I have been trying to find out for some time where the consumer society came from. People of course have been consuming since the beginning of time. When I say consumer society I mean the flowering of that long standing consumer trend in the United States in the last 30 years or so.
Of course, I don’t think there is one cause for anything as complicated as the consumer society. Lots of thing figure in. Technology for example, the computer especially, played a role in the creation of the mounds of junk that it is now possible to buy. I suppose too one might throw in the creation of the global market. But being a materialist, I think these factors secondary to the primary one. Money.
People would not be able to buy all this stuff if they did not have the money to buy it. So where did they get all that money. For some reason, the Arab Oil Crisis kept coming to my mind. So I started reading around to see what I could learn about the Arab Oil Crisis, the one of 1973, not the one of 1978. This was an amazing shock to the American economic system. Since WWII, the US had known unparalleled, in all of human history, economic growth; then wham! the oil embargo hit.
This showed our economic vulnerability. The prices for everything took off. Hard to remember, but Nixon, who was a rabid capitalist if there ever was one, actually initiated, for a brief period, the absolutely socialist move of wage and price controls. Talk about the government interfering with the free market. Short of nationalizing the fast food industry, or something like that, it’s hard to think of a more anti-capitalistic measure.
But this raises a question. It seems logical that if the price of everything was going up that people would end up buying less rather than more. But of course—in what is called the inflationary spiral—wages went up too. Because if they didn’t people wouldn’t be able to buy anything and the whole economy would go down the tiolet.
But something beside increased wages propelled that inflationary purchasing. The extension of credit. In his history of The Seventies, Bruce J. Shulman writes:
In 1973, when Dee Hock, creator of the Visa card, installed his computerized authorization system, credit card spending totaled nearly $14 billion and growing at a brisk but not outlandish clip of about 3.5 billion a year. But over the decade it roared ahead, reaching $66 billion by 1982, an almost fivefold increase.
Admittedly the origins of American’s reliance on credit are a bit murky. But if one tracks the growth of the credit card “industry” I believe one could also track the growth of the consumer society and with it our very imprudent ways.