The consumer society

It is frequently said that we live in a consumers' society, and, since,... labor and consumption are but two stages of the same process, imposed upon man by the necessities of life, this is only another way of saying that we live in a society of laborers. This society did not come about through the emancipation of the laboring classes but by the emancipation of the laboring activity itself, which preceded by centuries the political emancipation of laborers. The point is not that for the first time in history laborers were admitted and given equal rights in the public realm, but that we have almost succeeded in leveling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance. Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of "making a living"; such is the verdict of society, and the number of people, especially in the professions who might challenge it, has decreased rapidly. The only exception society is willing to grant is the artist, who, strictly speaking, is the only "worker" left in a laboring society...

The hope that inspired Marx and the best men of the various workers' movements - that free time eventually will emancipate men from necessity and make the animal laborans productive - rests on the illusion of a mechanistic philosophy which assumes that labor power, like any other energy, can never be lost, so that if it is not spent and exhausted in the drudgery of life it will automatically nourish other "higher," activities... A hundred years after Marx we know the fallacy of this reasoning that the spare time of the animal laborans is never spent in anything but consumption, and the more time left to him, the greedier and more craving his appetites... The outcome is what is euphemistically called mass culture, and its deep rooted trouble is a universal unhappiness, due on one side to the troubled balance between laboring and consumption and, on the other, to the persistent demands of the animal laborans to obtain a happiness which an be achieved only where life's processes of exhaustion and regeneration, pain and release from pain, strike a perfect balance. The universal demand for happiness and the widespread unhappiness in our society (and these are but two sides of the same coin) are among the most persuasive sign that we have begun to live in a labor society which lacks enough laboring to keep it contented. For only the animal loborens, and neither the craftsman nor the man of action, has ever demanded to be "happy" or thought that mortal men could be happy.

...The easier that life has become in a consumers' or laborers' society, the more difficult it will be to remain aware of the urges of necessity by which it is driven, even when pain and effort, the outward manifestations of necessity, are hardly noticeable at all. The danger is that such a society, dazzled by the abundance of its growing fertility and caught in the smooth functioning of a never ending process, would no longer be able to recognize it own futility - the futility of a life which "does not fix or realize itself in any permanent subject which endures after its labor is past"

-Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition

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