Global and ravenous, modern capitalism has turned American citizens into mere consumers, people who are focused principally on their own gratification and essentially indifferent to the needs of the larger society. This, in a nutshell, is Paul Roberts’ thesis in The Impulse Society.
He contends that when capitalism in the U.S. was driven by manufacturing, and most buying and selling of goods took place within national borders, economic growth benefited everyone. Not so these days, he argues, when manufacturing has fled, borders are porous to both labor and capital and the financial sector dictates the rules of the game. That game, it turns out, is finding ways to maximize profits for the few by squeezing and manipulating the many.
At first it appears that Roberts is blaming the victims for their social insularity—for turning away from community and immersing themselves in technological gadgetry, for overextending themselves financially and for shirking political engagement. But he goes on to show that these are all the inevitable consequences of a system that values profit above all else. If we act on impulse instead of reflection, it’s because there is more profit to be made from impulse. The system lures, nudges or bludgeons us into buying things we don’t need and often can’t afford. And via its extension of easy, pay-later credit, the system allows us to find immediate delight in our own economic enslavement.
A political realist, Roberts doesn’t go so far as to counsel a revolt against capitalism. He does suggest a series of palliative measures—moderation of political rhetoric, re-imposition of banking regulations, acts of individual community-building—but they sound more like wistful wishes than practical plans. Ultimately, he fails to confront the paramount question of how national actions can hope to stem—much less turn back—the rapacious global phenomenon he has so skillfully anatomized.