The Irony of the Century
The beginning of a new century is a good time to reflect on the preceding hundred years. We need such spans to help us make sense of our past and to force us to think about our future. The twentieth century was an especially ironic time. Despite clashes of ideologies, two devastating world wars, and a forty-five-year cold war that ultimately made the United States the leading global power, the century did not culminate in the victory of American political ideas. Rather, the real winner of the century was consumerism. Visions of a political community of stable, shared values and active citizenship have given way to a dynamic but seemingly passive society of consumption in America, and increasingly across the globe.
The very idea of the primacy of political life has receded, despite the vast expansion of government. Instead, a very different concept of society has emerged — a consuming public, defined and developed by individual acquisition and use of mass-produced goods. Consumerism, the belief that goods give meaning to individuals and their roles in society, was victorious even though it had no formal philosophy, no parties, and no obvious leaders. Consumerism was the “ism” that won — despite repeated attacks on it as a threat to folk and high culture, to “true” community and individuality, and to the environment. Groups as diverse as the traditionalist Arts and Crafts movement of the early twentieth century, the modernist literati of the interwar years, and the environmentalists of the 1960s all fought it with vigor. Even though thinkers, politicians, and social organizers struggled against it, none produced effective alternatives.