Harvard Professor Silvia Rief Speaks on Democratic Post-Consumerism


On Monday, Feb. 5, Dr. Silvia Rief visited the International Center to give a talk entitled “Conceptualizations of Democratic Post-Consumerism.” To an audience of about 16 students and faculty members, she discussed the current culture of consumerism in American society and the cultural West and explored the possibility of a post-consumerism social movement that would steer “consumers” back towards being “citizens.”

As the Huffington Post’s Amital Etzioni puts it, “Some people buy inflatable Santa Clauses and they put them on the rooftop. You ask if they really need that, they chuckle and say .. “of course not.” But when you ask them about flat-screen TVs…people feel uncomfortable.”

According to Rief, sociological interest in this “consumerism crisis” is mounting.

“…Consumption is a significant cultural and social practice,” wrote Rief in her 2008 “2008: “Outlines of a Critical Sociology of Consumption: Beyond Moralism and Celebration.”

Moreover, she describes consumerism as not simply being a symptom of a broken modern society.

Rief discussed a transition of society into a “post-consumer” world, one where the material idolization of goods is a thing of the past.

“I’m interested in how the material provision of goods can be organized differently in our society,” said Rief. “I certainly don’t think that all consumption is immoral.”

Rief herself added that she was “very influenced by” the Austro-Hungarian economic sociologist Karl Polanyi, and quoted him to discuss matters of the market-based society: “The market acts like an invisible boundary isolating all individuals in their day-to-day activities.”

This view may just be corroborated by a modern development Polanyi probably did not foresee: major online merchants like Amazon and AliExpress.

Although Rief herself asserted that an authoritarian government was “not what I’m suggesting,” she did take questions on her interest in socialism.

She brought up a book by Axel Honneth, “The Idea of Socialism,” which explores questions like “How can we explain the rapid decline of this once-powerful idea? And what must we do to renew it for the twenty-first century?”

Students and faculty in the audience were interested in how Rief might suggest attaining a “democratic post-consumer” society, and why she thinks it is so difficult to open this dialogue in a more public forum.

One student joked that “In America, we love naming things after freedom. …”Socialism” is a scary word, so “social freedom” may be a good [phrase].” Then he detailed some difficulties between government corruption and its dependence on business interests, asking, “The idea of social freedom is not really possible in the near future…how can it happen?”

“I don’t know how it could happen,” admitted Rief. “If there is bottom-up pressure from grassroots movements and other social movements, there may be change.”

This is how new laws come about in the most natural way: social change enacts governmental change.

Etzioni touches upon the issue of top-down government regulation, the kind that tries to create change when the populace is not ready for it.

“…Regulation cannot by itself resolve the problem. What is needed instead is something far more sweeping: for people to internalize a different sense of how one ought to behave, and act on it because they believe it is right,” wrote Etzioni.

Hosted by Dr. Günter Josef Bischof, professor of history and director of Center Austria, this event was one of many to be hosted by Center Austria in the upcoming semester.

On Mar. 5 at 3 p.m., Erin Hochman of Southern Methodist University will visit the Earl K. Long Library room 407 to discuss nationalism during World War II.

On Mar. 12 at 12:30 p.m., Benjamin Benus of Loyola University will give a talk on atlas design in Europe in the seminar room at the International Center.

More events are also listed on centeraustria.org.