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Consumerists, collectivists and welfarists

11 November 2007

There is an interesting, if rather misleading, new way of categorising socio-economic groups and values in South Africa: as consumerists, collectivists and welfarists.

clipped from www.busrep.co.za
Strong economic growth has seen poorer people becoming less collectivist and more consumerist, and conversely wealthier citizens have come to care more about societal issues than individual prosperity.

The survey identifies three basic attitudes among South African consumers: collectivists, welfarists and consumerists.Collectivists are people whose behaviour conforms with the basic principles of ubuntu. Community and authority are very important to them, and they believe that wealth should be shared to ensure that all community members survive.Welfarists are people with individualistic mindsets, who believe that wealth accumulation is important to improve the welfare of themselves and their households.Consumerists have individualistic mindsets and believe that their own consumption needs are of paramount importance. They will spend large amounts of money to enhance their image by buying expensive branded clothing and cars.
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I’m not sure how useful these terms are, or whether they are used by anyone else — a quick Google indicates that “collectivist” and “welfarist” are not generally used in the sense in which they are used in that article. They could therefore be quite misleading.

But, putting that aside for the moment, it made me think about which of those groups, in the terms defined in the article, comes closest to a Christian worldview. If Christians have the mind of Christ, which attitudes and values would one expect them to display?

Thinking about that spreads into all sorts of fields.

My first thought was that the consumerist view would obviously be out, as it seems to be diametrically opposed to Christian values.

But then I thought of a discussion going on right now in the alt.religion.christian.east-orthodoxnewsgroup, sparked by the following news item:

First Christian clothing shop for Orthodox women is to open in St PetersburgThe first clothing store for Orthodox Christian women will open in November in St Petersburg. The idea to open the store belongs to Nadezhda Belkova-Bertrash, a wife of a priest. She is sure the shop will become popular with Christian women, who frequently can’t find appropriate long modest skirts for going to church in other stores.

One participant in the discussion, an American of Greek origin, who rejected the idea vehemently, suggested that it was a purely Slavic notion. And thinking about it, I tend to agree. Anyone who saw the film My big fat Greek wedding might recall the bridesmaids’ dresses, and women in Greek parishes in South Africa tend to dress exactly as in the film, and a Sunday morning church service could be a yuppie fashion parade.

In some Protestant denominations, particularly those of the neopentecostal “prosperity” persuasion, consumerist values are not just evident in the dress of members of the congregation, but are specifically endorsed and promoted from the pulpit (which in such churches often seems to be made of transparent perspex).

But even in Russia, if the women dress modestly, what about male status symbols? Is someone going to open a car dealership for Christian cars of the non-yuppie variety? Clothing may be one example of a consumerist mentality, but it is by no means the only one.

Then there is the problem of the terms. “Collectivist”, to me, is not something that is really compatible with ubuntu. “Communitarian” might be a better word, but to me that denotes a specific Christian view of society as put forward by people like Dorothy Day.

“Welfarist” also has problems. I can understand the meaning put on it by the article, but in general use it suggests the idea of the Welfare State.

Nevertheless, I think these categories are worth thinking about, even if one has to try to think of better names for them. And are they the only three?

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