Consumerism/Individualism vs Citizenship/Social Action: Navigating the Practical and the Moral in a Chartless World

Most people want to live comfortable, secure lives, free from want and violence. Our national ability to satisfy most physical needs and wants assures this for people in the middle and upper income brackets. 
 
Consumerism is an identity and a role. Everything in our present world defines us as passive consumers, of products, services, music, entertainment, "content" -- and most jobs on offer reinforce this dynamic. Consume to keep the economy running. Let companies make things that "satisfy" you and your friends. The forces pushing in this direction are formidable, because private consumption is responsible for 2/3 of Gross Domestic Product.
 
But what about those not so well off? Many cannot satisfy their basic needs, much less their desires for comfort and recreation. More consumption could satisfy their basic needs.
 
But then there are the things that cannot be satisfied with more consumption, even for higher income brackets. Consumption cannot solve problems of racism, inequality, climate change, etc. – in fact they may exacerbate them. And the fact is, if we don’t solve them we will consign our societies and our planet to slow decay. Those in the higher income brackets may remain more insulated in the short term, but in the long term everyone will be worse off, possibly fatally so.
 
This situation requires that we step outside the role of Consumer and into the role of Citizen. This is not a matter of legal citizenship but rather the sense of being a member of a community, being accepted into it, and of identifying as an agent who is able, willing, and entitled to contribute to the community’s management and improvement. 
 
This role requires that we become agents of observation, reflection, disruption, change, and improvement. The question is, are we willing and able over the long term to exercise our agency in the face of the forces offering comfort in exchange for passivity? And how much of “the good life” are we willing to sacrifice in our pursuit of, simply, life, for everyone?

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Daniel Wolf

Dan Wolf wrote the world’s first country-specific manual for election observing, A Guide for Election Observers for the Nicaraguan Elections of 1984 while at Harvard Law School, and conducted further democracy-oriented research during his Ph.D. program at UCSD. In 2012 he was senior adviser for the IEOM Report on Taiwan Elections of the International Election Observation Mission that monitored the 2012 Taiwan elections. He is a lawyer, political scientist, and social entrepreneur.