in it. You can have a sense of what home is like regardless of the society in which you live, but in a consumerist society, your sense of home is partly consumerist. Your entertainment and creature comforts will be brought to you by a consumerist society in consumerist terms. And it is not a replacement. What is happening is that consumerism is building on something very natural -- and very few things are better at building on it than on consumerism. Bits and pieces agglomerate to our family identity; my family is a Ford family. The consumerism is woven into our language. I have a family member who worked for Ford, and he was once part of a team working out some sort of deal with the Chinese government. The Chinese were not being very cooperative, and it was a long slow process, but finally they managed to work their way through and get an appointment with a mid-level bureaucrat of some importance. For reasons I forget, there was a change in some plan or other, and so they informed the Chinese that they apologized, but there was a switch in the people who were coming; the team would now be including Henry Ford II. After some delay, the Chinese got back with an apology of their own -- they would need to reschedule the meeting slightly because Deng Xiaoping couldn't make the time it was originally scheduled. And so they met with Deng Xiaoping himself, and he said that once he heard that the grandson of Henry Ford was coming, he knew he had to be there himself. He had grown up around farms, regularly using trucks, and commented that he had been almost twenty before he realized that 'Ford' was not the Chinese word for 'truck', but a name. We, however, aren't just around Fords. We're a society of brand names and advertisements; they're a continuing part of how we think and speak.
Consumerism, like any kind of society with popular appeal, will never fall to mere criticism because it satisfies natural needs, and does things that people need and want societies to do; and, what is more, it does some of those things better than any competitor on the table. The problem is that it metastasizes. Everything becomes consumption; consumption accelerates almost on its own even when we know that it's going wrong; we get caught in cycles with no way out except sacrifices we're no longer trained to make; and, knowing the problems, the sheer impulse of the things we like carries us along, and can only be turned with great difficulty. Food without limit, sex without limit, self-indulgence without limit, use of petroleum without limit, we always reach a point we said we would not cross, but momentum just carries us over the line again and again and again. That sort of thing is not something we just happened to pick up; it's not an external imposition. It is a natural process that somewhere lost its checks and balances, so that it gives us something that we like, and even something of some importance, and it will keep doing it until it kills us.
That's a bit of a depressing turn to a line of thought that started with potato chips. But one of the things we'd all like is the world at our fingertips. It is not the only thing we'd like. It is not the thing we might deem most important. But it is something that a consumer-focused society does a lot to give; and along this particular line of genuine benefit, none of the more balanced and reasonable options can compete. Which is why people criticize and criticize and yet consume more and more.