Jesus posted a rather thought article about consumerism, consumption and the different attitudes that both Protestant and Catholic societies had towards consumerism. For my part, I slightly disagree with Jesus that Catholic countries didn't or that Protestant countries didn't indulge in conspicious consumption.
My disagreement stems from reading Glenn Caudill Dealy's two books: The Public Man and the Latin Americans Spirit and Ethos (both out of print) Caudill Dealy argues that the Protestent ethos provided a civilizational justification to undertake the economic activities like charging interest, accumulating wealth, exploiting workers etc, that the medieval church tried to limit.
The Protestant ethic required some external sign that those who had embraced the new faith were indeed the elect. That visible manifestation was the accumulation of wealth. At first, the early Protestants basically brought the monastical ethic of ora et labora to the world. Work was a vocation, frugality was sanctification, accumulation was a private affair. The public authourities existed simply to protect property rights and enforce contracts. Eventually, the Protestant countries accumulated so much surplus wealth that the inhabitants had to do something with it. Consumerism started very slowly and innocently enough: in the beginning, it was the purchase of failing entpreises or those that complemented the buyer's business strategy. With time and subsequent generations, some had accumulated so much wealth that could sponser causes that they identified with. For others, though they were far better of than previous generations couldn't buy business or subsidize causes so they did the next best thing: buy goods and services.
Catholic countries didn't need to worry as much about salavtion because the Church had the sacraments and everyone could be forgiven if they expressed sincere remorse. Thus, freed from the worries of wondering if they were the elect or not could partitcipate in the world. That participation took the form of ostentatious consumption because it was the means to which to build a public following. A public man is a surrounded man;hence the exchange of favours is more important that economic production. Indeed, productive activities are antithetical to a public man ethos that requires peopel to be seen in public doing good deeds.
Catholic societies evolved too. Hard work, being industrious and other values commonly associated with the Protestant ethic have been rehabilitated to an extent. However, I think it has less to do with the 2 centuries of Anglo-American cultural influence as with the perennial struggle withing Catholic socities between laxity and rigour. It's a recurring tension within Catholic socities that they become so lax that there's a backlash that rigour is demanded- usually in the form of anti-corruption intiatives. Thus, one could make the argument that industriousness and the other 'Protestent values'are a way to shame the political sphere, jolt the population and spur the anti-corruption reformers. It's a way to embarass the society because the political realm is held in higher esteem than mere productive activities; yet the businesses are more honest than the public administration.P>One last point, With respect to the praactice of capitalism, I've always found the historically Protestant countries to be a little sociologicaly niave. Capitalism, especially its Anglo-American variant is so demanding that not even the Americans fully adhere to it. There are some industries that are protected from the rigours of competition. Aside from the obvious lobbying successes of the groups involved, another perspective is to acknowledge that competition in a capitalist economy can sometimes become too frenzied and needs to be moderated.