Credit-Based Consumption: The American Way

Greg Hengler
Posted: Apr 05, 2009 3:04 PM

Our credit-based society finances American dreams; by means of it, money is loaned out to car buyers and home furnishers, travelers and vacationers, restaurants and shoppers, hospital patients and public utilities customers—nowadays to almost anyone for virtually any purpose.

The American consumer credit economy has its priests and authorities, the people William Leach in his book Land Of Desire called “the brokers” of desire—retailers, advertisers, economists, bankers, business boosters, and the like. They provide the indoctrination; lead in the celebrations, and set forth the ideal images of what human beings should be like. In America’s credit-based economy, the ideal man or woman is the consumer. The ideal consumer is someone who believes the meaning of life is to be found in consumption, so that it is in consumption he or she feels most fully alive and human, as opposed to at work, in prayer, on a mountain, or through acts of service (not necessarily Obama’s mandated acts).

Because “easy payments” turn out to be not so easy—work and discipline are required to pay them—consumer credit makes it easy for Americans to think of consumption as “work.” This is done by preserving the relevance of many 19th century values (where society’s primary value was placed on an individual “character”), and made the 20th and 21st century more a playground for those who I would characterize as disciplined hedonists (where society’s primary value is placed on an individual’s “personality”). Thus, once today’s consumers step onto the treadmill of regular monthly payments, it becomes clear that credit is about much more than instant gratification. It is about discipline, hard work, and the channeling of one’s productivity toward consumer goods—thus, disciplined hedonism.

In Daniel Boorstin’s The America’s he maintained that consumer credit helped bring into existence “consumption communities,”—today I would call this a “consumer society”—which, in his optimistic view, were new, democratic communities binding Americans together less by place, creed, or work than by what they dreamed about, bought, and consumed.

The real issue is not that Americans are using credit, but that they are using it to buy the wrong things: nonproductive things; luxurious things; consumptive things. Americans are using credit to become consumers. On a politically incorrect note, men—I fear—have taken on the effeminate characteristic of credit consumption, blurring the lines of traditional male identity. Credit buying as one's primary purchase is inconsistent with male character ideals of independence, self-reliance, and thrift, ideals that defined the “true American” man. Above all else, men who have embraced credit consumption tend to let go what those stuffy Victorians valued above all else: character. And finally, those who argue that credit allows for more freedom. I say, nonsense, it absorbs it.

My view of America’s credit-based economy is rather skeptical. I certainly believe there have been worse ways of living and being in the world, but in my view consumer culture is a pleasant, and therefore all the more deceptive, detour from where true joys are to be found. The story of American credit-based consumption since the 1940s can be summed up in a single word: more. The original promise of industrialism was that it would bring people more time for leisure, not more money for goods. What Americans did was transform credit consumption into a suitable province for more work. To conclude that consumer credit helps prolong the viability of America is to me no great cause for celebration. On the contrary, as one who lives in America it leaves me doubly wary. To say there are worse ways of living is not to say this is a good way of life.