Consumers of the World, Unite! A Dissection of Contemporary Mass-Man

There is something different, something new and unprecedented, about the generations of the 20th and 21st centuries as compared with all  those that went before them. This was already noted in 1930 by the great Spanish journalist and philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, when he unveiled[1] the phenomenon of el hombre-masa, the mass-man, otherwise known as señorito satisfecho (the self-satisfied little man). This curious figure (he couldn’t be me – could he?) was spawned and nourished in his millions by the Industrial Revolution, with its exponential increase in material production. He enjoyed a standard of living previously unknown to the wealthiest royalty, yet he was completely oblivious to the basis of that productivity. He was the product of universal education and literacy, yet entirely cut off from the spiritual and cultural roots of his own civilization. He was the “vertical barbarian,” unable to appreciate the centuries of labor required to pass from barbarism to civilization, the civilization to which he was heir, which he, as a result, would have a difficult time sustaining.

All of this strikes a deep chord: Ortega y Gasset was certainly on to something. But usually that something is misunderstood. Usually when people read his book they think of the “common man” as opposed to the educated man. Why, those of us with college degrees, we’re special and we understand what it is that separates us from “this crowd which does not know the law” (John 7: 49).

Actually, that’s not at all correct, at least by Ortega y Gasset’s own measure. For he specifically says that it is not a specific social class – the working class – that he has in mind when he talks of el hombre-masa. Certainly, in quantitative terms that is the most numerous and hence the most obvious candidate for “mass-man.” But that is the quantitative meaning. There is also the qualitative, “pejorative” meaning: “a kind of man to be found to-day in all social classes, who consequently represents our age, in which he is the predominant, ruling power.” Lo and behold, it is the man of science who is the “prototype” mass-man: “because science itself – the root of our civilisation – automatically converts him into mass-man, makes of him a primitive, a modern barbarian.” Ortega is referring here to the “barbarism of ‘specialisation’” which only knows its own little area of expertise and is ignorant of the rest.

A powerful thesis, this, which goes a long way to explain the degeneration of the university into the multiversity. And indeed, the dictionary definition of “multiversity” unwittingly bears witness to the phenomenon. Merriam-Webster defines multiversity as “a very large university with many component schools, colleges, or divisions and widely diverse functions.” Nothing about the fact that the “uni” is gone and only the “multi” is left. No unifying factor, just diversity, great diversity, specialization upon specialization with quantity alone left to qualify the association. Nominalism with a vengeance.

What, then, is the cement that holds this together? This is where I think I can add something to Ortega y Gasset’s masterly exposition. I would do so by pointing out the seemingly innocuous phenomenon of the consumer. Innocuous only until you start thinking about it. For then you come to the realization that only the generations beginning in the 20th century are made up of consumers. No generations prior to these have been. They are the first.

Of course, this does not mean that we are the first to consume. Everyone in every age must consume to live, obviously. What it means is that consumption defines us. Consumption for us is a given. We consume regardless of whether we produce, and that is the key point. Consumption for us has been divorced from production. Everyone consumes, regardless of what they produce.

Of course, there have been many in previous centuries who have lived in a similar situation. In societies with slaves or servants, there are always the wealthy who own or employ these menials, who in turn free them up from having to work themselves. They consume without producing. It goes without saying that the menials were not consumers, but producers: their consumption was paid for, and then some, by their production.

Likewise, those who worked for themselves first produced, and only then consumed. Consumption was tied to production and proceeded from it. There was no divorce of production from consumption.

And this was true from an early age. One had early on to work for a living, first in a simpler way, later on in a full-fledged occupation. Child labor was a given. No one ate without working, unless there was good reason. The Apostle Paul’s rule was universal: “if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (2 Thessalonians 3: 10).

Everyone understood this: there is no consumption without production. And so people were not consumers, but producers who also consumed, whose consumption derived from their production: Say’s Law in practice. Consumption did not define the man, production did.

But all of this changed with the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent rise of the welfare state. The fabulous productivity of the machine age enabled a redistribution of the fruits of its production without a necessary connection to the production thereof.

Each generation since then has seen this gap between production and consumption widen. The Great Depression, while it saw widespread poverty and misery, also saw the exponential growth of the capacity to provide for those unable to provide for themselves. The miseries of the Second World War were followed by a postwar boom and flowering of a redistributionist system of wealth the likes of which the world had never seen. Every generation since then – in the West, the center of this transformation – has grown up with the proverbial silver spoon in its mouth.

Which is why what previously would never have entered into anyone’s head, is today a matter of course – to demand as a right the consumption goods which this form of civilization has made possible.

This is true not only of the citizens of the countries in which this productivity takes place, but also of the citizens of countries which do not experience, and never have experienced, such a level of productivity. They have tasted enough of the world of consumer goods to demand it for themselves, and if they cannot obtain it in their own countries, they will go where those goods are available, and do whatever it takes to get there and stay there.

Consumerism is, as Leslie Sklair noted, the most successful ideology of all time. “The practical ‘politics’ of [global capitalist] hegemony is the everyday life of consumer society and the promise that it is a global reality for most of the world’s peoples. This is certainly the most persistent image projected by television and the mass media in general. In one sense, therefore, shopping is the most successful social movement, product advertising in its many forms the most successful message, consumerism the most successful ideology of all time.”[2]

Sklair was writing in the 1990s, when the Internet was in its infancy and smartphones were not even in anyone’s dreams. Since then, the global reach of, and inundation in, consumerism has advanced exponentially.

All of this dovetails nicely with our reigning political and judicial ideology, centered in the notion of human rights and embodied in the mechanism which conflates subjective right and sovereignty, issuing forth in the sovereign individual. For according to this mechanism, everyone is entitled, not to what he or she produces, but simply to what is available, in accordance with the principle of equality and equal distribution. There should be no boundaries to the spread of wealth because the connection between production and consumption has been severed. I have pointed out elsewhere that the divorce of production and consumption is behind the massive trade imbalances our world is running, and the massive debt load these imbalances are generating. But beyond this lies the ideology of human rights, which is essentially an ideology of structural imbalance: everyone is entitled to consumption, regardless of what they produce.

Can the balance be restored? Not until the underlying philosophy, politics, culture, is transformed. Unless and until we restore the link between production and consumption – at every level. Until then, the conflicts and miseries we are now experiencing, especially in terms of migration, will only get worse. For the mechanism is inexorable.

Consumers of the world, forget the barricades. First, get on the wagon and restore, in your own lives, this most precarious balance. Governments won’t solve this, people will; only then can the people hold governments accountable. For people need to hold themselves accountable first.


[1] La Rebelión de las Masas, 1930; English translation: The Revolt of the Masses (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1932).

[2] Leslie Sklair, “Social movements for global capitalism: the transnational capitalist class in action,” Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 4 No. 3, 1997, p. 531.

Immigration, Migration, and Imbalances

The current fracas with regard to immigration through the southern border of the United States will die down in time, and another issue will replace it in the headlines, in breaking news announcements, in round-table discussions. There will not be a resolution any time soon. But what is important is to understand the underlying issues involved. The context is what we need to get a better idea of how to judge necessarily ephemeral events.

The first thing to understand is that at bottom, the motivation for these people movements is economic. For this reason, we can start our analysis by eliminating the category of refugees seeking asylum. The latter is not a function of economics but of justice and compassion. While this is important, it is dwarfed by the scale of economics-inspired movement.

We also need to distinguish immigration and migration. In the sense I intend, immigration concerns people going to the country of destination with the mindset of assimilating into that country. For example, hitherto when immigrants moved to the United States, they moved with the intention of becoming Americans, of leaving their home countries behind and entering into the civic compact that has defined the United States from its inception. Migration, on the other hand, is no so much concerned with assimilation, but rather with the maintenance of the original culture and religion in the midst of the new environment – the establishment of enclaves within a foreign culture, that while engaged, is not entirely received, and indeed is held at arm’s length. In this sense, migration is a form of colonialism. And indeed, contemporary migrations are looked upon, approvingly or otherwise, as a form of retribution for the centuries of colonial relations the West imposed upon the rest of the world: these foreign peoples are now returning the favor, colonizing, and extracting wealth from, the host nations.

In the current climate, and in this analysis, it is migration with which we are concerned.

Some economic principles to guide the discussion

Migration, then, is an aspect of a global confluence of factors mainly economic in character.

Certain basic economic concepts have to be grasped in order to get a proper view of this phenomenon.

First: the economy, whether viewed locally, nationally, or globally, is a circular flow of the production and consumption of goods and services. This is a reflection of Say’s Law: supply creates its own demand. Say’s Law, which was most effectively employed in the work of Joseph Schumpeter, from whom the phrase “circular flow” comes, helps us understand how economies function.

The circular flow of goods and services concerns is the so-called real economy.

Second: not only is there a circular flow of goods and services, there is also a circular flow of payment, credit and debt, which is generated together with the other circular flow. It is both the result of that flow, and affects that flow. This is the so-called financial economy.

The two impinge on each other and determine each other. They cannot be viewed in isolation but as two parts of the same coin. The trouble with much of modern economics is that it does not do that, but treats them in abstract separation.

These circular flows are firstly local, comprising a local economy. A larger economy is a composite of smaller economies, and so comprises a confluence of circular flows. For this reason the economy, especially in other languages like French, is also called the conjuncture. The broader economy is a conjuncture of smaller economies operating more or less in sync with each other.

The component sub-economies do not move in lockstep. Rather, they develop at varying paces, some experiencing boom periods, others bust periods, others more or less stagnating.

What happens, then, is that factors of production flow towards areas of greater productivity: that is where the jobs are, that is, where capital receives a better return.

Borders and exchange rates

Within a political unit, these flows can occur unhindered. Between political units, they are obstructed by borders. These borders are the product of law. Laws set up obstructions to the crossing of boundaries. Furthermore, currencies, which are the product of law, form hidden barriers. Because they fluctuate, they make it more difficult to judge relative values, such as wages, keeping investors and workers from making the move, especially if the move looks to be from a more valuable to a less valuable currency. But beyond all of this, language and culture form boundaries, so that even in the absence of legal or monetary hindrances, people are hindered from moving because of the difficulty in adapting to foreign conditions.

So how do adjustments occur between economies separated by boundaries? By adjustments in the exchange rate of the countries’ currencies, so that areas with expanding economic activity see their currencies appreciate, while those with relatively contracting activity see their currencies depreciate. This is reflected in the current account, which is the sum of a country’s economic activity as far as production of goods and services is concerned, as it relates to other countries. The current account is in surplus when exports exceed imports, and vice versa. And a current account surplus should result in an appreciating currency.

In a perfect world, this mechanism would proceed unhindered, and the balance between nations would be maintained, with current account surpluses and deficits continually issuing forth into currency shifts that automatically lead to their reversals. Outperforming countries would have more money to buy foreign goods and services, and underperforming countries would have relatively cheaper goods and services to offer. This would result in a reversal of flows, with the more expensive countries importing more (and producing less) and the less expensive countries exporting more (and consuming less). Wages would increase in step with the currency, allowing them to import more. This is not a static condition. Currency exchange rates would continue to shift, balancing flows through the fluctuations and reversals of economic conditions over time.

Short-circuiting the feedback mechanism

But here is where problems arise. Particular interests are favored at any particular time, on both sides of the equation. On the side of the exporting country, there is the interest of the export industry, while on the side of the importing country there is the interest of consumers. Or at least, consumers can be led to believe that it is in their interest to have cheap goods available, although there is a hidden cost to this, which we will discuss shortly.

This is the situation in our current regime of globalism. Cheap-production countries are looking to lock themselves into exchange-rate and regulatory conditions favorable to their continued exports, even though such a regime is unfavorable to their own domestic economies. In those countries, domestic consumers face high prices on imports and production geared to foreign markets; workers see their wages artificially suppressed, rather than automatically rising vis-à-vis foreign competitors, as they would if currency exchange rates moved in step.

The gainers in such a situation are mainly multinational corporations which have relocated to low-wage countries and use their former home markets as dumping grounds for cheaper production. Other gainers are governments in the exporting countries, which book revenues from those corporations and their exports. Controlling elites on both sides of the equation benefit financially and politically.

The result in the importing countries is cheaper imports, but likewise a drain of production capacity, leading to an economy heavy on service-sector jobs.

Is such an economy – one lacking in production capacity – sustainable? It would seem that, given the demands and requirements of modern welfare states and the generation of revenues they require, that such an economy is not sustainable – for ultimately it is production capacity that generates wealth, while services only redistribute pre-existing wealth. Not to mention the utterly redistributionist nature of entitlement and benefit payments, which generate no wealth whatsoever, and in fact entail a form of friction which erodes wealth.

The stubborn expansion of imbalances

In the event, such a regime generates what have come to be known as imbalances. And a lot of effort is expended to counter those imbalances without resolving them. For to resolve them would lead to favored parties – e.g., multinational corporations, exporting countries – losing their lucrative advantages.

One of the important consequences is reflected in money and banking. The regime of fixed or pegged exchange rates is realized by keeping currency exchange from taking place. Normally, cross-border trade is paralleled by currency exchange, which leads to shifts in exchange rates. But to keep those exchange rates stable, currency exchange has to be headed off at the pass, as it were. This is accomplished through what is known as “sterilization.” Central banks act to keep foreign currency earnings from being released into the domestic economy. This holds down purchasing power and so eases pressure on the domestic currency to appreciate against the foreign currency. But this also leads to bloat in the currency of the importing country. Under our current regime, in which the US dollar serves as the reserve currency for international trade – and in which the US, not coincidentally, serves as the “consumer of last resort”—this has led to the buildup of massive amounts of liquidity which circulate aimlessly on financial markets without touching ground in real markets. This leads to bubbles in markets that traditionally serve as havens for excess liquidity, such as real estate markets and stock markets. Such asset “bubbles,” when they burst, lead to massive failures in the banking system, as occurred in 2008–2009.

Migration as a rectification of imbalances

This is one way in which imbalances are generated, and how they, by hook or by crook, get resolved. But capital flows comprise only one of the factors that resolve cross-border imbalances. The other mobile factor of production – labor – will likewise be drawn by the magnetic attraction of richer countries, especially where 1) those economies are lopsided toward service jobs, which cannot be exported and therefore draw low-wage labor to them rather than going to where low-wage labor is, like manufacturing capacity can; and 2) those economies maintain more or less lavish welfare and benefit regimes which ipso facto exert an attraction on citizens of less prosperous countries.

Therefore, in a world of fixed or pegged exchange rates – or especially, in the case of the European Union, a single currency – imbalances are rectified globally in the same way they are internally within a domestic economy. For the effect of the current globalist regime is to turn the entire world economy into a single domestic economy.

It would seem that this is a driving force behind current policy decisions being taken by Western nations, both in North America and in Europe. In the United States, border control lapsed and the government introduced a range of measures to accommodate inward migration, rather than making an attempt to stifle it. This is a tacit acknowledgement that a regime of floating exchange rates, the counterpart of nations able exert to effective sovereignty, has been set aside for all practical purposes, and that the great dream of cosmopolitan liberals everywhere is at hand: a global regime of universal jurisdiction, of a police rather than a military force, of a global welfare state in which ostensibly universal human rights move from the category of “ostensible” to “actual,” and the entire globe is harnessed to a redistributionist regime in which equal rights for all becomes a reality, regardless of cost.

In the meantime, what this regime of more-or-less fixed exchange rates and open borders spells is mass migration. For able-bodied labor will move if it can move, and given the technical transportational possibilities that increasingly have become available to low-wage populations everywhere, this movement will only accelerate. This is even more the case where populations are stuck not only in low-wage situations but in crime-ridden or even war-ridden, dysfunctional countries. Muslim populations in particular seem to be caught inordinately in such situations. Not surprisingly, Muslim populations are on the move.

The problem with this solution

But this points up the profound danger involved in these movements, and the misgivings they give rise to among “receiving” populations. For we are not dealing here with interchangeable parts; we are dealing with human beings, with cultures, mores, religions, in addition to whatever wealth or lack of it, health or lack of it, they may already have. Add to this the migration-orientation as opposed to immigration-orientation of these peoples, and the problem becomes all too apparent.

With migration, nationhood itself becomes problematic; instead of these groups being encouraged to assimilate, they become treated as victims of nationalistic jingoism, and encouraged to become integral parts of the grievance coalition. Patriotism really does come to be seen as the last refuge of the scoundrel, at least for the idealist. Cosmopolitanism becomes de rigueur.

But that cosmopolitanism is only a façade covering over deep divisions. For example, to what degree is Islam compatible with liberal democracy? If Muslims ever were to become a majority, would they maintain Western liberal institutions, or would they impose the institutions peculiar to Islamic countries, such as Sharia law? These are questions that not only are interesting academic exercises, but which practice will answer unequivocally, sooner or later, and of which real people will feel the effects.

Another such question: to what degree can countries like the United States sustain influxes of low-wage labor for service jobs that already are under pressure from unemployed or underemployed citizens? How can revenues be generated to counter the massive amount of pressure being put on the health, education, and welfare systems these countries have built up over the years, especially given their aging populations? Is it not a form of collective suicide to allow these migrations to take place in the hope that the gravy train will continue to flow? For looked at purely in terms of economics, these flows look to be unsustainable.

The end game?

Perhaps that is what our contemporary global elites are after. The very destabilization of nations, the undermining of national sovereignty, only plays into the hands of those desiring to establish a global regime to replace, or at least gain dominance over, sovereign nations. Nationhood itself is at stake. Politicians seem to have placed the dream of universal jurisdiction and the realization of every human being’s inalienable rights to food, accommodation, livelihood, education, health care, and the rest of it, above the exigencies of national survival. Apparently, they will pick up the pieces left in the aftermath of conclusive national failure.

Indeed, this would seem to be end game of national leaders favoring and preferring foreign interests to those of their own nations (e.g., Barack Obama, Angela Merkel). They seem to be auditioning for leadership in the regime which is yet to come, a regime to supplement or even replace our current framework of internationalist institutions such as the United Nations. Will it ever come to that? Yet another of those questions that practice will answer. But it is looking increasingly likely.

But there is an alternative. The venerable tradition of national sovereignty, of laws and currencies which are the expression of that sovereignty, of national populations that determine their own destinies rather than having them determined by unaccountable elites at transnational levels – the infrastructure for this is still there. And the top priority to this end, quite simply, is floating exchange rates and maintenance of the institutions protective of national sovereignty. This is not rocket science. It is a simple choice. Nationhood, or globalism?