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Vol 36 No 4


John Henry Thornber CFC

Eugene Stockton

Tony Kelly CSsR

Kerrie Hide

Tom Elich

Andrew Murray SM

Michael Trainor

Kevin Mark


The consumer does pay


EACH YEAR AS Christmas comes around, an unsettling question stirs about the relation of the most tender of all Christian festivals to the consumerist binge that takes place. Has the gift-giving of Christmas, meant to symbolize our ‘being more’ by the grace of God, been lost in the insatiable ‘having more’ of crass materialism?

Consumerism has been defined as ‘a worldview in which consumption of material goods is understood as the source of personal and social good’1. The only problem with a general definition is that it tends to let us off the hook. Not many would admit to such a worldview. On the other hand, what many—including the writer—might well admit to is a troubled conscience in this area. For we are not so much analyzing an abstract definition from the outside, as grappling with a myth from the inside. For the myth of happiness, in terms of owning and getting and having, permeates the feelings and imagination of social communication. It imposes patterns of addiction and control that are very difficult to break out of.2

Images, Icons and Reality
The consumerist myth has a number of obvious features. First of all, it is the feeling of being adrift in a sea of artificial images. By the year 2000, a thousand billion dollars had been spent on advertising.3 The sole aim was to persuade the target group to imagine itself in terms of the consumer world. In that world, true happiness, success, self-esteem and status in society are made to depend on a particular product and the world it conjures up. As a result, an extraordinary displacement occurs. The image begins to precede the reality. We are persuaded to buy, not only a product, but an image of ourselves: designer selves beholden to designer products. But we buy the image because the image sells. We increasingly become what the all-powerful market needs us to be. Even our politicians work behind carefully crafted media images. As public life is identified with the media image, the personal reality of public figures seems of little importance. While the image, say, of a political party or a bank, can be carefully crafted to represent integrity or compassion, the reality need not be the case.

‘Celebrity’ status is a unique fabrication of the consumer world. Public figures in art, sport, politics, science, media are co-opted by huge financial rewards to lend their weight to a general illusion. Snatches of great classical music, biblical and literary images, works of art, historic persons and events, are all plundered as raw material for the consumerist message. Most probably, the first snatch of Mozart our children hear, perhaps the first images of the natural world they receive, say, of native plants and animals, to say nothing of sexuality and human relations, will occur in association with an advertisement for pet food, or a breakfast serial, or a shampoo, or a car. The image determines the reality, and that artificially imaged reality is what we are enticed to need and persuaded to buy.

Media-speak has taken over the ancient Christian word of ‘icon’. The sacred icon is traditionally venerated as an image backlit by a light not of this world, as in the depictions of Christ, Mary and the saints. The consumer icon, on the other hand, having bought an association with sporting or entertainment celebrities, shine with no other light than the promise of materialist gratification. There was, indeed, an ancient fear going back to 7th Century of Church history, and revived in essence during the Reformation, that sacred images could lead to idolatry. The violent and often barbarous result was iconoclasm, literally, ‘the smashing of images’. In general, pastoral good sense prevailed. Sacred images are good if they are designed to lead to the revealed mysteries, and not to distract from them. Our problem today is not the abuse of sacred images, but the abuse of all images for consumerist ends. A new iconoclasm is called for. How do we get beyond the all encompassing glitter of images and even smash the ‘icons’ of our day for the sake of larger dimensions of life? We can mute the ads during the TV show; but is that all? We are in danger, not only of losing our souls, but of losing our imaginations…

When our imaginations are colonised by such a volume of artificial images and their accompanying illusions, a distorted sense of reality is inevitable. Objective assessment of any product yields pretty much to consumerist propaganda—at least to what the self-regulating selling system can get away with without being accused of downright lying. It begins to affect our sense of reality, and to limit the power of a culture to communicate larger values in three clear ways.

Dislocation of Judgment
First, quality is reduced to quantity: ‘If it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count’. Truth is attained by market research. The poll takes over from the rigorous demands of reflection and judgment. The more people counted who have this or that opinion, the more the real situation is judged to be. Questions of the extent of mass deception, manipulation or ignorance are bracketed out of consideration. The only truth worth worrying about is that of numbers. Reality is what people can be persuaded to think it is; and the reality of life is assessed in the amount possessed and consumed in the consumerist market. Compared with consumerist incantations, the languages of art, intelligence, faith and morality seem like dead languages.

Secondly, the image replaces critical thinking. Knowledge is limited to what can be communicated in an artificial image in the context of entertainment. Teachers, communicators and artists have long realised the importance of the image. But the value of the image lies in its suggestive power. It is not an end in itself. It cannot replace either the experience, the interpretation, the vital insight into the situation, or critical reflection on the truth of the matter. A mind surfeited with images can lose the ability to feel, think and make discerning judgments. The constantly re-inforced image, the buzz-word, the logo and the slogan monopolise thought and communication. Yet images of smiling success can mask the bleakest kind of inner despair. If social communication is colonised by images fabricated for consumerist purposes, its scope drastically shrinks to the point of self-mutilation, at least in a social and cultural sense. One wonders whether the extraordinary media-driven hysteria in response to public tragedy is not linked to the shock that consumerist sensitivities register when a basic illusion has been punctured: the death of Princess Diana, the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, the Bali bombing. In the land of consumer make-believe, life was meant to be totally secure and pleasant; but it proved not to be.

Thirdly, communication becomes a manipulation extending to everything that can be pressed into service for consumerist aims. Great spiritual values that pierce to the heart of the human condition—justice, truth, fidelity, love, hope and faith—values which leave us all beholden to something infinitely greater than what we can consume or possess or count or visually represent, have no place in consumerist communication. To protest is to be dismissed as economically unreal, and tagged as reactionary, fundamentalist, fanatic, authoritarian or intolerant in the face of the way things are. The human story is reduced to an artificial happy ending in the land of instant gratification.

As a result, the human reality of primary relationships, in the domains of sexuality, family, and community are also deeply distorted in the shrinking world of consumerism. The neuralgic area is sexuality. If words such as ‘chastity’, ‘modesty’, ‘fidelity’, ‘virginity’, ‘celibacy’, ‘virtue’ and ‘sin’ are found in the consumerist dictionary, they would have to be followed by the abbreviation, ‘obs.’—obsolete/ obscene. But the larger lexicon of life supplies words to frame the question: What momentous distortion of moral reality is taking place? How is it affecting us all to the roots of our consciousness?

Despite its veneer of tolerance, consumerism implies a massive resentment against those values the culture most needs, but which lie outside the scope of marketable goods and immediate satisfaction. When, for example, sex becomes an object of universal voyeurism, it moves from the intimacy of interpersonal love to become a commodity to fuel the market. Sex sells. Buy a particular product and enhance your sexual image. The advertisers’ effort to give a sexual charge to practically every commodity has an odd outcome. In some residually ethical recess of our culture, sexual harassment is rightly denounced as an intolerable form of violence. But this instance of moral refinement is expected to coexist with a public and all-pervasive sexual harassment assaulting human sense and imagination at every turn in advertising and entertainment. It makes parents ask how much TV is really suitable for their children, and concerned citizens protest against sexually graphic hoardings designed to catch the eye of the passing motorist.

The Coarsening of Communication:
Allied to the welter of images, is a radical coarsening of human communication. The diseased consumerist imagination turns everything into a marketable commodity, packaged for a particular economic end. Society is merely a market of goods and services. People no longer do something for someone; they ‘deliver services’. The human condition is reduced to a diseased neediness to be remedied only by a buyable and sellable product. Society is a flat economy of ‘industries’. Sports and entertainment, education and health-care are dimensions of social life to be commodified and marketed for gain. Even prostitution has a new respectability as ‘the sex industry’. If there are some remaining needs or hopes, relationships, identities, moral attitudes or spiritual aspirations that cannot be so commodified, they are regarded as non-existent until someone can devise a way to sell them. What can’t be packaged, what can’t be designed, controlled, bought, sold and delivered to meet an immediate need, is not a marketable commodity; it does not belong in the real world.

One aspect of this strange fantasy life is what has been called ‘economic rationalism’. It amounts to both a denial of rationality in any human sense, and a distortion of the rightful place of an economy in the service of the larger reality of human culture. Ultimately irrational and anti-economic in its gross, spiritless incomprehension of human life, it is the product of pathological fantasy world that has never advanced beyond the ability to count. For no consumer market can deliver a loving life or a happy death. Anyone remotely touched by spirituality or faith, or even simple human decency, reacts. The priceless has no place. The Spirit, Lord and Giver of life, is the ghost of lost consolations. Admittedly, there is no problem in finding a commercial sponsor for a worthy cause, and celebrities will walk a mile if big business pays. Indeed, it is now found that there are marketable experiences of spirituality, designed to realise or recover one’s lost self. What caused the self to be lost in the first place is not likely to be helped by more of the same. But in the realm of a higher consumerism a deliverable god is a desirable product. Yes, religion, too, can be big business – a desirable market in some ways, since the consumer can be titillated but never fully satisfied.

The fantastic commodification of everything, and the resultant image-making, cannot but have a deep effect on the way we behave toward one another. The freedom of the individual to pursue personal fulfilment in a particular society is of prime value in contemporary democratic culture. But the powers of suggestion and manipulation are so strong, especially with the young and the poorly educated, that groups can be easily targeted and massaged into a dependency to an ever new range of illusions—against which both parents and educators are practically powerless. Peer-group pressures (in no small way formed by modern consumerist strategies to define both ‘peers’ and ‘pressures’) are at the mercy of decisions of those intent on selling or dumping certain products on a susceptible market.

And where there is manipulation, there is also aggression—the aggression of the market against the targeted group; and the aggression of the consumers, pitted against one another to own and possess what is judged necessary in order to live with the right image and to possess the right identity. Consumers thus become more and more individualistic, distinguished from the rest who lack the capacity to consume on the same scale, and who are, supposedly, envious of what the distinguished consumer has attained as his or her very own.

Which brings us to the family. It is the most socially subversive of all human communities. Its inherent values of unconditional acceptance and loyalty and respect for the personal uniqueness of each one, its basic familiarity with life and death through the generations, make the family a counterforce against the artificial world of isolation, images and instant gratification. But if it is reduced to being merely as a consumer unit to be exploited, cultural self-destruction follows. Children, in their particular vulnerability to consumerist fantasies, are manipulated to make ever growing demands on parents. They are incessantly coached to become little consumers, so to be more and more demanding on their parents to supply what they have been manipulated to want. Yet a family of consumers is a contradiction in terms. The struggle of each family for the integrity of its own life must confront a consumer world deeply inimical to it. It has to contend with the inbuilt obsolescence of all realities and relationships that do not deliver immediate satisfaction.

What happens to our capacities for friendship is another question. The experience of friendships is one of life’s great and abiding delights. But when existence is so commodified, when the other is so reduced to the image, to the mask, to the competitive other, human beings are pitted against one another in any number of unnamed rivalries. A home becomes an exhibition of status. Time cannot be wasted on what is not productive—on mere conversation, on what does not immediately provide entertainment or advantage. Friends become another disposable item in the race to status and gratification. The eye to eye, heart to heart patient exchanges of true friendship are buried amidst pressures and images alien to it.

An Unhappy World
The reality that the consumerist world presumes is one of deep unhappiness. We need to be persuaded that we are not content. Fulfilment is to be found only in being a successful and competent consumer. A simple joy in existence, a basic gratitude for the relative abundance of worldly goods, the cherishing of priceless values—all are equally irrelevant. The consumer society needs us to be unhappy, for happiness and contentment do not sell. Suppose, following Kavanaugh’s suggestion,4 that you are happily married and enjoy your children and friends and nature, that you find peace both in solitude and in good conversation, that you are happy with your life and work and who you are. Then, economically speaking, you will be irrelevant to the system! But if you are unhappy, anxious and confused, unsure about yourself and others, feel sexually unfulfilled and incapable of being alone or living simply, then you will tend to be a perfect consumer. You will be what the system most wants.

The consumerist constellation of economic, cultural and social forces is best served by promoting a feeling of alienation, unhappiness and isolation. Take any random sample of ads, and ask how it invites you to imagine yourself. This simple experiment leads to an inescapable conclusion. The right proportion of human living is being drastically skewed. The reality we are presumed to live in, the reality that most serves the system in which we are caught, is a neurotic, joyless mirage. Once the real questions of human meaning are suppressed, once the force of genuine human values is denied, and the open character of human existence is mutilated, an inevitable stultification results. In Bernard Lonergan’s words, ‘A civilisation in decline digs its own grave with relentless consistency. It cannot be argued out of its self-destructive ways’.5 A consumer society consumes its own possibilities of renewal. It eats up its own best resources. Indeed, the consumer pays. And the price is high: forgetfulness of what decent human life is about.

The Implosion of Human Rights
The notion of human rights is one of the most notable achievements of the modern world. With the waning of the great traditions of faith and civilisation, the recognition of human rights has become the carrier of what is most decent in political and social life—the dignity of the individual, a participatory democracy, the recognition of the victims of history, the necessity of due process in all our exchanges. But there is this shadow side. At some point when the materialism of a culture begins to snuff out any sense of transcendence and responsibility to the larger good, when a healthy sense of proportion spanning the heights and depths of the human condition diminishes, a given population can waken to a world where nothing is left but the rights of the individual. ‘My rights’ are the measure of reality; ‘my rights’, not for or with the rest, but against the other, now perceived as a rival or a threat. What was a social and liberating reality, becomes the domain of intense individualism. The individualist implosion of human rights is the hard heart of consumerist culture. It is the root cause of the litigiousness that is beginning to destroy the social fabric. Endless litigation eats into the resources of the common good, especially in matters of health care. Talk back shows express horror at the unregulated greed of pay-outs and bonuses for company managers in the last days of a bankrupt company. In a way, such absurd instances of greed dramatise the problem that pervades the whole of society. If I look out on the world and see it only through the lens of ‘my rights’, why should I not claim what it rightfully mine, in disregard of all else?

Karl Marx, as everyone knows, saw religion as the opium of the people. To him, religious faith was a sedative, an illusory comfort in the face of an unjust world. Yet he would surely have been astonished at the extent of the drugged existence characterizing the consumer society that has now emerged.

Moving On
Taking a bit of time to reflect on our consumerist plight is likely to leave you not knowing whether to laugh or cry. I would suggest a good dose of both. The laughter—mocking, but not altogether joyless and without compassion—begins with the realisation that, whatever life is about, it is not about this. No matter how complicit we might feel ourselves to be in the consumerist mania, we deeply know it is mad. Irony and Leunig-like satire ponder the heap of consumerist rubbish accumulated throughout our days. A good laugh begins the clean out; and the recycling begins, compatible with a more sane ecology of ‘being more’ instead of ‘having more’. As for crying, well, I imagine healthy lament over the world of consumerism begins with the simple realisation that it is doomed. The poor of the world will never be welcomed to the table of our planetary life if this level of unreflecting greed goes on unchecked and unrepented.

For Christian spirituality this means a big challenge. The eucharist celebrates existence in the light of a Christ, the source and form of true life. We live indeed, by receiving what he gives, his body and blood, by breathing his Spirit and clothing ourselves with his imagination: ‘Do this in memory of me’. It means receiving and even consuming, but not in a consumerist sense. For the gift remains undiminished, and makes those who receive it part of a new economy of giving, of communal life, and giving thanks. The eucharist will always be the place to start again with new energy, hope and imagination, even in this strangest of times. In conclusion, I draw attention to the measured words of Pope John Paul II. They provide a good summary and point to a way forward:

Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. Certainly the mechanism of the market offer secure advantages: they help to utilise resources better; they promote the exchange of products; above all they give central place to the person’s desires and preferences, which, in a contract, meet the desires and preferences of another person. Nevertheless, these mechanisms carry the risk of idolatry which ignores the existence of goods which by their very nature are not and cannot be mere commodities (Centesimus Annus, #40).

The Pope is reiterating in the language of today the most direct and enduring of all biblical messages. It is found, for instance, in the last words of the First Letter of John, ‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols’ (1 John 5:21).

Tony Kelly CSsR is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. He is author of many books and articles, his most recent publication being The Bread of God. Recovering a Eucharistic Imag-ination. Melbourne: Harper Collins, 2001.


1. Michael Dodd, OCD, ‘Consumerism’, The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, ed. Michael Downey (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993) 208.
2. John Francis Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society. A Spirituality of Cultural Resistance (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1982), is an outstanding analysis. See, too, my Consuming Passions: Christianity and the Consumer Society (North Sydney: ACSJC Occasional Paper, 1995).
3. John Francis Kavanaugh, ‘Advertising’, in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, ed. Judith A. Dwyer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994) 11.
4. Kavanaugh, Following Christ…, p. 47.
5. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1972) 55.