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Consumerism Defined 20th-century America

Consumerism was the most misunderstood and important “ism” of 20th-century America, according to a recent article.

“While materialism may be the most shallow of the 20th century’s various isms, it has been the one that has ultimately triumphed,” wrote James Twitchell in the November-December Utne Reader.
Despite its triumph, consumerism remains unacknowledged as “the central characteristic of modern life,” wrote Twitchell.
Politics contribute to materialism remaining unacknowledged, wrote Alan Wolfe in an October issue of the New Republic.
“Neither the left nor the right could hold power in America unless it tailored its political views to accommodate a deeply held passion on the part of Americans to accumulate material possessions,” wrote Wolfe. “It is always more popular to satisfy desires than to limit them.”
Critics who argue consumerism creates “artificial desires” ignore human nature, according to Utne Reader.
“Until there is some other system to identify and satisfy those needs and yearnings, capitalism–and the culture it carries with it–will continue not just to thrive, but to triumph,” wrote Twitchell.
While Twitchell wrote consumerism is natural, it hinders human relationships, said Yale professor Robert Lane in New Republic.
“By encouraging people to put a monetary value on everything, markets, in Lane’s account, undermine the ties of solidarity associated with friendship and family-ties that, if they are to endure through thick and thin, must be non-economic in nature,” wrote Wolfe.
Consumerism is “wasteful, devoid of otherworldly concerns” and “heedless of the truly poor,” according to Utne Reader.
“While this is dreary and depressing to some, as doubtless it should be, it is liberating and democratic to many more,” wrote Twitchell.
Sarah Griffith is BCE’s communications coordinator.