How true or untrue do you feel John Kenneth Galbraith's assessment is regarding American consumers going beyond the level of physiological necessity?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that there is some level of truth in Galbraith's assessment regarding the craving for production in the American consumer consciousness that goes beyond the level of physiological necessity.  Galbraith constructs his arguments in The Affluent Society to represent the reality of an "other directed" social order.  Taking Galbraith's analysis and applying it to Riesman's ideas of "other directed" from The Lonely Crowd, it is evident that American society is constructed through the gaze of "to other."  The "other- directed" notion of American society in post World War II reality is one where "the other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed."  The desire to be "loved" by others is what drives what Galbraith would term as "modern want creation."

This craving for products and things is where production rises, but is also where consumers move beyond physiological need.  Galbraith is not condemning production of such goods, but rather suggests that it is a reflection of a psychological condition that has to be examined for what it represents, or a setting when "wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied." In Galbraith's mind, this need for satisfaction is endless because it is driven by an externally constructed, "other- directed" reality.  

Through this vision of American society, Galbraith is able to suggest that American consumers are going beyond the level of physiological necessity.  He argues that this is the result of a collusion between advertising and a "machinery for consumer-demand creation."  This dangerous collusion has generated production and in its conventional wisdom, it has benefitted those in the position of power.  The American consumer is besieged with messages that they "have to have" the latest in technological innovation, machinery- based convenience, and has created a cycle of want within the consumer that transcends any physiological notion of the good.  

Galbraith's analysis suggests that this is the cause of the production that has generated private wealth and supplanted a more public condition of wealth and enfranchisement:  "An increased supply of educational services has a standing in the total not different in kind from an increased output of television receivers."  For Galbraith, the challenge within the American economic notion of the good is to augment its definition of success so that educational services can be seen on the same, if not superior level, than television receivers.  He suggests that being able to challenge conventional wisdom in this regard becomes essential for the future of the American economic reality:

Whether the problem be that of a burgeoning population and of space in which to live with peace and grace, or whether it be the depletion of the materials which nature has stocked in the earth’s crust and which have been drawn upon more heavily in this century than in all previous time together, or whether it be that of occupying minds no longer committed to the stockpiling of consumer goods, the basic demand on America will be on its resources of intelligence and education.

It is understood that intelligence and education will reemphasize the need for the consumer to find physiological balance between themselves and the world around them and not be driven by the reality of overproduction and private wealth supplanting public sustenance.

I think that such an assessment is fairly valid.  The generation of wealth on such a privatized level has contributed to a wealth inequality where the very wealthy, the epitome of "the affluent society," has been preened as a standard for all to reach.  The coveting and commoditization of gadgets and things have supplanted an understanding that successful economic interests embrace public investment, as well.  Part of this lies in how consumers use their purchasing power to enhance a cycle of want that moves far beyond the level of physiological reality and one that benefits the "machinery for consumer-demand creation."

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