Colin Campbell: the romantic ethic and the spirit of modern consumerism As the title suggests, campbells book is meant to be a companion volume to Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In Colin Campbell’s opinion, the latter only told half of the story (that of production), and left unanswered fundamental questions relating to the other half (that of consumption). His aim was, therefore, to complement Weber’s narrative with its logical counterpart and to provide a complete account of the socio-cultural aspects of the modern Western economy with a synthetic super-narrative that explained both its facets of production and consumption in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism . Campbell had a particular objective than merely determining how it is that western societies cultivated consumer desire. He wanted also to understand how these societies give this desire a self perpetuating quality, so that the consumer's attention to the object world is no sooner consummated than renewed. He wants to know "how individuals manage to develop a regular and endless programme of wanting in relation to new goods and services" He thus spends a great deal of time on a detailed unraveling of the protestant system of belief, and uncovers there, rather surprisingly, the origins of modern consumption. It is Suffice to say that a disillusionment with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination led to a more individualistic, autonomous, and heuristic approach to life choices, accreted notions of daydreaming, fantasy, and individual genius. Consumption, therefore, is the attempt of the consumer to create his own individual reality through daydreaming. The notion of daydreaming is important. Modern consumers make significant psychological and emotional investments into consumer products, daydreaming about the kind of lifestyle they would like to have, and therefore of the kind of person they would like to be. This, in the context of the psychological processes triggered by the present historical socio-cultural environment, leads to a cycle of longing and acquisition, where acquisition does not result in satisfaction but in disappointment and continued longing. Thus, even mediocre consumer products are imbued with enormous meaning, and are frequently replaced and/or disacquired once obtained by the consumer, who has by then moved on to continued daydreaming and fixation on yet another product. This fits well with an evolutionary account of consumption, whereby consumer objects are used – sub- or semi-consciously – for purposes of status display along a variety of dimensions (e.g. amiability, stability, conscientiousness, etc.), and whereby consumers engage, accordingly, in deception and self-deception in the effort to define themselves to themselves and to others. Thus this modern consumer economy depends for its existence on an emotional posture Campbell calls "Modern Autonomous Imaginative Hedonism". This modern version of hedonism interacts with the consumer society in a curious way. It sees consumer goods as the opportunity to possess the pleasures of the fantasy life in concrete form. Consumer goods are, from this perspective, fantasies made material and accessible. They promise the consumer the opportunity to insinuate the pleasures of the imagination into the realities of the world. The difficulty is, of course, that this promise is a false one. The objects in question fail inevitably to realize imaginative pleasures in the world. And it is this, finally, that gives the desire occasioned by a consumer society its perpetual quality. When consumers suffer an inevitable disappointment with one consumer good they move onto another. The cycle of hope and disappointment drives them from purchase to purchase and helps to perpetuate consumer desire The fact that Campbell’s notion of the daydreaming consumer survives comparison with evolutionist explanations of human behavior suggests that said notion is theoretically sound. The system of objects is not the only realm where the daydreaming occurs: it also occurs in the realm of the system of ideas. Thus, by transposing Campbell’s narrative we can gain a better understanding of how ideas become objects of taste and fashion, and how, irrespective of quality, daydreaming consumers acquire and disacquire them as a result of their longing to be a certain type of person as well as of the ideas in question being emotionally imbued with meaning. Therefore, that people usually have no opinion of their own, and simply acquire an opinion by looking around to see what others are saying and doing and then selecting the one that is in the majority, was not far from the truth. When people look around in search for a ready-made opinion to espouse, they are looking to identify the one that best enhances their self-esteem, according to their temperament, socio-economic status, and personal history because humans fear ostracism, ego-enhancing opinion often ends up being majority opinion, but this is not always the case: many feel superior in their adoption of contrarian or unconventional views. In conclusion:
This is an accomplished effort at a theoretical level, and Campbell cleverly and successfully reconciles the Protestant ethic with its Romantic counterpart, as well as the parallel processes of production and consumption in modern society. For Campbell, the Romantic ethic promoted the spirit of consumerism in much the same way that a Protestant ethic is seen by Weber to have helped promote the spirit of capitalism. Campbell calls his book as a "companion" piece to and a "mirror image" of Weber's own. like Weber before him, he only explains the socio-cultural aspects of consumption, ignoring the fact that Man is also a biological entity, and that, therefore, the morphology of society and culture have biological origins. To have a complete understanding of consumption, its socio-cultural and its biological sides need to be theoretically synthesized.