Why We Should All Know About Amitai Etzioni

I have never really thought of myself as a communitarian, but there is a lot about the movement that makes sense to me.

The New Republic website is running a jeremiad against consumerism by communitarian guru Amitai Etzioni entitled “Spent: America After Consumerism.” He writes:

What needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered, is consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life. This is not the same thing as capitalism, nor is it the same thing as consumption. To explain the difference, it is useful to draw on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of this hierarchy are basic creature comforts; once these are sated, more satisfaction is drawn from affection, self-esteem, and, finally, self-actualization. As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs–safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education–it is not consumerism. But, when the acquisition of goods and services is used to satisfy the higher needs, consumption turns into consumerism–and consumerism becomes a social disease.


True, it is sometimes hard to tell a basic good from a status good, and a status good can turn into a basic one (air conditioning, for instance). However, it is not a matter of cultural snobbery to note that no one needs inflatable Santas or plastic flamingos on their front lawn or, for that matter, lawns that are strikingly green even in the scorching heat of summer. No one needs a flat-screen television, not to mention diamonds as a token of love or a master’s painting as a source of self-esteem

Etzioni concludes with three practical examples of how we might challenge the culture of consumerism.

1. Schools can work against the culture of consumerism by teaching students that they ought to “respect the environment, not discriminate on racial or ethnic grounds, and resolve differences in a peaceful manner.” He advocates school uniforms as a means of countering conspicuous consumption.

2. Change the workplace by limiting overtime, making the workweek shorter, giving workers the freedom to work from home; and allowing employees to “dress down” so they do not have to spend so much money on professional clothing.

3. Taxes are useful because they discourage people from buying large houses that they do not need, they lead people to take public transportation to work instead of driving cars, and they encourage the use of commercial aviation over private jets.

During this economic crisis it appears that many Americans are starting to limit their consumerist habits in favor of more simple pleasures. I have always admired the section from Chrisopher Lasch’s True and Only Heaven when he writes about the way he raised his kids. (Our family is playing a lot more Yahtzee after dinner these days!). But the real question for communitarians will be whether or not such tendencies will persist when the economy revives. I hope so.