Capitalism is the world’s greatest production machine. However, eventually, production needs to be consumed. Thus, capitalism can only go on growing if consumers are willing to consume. So, it is consumerism indispensable to the survival of capitalism?
Of course, we are still very far from a society of plenty, but should capitalism go on for several centuries producing wealth at the rate it has produced in the past, we may expect to reach such a status.
Alternatively, we may consider that consumer demand is infinitely elastic since humans can always either design new items of consumption (e.g. inter-galactic travel) or, because when their appetite subsides, it may be encouraged through advertising. For instance, most people would live quite well with just a pair of shoes per year. However, the fashion industry persuades us to have dozens or hundreds of them and we become trapped into an unreasonable pursuit of consumption that contributes little or nothing to human happiness.
Moreover, consumerism creates many side effects that generate also production opportunities for capitalists. For instance, to use the words of Harari (2015), “Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over.… The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions – and buy more and more.”
Nevertheless, the reliance of capitalism on consumerism creates two distinct overcast clouds on its future. First, it increases human alienation which may degenerate into revolt against capitalism. Second, and most importantly, it sets a boundary on how much such an economic system can rely on consumer sovereignty and consumption-led growth.
In relation to the first it is opportune to remark that this argument is already used as the basis for the anti-capitalism of some religious leaders and communists. It is hypocritical that, having failed to solve poverty through charity or having created misery with their social experiments, they now want to accuse capitalism for having provided the opportunity to consume to the masses.
The reliance of capitalism on consumer-led growth is necessarily finite, unless humans transform themselves into consumption machines. The point of consumer saturation is certainly centuries away but it will happen. So, when that day comes who will substitute the individuals' demand for goods and services? Whether it is the government or a new type of institution it will have to be driven by a new form of rationalization different from consumer welfare. That is the valuation of leisure, consumption and work will change and may not be decided on competitive markets.
Overall, consumerism and waste is not fundamentally caused by capitalism but it sets a limit on the duration of capitalism. The other constraint is set by the relative contribution of machines and labor to the production process.