BOOK REVIEWS: HOUSE OF SIMPLICITY
The Economics of Simplicity: Review Essay (series)
No textbook on the economics of simplicity exists, of course. There is no complete formulae or prescriptions or how-to. Instead, to build an economy of simplicity would require seeking out principled approaches to how economic relations (goods, services, exchange values, productivity, consumption, etc.) work best to promote or foster simplicity. Here are a few books that describe well what to look for, attend to, or be conscious of. (Titles will be added successively.)
Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption, by George Ritzer. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004 (2nd edition); Pine Forge Press, 1999. (1st edition)
The premise of Ritzer's book is that the means of consumption in the United States (but extrapolate to the rest of the developed world and the values of the aspiring classes of the developing world) have changed in the past half-century to the point that consumption itself has become a cultural and a psychological activity tantamount to religion and ideology.
Consumption is no longer a satisfaction of temporal needs but a search for pleasurable experiences, a life style in perpetual pursuit of enchantment. The new means of consumption involve new settings or structures for seeking the enchantment experiences, which Ritzer describe as "cathedrals of consumption." This is aptly named because the phrase describes the gargantuan scale of the venues today: theme park, casino, cruise, film theater, music, sports, convention, restaurant, and superstore.
Since World War II, Western economies have moved all economic spheres toward corporate settings. As profit increases, a cycle occurs: share-holder expectation of increased profit. To increase profit, new products are marketed, new "needs" pitched, and more consumption urged upon old consumers and newly recruited consumers, especially young people and people in the developing world. Technology has facilitated production, advertising, and especially consumption, with the spread of credit and the enticement to debt. The result is hyperconsumption.
In order to maintain this frenzied rate of consumption, corporations must "enchant" consumers, make them feel that consumption is their heart and soul, their life's purpose. Goods and services are insufficient to this end. Marketing of lifestyles and the positive value of consumption as an end becomes necessary.
Ritzer uses Marxian, Weberian, and postmodern social theory to dissect the authority structures, bureaucracies, and capitalist premises of modern economic activity, especially the notions of disenchantment and enchantment. There are not many technical terms but rather logic and description. Though sometimes too exhaustive in describing the cathedrals and their plaudits, Ritzer does make his point clearly.
Where reform movements have pointed to the ethical issues of consumption in the past (think of the vice of gluttony and the virtue of moderation), corporate apologists of today point to the utilitarian, the psychological, and the material to champion profit, pleasure, and patriotism. The enchantment process behind the cathedrals of consumption are quasi-religious, and have overthrown arguments about labor, wages, conditions, and environment. Simplicity can be marketed in this mix but usually it is seen as repressive and "uncool" (not Ritzer's description).
The apologists for consumption have successfully rationalized the new means of consumption so that the average person never disputes that consuming a lot of things or being able to do so at will is the best way to live.
Ritzer spends time discussing the social implications of the new means of consumption. He touches on the homogenization of culture, the sanitizing of cultural differences and individual expression, and the transformation of consciousness so that all moral perspectives are filtered first through corporate media and corporate definitions of morality and behavior. He describes the "ever-escalating need for spectacle," the artificial experience of the onlooker who no longer does anything but watches what is presented to him by others.
Ultimately, we need to understanding what is going on around us. And we may interest ourselves in the mechanics of what is going on. For this purpose Ritzer's book does provide a handy diagnosis and overview. But, as he puts it, "the immediate issue is how to live a more meaningful life within a society increasingly defined by consumption." And for this we must invest time and effort in seeing how economics was done in the past and is done today, and how it can be done differently.
Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E. F. Schumacher. London: Blond & Briggs; New York: Harper & Row, 1973. 25th anniversary edition with commentaries: Point Roberts, WA and Vancouver, BC: Hartley & Marks, 1999.
E. F. Schumacher (1911-77) was a trained economist working for the National Coal Board of Britain and had a command of systems economic theory, which is to say conventional institutional and big business economics. But Schumacher offered an alternative to every point of contact with corporate economics, namely, a concept of right livelihood derived from Buddhist thought, nature as spiritual sanctuary rather than material resource, and the priority of ecosystems and the environment as the basis for an economics of simplicity.
Of course, these concepts were not original or exclusive to Schumacher, though he spoke more originally and concisely than most contemporaries. But he was inspired directly by his work with non-government organizations around the world, and by his readings of non-Western economic thought, unusual for the 1970's. Paul Hawkins, the environmentalist, describes Small is Beautiful as "one of those rare books -- a book that can inform a lifetime." And, indeed, an economics of simplicity takes a life's dedication.
Schumacher helped popularize several basic concepts: environmentalism as spiritual versus utilitarian, natural capitalism versus economic or material capitalism. Financiers and politicians believe they have solved the problem of production for modern times, but Schumacher considers their belief an illusion and a fateful error. The modern economic system "consumes the very bases on which it has been erected," he writes. "It lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income." The modern world is on a "collision course" with its own assumed moral values and, indeed, its own survival.
Schumacher sets out to present a different economics, and this is the economics of simplicity (though he never uses the term). He offers juxtapositions or poles throughout his introductory sketch of economic factors. Pulled into a table -- with some terms not his own -- they might look something like this:
|material capital||human capital|
|derived economics||natural economics|
Large countries, cities, and business entities have traditionally been viewed as the most viable -- but not in terms of need. A duality exists naturally, so that the virtues of freedom and autonomy are preserved by size. But after a certain point, size does not improve viability or freedom. "We suffer from an almost universal idolatry of gigantism," concludes Schumacher.
Size makes uneven distribution of natural resources. Cycles of growth and stagnation are human-made lurchings of size and excess. Mobility makes for vulnerability, while simplicity provides a natural ordering of priorities, a natural rationale for the need for governmental or institutional growth. Viability should refer to people not to organizations or institutions. (Witness the modern inversion of this principle, where corporations have identities for the purpose of rights that override the rights of individuals, an extension of stateism.) The flexibility of response and the usefulness of institutions to people is directly related to size.
Schumacher notes the most important venues where size is especially relevant: education, land use, and technology. By education he means a systemic study of our context and culture, our values and priorities. Education and research need to address "the true problems of living," reconciling opposites and divergent problems. By land use, Schumacher was prophetically calling for a wise stewardship and harmonious sustainability in the light of the then-new science of ecology.
In subsequent chapters, Schumacher applies his experience in Asia to elaborate on viable economic and technological solutions. In straightforward layperson's language, he describes the principles of subsidiarity or subsidiary function, vindication, identification, and the middle axiom. Sounds complicated, but Schumacher is careful, plain, low-key, and explains each concept, even if in introductory fashion. His arguments are clear, non-technical, and logical, not emotional or romantic, and hold their own against any economist.
Schumacher advocates what he calls the "quasi-firm" as the quintessential production entity. There is a rich tradition of craftsmanship, guilds, and grass roots here. The subtitle of the book guides both heart and head. He goes on to refute the outdated models of capitalism and socialism (based on growth and centralization), instead redefining ownership in light of his new economic principles. Here are the makings of a true economics of simplicity.
In his most provocative and interesting chapter, entitled "Buddhist Economics," Schumacher explores the Buddhist principle of right livelihood to argue that a Buddhist economics would distinguish between misery, sufficiency, and excess, whereas modern economics does not. Economic growth would be valued only until a point of efficiency or sufficiency is reached, not limitless growth contriving higher and higher levels of consumption.
An economics of permanence and sustainability would contrast with an economics of non-renewability and rapacity. New patterns of livelihood and production would emerge. A shift would emerge centering "local resources for local needs." Stability in an individual's environment and social context, ownership, and consumption would emphasizes means not ends, for the ends would be natural and a reflection of values.
Schumacher was influence by his stays in 1950's Burma with Buddhist scholars and by close reading of Gandhian writers. Small is Beautiful is still timely and refreshing today, when an economics of simplicity is more widely if understood if not modestly discussed. The book and the person show us what should not and what should be the context of our lives.
Ritzer on the Rationalization of Consumption
By Frank W. Elwell
The concept of rationalization was developed by Max Weber. It is the application of logic, observation, and science to achieve desired ends. The major characteristics of the process are efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control. Weber saw bureaucracy as the prime example of the rationalization process applied to human organizations. These organizations are hierarchical in nature, and controlled through directives from the top offices. Written rules define the responsibilities and authorities of office; there is a detailed division of labor; and staffing and promotion are done through achievement.
While Ritzer sees bureaucracy as continuing in the world today, he believes that McDonalds is a more effective model of the rationalization process applied to human organization. Ritzer did not coin the term “McDonalization” to describe a new process, only to reach a broader audience and to more effectively illustrate the rationalization process. What are the bureaucratic characteristics of the fast food restaurant?
Detailed division of labor
Much of their food is prepared in factories
Self-service with drinks and bussing tables
Unlike traditional restaurants that rely on chefs or cooks, the fast food restaurant relies on unskilled laborers who are assigned a simple task that is endlessly repeated. The restaurant employs technologies to take the variability and guesswork out of preparation. They are able to do this because these restaurants have a very restricted menu. Much of the food preparation is done in factories away from the restaurant. The hamburger patties and chicken nuggets are formed off-site, the fries are pre-cut, and the buns are baked and shipped out to the restaurants for final cooking and assembly. Rather than waitresses, the restaurant employs counter people and uses cash registers with pictures instead of prices. Rather than busboys, the restaurant encourages customers to clear their own tables. To move customers quickly through the dining experience, restaurants provide finger foods that can be rapidly eaten and uncomfortable seating that discourages lingering over the meal. To make it even more efficient, a recent innovation has been the drive-through where the customer is not even given a table is required to remove the waste from the premises as well.
The attractions of fast food restaurants to consumers, Ritzer points out, are many. Their efficiency combined with the volume of their business allows them to give more food for the money. They serve very predictable fare. The food has been designed to appeal to a broad audience. While no one anticipates a gourmet feast, you need not fear spoiled or bad-tasting food, or outrageous prices, either. By design, the Big Mac you buy in San Francisco is likely to be virtually identical to the one purchased in Tulsa or New York City. This predictability is ensured through centralized control, exercised through written rules, regulations, and procedures as well as through the use of technology. Another attraction of fast food is that the innovation fits in with modern lifestyles. The growth of fast food coincides with
- The rise of the automobile culture.
- The increase in women working outside the home.
- The increased pace of modern life, and
- The decline of the family meal (of which fast food is both a cause and effect).
Ritzer is also in agreement with Weber in seeing Capitalism as providing much of the driving force promoting the rationalization process. In its drive for profit—which is its reason for being—capitalism pushes the individual to acquire marketable skills, work at inhumane jobs for wages, and above all consume. Although the forces of rationalization and capitalism are separate, Ritzer writes, they are also very much intertwined. Profit provides a motive for millions of entrepreneurs (and wannabes) to adopt technologies and techniques that can lower the costs of producing, delivering, or selling products or service to consumers.
Chief among these techniques are the detailed division of labor thus breaking jobs up into simple steps, the replacement of labor with technology, setting the pace of work, and close monitoring of employee performance—all of which are part of the rationalization process. The rationalization of the economy to maximize profit is in the interests of capitalists, and it is capitalism that provides much of the drive (though not all) behind the rationalization process.
Ritzer also points out that rationalization is driven by our cultural value system, that is, rationalization and its drive for efficiency has come to be seen as a value in-and-of-itself. It is the continuing development of rationalization and capitalism that has led to the creation of culture of hyper-consumption in America. So important has consumption become, Ritzer argues, that America is now “better characterized by consumption than production.” With the expansion of rationalization, the spread of consumer society is threatening to overwhelm indigenous cultures around the world.
For a more extensive discussion of Ritzer's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.
Elwell, F. W. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.
Elwell, F. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.
Ritzer, G. (1975). Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.
Ritzer, G. (2004). The Globalization of Nothing. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
Ritzer, G. (1993). The McDonaldization of Society. Newbury Park: Pine Forge Press.
Ritzer, G. (2007, August 25). About Ritzer. (F. Elwell, Interviewer)
Ritzer, G. (2007). Being (George Ritzer) and Nothingness: An Interview. (S. Dandaneau, & R. Dodsworth, Interviewers)
Ritzer, G. (2005). Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
Ritzer, G. (1995). Expressing America: A Critique of the Global Credit Card Society. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
Ritzer, G. (n.d.). George Ritzer Home Page. Retrieved August 20, 2007, from University of Maryland: http://www.bsos.umd.edu/socy/ritzer
To reference Ritzer on the Rationalization of Consumption you should use the following format:
Elwell, Frank W., 2013, "Ritzer on the Rationalization of Consumption," Retrieved August 31, 2013, [use actual date] http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Essays/Ritzer1.htm
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