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Audio Recording of the article as Read by Suparnaa Chadda

The Pathology of Consumerism

The ills of modern living, relentlessly driven by consumerism, have exacerbated and manifested manifold following the COVID-19 epidemic. These complex and compelling evils require fresh examination with new insights available as a consequence of the virus and its aftermath. The fact that passion and pursuance of consumerism have not been in the least bit dented and may have even become stronger bears ample evidence of the inadequacy of attention it has received.

The glorification of consumerism remains as untarnished, unblemished and unscathed as ever, even when the world has been facing a downside of pandemic proportions. This pathological need for consumerism remains a blind spot in our quest of understanding the path to true sustained development. Little is talked about it, much less is written, and a once much-contested subject is not being given the discussion and debate it is due today.

In the days when lengthy queues for daily necessities were commonplace in the Soviet Union and countries of similar ilk, proponents argued how misplaced was the contempt for what radical ideologues called ‘private consumption. The terminal crisis of the command and control economy was deemed symptomatic of a decrepit and decaying system. As the ideology in the form advocated then turned out to be unfeasible over time, a great ‘hurrah’ was heard from the believers of strong consumerism as the true engine propelling real growth.

The pendulum today has swung completely from the times of communist Russia. Current paradigms of economic growth and human development categorically emphasise that the only workable formula is increasing demand for goods and services that will spur growth and development. There are many flawed assumptions in this simplistic approach. For one, it assumes resources available to us for harnessing are inexhaustible. Secondly, it fails to factor in any workable thoughts on balancing resource sustainability in the rapacious drive of earning profit.

It is intriguing that reducing demand for goods and services has never been considered as an option in our pursuit of growth and development. It is likely because those captains of industry whose stake lies in an ever-increasing supply of goods and services, a subset of people with obscenely high control over both means of production and political lobbying, will be unable to retain their privileged position as purveyors of the benefits of such growth without whetting the drive for demand. This discourse and the underlying arguments need a serious challenge.

The first challenge is that this ideology has been consciously and aggressively pursued for some time now. Developing countries liberated from the yoke of imperialism have been given only one discourse by their economic masters, viz. to cultivate a hunger for more. This is the colonial talisman that makes developing countries, invariably rich in natural resources and poor in technology, become willing instruments to sustain the luxuries of the developed world. Sadly, in effect, this has exacerbated the very iniquity and imbalance in growth and prosperity that it sought to mitigate.

Second, even distribution of the fruits of affluence is a natural acid test for any growth strategy rooted in consuming more and more. There is a stunning silence on what consumerism has been able to achieve in these terms. Presumptuously, any criticism on this front is answered with the panacea of consuming even more, as the problem is identified with less consumerism in the first place. What a travesty! An increased dose of the same to remedy the wrong? The flourishing consumption racket has only sustained a flourishing production racket and gives two hoots for an even distribution of the spoils.

As long ago as in 1973, the seasoned journalist Sham Lal while reviewing ‘The Limits of Satisfaction’ by William Leiss wrote, “For a country like India, with a few small islands of affluence in a raging sea of poverty, the issue of setting limits to needs is in some ways even more pertinent than for others. For here while millions cannot translate their basic needs for food, medicine, and shelter into effective demand, the effective demand for fancy goods of a small minority continues to distort the patterns of both production and consumption and thus creates and sustains new social and political tensions.

Perhaps materially, the baseline situation has since ameliorated. But the distortions and defects of such an economic philosophy seem far more accentuated and menacing than ever before.

The Curse of Nihilism

A word about creating perceptions and the new order of things in the era of free dissemination of information: a discourse has now emerged that respects nothing and trusts nothing. It is the culture of nihilism, so aptly aided by the technology-led social media, where no narrative is necessarily sacred, sacrosanct or sensible. The new fashion is to dismiss all notions of truth, justice and freedom as partial, provisional and preferential. These are times when black can be argued to be white and white to be black because it is possible to create, sustain, propagate and continue with any narrative of one’s choosing.

Viewed in any light, the twin challenges – the pathology of consumerism and the curse of nihilism – are set to determine how sagely and maturely we will be willing to shape the future of human civilisation and the evolution of humanity. And the emerging result is bleak at best and calamitous at worst. Perhaps this is the most enduring irony of human existence – the inability of the distilled wisdom of millennia to rescue it from itself.

Views are personal.  The author, Uday Kumar Varma an IAS officer, former secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Ministry of MSME was also an esteemed jury member through SABERA 2021  You may also like his articles New World Order, Who will Watch the WatchDog and  Digital Age: Future of Democracy

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