When the modern world was being born, the supposedly inescapable limitations of human nature was a conservative theme. Inherited traditional beliefs and forms of authority were held to be all that most people could understand or live by. To convince a wide public to reject these a priori limits and trust themselves morally and politically was the first, heroic task of Enlightenment intellectuals. Faith in progress was once a precondition of progress. It still is, to the extent that contemporary right-wing libertarianism insists that democratically controlled enterprises must always be less efficient than hierarchical ones like corporations.
But entwined with democratic self-confidence, there grew up a less reflective faith in unlimited material progress, based partly on a belief that human wants and needs would grow to match increases in productive capacity. This may have seemed plausible before the environmental limits to growth became obvious in the mid-twentieth century; but more important, it was also convenient for those who wished to deflect attention from the gradual and many-sided loss of autonomy that industrial mass production and bureaucratically organized medical/educational/psychotherapeutic expertise imposed on nearly everyone. As the state, the economy, and the institutions regulating everyday life all grew in scale, the only sphere of autonomy left to ordinary people was consumption. And so an entire ideology and technology of consumption arose, on the premise that happiness consisted primarily in consumption, which could apparently be increased without limit. And if that’s true, then our powerlessness doesn’t matter.-- George Scialabba