We are facing a collective conundrum: how do we continue to consume enough to keep our economic engine rumbling, while at the same time, not consume too much to destroy that very economic engine? This is a contradiction explored by Marx and Polanyi, and now by sociologist George Ritzer, author of The McDonaldization of Society.
[A] discussion of consumption in the U.S. cannot be divorced from issues relating to production, including the decline in the U.S. and the rise elsewhere in the world, especially Asia, in production. Further, we need to realize than an artificial distinction is being made between consumption and production.
For those of you who have read your Marx, you will recognize Ritzer’s train of thought. For those of you who have not, allow me to enlighten you to Marx’s best contribution to understanding the economy:
Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production…Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; iwthout it, consumption would lack an object (p. 91 of The Grundrisse)
Ritzer goes on to say that our consumption is both required and damaging at the same time. We consume “cheap goods” which are actually expensive in the long run. For example, cheap food costs us much more in the long run because of the diabetes and health problems cheap food causes.
We cannot, in short, get away from the underlying Marxian theory of value: all value is “congealed labour” embedded into commodities. We may try to create value without concern for the labour power required to make it, but you cannot get blood from a stone. There is a limit to how much “productivity” we can really create. We are human, after all.
Ritzer’s post is worth reading because it takes the wind out of the sails of our relentless optimism around economic growth. Economic growth itself is not an end; happiness and fulfillment are ends. We ought remember the limits and contradictions of economic production (and consumption).