Over the years many documents have surfaced that may explain the origins of our society’s apparently all-pervading consumerism. On this page I’m going to try and list some of the important sources that may give us some insight into the origins  of consumerism and the work ethic.

Thanks to the internet, it’s now easier  than ever for previously overlooked documents and marginalised ideas to reach a wider audience. Some people with a grasp of history say that  our lives are shaped by “cultural hegemony”, as Wikipedia puts it: “the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of the society”.

If you know of other quotes or source material about the origins of the consumerism and the work ethic, please leave a comment in the box, below.

Consumerism and the work ethic – sources and explanations

Professor Sharon Beder, author of “Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR” questions our ideas of the work ethic. In the introduction to the book she writes:

Why am I always tired Google screengrab
Why am I always tired Google screengrab

“The work ethic, which has been at the heart of capitalist culture, has evolved from a religious principle originating in the sixteenth century, to a success ethic advanced by writers, businessmen and teachers in the nineteenth century. Today the work ethic is promoted primarily in terms of work being a responsibility, both to family and to the nation. The hard work of citizens is advocated as being necessary to national prosperity. For half a millenium hard work has been seen as an indicator of good character.

“The work ethic however is based on assumptions and premises that are fast becoming outdated. Those pushing the work ethic today claim that every person needs to work, and work hard, if productivity is to increase. All progress, it is argued, depends on increasing productivity. The fallacy of this assumption is becoming clear as fewer and fewer people are required in the workforce and more and more products are being forced on consumers. But the call to ever increasing productivity is seductive. Even when dissidents challenge capitalism they are usually loathe to advocate the dismantling of the ethical foundations and institutions that underpin national productivity, particularly the work ethic.”

Bertrand Russell and the work ethic

In “In Praise of Idleness” (1932), Bertrand Russell pointed out some of these assumptions and premises, writing:

“The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

“This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose. No wonder the result has been disastrous. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

“Consumption pacifies political unrest among workers”

It turns out that Russell’s “old chaos” and many of our ideas about the necessity to work hard can be traced back to the USA in the 1920s when, due to industrialisation, supply outstripped demand so new stimulants for consumption of products were required. In “Consumerism: an Historical Perspective“, Beder points out that it was a “social decision” by industrialists “to produce unlimited quantities of goods rather than leisure”…

“Instead of stabilising the economy, reducing working hours, and sharing work around, which would have brought more leisure time for all, industrialists decided to expand markets by promoting consumerism to the working classes. The social decision to produce unlimited quantities of goods rather than leisure, nurtured wastefulness, obsolescence, and inefficiency and created the foundation for our modern consumer culture. People were trained to be both workers and consumers in a culture of work and spend.

“Consumption was promoted through advertising as a “democracy of goods” and used to pacify political unrest among workers. With the help of marketers and advertisers exploiting the idea of consumer goods as status symbols, workers were manipulated into being avaricious consumers who could be trusted “to spend more rather than work less.””

John Emmett Edgerton's picture
John Emmett Edgerton’s picture

Beder continues:

“Manufacturer, H. C. Atkins, along with president of the National Association of Manufacturers, John E. Edgerton, warned a five-day week would undermine the work ethic by giving more time for leisure. If work took up less of the day it would be less important in people’s lives. Edgerton, observed: “I am for everything that will make work happier but against everything that will further subordinate its importance…. the emphasis should be put on work – more work and better work, instead of upon leisure.””

“Most businessmen believed shorter hours meant less production, which would limit the growth of America’s business enterprise. They argued they could not afford shorter work weeks, that they would become uncompetitive and go bankrupt. They also feared that given extra free time, people would spend it in unsociable ways, turning to crime, vice, corruption and degeneracy and perhaps even radicalism. “The common people had to be kept at their desks and machines, lest they rise up against their betters.”

“Sharon Beder’s errors of logic and judgment”

Sanjeev Sabhlok challenges the ideas expressed in Beder’s “Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR”. He writes: “Food, shelter and clothing does not happen by magic. Even animals have to “work” to hunt prey. “Work” – the activity needed to accumulate one’s food, shelter and clothing, is a natural and necessary requirement of any creature on earth, whether an amoeba or human.:” … and… “I disagree with virtually every conclusion of Beder but I value her existence and her right to express such thoughts and to wonder about a different world where people do not have to work and still survive.”

In quotes – the origins of the work ethic and consumerism

“The textile mills of this country can produce all the cloth needed in six months’ operation each year” and that 14 percent of the American shoe factories could produce a year’s supply of footwear… “It may be that the world’s needs ultimately will be produced by three days’ work a week.” Quotes from a 1927 interview with the magazine Nation’s Business, by Secretary of Labor James J. Davis.

“If everyone were satisfied, no one would buy the new thing because no one would want it. The ore wouldn’t be mined; timber wouldn’t be cut. Almost immediately hard times would be upon us.” Quote from Charles F. Kettering, “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied,” Nation’s Business, 17, no. 1 (January 1929).

“We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs”. Paul Mazur, Wall Street banker – cited by Adam Curtis.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” Edward Bernays – Propaganda, 1928

“Nothing breeds radicalism more quickly than unhappiness unless it is leisure. As long as the people are kept profitably and happily employed there is little danger from radicalism.” – John Emmett Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers from 1921 to 1931.

“Edgerton, like many industrialists of that era, considered economic problems of the Great Depression to actually be moral problems, solved not by structural change but by hard work and sacrifice. He favored child labor and opposed “handouts” such as old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. Leisure, he said, was the enemy of the economy.” – Angela Smith , Middle Tennessee State University.

Further reading

Consumerism – an Historical Perspective – Beder
Consumer history
The Gospel of Consumption
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed
Propaganda – Bernays
Metafilter discussion
In Praise of Idleness – Russell
Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren
Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied, Charles F. Kettering
Jobs, machines, and capitalism – by Arthur Dahlberg
The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods
Time and Money: The Making of Consumerist Modernity
Kellogg’s Six-hour Day
Selling the Work Ethic – From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR and: excerpt
The Century Of The Self – Youtube

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