Is luck or misery a choice

Consumer culture

Rolf Haubl

To person

Dr. phil. Dr. rer. pol., born 1951; Professor of Sociology and Psychoanalytic Social Psychology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Director of the Sigmund Freud Institute.
Email: [email protected]

Consumer goods are increasingly proving to be a reward system that not least serves to compensate for psychosocial deficiencies. But only those who consume competently have the chance of needs-based satisfaction.


When modern societies are described as consumer societies, this implies a number of defining characteristics: Not every use and consumption of goods is consumption. Consumption means that the majority of citizens no longer have to fight to survive. Instead, it is now a matter of shaping life with the help of goods for which there is no need, but freedom of choice. To put it more cautiously: the need to secure one's livelihood physically is replaced by the need for a socially distinctive livelihood. Linked to this is the mass production of goods for an anonymous market of customers with high purchasing power, which means that consumer societies are always societies of exchange of goods, monetization and (relative) prosperity.

In a developed consumer society not only are goods produced as commodities, but at the same time an attempt is made to produce the needs that ensure an increasing demand for the goods in question. Psychostructurally, this presupposes consumers who do not develop permanent ties to goods, but are always ready to replace even usable old goods with new ones. In this respect, the consumer society is always a throwaway society, whose mountains of rubbish grow at least as fast as their warehouses.

This defining feature at the latest calls for a judgmental opinion on the term consumer society. That is why the consumer criticism, [1] which has accompanied the triumphant advance of consumer society to this day, cites defining characteristics that seek to ostracize this type of modern society and its proponents. The consumer society is seen as a society whose members are not interested in the conditions under which the goods they buy have been produced: Instead of opposing the global exploitation of non-renewable raw materials and cheap labor, consumers steal from their shared responsibility. In fact, entangled in a global guilt context, they ignore anything that might call their narcissistic lifestyle into question.

For consumer societies, the belief is constitutive that the subjective well-being of citizens depends largely on how well they are equipped with consumer goods. Consumer criticism puts this belief under ideological suspicion: it serves to keep citizens away from the political public; that they work more for a democratization of consumption than for a democratic control of the rulers and thus ultimately blindly vote for the political party that promises them a promising set of goods.