Citizen Action Monitor

The production of novelty through creative destruction sharpens the appetite for novelty in consumers

But novelty-driven consumerism, by failing to advance social progress, has created an “anxiety of the empty self”.

No 2083 Posted by fw, October 24, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin of the Home page. 

In the concluding paragraph of the preceding Section 4, Chapter 6, titled Social logic, Tim Jackson emphasizes the significance of the social dynamic in our consumer society:

“Consumption is vital to our social and psychological processes of identity, affiliation, aspiration and self-expression. It is this social dynamic, rather than physiological flourishing, which serves to explain why our desire for material goods appears so insatiable. And why novelty matters to us.”

In Section 5,  the final section of Chapter 6, Jackson explains why a mix of “status-seeking consumers and monopoly-seeking entrepreneurs, while keeping our economy percolating, have contributed to an “anxiety of the empty self.”

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.

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Novelty and anxiety, a synopsis, from Chapter 6, “The ‘Iron Cage’ of Consumerism” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

At its most extreme, can our insatiable, social- psychological-drive to be “filled up with food, consumer products, and celebrities”, become pathological, leading to an “empty self  [of] compulsive shopping, unsustainable debt and psychological despair?

Are we by nature weak-willed dupes powerless to resist the siren call of advertisers luring us to the shoals of pathological consumer capitalism?

Jackson suggests otherwise:

Perhaps the most telling point of all is the rather too perfect fit between the continual consumption of novelty by households and the continuous production of novelty in firms. The restless desire of the ‘empty self’ is the perfect complement for the restless innovation of the entrepreneur. The production of novelty through creative destruction drives (and is driven by) the appetite for novelty in consumers.”

Jackson quotes fellow ecological economist Douglas Booth:

‘The novelty and status-seeking consumer and the monopoly-seeking entrepreneur blend together to form the underpinning of long-run economic growth.”

Although this combo of novelty-seeking shoppers and monopoly-seeking wannabes may be good for economic growth, when it comes to social progress, not only have they failed to deliver, they have contributed to social recession.

Why is this?

Jackson attributes this outcome to “a system driven by anxiety. … the anxiety of the “empty self”.

He explains it this way. Our personal tendency to make social comparisons is induced by the same fear that propels creative destruction in capitalist societies – “the fear of being left behind.” Taken on a personal or corporate level, comparison with others is a way of assessing how well situated we are in the consumer society.

Sure, capitalism can be an anxiety-arousing system. But on the one hand, considered solely as an economic system, it has literally “paid off”:

“The relentless pursuit of novelty may undermine wellbeing. But the system remains economically viable as long as liquidity is preserved and demand keeps rising. It collapses when either of these stalls.”

On the other hand, novelty-driven consumerism has so far not proven to be a launch pad where decoupling can clear an escape route out of ecologically destructive materialism. Human nature and capitalist structures have conspired to “lock us firmly into the iron cage of consumerism.”

Worse still, “the consequences for people and planet seem bleak at best,” says Jackson, concluding this section, and Chapter 6, with a despairing outlook, and a segue to Chapter 7, Flourishing within limits:

“Is the consumer economy really so perfect a fit for human nature? Are we really living … in the ‘best of all possible worlds’? Or is it rather that certain … aspects of human nature – our selfishness, our pursuit of status, our desire for novelty … – are just what is needed to keep the economic system going? Is the system still serving us, or is it rather that we are now serving the system? Escaping the iron cage of consumerism demands that we address this crucial question.”

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