By: George Ritzer
Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland
A decade ago I wrote a book dealing with what I called the “cathedrals of consumption”. These are consumption settings that had, in the main, come into existence in the United States in the post-WWII era. Of particular interest were the most grandiose of these consumption settings including major indoor shopping malls, mega-malls (e.g. Mall of America), theme parks (especially Disneyland and Disney World), cruise ships, and above all the themed casino-hotels that came to dominate the Las Vegas Strip. In the last several decades these cathedrals of consumption became increasingly ubiquitous and predominant not only throughout the United States, but also globally. This is particularly clear in and around the booming economies of China and the Arabian Peninsula, but similar developments are taking place in many other places in the world (e.g. Singapore, Philippines, etc.). Dubai began creating its three Palm Islands to be dominated by mega-hotels like the Atlantis (a clone of a hotel of the same name in the Bahamas), the first of nearly a dozen hotel-condominiums to be built on Palm Jumeirah, the first of the islands to be completed. Dubai will also have many shopping malls associated with this development; there is, as yet, no plan, to build a Disneyland there.
This essay is devoted to the fate of the cathedrals of consumption globally in the “Great Recession” that began in late 2007. It is difficult to feel as much sympathy for the plight of hyperconsumers and the grand cathedrals of consumption as, for example, those who have lost their jobs and seen their pension funds decline precipitously. Nonetheless, there is an important story to be told here and it is one that will have negative implications for large numbers of people, including more sympathetic figures such as those throughout the world who are losing, and will lose, their jobs (in construction, as dealers, as hotel workers, etc.) associated in various ways with hyperconsumption and the cathedrals of consumption.
The grand narrative here involves a series of changes in consumption that began mainly in the United States after the Second World War and gained increasing momentum over the next 60-plus years. Over this period of time these changes became increasingly global. When the window of opportunity for these developments slammed shut beginning in late 2007, many projects were stopped in their tracks and the trend toward increasing hyperconsumption and ever more, and more spectacular, cathedrals of consumption was aborted. In terms of the cathedrals of consumption, while this was true of some ongoing projects in the U.S., it is especially true in other places in the world which are being especially hard hit by the current recession. The cathedrals of consumption that seemed to so many to be a bright symbol of the future of the global economy in general, and consumption more particularly, now increasingly seem like dinosaurs, relics from a previous epoch that is not likely to return, at least in anything approaching the form it reached in the first decade of the 21st century.
While many extant cathedrals of consumption have closed or will in the coming months and years, much depends on the length and severity of the current recession/depression. However long and severe it is, it is clear that in this realm, as well as in the economy in general, we have seen an epidemic of irrational exuberance. Too many were built and many of those were much too big and much too expensive. However, the greatest problems will be reserved to those who entered the game too late and were too ambitious including the Cosmopolitan and City Place in Las Vegas, the Palm Islands in Dubai, and the Cotai Strip (a copy of the Las Vegas Strip) in Macau. All of these projects are likely to experience great distress in the near-future. While some projects will slow down and others will not be built, many of those under construction may well be considered too big to fail by local and national governments, banks or large corporations. Many may be completed with help from the latter entities, but completion is one thing, survival is another. Once built, these cathedrals and landscapes of consumption require large influxes of people and especially of money. If the recession/depression lengthens and deepens, the people and the money may not materialize and at least some of the cathedrals/landscapes may fail or at least be postponed or scaled-back, no matter how much funding other entities are willing to pour into them.
Thus, these are hard times for the cathedrals of consumption, but they are hard economic times across the entire economic spectrum. However, while the cathedrals of consumption may be forced to change as a result of this, they are not disappearing. Furthermore, they will retain their need to be spectacular and to use time-worn devices such as simulation, implosion and time-space manipulation to produce those spectacles. Yet, in the short-run, and perhaps even in the longer-term, they can be expected to be less grandiose and to find more economical ways of creating spectacles.
All of this also serves to illustrate globalization in general. A few decades ago, the consumerism, hyperconsumption and cathedrals of consumption, all with origins in the U.S., flowed easily around the world and made their way into many parts of the globe. Beginning in late 2007, the recession, also with its origins in the U.S., cascaded around the world with great rapidity putting the lie to the idea that other global economies had decoupled from the U.S. economy. It is clear that virtually the entire global economy has been affected by negative economic flows. This essay has sought to show how consumption in general, and the cathedrals of consumption in particular, have been adversely affected by these flows, perhaps more negatively in locales outside of, rather than in, the U.S.
However, the implications of globalization for all of this go far deeper. For example, in light of globalization, we can now see that America’s dominance of the world economically for more than a half century after the end of WW II was unique and unsustainable. It was only a matter of time until many other past (in Europe) and future (Japan, China, India, Brazil) global powers would assert themselves and achieve what was in many ways their “rightful” place in the global economy. If that turns out to be what we are currently witnessing, then the U.S. economy will retreat relative to these economies and perhaps even in some absolute sense, as well. In that case, hyperconsumption and the cathedrals of consumption (as well as much of the rest of the economy) in the U.S. will be in retreat, but other parts of the world can be expected to emerge as global centers of consumption and of the cathedrals of consumption. China would be a likely possibility to replace the U.S. as the leader here and, in fact, before the current downturn China was already moving in that direction. Under this scenario, we would not so much see a decline in hyperconsumption and the cathedrals of consumption, but a shift in their global distribution and in where they will be concentrated.
Whatever the future, what we are now witnessing in the realm of consumption, as well as in the larger economy, is another of the economic “gales” that were the focus of the work of Joseph Schumpeter. What defines capitalism to Schumpeter is a process of “creative destruction” where new economic structures are created and the old are destroyed in order to make room for them. Schumpeter, of course, was focusing on production (e.g. manufacturing plants), but much the same argument can be made about consumption (and, say, shopping malls).
Once again, however, we need to look at this entire process in the context of globalization. Schumpeter wrote long before the current “global age” with the result that his theory of creative destruction focused only on what transpired within a given country. Thus, his image was, for example, of a factory closing in the Midwest, but being replaced by a newer and more efficient one in the South. From the perspective of the U.S., this could be seen as a rather benign process since the country as a whole lost nothing and may even have gained by such creative destruction. However, in the era of globalization it is likely the case that that which is new and more efficient might well be created in some other, very distant part of the world. A factory that closes in Michigan, and is replaced by a new one in Vietnam, represents a huge loss to the American economy. Thus, in the era of globalization, creative destruction is not such a welcome process from the perspective of all concerned.
We might see this repeated in the case of the cathedrals of consumption. For example, one could conceive of a circumstance in which much of the Las Vegas Strip is decimated by a prolonged depression and/or a dramatic shift in the global economy away from the U.S. In that case, it might be that the Cotai Strip in Macau becomes the world’s main landscape of consumption as far as gambling is concerned and comes to be populated by the most spectacular casino-hotels. This is made much more likely by another global change- the global airline business- which makes it possible for gamblers all over the world, including from the U.S., to get to Macau more easily and inexpensively. Furthermore, if the global economic center of gravity is indeed shifting to China, India and Southeast Asia, then it makes sense for Macau to replace Las Vegas as the paradigmatic landscape of consumption, at least as far as gambling is concerned. However, this is not a benign process of creative destruction, at least from the perspective of the U.S. The decline of the Las Vegas Strip would be an economic disaster for the city of Las Vegas, the state of Nevada and may be even the U.S. as a whole.
It is also possible that many of the dinosaurs of consumption (like the hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip) will not go quietly or at all, nor will the (hyper-) consumerism that fueled them. Americans, and many others, lived through a half century of unprecedented consumer excess. While that is not likely to return any time soon, the memory of that lifestyle is not going to fade quickly or easily. The history of capitalist economies is, as Karl Marx demonstrated long ago, defined by periods of “boom and bust”. There is no reason to assume that this bust in any different; it will be followed (although no one know how long it will take) by another boom. That boom, when it occurs, will be accompanied by a resurgence of consumerism and by the most spectacular and expensive cathedrals of consumption. However, neither is likely to be as excessive as it has been, nor will they necessarily take place, or be found, in the same locales in the world.
George Ritzer is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. Among his awards: Honorary Doctorate from La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia; Honorary Patron, University Philosophical Society, Trinity College, Dublin; American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Contribution to Teaching Award. He has chaired the American Sociological Association’s Section on Theoretical Sociology, as well as the Section on Organizations and Occupations. Among his books in metatheory are Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science (1975/1980) and Metatheorzing in Sociology (1991). In the application of social theory to the social world, his books include The McDonaldization of Society (5th ed., 2008), Enchanting a Disenchanted World (2nd ed. 2005), and The Globalization of Nothing (2nd ed., 2007). He is currently working on The Outsourcing of Everything (with Craig Lair, Oxford, forthcoming) and Globalization: A Basic Text (Blackwell, forthcoming). He was founding editor of the Journal of Consumer Culture. He edited the Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists (2000), The Blackwell Companion to Globalization (2008) and co-edited the Handbook of Social Theory (2001). He also edited the eleven-volume Encyclopedia of Sociology (2007) and the two-volume Encyclopedia of Social Theory (2005). His books have been translated into over twenty languages, with over a dozen translations of The McDonaldization of Society alone.