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Limits to Satisfaction

Limits to Satisfaction: An Essay on the Problem of Needs and Commodities

William Leiss
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    Limits to Satisfaction
    Book Description:

    Consumerism and capitalist and socialist industry have reached the point where state power is legitimatized by its ability to increase the number of commodities. A unique culture has been created in which marketing is the main social bond. Values no longer shape and condition needs, wants, desires, or preferences. Leiss draws on economics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology to show the vagueness of our thought on the relation between nature and culture, desire and reason, needs and commodities. This book raises serious, vital questions for all those concerned about the future of our present society.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6192-2
    Subjects: Marketing & Advertising

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-10)

    What the so-called developed world has made out of the fantastic resources at its disposal is hardly worthy of emulation by the remainder. Yet one must marvel simply at the ability of a single society to use 4.4 billion tons of new natural materials in one year.* This accomplishment, if we may call it that, testifies to the extraordinary collective ingenuity of the users, whatever may be the specific objectives upon which that ingenuity has been exercised, and we may pay tribute to it without belittling the equally admirable efforts of earlier human groups, who with far cruder techniques erected...


    • The individual
      (pp. 13-28)

      In order to examine the problem of human needs in the high-intensity market setting, let us begin at the concrete level of everyday experience. In an expanding market economy the individual is confronted by an increasing variety of goods and services, all of which are supposed to have some relation to his needs or desires. Obviously he must make selections among them according to his means, and in doing so he interprets his needs in relation to the range of available commodities that may satisfy them. What problems arise in this situation?

      I suggest that we should approach this question...

    • Society
      (pp. 28-36)

      What are the main institutional problems that must be faced by any society which includes the kind of market setting that has been described in the preceding section? Such a society encourages its citizens to orient their search for the satisfaction of their needs more and more exclusively toward consumption activities, in part by neglecting all other possibilities for individual self-fulfilment (such as participation in creative and satisfying work environments). It must therefore devote its energies primarily toward ensuring that adequate material means are available for its constantly expanding economy. When the dimensions of the market economy have grown to...

    • Non-human nature
      (pp. 36-46)

      The problem of discommodities and residuals in modern industrial societies provides the clearest indication of how important it is for us to regulate our relationship to the natural environment with some sensitivity to its requirements, as well as to our own. The greater are our demands upon the environment’s resources, the greater is our dependence upon its capacity to adjust to those demands. Instead of attempting to understand the character of our increased dependence on the regenerative capacity of the biosphere, however, we have grown accustomed to proclaiming our independence of the kinds of limitations on human activity that were...


    • Needs
      (pp. 49-71)

      Any attempt to understand what is meant by the experience that we call the satisfaction of needs is a risky endeavour. The concepts of need and satisfaction are crude indicators for very complex activities. How can one hope to correlate general patterns of overt behaviour, such as the purchase of commodities, with the covert psychological responses to the anticipated satisfactions that are at least to some extent unique for each individual? In 1890 the economist Alfred Marshall wrote: ʻIt cannot be too much insisted that to measure directly, orper se, either desires or the satisfaction which results from their...

    • Commodities
      (pp. 71-92)

      Modern social thought has been fascinated by that part of social activity revolving around market exchanges of goods and services. One of its most famous representative works, Adam Smith’sWealth of Nations, suggested that the inclination to exchange might be grounded in the symbolizing capacity of the human species. Smith thought it ʻprobableʼ that the ʻpropensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for anotherʼ was ʼthe necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech ... It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor...

    • The double ambiguity
      (pp. 92-94)

      The ambiguous character of human needing, consisting in the dual material-symbolic correlates that are interwoven by the socialization patterns which shape the interpretation of needs, is reproduced in the material objects that minister to our needs along the journey to fulfilment. In traditional, pre-industrial cultures the established socialization pattern normally imposes a general interpretation not only on the expression of needs but also on the significance of the objects, the ensemble of which tends to remain relatively stable over time. In other words, a unified set of symbolic mediations governs the interpretation of both. A widening sphere of market exchanges...


    • Toward an alternative setting for human needs
      (pp. 97-104)

      During the past decade many studies have been undertaken to determine whether adequate resources will be available to meet the projected material demands of the human population and especially of its most demanding part, the people of North America. The exponential rise in anticipated requirements has served as a warning to hasten the search for new sources of supply in minerals and energy. With the discovery of the need to incorporate the environmental impact of resource extraction and utilization into the overall calculations, the full dimensions of the supply problem have begun to emerge. The results for the United States...

    • The conserver society
      (pp. 104-113)

      John Stuart Mill included a brief chapter entitled ʻOf the Stationary Stateʼ in hisPrinciples of Political Economy, which advocated a stabilization of economic progress and population growth. In it he proposed the audacious notion that the productive capacities and population level existing at that time need not expand any further. Of course he recognized the gross inequities in the distribution of life’s amenities and the opportunities for self-fulfilment among the population, but he contended that these could only be remedied by more rational forms of social organization. He maintained – correctly, as it turned out – that quantitative increases...

    • The needs of non-human nature
      (pp. 113-124)

      In the section on needs I noted that the discussions of human needs in psychological, economic, and sociological literature have remained within a narrowly anthropocentric framework. In other words, these discussions consider the many problems raised by the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of human needing only in relation to goals that are thought to be appropriate for a decent state of human existence, without also considering the impact of the activities undertaken in pursuit of those goals on the viability of other life-forms, and on some of the common requirements of other living things in the biosphere upon which we...

    • Other satisfactions?
      (pp. 124-134)

      In this essay I have sought to develop a perspective on human needs that is relevant to a specific social situation, namely the high-intensity market setting of contemporary industrialized society in general and in particular of its most advanced representatives. Anthropological, historical, ecological, and other considerations have been marshalled in an effort to uncover the hidden dynamic of that specific situation. This perspective is relevant to the social problems of other contemporary systems only in so far as the commanding position of the industrialized world constrains their own options. For the sake of clarity I have simplified the analysis by...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 135-146)
  9. Works cited
    (pp. 147-156)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 157-160)
  11. Index
    (pp. 161-163)