The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism
by Colin Campbell
Alcuin Academics, 2005
As the title immediately suggests, this is meant to be a companion volume to Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In Colin Campbell’s opinion, the latter only told half of the story (that of production), and left unanswered fundamental questions relating to the other half (that of consumption). His aim was, therefore, to complement Weber’s narrative with its logical counterpart and to provide a complete account of the socio-cultural aspects of the modern Western economy with a synthetic super-narrative that explained both its facets of production and consumption. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism is, needless to say, a hugely ambitious multidisciplinary enterprise, produced by a profound and astute thinker.
According to Campbell, most writing about consumption had hitherto focused on taste and fashion, without explaining where taste and fashion came from or why, and attributing the consumer revolution to simple emulation of the aristocracy by an aspiring middle class, when, in fact, the consumer revolution was a middle class phenomenon, and the two classes were divided by crucial psychological and socio-cultural differences. Another problem has been that Protestantism and Romanticism have been cast as in opposition, while Protestantism was widespread among the middle class. How come the relatively ascetic protestants, and not the profligate aristocracy, were the ones who drove the consumer revolution?
Campbell’s investigation spends a great deal of time on an excruciatingly detailed unraveling of the protestant system of belief, and uncovers there, rather surprisingly, the origins of modern consumption. To reproduce Campbell’s analysis here in a rigorous manner would be unnecessarily prolix, but suffice it to say that a disillusionment with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination led to a more individualistic, autonomous, and heuristic approach to life choices; that this served as background for the idea of being a man of sentiment; that the “sentimental man,” originally a term that implied a man with the capacity for deep emotion (especially of a pious and sorrowful nature) and thoughtfulness, evolved to mean a deeply emotional man; and that Sentimentalism, as it evolved into Romanticism, accreted notions of daydreaming, fantasy, and individual genius. Consumption, therefore, is the attempt of the consumer to create his own individual reality through daydreaming.
The notion of daydreaming is important, and harmonious with the characterization of the modern consumer we find in Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (2009), which I reviewed this last Summer: modern consumers make significant psychological and emotional investments into consumer products, daydreaming about the kind of lifestyle they would like to have, and therefore of the kind of person they would like to be. This, in the context of the psychological processes triggered by the present historical socio-cultural environment, leads to a cycle of longing and acquisition, where acquisition does not result in satisfaction but in disappointment and continued longing. Thus, even mediocre consumer products are imbued with enormous meaning, and are frequently replaced and/or disacquired once obtained by the consumer, who has by then moved on to continued daydreaming and fixation on yet another product. This fits well with an evolutionary account of consumption, whereby consumer objects are used – sub- or semi-consciously – for purposes of status display along a variety of dimensions (e.g. amiability, stability, conscientiousness, etc.), and whereby consumers engage, accordingly, in deception and self-deception in the effort to define themselves to themselves and to others.
The fact that Campbell’s notion of the daydreaming consumer survives comparison with evolutionist explanations of human behavior suggests that said notion is theoretically sound. This is good news, for the system of objects is not the only realm where the daydreaming occurs: it also occurs in the realm of the system of ideas. Thus, by transposing Campbell’s narrative we can gain a better understanding of how ideas become objects of taste and fashion, and how, irrespective of quality, daydreaming consumers acquire and disacquire them as a result of their longing to be a certain type of person as well as of the ideas in question being emotionally imbued with meaning.
William Pierce’s claim, therefore, that people usually have no opinion of their own, and simply acquire an opinion by looking around to see what others are saying and doing and then selecting the one that is in the majority, was not far from the truth. I would only add that when people look around in search for a ready-made opinion to espouse, they are looking to identify the one that best enhances their self-esteem (their sense of being a good person), according to their temperament, socio-economic status, personal history, and system of belief. Of course, because humans fear ostracism, ego-enhancing opinion often ends up being majority opinion, but this is not always the case: many feel superior in their adoption of contrarian or unconventional views.
I must admit that a t times I found Campbell’s monograph soporific—particularly during the era-long chapter where he waded into the somniferous quicksand of Calvinist theology. This is not to say that Campbell’s prose is difficult: it is, simply, dull, clumsy, desiccated, and occasionally pleonastic—the opposite what is needed when dealing with as coma-inducing a topic as the obscure nuances of Christian theology. Worse: the book has been printed using a tiny, compressed font, which makes each line lightyears long and each page seem like a deep pond of turgid sludge, exhausting to the reader before he even begins, and as unpromising of any joy as the front cover. The unfortunate result is a reluctance on my part to relive it all over again with a blow-by-blow explication of its theoretical and argumentative subtleties. The mere thought of it makes me anxious, because it would mean diving back into that feculent prose in search for detail. I am forced, therefore, to disappoint readers looking for more than a general summary. Then again, such readers should not rely on a review, but put in the effort themselves.
That said, t here is no question that this is an accomplished effort at a theoretical level, and, to my mind, Campbell cleverly and successfully reconciles the Protestant ethic with its Romantic counterpart, as well as the parallel processes of production and consumption in modern society, in a fashion that also seems to answer the questions that had been ignored, or left unanswered, by previous writers.
Yet to me this is not the end of the journey, for Campbell, like Weber before him, only deals with the socio-cultural aspects of consumption, while Man is also a biological entity, which means that the morphology of society and culture has more than an intellectual dimension. With Spent Geoffrey Miller did a better job at integrating the socio-cultural consequences of biology into his evolutionist account, but it was light on the socio-cultural side and his book lacks the depth of Campbell’s study. (To be fair, however, Spent was aimed at a popular audience whereas The Romantic Ethic . . . was aimed at a more academic audience.) To have a complete understanding of consumption, its socio-cultural and its biological sides need to be theoretically synthesised. I am not aware of whether this synthesis has occurred or been consciously attempted.
I would recommend this book only to those who both have an active interest in consumption and are adept at a highly creative synthesis and application of theoretical knowledge.