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Sul consumismo

On Consumerism

Anno XXIII, n. 101, aprile-giugno 1988
Centro Einaudi


Abstract disponibile solo in lingua inglese

This essay includes a review of the main critical theories of consumerism and consumeristic capitalism. It then goes on to discuss and confute them.
The polemic against consumerism is so ancient its first formulation may be dated back to Aristotle who refused trade in favour of the "good life"—that is, public life at the service of the "polis". According to the critics of consumerism, the problem was aggravated by the birth of capitalism: the satisfaction of primary needs gave way to the pursuit of the superfluous, and "more and more of everything" bacame "more and more new things", which is an essential assumption of capitalism.
The polemic has been brought forward on countless occasions on all sides, from Marx to Mill to Christian and catholic thought. It may be reassumed in the assertion that the pursuit of the superfluous provides scant satisfaction: on the contrary, it causes suffering, it maintains a state of base economic necessity, it removes from the "good life": and, far from being free, it constitutes a sort of violence against the individual. To all this must be added the ecological argument: the fear, that is, that the growth of the artificial will end up by destroying nature and man with it.
A defence of consumerism, on the other hand, may be based on Ortega y Gasset's thesis whereby, by multiplying possible choices, technical progress also extends the problem of liberty and individual responsibility. Modern man, who may live many lives, needs more than ever to ask himself which life he should live. In terms of this viewpoint, it should be recalled that the market is neutral in relation to consumer preferences. The alternative to the market is the (presumably restrictive) political definition of the consumption allowed. On the other hand, however, the laying down by law of "austere" consumer behaviour cuts out its liberty and moral value. Moreover, restrictions on the pursuit of technological and commercial progress are tantamount to restrictions on human knowledge. The problems which consumerism undoubtedly poses must, therefore, be solved not in terms of authoritarianism or the refusal of technical progress. The answers lie in the development and furthering of the ethical debate.