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Western countries should rethink consumerism

By Wang Yuanfeng (Global Times)

17:07, September 02, 2011

Edited and translated by People's Daily Online

Project Syndicate, an international newspaper syndicate, recently published a commentary titled "Is Capitalism Doomed?" on its website, commenting on the slide of Western capitalist countries into economic, political and social crises.

Many Westerners have attributed the crises to the incompetence of governments. Some people ascribed the global financial crisis to a lack of government supervision. Commentators have said that the London riots were mainly caused by the British government's sharp cuts in public spending, and the Conservative Party was to blame because it made far-reaching decisions "in a relaxed, almost recklessly confident way."

However, is it all the fault of governments? Are incompetent governments really the root causes of all major issues in the Western world? Japan has changed seven prime ministers in 10 years, and more than 60 governments have risen and fallen in Italy over the past more than 60 years since the end of the Second World War, but that has not stopped economic and social crises from hitting the two countries.

Western society needs to be aware that the root cause behind the current economic and social issues lies in not only the government but also the Western culture. The major problem in Western culture is hedonism and consumerism. Fordism, represented by the mass production, created a mass consumption society in the early 1920s and mankind underwent a "consumer revolution."

Except for totally impoverished people, all people began increasing consumption. Meanwhile, the traditional Puritan ethics in Western society before the 20th century that embraced frugality, conservation and self-control and restrained impulse were rapidly ruined. A Western scholar said frankly that hedonism had justified capitalism in terms of culture.

Few people in Western society today are willing to work overtime during weekends and many cities become empty during the holiday season. Hotels, restaurants and entertainment sites are filled with consumers on the night of payday and many people even mull over on workdays how to consume and enjoy themselves, thus how much economic and social value can they contribute to society?

If people pursue pleasure by using their own earned incomes, it is acceptable even if they spend all their money. However, excessive consumption and pleasure by relying on installments and credit cards would be very dangerous. The modern credit consumption system represented by installments provides convenience for excessive consumption but also sets traps.

Personal credit consumption, once out of control, will bring about high debt ratios for individuals and families. The U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis caused by providing credit for people without consumption capacities and the subsequent global financial crisis are the freshest illustrations of such excessive consumption. CNN listed 10 people that should be blamed for the financial crisis, and the ordinary American consumers rank first. "You are not victims of the financial crisis, but the prime culprit."

Another Western social and cultural problem resulted from hedonism and consumerism is that members of the society are unwilling to bear hardships and avoid taking responsibilities. A typical and highly influential example for such a problem is education. The failure in education has led to the reduction of social productivity and competitiveness in the United States and other Western countries.

Many Western scholars have seen the far-reaching influence of education problems on Western economies and social problems. Moreover, the key to increasing social employment is improving the capacity of the labor force and stimulating the creativity of members of society. Without enterprising, diligent and hard-working students, however, even an excellent educational system would hardly work.
The low marriage rate and high divorce rate are the typical indexes reflecting the irresponsibility of members of society. In the United Sates, one-third of children are born to unwed mothers, 45 percent of marriages end in divorce, and 40 percent of children cannot live with their birth parents.

In Europe, unmarried births account for an even larger percentage. In Sweden, 55 percent of the children were born by unwed mothers in 2008. Marriage is a foundation of civilized society. If a society has a marriage problem, a lot of social problems will appear along with it. Teenagers will have a high crime rate because of the shortage of education, expenditures on social welfare will increase, and more importantly, the marriage problem will severely damage the members of society both mentally and physically.

Marriage is also a source of happiness for human beings and a stabilizer for society. If a society is based on a foundation with so severe a marriage problem, it will be impossible for the society to have healthy social and economic development.

Some western scholars, such as Max Weber and Dennis Bell, already clearly realized this in-depth contradiction of Western capitalist societies a long time ago. But in the overall peaceful world with songs and dances after the Second World War, how many people have carefully listened to them? Currently, Western societies have fallen into an unprecedented difficult position, and it is time for them to reflect their culture deeply and profoundly.

(The authour is a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University.)


Leave your comment15 comments

  1. Name

PD User at 2011-09-06119.161.155.*
great comment
PD User at 2011-09-05210.22.134.*
I find your statements condescending in regards to the average American consumer; but I don"t expect more from people like you. You will always think you know more than others and want to take their earnings and spend it as you see fit. Jealousy is at the root of your evil and hatred.Furthermore don"t confuse con-men and thief"s with capitalists or capitalism. A true capitalist was disgusted by the bailouts, be they banks or car companies. Government involvement in the economy is one of the reasons the market crashed. Fanny Mae a government org subsidized the housing market for instance while some car makers and Unions like the UAW pressured the government to bail them out. I would hardly classify the UAW/CAW as capitalists! The bank"s should of been allowed to fail and the better run banks allowed to live and prosper; this is capitalism. If the market is open, without gov subsidies and information is not suppressed or hidden by government very few markets will crash; they will rise and fall naturally and the companies that should not exist will die as they should.People and companies should be free to live, work and buy what they can afford to. They should be free to make mistakes and should not expect anyone to pay for their mistakes. If a person or a company breaks the law then either fine them and or put the responsible person behind bars if necessary.Read 2 novels by Ayn Rand; Fountain Head and Atlas Shrugged if you find my comments to be of interest.
John Casey at 2011-09-05222.44.252.*
What a strange article? How could a professor at a major Chinese university, a knowledgeable person, state that "the major problem in Western culture is hedonism and consumerism" without speaking about the same problems in China, or for that matter, almost everywhere in the world? To this observer, China is well on its way towards copying the same Western model. His advice that "it is time for them to reflect [on] their culture deeply and profoundly" is very true for most societies.
Kim_kool at 2011-09-05116.2.32.*
It"s really stunning to see such an arch-conservative editorial -- coming from a Chinese professor in a socialist republic -- in the People"s Daily. Like "Canada", I disagree with most of the article, which shows a tremendous ignorance of the nature of capitalist societies. Very little of what"s claimed here is backed up with actual facts; the only evidence given is some marriage and birthrate statistics and even that serves for a debatable contention.It"s totally tendentious to say Western societies had universal "Puritanical" ethics prior to the 20th century, the loss of which wounded capitalism. The writer makes it sound like working as anything less than a "coolie" is a kind of laziness and betrayal of the national economy. In fact, Karl Marx debunked this very misapprehension of economic Puritanism in "Das Kapital", what he called "The Abstinence Theory". Across the Western world people"s productivity has never been higher. Lack of hard work is hardly the problem, I can say that from experience as a US worker.The writer only blames "consumers", which is code word for the laboring/middle class. He exonerates governments, who are instrumental in the rise of bankrupt neo-liberal model. There"s nothing about the greed and dictatorial behavior of the oligarchic ruling class, which has thoroughly corrupted the Western societies. There"s nothing about the West"s wars of aggression, which lose trillions of dollars. There"s nothing about the massive shift of wealth from the lower to upper classes, and which shows no signs of abating.Actually the West is degenerating into fascism, and articles like this are seriously misdiagnosing the crisis.
PD User at 2011-09-0524.26.135.*
There is no question that American Capitalists, who would be referred to in China as the Exploitive Class, rule the U.S.A. with an iron fist. They promote irrational consumerism based on costs inflated by inflated credit and thus enrich themselves by impoverishing millions in what amounts to debt-ridden slavery. And when the system inevitably collapses as it did in 2008, these same Capitalist Exploiters run to the government they control for a bailout. The government in turn assumes their debt while borrowing more money from the People of China and even printing more money to cover any difference which always gets bigger because the greed of the Capitalist Exploiters knows no bounds. The cycle continues until the host is bled dry by the parasite. This is why Russian Leader Vladimir Putin recently called the U.S. a parasite on the world economy. These Capitalist Parasites are not only robbing their own country, and the American people, blind, they are robbing the Chinese people blind too. They have no intention of repaying the Chinese people. They will cheat and steal from you in the same way they have cheated and stolen from the American people. This is the simple truth of the matter from an American citizen who is disgusted with the way his country has been hijacked by these Parasites. s/Jack Smith, U.S.A.

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