Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume"

Fred Magdoff

Humans are “good” consumers, certainly. And they are good killers. They also excel at cooperation, sharing, and reciprocity—in fact, our species might not exist today if we were not good at these. But people are formidable in competition with one another and between businesses and between countries. We are also apparently born with a fundamental desire, shared by some other animals, for fairness in interpersonal relations. But we also know that people discriminate against other people based on “race,” religion, and sex.

I am sure that there are “brain science” explanations for each of the wide range—and plasticity —of human behavioral characteristics and traits. They run the gamut from the worst (such as aggression [including killing], greed, selfishness, individualism, competitiveness) to the best (such as empathy, humility, altruism, reciprocity, cooperation). Thus, we have within us at birth the potential for many different traits—some quite contradictory. But why do some tend to dominate while others tend to be suppressed in particular societies?

People interact with the economic-social-political system in which they are raised. They become acculturated to its norms and learn what they need to in order to live and, perhaps, thrive. (Of course, people can also effect change in societal norms—for a recent example, the successful legal and cultural struggle for the acceptance of gay rights.)

In hunter-gatherer societies—in which our ancestors lived for at least ninety-five percent of the time of our existence as a species—cooperation, sharing, reciprocity, and empathy were brought to the fore and equality of the sexes was the norm. Traits that would harm the existence of foraging bands, such as selfishness and competitiveness, were suppressed.

Unfortunately, the particular characteristics so useful in a capitalist society are among the more anti-social—greed, selfishness/individualism, and competitiveness. And these are the ones that are developed and reinforced as we grow up. For example, with competitiveness, this happens as people compete in spelling bees and for grades and in sports when young, and for jobs and promotions when older. But these traits also have negative implications. Greed, for example, is not only good (as the fictitious Gordon Gecko maintains in the 1987 movie Wall Street), but it is also absolutely essential to the functioning of capitalism. However, greed and individualism have negative spin-offs, as the title of a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests: “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior.”1 So we should not be surprised at the incredible extent of dishonesty and malfeasance of the wealthy and corporations that was revealed during the great recession as well as before and after. Have a Takata airbag, a GM ignition switch that need replacing, or a VW diesel vehicle emitting more pollution than stated? These are but a few examples of corporate malfeasance that have come to light recently.

We are “natural-born” consumers, just like we are “natural-born” cooperators, killers, empathizers, greedy people, etc. But the US economy devotes about ten percent of its GDP to the sales effort—the multifaceted approach to get people to buy ever more quantities of stuff. An article in the mid-1950s in the Journal of Retailing explained, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption.”2 And as the marketing guru Philip Kotler (who wrote a widely used marketing textbook, now in its fifteenth edition) commented, “[i]f there are no more needs—by which I mean, everything we think of, there's someone supplying it—then we have to invent new needs…”3

Humans have been able to assume their necessary role in ever expanding capitalist economies as consumers of more and more stuff. But converting humans into good consumers required, in the words of Joseph Schumpeter, the “elaborate psychotechnics of advertising.”4 This critical task was undertaken with gusto and at great and continuing cost, and it has been quite successful. It appears that we are not quite sufficiently hard-wired to do our job as consumers without substantial help.

There is no way to “deal with” consumerism in a capitalist society. It is required by the system, actively developed, and reinforced daily. Another economic-social-political system is necessary in order to solve that problem, along with the many other ones that capitalism inflicts on the earth and its inhabitants.

1. Paul Piff, Daniel Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner, “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 11 (March 2012): 4086-4091,
2. Victor Lebow, “Price Competition in 1955,” Journal of Retailing 31, no. 1 (Spring 1955).
3. Richard Tomkins, “Kotler's Feast of Ideas,” Financial Times, May 29, 2003.
4. Joseph Schumpeter, Business Cycles, vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1936), 73.

Fred Magdoff
Fred Magdoff is Emeritus Professor at the University of Vermont and co-author of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism.

Cite as Fred Magdoff, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Why We Consume," Great Transition Initiative (February 2016),

Back to Publication

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.