Why do people glorify senseless consumerism

Summary of Vita activa

The mass and consumer society of the 1950s

The 1950s were characterized by rapid technological development and an almost utopian belief in progress, but also by fear of a possible nuclear war between the two superpowers, the USA and the USSR. The Cold War reached its first climax in the Korean War in the early 1950s. The popular uprising in Hungary against the communist government and the Soviet occupying power in 1956 threatened a further escalation of the conflict. When the Soviet Union succeeded in launching the first satellite into orbit with the Sputnik in 1957, it came as a shock to the West. It was seen as proof that the supposedly backward Soviet Union was technologically equal, if not superior, to the Americans and that it also had ICBMs.

In a time of political turmoil and growing insecurity, material wealth and consumption offered a sense of security. After the traumatic experience of World War II, large parts of the American population oriented themselves towards conservative, bourgeois values. The small family and a home of one's own in the uniform suburbs, the "suburbs", were among the life goals of many people. With the increasing spread of cars, telephones and televisions, technical progress made its way into the everyday life of Americans. In Germany, too, a rapid economic upswing set in after the devastation of the war. The Germans invested diligently in everyday objects such as cars, furniture and electronic devices. The youth protested against the stench of affluence, but by no means by giving up consumption. Coca-Cola, petticoats and jeans embodied freedom and the casual lifestyle associated with America.

Criticism of modern consumer and mass society did not only begin in the 1950s, but already had a long tradition that went up to Gustave Le Bon, José Ortega y Gasset or Friedrich Nietzsche reached back. 1927 had Martin Heidegger in his main work Being And Time the educated middle class criticism of civilization in a nutshell. In it he expressed his contempt for mass society, which suppresses essential things such as death and transience, loses itself in everyday life and lives in an improper world of alienation.


After finishing her book Elements and origins of total domination In 1951, which dealt with National Socialism and Stalinism, Hannah Arendt planned a book on the totalitarian elements of Marxism. While she refused to examine National Socialism in terms of the history of ideas and thus to revalue it, she found Marxism as an honorable approach and the philosophical examination of it as worthwhile. Karl Marx To take responsibility for Stalinism seemed absurd to her - a delicate position in the USA at the time. In the course of her studies on Marx's theory of work, Arendt came across the further topic of the distinction between Vita activa and Vita contemplativa, which goes back to Aristotle. The originally planned study of Marx and his concept of work expanded into a complex analysis of the Vita activa.

At the same time she dealt with the philosophy of her teacher Martin Heidegger, although his name is never mentioned in the book. After her experiences with National Socialism and after her exile in the USA, Arendt considered Heidegger's retreat into the apolitical ivory tower to be a failure. Arendt himself, who after 1933 had mainly worked practically, politically and socially - in Paris for Jewish aid organizations; as a left, Zionist journalist in the USA - always saw herself as a political theorist. As Vita activa appeared, wrote Arendt in a letter to Heidegger, the book owed him everything and she would have to dedicate it to him if everything had gone normally between them - alluding to his temporary support for National Socialism. The work was published in 1958 in Chicago under the title The human condition published and first appeared in German in 1960 under the title Vita activa or From active life.

Impact history

Vita activa encountered divided opinions. Critics accused Arendt that her sharp separation between a political and a private sphere was outdated in times when state and society were closely intertwined. Your most prominent student, Richard Sennett, turned against Arendt's dark history of decay of capitalism and pleaded for renewal - but not through political action, but through a stronger handicraft orientation of the people. The East German civil rights movement also referred to Arendt's concept of vita activa in the sense of political participation.