Can I be a supporter of capitalism and still reject consumerism?
“This is not an exit.” The protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ famous novel American Psychoand the 2000 Christian Bale flick of the same name is trapped in his world of money, sex and murder. There is no escape, no catharsis, no redemption.
Patrick Bateman is a successful, twenty-something M&A associate who lives his life as part of the New York high society. He and his friends only care about superficialities like clothing or booking tables at chic restaurants. To compensate the gaping void his lifestyle leads to, the young financier is constantly looking for a new kick and he eventually gets a taste for extreme violence. More and more people fall victim to his bloodlust — be it acquaintances, prostitutes or random beggars on the street.
Bateman is the prototype of what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm called the “marketing character”: a personality style who is all about status and how he is perceived by his fellow human beings. In his book To Have or to Be?, Fromm asks: “If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I? Nobody but a defeated, deflated, pathetic testimony to a wrong way of living.”
According to him there are to opposite ways in which a person can be perceived: by what they have and by what they are. Bateman and his social surroundings clearly define themselves by what they have. For example in one passage, they compare their business cards. When he sees the card of his colleague Paul Allen which is much fancier than his, Bateman feels so attacked that he decides to kill Allen.
The characters in American Psycho represent the culture of yuppies. Their consumption-centred lifestyle leads to their depersonalization and even to constantly being confused with each other. As yuppiedom came up in the 1980s, the era of liberalization and deregulation in the western world, this subculture is mostly associated with capitalism.
And that makes sense: in a socialist system, there is no such thing as brands. Everyone buys the same stuff, therefore people are unlikely to compare to each other by what they possess. Which leads me to one question: is consumerism the essence of capitalism? And can I be a supporter of capitalism and still reject consumerism?
First things first: capitalism does an excellent job in helping people to consume more. With its mass production, its variety of brands and the ever-increasing division of labour, it allows us to buy more and better. At the Shenzhen electronic market for example, you can observe capitalism at its best, with stores that sell you different components of a smartphone which allows you in the end to create your very own smartphone.
But how is capitalism defined? While the term is used by many members of different ideologies to express a lot of different things, the most common definition speaks of a system with property rights and freedom of contract in which the players, the “capitalists”, have the possibility to accumulate capital and invest it. Therefore the central character of the capitalist system is not the consumer, but the capitalist himself, the creator, the entrepreneur.
The entrepreneur is not about consumption. His 10th million he doesn’t use to expand his collection of sports cars but to invest it in innovations either directly by spending it on research or the necessary material or indirectly by buying shares or lending it to another entrepreneur. In contrast to the materialist Patrick Bateman who is clinging to his properties that are transitory, the entrepreneur thinks long-term.
Furthermore, in socialism there might be no consumerism, but the loss of identity, the worst consequence of consumerism which is the main motive of American Psycho, is inevitable here. A socialist economy requires total control of the state over all spheres of life and destroys the individual completely. In a free market it’s up to you to decide whether you want to dedicate your life to consumption or to being alive.
“The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity”, Fromm also says. The only system which allows us to learn this is capitalism, is a free market where it is not up to an all-powerful state to look for ourselves. I believe in free markets, because they are based on voluntary cooperation and let the people decide which life they want to live. And for myself, I have made the decision that consumption is not what I want to live for.