The Siege of Consumerism in Asia


Asian societies are now drifting toward the decadent ideology of consumerism. The variety developing in many countries in Asia is different from the common, age-old consumerism, which was seen as the use of goods to satisfy one’s essential needs and wants. The new way of consumerist life is actually based on certain ideas that reinforce individualism with selfish identity and the consciousness with false feelings of happiness and absurdity. Logically, such a kind of excessive consumerism is strengthening the grip of profit-hungry corporate order in Asia’s economy, society and politics.

Some of the characteristics of today’s consumerism are greater exposure to Western cultures and the changing habits, tastes and needs of the middle classes who aspire for high quality brands in varied fields spanning many products and services, ranging from packaged foods and foodservice to fashion and electronics.

This consumerism is certainly perpetuated by big corporations. With their unethical ways of promoting their products and other known corporate practices of creating artificial demand for products the consumer markets are ever expanding in Asia. The growing digital commerce is also accelerating the process of penetration of giant multinational corporations in Asian consumer markets. The MNCs consider the rapidly expanding Southeast Asian market as the vast potential for digital commerce and online shopping.

In fact, Southeast Asia surpassed all other regions in the world in digital adoption. In Philippines, people send more texts than any other country and people in Jakarta send more tweets than any other city in the world. The diverse cultural region with 620 million populations, Southeast Asia has been unanimous in expressing a great eagerness to use mobile technology. Connectivity has also increased exponentially across Asia. In Thailand, 90% of people in Greater Bangkok have a mobile phone; even in smaller urban and rural areas, it was 78% to 84%. The South Asian region alone has now more than 250 million Smartphone users.

According to the recent estimates, more than 100 million consumers in Southeast Asia made a digital purchase, and another 150 million undertook researching products or engaging with sellers online. To expand the online retail penetration, corporate advertising industry is very active to influence the consumers through displaying digital exuberant contents.

The growth of urbanization, with the Asian cities booming in an unprecedented manner, is moving in tandem with the maddening consumerism. In Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, consisting of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, 22% of the population lives in cities. And the fact that these urban areas account for more than 54% of the region’s GDP showed the extent of consumerist markets.

Advertising market plays a key role in promoting consumerism in Asian societies. By 2018, India is projected to be the second fastest growing advertising market in Asia, after China, and the share of spending on advertising in Indian gross domestic product in 2018 will amount to 0.45%. In Hong Kong, the value is expected to reach 1.07%.

Today’s consumerism has become the ideological partner of neoliberalism and serves as a tool for corporate capital accumulation. The growing consumerists’ movements are protesting against corporate unethical practices. In the field of consumer activism progressives could find space for mobilizing consumers against the market-oriented corporate practices.

The consumer movement could protect the interests of consumers by raising the demands such as honest packaging and advertising, product guarantees, and improved safety standards etc. It could turn out as a political movement with a set of policies on the quality of products, services, methods, and standards of manufacturers, sellers, and advertisers. Such movements and mobilization could deter the growing, decadent ideology of consumerism

The elites and middle classes, including those in the lower strata, were gripped by the consumerist cultural ideology across Asia. People, with their credit cards and other mode of such payments for goods, products and services, consciously or unconsciously were locked in the financial system of corporate globalization.

For more than two decades, the Asian markets helped to build the global corporate capital. McKinsey Global Institute report, 2015, stated that vast markets opened around the world from 1980 to 2013 since many factors including the fall in the price of labor were very advantageous for corporations. It is beyond doubt that the corporations could find cheap labor in Asian countries.

The report also found that “the net profits posted by the world’s largest companies more than tripled in real terms from $2 trillion in 1980 to $7.2 trillion by 2013, pushing corporate profits as a share of global GDP from 7.6% to almost 10%. Today, companies from advanced economies still earn more than two-thirds of global profits, and Western firms are the world’s most profitable. …”

Though the report said that the unprecedented run may be shrinking now, the report acknowledged that the rising consumption was one of the key factors for huge profits by multinationals.

Frank Trentmann, a historian at University of London, wrote: “In the rich world – and in the developing world increasingly, too – identities, politics, the economy and the environment are crucially shaped by what and how we consume.”

Although conservative ideas based on patriarchial values in Asian societies cannot be desired, the new way of life preserving the family cultural features such as giving due regard for aged and due care for siblings, egalitarian outlook on matters related to family and societal affairs have to be nurtured. Against this positive process of building healthy human culture, neoliberal ideology accelerates the brute consumer culture in the minds of the vast sections of people. The progressives have to act in this sphere of ideological struggle.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2016

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