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The Manufacture of Needs


By Kirkpatrick Sale

If, as the economists say, people need to consume so that our high-tech societies can produce to their capacity, how do we get them to keep on buying and using and throwing away?

According to the British historian E.P. Thompson, the “remodeling of need” by the forces of the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century was “the greatest transformation in history”. For the first time there was a thoroughgoing transformation in people’s desires and demands and hence consumption that was so powerful that it ended the agrarian societies of the past and inaugurated the industrial age.

But Thompson wasn’t paying attention. By far the greatest transformation in needs and desires is taking place right now, in the age of cyberspace. With the power of our megatechnologies today we make those distant industrial giants look like pikers.

In fact the manufacture of needs this time around, taken as a whole, may be the most powerful single element of the computer age, rivalling the computer itself. Advertising, of course, is central to it all. In the United States it has been for some time an enormous industry of more than $100 billion a year ($150 billion in 1994), more than is spent on all public higher education.

Its impact is made inescapable by an annual barrage of 21,000 TV commercials, one million magazine ad pages, 14 billion mail-order catalogues, 38 billion junk-mail ads, and a billion signs, posters, and billboards. To it must be added a number of ancillary industries affecting popular taste and spending, including promotion, public relations, marketing, design, and above all fashion, not merely of clothes but many other consumer products - a further $100 billion-a-year enterprise. The total is an exercise in mental manipulation of a most extravagant kind, in service to the definition and fulfillment of consumerist needs.

Ever-Present Blue Genie

Television, the most important medium of this manipulation, is also very seductively selling a way of life that declares from a whisper to a shout that consumption is good, fulfilling, fun, moral, empowering, all the certainties that are so elusive in the rest of life. It is the medium that almost perfectly expresses the high-tech society: simplistic and forceful, capable of no complexity of thought whatever, designed for limited and graphic impacts (best if short and violent, like football and commercials), and sending pulses continually at that psychological nexus that Freud, doctor for the consumer society, called the “pleasure principle”, where desires, always created, are always insatiable.

The global effect of television, a blue genie now shining out of more than 850 million sets worldwide, is to implant the vision of the commodified life in every corner of the world; TV shows are the number-one American export by dollar volume. This is enhanced of course by global advertising (a $250 billion industry in 1990, surpassing the GNP of India), franchising, jet travel, ‘free’ trade, and runaway factories and offices, but above all by tourism, which spreads everywhere the artificial image of the industrial citizen as a carefree, well-heeled sybarite.

Within less than a generation vast populations across the globe have thus been brought into the range of the industrial monoculture, including such formerly resistant empires as those of Russia and China, and anthropologists believe that by the twenty-first century there will not be a single culture anywhere that will have escaped its impact.

It is to assure the continued expansion of this transnational commissary that the industrial corporations in recent years have pushed through global free-trade agreements and World Bank ‘development’ loans that have drawn virtually every nation of the world into the industrial net; right behind them are the compliant industrial governments, primarily that of the United States, which has deliberately devoted itself in its myriad ways, as the Clinton administration has put it to “the enlargement of the world’s freemarket democracies”.

One essential part of this global rialto is the immense growth in recent years of its cities, urban conglomerations of unprecedented size - and dependency. By the year 2000, for the first time in human history, more people will be living in cities than in rural areas, and at least twenty-one of those cities will have populations of more than 10 million; in the United States by then 80 percent of the population will be living in metropolitan areas, up from only 30 per cent in 1950.

Just as in the first Industrial Revolution, these populations are ready-made markets for all kind of industrial detritus, including the food they eat, and it should not be overlooked that even the worst by-products of these places - crime, civil unrest, alcoholism, drug addiction, disease, disintegration - are each themselves growth industries.


And as in the first revolution, war and military spending have proved to be additional marvellous engines of need. No reliable dollar figure can be put upon the amount laid out in the years since, say, the end of the Vietnam War, but from a global perspective it can be said that no year has gone by without at least fifty full-scale military conflicts, many very extensive, and that arms exports in those years have averaged $30 billion a year, rising to a high of $45 billion in 1989 before the Soviet Union splintered. In the United States, Pentagon expenditures have averaged $250 billion a year, at least half of which goes to lines on the budget marked ‘Construction’, ‘Procurement’, ‘R&D’ and ‘Operations’, creating and maintaining enormous quantities of equipment, much of it (thankfully) unused and eventually junked.

It is impossible to detail the rest of the miraculous manufactory of needs of the high-tech society, so vast and complex has it become. Suffice it to note that among its essentials are waste and throw-away consumerism (fifty-two tons of garbage per person in an average American lifetime); planned and built-in obsolescence and shoddy production; unnecessary packaging and product differentiation; consumer credit (and debt), discount rates, and tax incentives; malls and shopping centres (33,000 in the United States by 1994, more than the number of high schools), development of new products (at the rate of $80 billion a year in the United States) and then the production of them (at the rate of 17,571 new entries in 1993, going up around 10 per cent a year). Put them all together they spell ‘consumers’ as in ‘consumer society’, which is what the West is acknowledged to be.

Only one measure need be applied to ratify that title: according to the Worldwatch Institute, more goods and services have been consumed by the generation alive between 1950 and 1990, measured in constant dollars and on a global scale, than by all the generations in all of human history before.

The author is one of the foremost contemporary radical thinkers in the U.S. who lives in New York City. His books are standard texts of any serious library and include The Human Scale, Dwellers in the Land, Power Shift, The Land and Peoples of Ghana and The Conquest of Paradise. He is also a prolific contributor to numerous magazines and is secretary of the E.F. Schumacher Society. Reprinted from Fourth World Review, Nos. 70 & 71, 1995.

The above article appeared in
New Dawn No. 34 (January-February 1996)