Many commentators, especially on the left, hope that the economic crisis will prompt us to rethink consumerism. One of America’s leading communitarian philosophers considers what should take its placeby Amitai Etzioni / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
In an article in May, the Economist praised France for resisting the worst effects of the global economic crisis. France and Germany appear to have fared well in comparison with Britain and the US. The magazine attributed these differences to the role the state plays in each economy. France is the most statist country, Germany less so and Britain and the US are least state-protected. The Economist usually chides Europeans for not embracing the free market. Hence it rushed to claim that France’s success cannot last and that it and Germany will have to move in the Anglo-Saxon direction in the long run.
Yet there is another difference among these nations—the extent to which they have been afflicted by the western disease of consumerism. The French and the Germans have been less willing to work longer and harder—and to sacrifice the rest of life’s pleasures—in order to buy more goods.
And so the crisis prompts the question of whether, when the British and American economies begin to hum again, we should return to business as usual or consider a different way of living, closer to the continental one. To do so we would have to end the obsession with making ever more and consuming ever more than the next person. But we must also ask: what should we devote ourselves to in future? What will we work for and how should we spend our leisure time?
Profound transformations have occurred in the past in the definition of “the good life” and the importance ascribed to economic success and conspicuous consumption. Before the spirit of capitalism swept across much of the world, neither work nor commerce were highly valued pursuits—indeed, they were often delegated to scorned minorities such as Armenians and Jews. For centuries in aristocratic Europe and in Japan, making war was an admired, chivalrous profession. In China, philosophy, poetry and brush painting were highly respected during the Qing dynasty. Religion was once the dominant source of normative culture; following the Enlightenment, secularism was viewed as the normative foundation in some parts of the world. In recent years, though, there has been a significant increase in the influence of religious values, for instance in Russia and, of course, the Muslim world.
Cultural transformations have occurred throughout history, although not all can be said to have elevated the human condition. We may well be due for another one. Indeed, crises such…