Volume 8, Issue 2, Fall 2011
Ideas and Practices in the Critique of Consumerism
Drawing on the works of philosophers Charles Taylor and Joseph Heath, this paper argues that the critique of consumerism is too often separated into an emphasis on “ideas” or “practices.” Taylor’s critique is set against the backdrop of his interpretation of the ideas and values that are constitutive of Western selfhood. To engage in excessive consumption, on this view, is to betray the ideals underlying one’s cultural identity. Heath, by contrast, argues that critics of consumerism must avoid this kind of ideas-based social criticism because it is not only unproductive, but also illiberal and elitist. The phenomenon of consumerism must be approached, rather, by way of an institutional critique that treats excessive consumption as a collective action problem arising within the context of the market economy. The paper argues that while Heath makes an invaluable contribution to the critique of consumerism, his misunderstanding of the importance of ideas is such that his critique ultimately lacks vigor and persuasiveness.