Spin Cycle – Brink Lindsey’s Age of Abundance

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.

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Ken Lovell
14 years ago

I suppose I should read the book before commenting but if, as the NYT review closes, its main message is that ‘material abundance has been, on balance, good for us’, I don’t think I’ll bother. It sounds like one more heroic charge at an army of straw men.

I do however have to observe that if Lindsey regards 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’ as evidence of ‘spiritual yearning’, he’s got a weird idea of spirituality. Maybe the pope should just forget all that bells and smells stuff and go for a workout in the gym.

And the idea that knowledge workers constitute a ‘creative class’? That will come as a surprise to the hundreds of thousands of workers in call centres.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

I think Lindsey’s argument sounds like one that is so commensense my mother has been expounding it for decades, namely, that probably just about everything modern secular lefties and righties hold dearest was created by capitalism’s mass prosperity. You can go further than that little list and probably include vegetarianism, human rights and more – the richer people are, the far likelier they are to give a rat’s arse what’s happening to some poor stranger somewhere.

I should add that I don’t really mean to distinguish between people earning $40 and $400k here, but between people earning either of those capitalist salaries and people earning $5 or $15k).

The only exception, really, are the traditionally religious (I don’t bother counting all those ‘spiritual’ people) who hold dearest their God, who comfortable predates mass prosperity.

So yes, it is boring and predictable as Ken Lovell thinks – unfortunately, I suspect that the targets are far too popular to be dismissed as mere straw men.

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

I don’t think any but a few reactionary hippies and god-botherers would deny that material prosperity has given us better mental as well as physical health (in fact I get really angry at people who believe ‘poverty is good for the soul’ – it’s not).

But Lindsey is a ‘small government’ person. How can he then reject the idea of taxation and redistribution that reduces the level of average material prosperity a little in order to make sure that all share in it? Unless he takes the (deeply dishonest, IMO) view that redistribution causespoverty.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

er, DD, wasn’t that exactly Clive Hamilton’s theme? At least when I saw him he was whingeing (ludicrously) about supermarkets, ‘delocalisation’ and ready made meals – basically, poor people not having to actually ‘make’, as opposed to just buy and heat, their dinners (poor souls – love to see the useless bugger himself ‘make’ dinner after just one real day’s work).

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[…] in makeup and hairdos. In 1959 the United States opened a new front in the Cold War by staging a spectacular display of American consumerism in the political heart of the Soviet empire. In one pavilion visitors were treated to […]