The Triumph of Consumerism

In 1962, one observer believed that America was on the brink of a spiritual breakthrough. But that's not how things have panned out.

New Yorkers relaxing on the steps of the New York Public Library (AP)

What a joy it would be to show the America of 2015 to Edward T. Chase.

Chase, the author of a 1962 Atlantic essay titled “Money Isn’t Everything,” was positively euphoric as he observed the cultural changes of the post-war period. “It is my belief,” he wrote, “that in fact we in the United States are evolving beyond what J.K. Galbraith calls the ‘consumption society’—one that has mastered the problems of production—and are approaching a new order of society, the society of self-realization.” Via the alchemy of mass prosperity combined with mass education, Americans, Chase explained, were losing their narrow-minded focus on material success, and were instead developing an appreciation for culture, conservation, and jobs that provided “self-fulfillment” over financial remuneration.

His evidence: a massive uptick in spending on “culture” (at $5 billion in 1961, an amount that “is all but incredible”), a doubling in how much Americans spent on books between 1955 and 1961 (“an extraordinary development no one predicted a decade ago”), an increase of 29 percent in library-book circulation over a five-year period (“with the emphasis upon serious nonfiction”), a boom in paperback sales (“supermarkets too have become a recognized outlet”), an explosion in the number of museums and in museum attendance (quoting a Metropolitan Museum of Art operator: “a cultural renaissance is occurring in this country, there is no question about it”), a rise in a desire to pursue “intrinsically important work” (“the Peace Corps is a phenomenon that deserves very close scrutiny”), and on and on.

Man, if this guy could see today.

By one measure, “arts and cultural production” today accounts for 4.3 percent of GDP, or nearly $700 billion. Many, many more Americans read books today than did at mid-century (and Millennials are reading more than their parents and grandparents did). There are now more museums across the country—some 35,000—than there are Starbucks and McDonalds combined, The Washington Post reports. Museum attendance is huge: According to the American Alliance of Museums, “there are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than the attendance for all major-league sporting events and theme parks combined.” Both the number and percentage of Americans who have graduated from college continue to rise. The same instincts that birthed the Peace Corps have now brought countless variations of service organizations, both domestic and abroad, in which thousands of people each year sacrifice comforts in the hopes of bettering the lives of others.

And then there’s the Internet. Chase would have been blown away by the Internet. Essentially free access to all the world’s information from a device two-thirds of Americans have in their pockets. Up-to-the-minute news from some of the most remote regions on the planet. Instant, constant communication with friends and strangers. The ability to view high-resolution scans of foundational texts in history—Magna Carta, the First Folio of Shakespeare, fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls; to explore, from one’s desk or phone, the “street view” of cities around the world, the Galapagos, Mount Everest, Antarctica; to gaze at Pluto, our own galaxy, and thousands and thousands of others.

And yet, optimism like Edward T. Chase’s occupies little territory in the landscape of today’s sentiments, in which cynicism, contempt, and indifference tend to dominate.

Perhaps this is because Chase was wrong: A half-century of cultural edification has passed, and money and material accumulation still enthrall this country. Even the wealthiest are working more hours than they were three decades ago—the very people who are at liberty to ease up on work a bit and indulge in some of the nonmaterial consumption Chase idealized. Consumption, not culture, has triumphed (as though the two were ever separate phenomena to begin with).

It’s not only that. America’s dour national mood is a reasonable response to very real and very deep problems: Despite the country’s prosperity and despite astonishing technological advances, wages have stagnated, segregation endures, women still lag behind professionally, and the climate has been dangerously destabilized. There’s no need to continue this list when any perusal of The Atlantic will suffice. Unmitigated optimism today is the song of the naive.

But a bit of singing is nevertheless warranted. Because for all its troubles, the world today is still a marvel—one that’s all too easily taken for granted.