July 24, 1959, the American National Exhibition, Moscow. Vice President Richard Nixon gently steered Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev towards the model kitchen. He wanted to show him a brand new washing machine. We want to make the lives of our housewives easier, said Nixon.
Confronted by the gleaming white front-loader Khrushchev struggled to respond. First he objected to the "capitalist attitude to women," then argued that the American appliances were "merely gadgets" and finally, claimed that new Russian houses were equipped with the same appliances. The washing machine was clearly a formidable opponent. Nixon suggested that it might be "better to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets"
Welcome to The Age of Abundance. For more than a century the battle between left and right had been over how to free men and women from drudgery. It was a battle between rival systems — socialism and capitalism. And despite Khrushchev’s bluster, capitalism had won. Soon Eisenhower‘s successor, Lyndon Johnson, would declare war on poverty so that every American could have the kind of kitchen that Nixon boasted about (like Vietnam, it was a war Johnson wasn’t able to win).
But even as it rose victorious, capitalism was under attack on a new front. Americans had become so addicted to consumption that they had lost sight of what life was really about, said the critics. Abundance should have freed men and women to spend more time doing things that really mattered but instead, they spend their time working to consume ever more frivolous goods and services. Make-up, hairdos, cameras, watches and cars with fins like rocket ships. Was any of this making people happier?
In his new book The Age of Abundance, Brink Lindsey challenges the critics by arguing that mass affluence has unleashed more than just consumerism:
Condemned as mindless materialism, it has burst loose a flood tide of spiritual yearning. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution, environmentalism and feminism, the fitness and health-care boom and the opening of the gay closet, the withering of censorship and the rise of a "creative class" of "knowledge workers"—all are the progeny of widespread prosperity.
Materialism is what makes postmaterialism possible. Lindsey’s opponents come from both the left and the right. On the left critics like Australia’s Clive Hamilton argues marketing creates a never ending cycle of manufactured wants and overconsumption — none of them bringing us any closer to real fulfillment. And on the right, there’s Peter Saunders’ argument that consumerism destroys the bourgeois social norms and values capitalism depends on to survive.
With a favourable review in the New York Times by George Will, Lindsey’s book is sure to generate debate.