Consumerism is the equating of personal happiness with the purchasing of material possessions and consumption. The term is often associated with criticisms of consumption starting with Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen. Veblen's subject of examination, the newly emergent middle class arising at the turn of the twentieth century, comes to full fruition by the end of the twentieth century through the process of globalization. In economics, consumerism refers to economic policies placing emphasis on consumption. In an abstract sense, it is the belief that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of a society (cf. Producerism, especially in the British sense of the term). Consumerism is commonly associated with the Western world, but actually is multi-cultural and non-geographical. People purchasing goods and consuming materials in excess of their basic needs is as old as the first civilizations (see Ancient Egypt, Babylon and Ancient Rome, for example). Since consumerism began, various individuals and groups have consciously sought an alternative lifestyle through simple living. The older term and concept of "conspicuous consumption" originated at the turn of the 20th century in the writings of sociologist and economist, Thorstein Veblen. The term describes an apparently irrational and confounding form of economic behaviour. Veblen's scathing proposal that this unnecessary consumption is a form of status display is made in darkly humorous observations like the following: "It is true of dress in even a higher degree than of most other items of consumption, that people will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption; so that it is by no means an uncommon occurrence, in an inclement climate, for people to go ill clad in order to appear well dressed." (The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899). The term "conspicuous consumption" spread to describe consumerism in the United States in the 1960s, but was soon linked to debates about media theory, culture jamming, and its corollary productivism. While consumerism is not a new phenomenon, it has become widespread over the course of the 20th century, and particularly in recent decades. The influence of neoliberal capitalism has made the citizens of capitalist countries extraordinarily wealthy compared to those living under other economic systems. In many critical contexts, consumerism is used to describe the tendency of people to identify strongly with products or services they consume, especially those with commercial brand names and obvious status-enhancing appeal, e.g. an expensive automobile, expensive jewelry. A culture that is permeated by consumerism can be referred to as a consumer culture. Impulse buyers are quite different from shopaholics, who cannot resist spending money. Opponents of consumerism argue many luxuries and unnecessary consumer products are social signals allowing people to identify like-minded individuals through the display of similar products. Some believe relationships with a product or brand name are substitutes for healthy human relationships lacking in societies and along with consumerism are part of the general process of social control and cultural hegemony in modern society. Critics of consumerism, are quick to point out that consumerist societies are more prone to damage the environment, contribute to climate change and use up resources at a higher rate than other societies. It is in the interest of product advertisers and marketers that the consumer's needs and desires never be completely or permanently fulfilled. It is smarter for the marketer to sell the consumer a flashy trinket that will wear out and break quickly. It is even better for the product to be part of a continuously changing fashion market, where items in a nearly-new and good condition must be replaced to stay current with the latest trend. In this way steady profits are assured, but consumers are not comfortable or satisfied for very long with what they have. There has always been strong criticism of the anti-consumerist movement. Most of this comes from libertarian thought, but also from the Humanist Movement. The libertarian attack on the anti-consumerist movement is largely based on the perception that it leads to elitism. Namely, libertarians believe that no person has the right to decide for others what goods are necessary for living and which aren't, or that luxuries are necessarily wasteful, and thus argue that anti-consumerism is a precursor to central planning or a totalitarian society. Twitchell, in his book Living It Up, sarcastically remarked that the logical outcome of the anti-consumerism movement would be a return to the sumptuary laws that existed in ancient Rome and during the Middle Ages, historical periods prior to the era of Karl Marx in the 19th century.
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