Consumerism and Demcracy 28 February 2006Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Social Sciences.
Living in San Francisco, it's pretty obvious that there's a difference between the way the wealthy live and the way the poorest of the poor live. Having a large homeless population in the city and living across the street from a night-time homeless shelter at a local church, I endure my fair share of stepping over sleeping veterans, schizophrenics, migrant workers, drug addicts, and the down-on-their-luck San Franciscans. But I also live in a city of wealth and a city dominated by dual-income Professional Managerial Class (PMC) families, the only people with the slightest chance of buying a home. Class and the markings of class sometimes seem obvious in Sodom by the Bay. But not so fast. Just as often the drunk hipster in ratty clothes screaming at you across the street is, by day, a high-powered professional. San Franciscans seem to swing between two poles, either consciously displaying our self-consciously hiding their economic class.
Does the fact that we have access to such an abundance of consumer goods, across the class spectrum, so much so that we can hide our class, negate the effects of economic inequality in a democracy? At one level, the answer seems obvious, in that the super wealthy in our society control most of the wealth (net worth, holdings, property, stocks, etc.):
5% receives 20.3% of income
Top 20% (including the top 5%) receives 47.% of income (household incomes from 80K annually on up)
Middle 60% receives 48.5%
Bottom 20% receives 4.3% of income
1% controls 39% of the wealth
Top 20% (including the top 1%) controls 83% of the wealth
The bottom 60% control just under 5% of the wealth.
On the other hand, is any of that really a problem for democracy? If poor people have televisions and microwaves and cars, is there a need for economic equalization for the realization of an effective democracy? Thomas Jefferson believed that every person with a stake in the democracy must be guaranteed by the society a minimum level of economic well-being in order for the democracy to be effective. Jefferson believed that if an individual was obligated to spend all of his or her time working to support himself (he wasn't a feminist), then he could not be a good citizen. For Jefferson, the point of a democracy was to provide a society where individuals were as independent as possible to pursue happiness, both in the public and private spheres. If you create a democracy wherein people cannot be economically independent (for Jefferson this meant yeoman farmers who were self-sustaining), then you have failed to create a democracy. Jefferson even argued that working to consume could never lead to the true happiness that an effective democracy could have. He also argued that working for wages was like slavery, because you are beholden to someone else for your livelihood and for the way you dispose of your time; and he further argued that credit for consumption was like slavery and was a mental burden.
Maybe this is why political scientists often refer to Jefferson as the "quack" among America's founders, as it's so contrary to what America actually became. Obviously, American democracy was institutionalized by James Madison (who wrote the constitution) and Alexander Hamilton (who, as secretary of state in three administrations designed the economic policy of the government), two men who believed that the government's primary role was to guarantee property rights and secure the ability of those with property to continue to accumulate.
I am left with Jefferson's critique: We are a consumer culture, facilitated by falling consumer prices, facilitated by technique and globalization. We are obviously a culture obsessed with consuming. Jefferson's argument may still obtain, that consumption isn't happiness; but what of his democratic argument?
Whereas Jefferson would have argued for mere economic independence, perhaps we would have to argue about consumerism: How much consuming power must an individual have, at minimum, in order to consider the democracy effective? How many hours per week maximum should a person have to work in a democracy, before it infringes on that person's ability to "pursue happiness"? Should credit cards be legal in a democracy? As much as credit enables consumptions, especially for the bottom 60% of Americans, is the credit worth it?
This is obviously not the democracy that Jefferson would have wanted, and even more obviously, it is a democracy inextricably tied to finance and industrial capitalism.
So is this it? Is democracy nothing more than the freedom to get a job and buy shit?