Consumerism provides capitalism with a veneer of freedom. As Corey Robin notes in his piece for the New York Times, The New Socialists,
“The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination.”
To conceal this lack of genuine freedom, monopoly capitalism substitutes meaningful liberty for freedom of choice. Here, in facing a panoply of products, our impulse for choice, autonomy, for control over one’s life, is exercised on this conveyor belt of Wants. Aisles upon aisles, websites upon websites, dangle a diversity of ‘goods’. To consume is to differentiate; to freely pick and choose which sort of ‘good’ we wish to entertain ourselves with. Its furtive nature is irrelevant to our brains, hooked on the dopamine dumps of acquisition, yet integral to the pattern of consumption. Without the neurochemical come-down, when banality and anachronism slowly usurp novelty and modernism, there would be little motivation to continue to purchase. Without dissatisfaction, there would be no materialism.
Hence, the almost divine defence of consumerism as the realisation of our deepest held desires, the market as a realm of personal articulation, juxtaposed against the brutal conscription (as the opposite of variety) of Soviet era communism, is a transparent deception as to the reality of materialist mechanisms. Vicissitudes of ‘innovation’, the new lines and models and iterations, the superfluous fruit pressing machines and ‘smart fridges’, 18 different variations of poo emoji pool floats, exist not to primarily satisfy intrinsic desires, or solve problems. Rather, they are the proliferation of the imperative to continually generate new Wants, itself in service to the profit motive.
Mechanisms of Consumption
Two primary techniques are employed to do so. First, the blight of planned obsolescence guarantees the endless reproduction of wants. This operates in those ‘goods’ which are, in fact, useful. A lot of technology, from smartphones to printers, contributes meaningfully to ones life: they allow us to communicate rapidly, engage with the dynamic public square now elevated to cyberspace, and streamline daily operations. The conscious decision by producers to embed within such goods a convenient time of death, usually shortly after warranty subsides, runs counter to our interests as, in order to continue utilising the device, we must now shell out even more cash to buy a newer version. If such a dynamic were truly about satisfaction, obsolescence would have been banished a long time ago. If only ones phone battery was sustainable enough for its capacity to not be totally depleted upon nearing the contract end date, or that washing machine’s internal mechanisms didn’t begin forced entropy after a few years of use. Wouldn’t our desires — the usage of these devices to enrich our lives — be more effectively fulfilled by this hypothetical? In what way does the deliberate destruction of an effective product serve to maximise the utility gained upon purchase? Perhaps if products lasted their full lifetime, the claim of benevolence from consumerism’s evangelists could stand on two feet. But whilst meaningful utility is shunted to the side for myopic profiteering, the creation of concealed cash-cows will be the primary concern of producers.
But that’s just one aspect of its conditioning. If planned obsolescence is a functional decree to consume, then advertising is its psychological edict, operating in tandem to manufacture a duty of consumption that expresses itself on the cultural stage; a theatre of self-representation and social validation. “A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing” writes Marx in volume 1 of Das Kapital, “But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” A ‘good’ is not only a ‘good’. Its appeal is not wholly contained within its physical function, craftsmanship, or utility. Instead, it seeps out from the object, conferring upon it intangible qualities — those metaphysical subtleties — which are in no way essential to the item itself. Hyperreal excellences replace the quotidian insignificance of its reality.
Cars are not just cars. They are sinewy beasts, tearing through beautiful vistas. They are the key to success. And a gateway to a world of adventure, of connection, of possibility. A coke is not an addictive sugary beverage that spikes your blood sugar, damaging your physiology, but cans of respite; of summer beauty; endlessly attracted by and to beautiful people. This commodity fetishism is the raison d’être of advertising. Since far fewer items — in quantity and variety — are necessary for the genuine fulfilment of needs and actualisation of effective wants (problems solving in one’s life; improving it tangibly), new desires must be generated. Advertising only exists to persuade people to buy the product. Yet, if one truly needed the product, there would be no need for persuasion.
The act of ordaining these objects with “theological niceties” — creating an almost religious devotion to acquisition, exemplified by the queues of feverish Apple disciples, snaking out from the chrome-lined glass facades of their tech temple — is not simply a matter of marketing exaggerating or misrepresenting its properties. It is more than this. It is an objectification of genuine, intrinsic needs. Advertising takes a set of core prerequisites for human happiness, and condenses and abuses them into connotations of the particular ‘good’. Short of articulating a conclusive taxonomy of advertising motifs, it can be seen that marketing relies on appealing to a number of Maslowian aspirations or needs, inculcating subliminal links between the object and our non-material desires. In psychology, such a process is known as affective conditioning — attaching our preexisting desires to objects; objectifying them — and it’s the most potent and ubiquitous tool in the advertisers arsenal.
Car adverts are exemplary case studies here. Many, as alluded to earlier, set the vehicle free along winding, scenic routes, objectifying our atavistic appreciation toward nature’s grandeur and the freedom of the expanse in a car that will, most likely, spend the vast majority of its time either parked, paralysed in congestion, or tottering along wearily on 40 mph back roads. But I’ve noticed there is an increasingly prevalent alternative form featuring family. Some still maintain representations of adventure, but now with the added bonus of a peaceful family excursion. Yet others take place in the banality of everyday life, but present this new car as a key to father/daughter bonding on the way to school through the slightly improved features on the speaker system; or with better suspension finally being the key to joyous car rides with young children. Subconsciously, the acquisition of the new product is conflated with the realisation of deep seated needs: for strengthened relationships, exploration and wonderlust.
The Objectification of Needs
The perniciousness of such commands to consume are found in its personal side effects, putting aside the environmental damage for the time being. Think: perhaps that new car, convinced as you are that its purchase is vital to the betterment of your life, is rather expensive. Perhaps, in order to buy that car, you must do some overtime at work, not getting home till 8–9 in the evening, exactly the time at which your children are settling down for the night. Perhaps, with all the energy expended on the train journey to and from, the mental enervation needed to perform day in day out, your family life takes a toll. You snap at your wife. You’re too tired to play with the kids. You miss your daughter’s school play because “daddy was at a really really important meeting, but he sends his love and he’s very proud of you”. Surely, in chasing the carrot to afford the proverbial car, endowed as it is with the promise of escape and connection, you are preventing the realisation of the very life you have been convinced it will give you. Thus, the objectification of needs engenders a corruption of value: we value what we don’t need, for the promise it will give us what we do. And in so doing, the emphasis the accruing of objects places on appearances shifts our very values themselves, creating false needs.
If one were to think my hypothetical is mere absurdity, a very similar dynamic was observed by social psychologist Dr. Marsha Richins, whose study of materialistic people found that “they think that having these things is going to change their lives in every possible way you can think of.” And, as the American Psychological Association reports, one subject “said he desperately wanted a swimming pool so he could improve his relationship with his moody 13 year old daughter.” Of course, the extent to which we succumb to advertisements messaging varies. But the fact remains that all of us are continually being prodded and poked, imperceptibly and pervasively, into doing so, dragging our values toward what’s known as ‘extrinsic’ ends; external validation, power and material wealth. This shift in our values framework, moulded as it is by the culture within which we live and the attitudes of those around us, is dynamic and zero-sum. We all hold competing values within us — benevolence and selfishness, cooperation and competition, equality and opulence. On either end of this dichotomy we have intrinsic and extrinsic, respectively. What changes is to what extent each are prioritised; how close we are to either pole. Or, to take psychologist Tim Kasser’s analogy, which slices are cut bigger than others in our pie of values. As he explains to Johann Hari in his book, Lost Connections,
“On Friday at four, I can stay [in my office] and work more — or I can go home and play with my kids, I can’t do both. If my materialistic values are bigger, I’m going to stay and work. If my family values are bigger, I’m gonna go home and play with the kids.” It’s not that materialistic people don’t care about their kids — but “as the materialistic values get bigger, other values are necessarily going to be crowded out.”
To put it simply: the more we care about objects, the less we seem to care about people, marginalising those connections and pursuits that are truly fulfilling.
Instead of giving us what we truly want, consumerism often makes it even more difficult to achieve it. “The more he contemplates, the less he lives” Guy Debord writes of the ennui of advanced capitalism in The Society of The Spectacle, “the more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires.” The objectification process at once solidifies our legitimate needs. Then, upon acquisition, the illusion of concretisation subsides, and the tangibility promised evaporates away. In so doing, the simplistic promise of fulfillment as consumption siphons our energies away from the more complex pursuit of self-actualisation. Instead of furthering ourselves and helping others, we embellish our dissatisfaction with designer suits and expensive watches.
Success in our culture thus becomes constituted by material forms; a mad dash to purchase prestige. The conspicuous display of commodity prosperity is synonymous with personal value and the merits of one’s life. In return, our vernacular of aspiration is mired in economic terms, with a good life defined reductively as a rich life (Aristotle would be rolling in his grave). Celebrities – the reasons for whose fame is often limited to their ostentatiousness – instagramming glimpses into a realm of Gucci handbags, walk-in-wardrobes and gold-plated private jets, disseminate the ethic of the luxurious, the path of the lavish, for the rest of us to gawp, scrambling ceaselessly to follow.
The futile hedonism of consumption thus becomes the guiding principle for a society structured by market logic and built upon the commodity form, percolating through the floor of the rich. Whilst the incomes of the wealthy don’t trickle down, their tastes and sensibilities certainly do. The magnetism of the pretentious becomes a way for the impoverished to reach the rungs of prosperity they are denied, and so emerges a cottage industry of knock-offs, and the contortion of one’s banal reality into extravagance through the funhouse mirror of social media. From Puerto Banus to Milan to Monaco, you will find theme parks of wealth, its attendees snapping photographs next to grand yachts and supercars, whilst fake Ray Bans sit atop the bridge of their nose, and Counterfeit Louis Vuitton hangs from their shoulder. The illusory recruitment of the lower classes into the commodity wealth of the bourgeois, and the mindset of acquisition this pursuit suffuses into our being, is a prime method of securing consent for capitalism. Extreme wealth becomes an aspiration, not an aberration. And if what we are is what we own, then what we want to be is found in what we can acquire. That boundless energy is devoted to the attainment of a strata of opulence that can, for most of us, never be reached, is one component of the pacifying tendencies of consumerism. But there is more to its stultification than the misdirection of unreachable promise.
Heaven is a Place on Earth
It is, I think, productive to conceptualise consumerism as analogous to religion. They bear a number of similarities in terms of their social effects, in that institutionalised religion, whatever the relative merits to one’s subjectivity, is a dynamic of power. There are divine commandments or practices which possess magnetic qualities; impelling us to act in that way which God approves, or which will lead to paradise and avoid eternal damnation. Our behaviour thus changes in response to these diktats from on high. And whilst consumerism’s proclamations are not cast down into a sacred text, they still hold pervasive influence on our conduct.
Power presents itself not only in the status hierarchies of Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, but too in the reach of the spectacle. On every screen we own, and even those we don’t, psychological manipulation is beamed into our consciousness. Wherever we look — be it bus stops, shop fronts, underground stations, airports, street walls, phones, TVs, computers, schools — our faculties are bombarded with shopped imagery and infuriating jingles, each telling the same parable, with the same exhortation — BUY. These are implicit commandments, more nefarious in their unconscious power, which direct action and inculcate a particular set of values.
Whilst capitalism’s explicit power is revealed in exploitative hierarchies and rentier extraction, its implicit power is found in the idioms and expectations of consumer culture. Functionally, it is the psychological grease on the wheels of capitalism. Without the constant lubricant of Want — dispensed through planned obsolescence, advertising and flashy displays of wealth — the endless cycle of acquisition and disposal, the production machine would slow, and profits would fall. Consumerism is thus the integral commodification of everyday life; the discourse through which capitalism’s cold logic expresses itself on the spiritual plain, embedding in us the values of property, competition, and accumulation. It is the inevitable value system articulated by the superstructure, a secular teleology with a singular goal, gestated from and sustaining the base mechanisms of the economy. We are moulded into consumption units, upholding capitalism’s dominance in perpetuity.
Note that consumption as a culturally imbued pattern of behaviour is entirely passive and individualistic. I don’t believe this to be insignificant byproduct. The reproduction of this pliant isolation conditions us to into a non-threatening consumer; atomised and non-resistant. Edmund Bernays, the father of public relations and the cousin of Sigmund Freud, referred to his marketing methods as the “engineering of consent”, and was open in his contempt for genuine democracy, as he describes in his text Propoganda:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”
Here Bernays — the literal mastermind of commercialisation — articulates the implicit power of consumerism; its existence as a form of social control. This sentiment is not unique to Bernays, however. As Chomsky notes in Requiem for the American Dream, the business press of the 1920’s often discussed the “need to direct people to the superficial things in life” in order to avoid intrusive attention being given to the captains of industry and their sycophants in government. To suggest consumerism was solely a conscious endeavour to placate the masses is to be disingenuous. But to ignore that it is a very effective method of placation indeed is to do just the same.
Just as religion has deterred social change and regulated dissent on the basis of an eschatological promise (or the threat of eternal damnation), consumerism bares a similar purpose. Yet in monopoly capitalism, heaven is a place on earth. Whereas the joys and bliss of the afterlife were employed by the Church to ensure obedience to the status quo of its day, promising the exploited chimney sweeps of William Blake’s Innocence and Experience that “if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” and “never want joy”, modern salvation is to be found in immediate consumption. A reflection of Marx’s proclamation of religion as ‘the opium of the people’, consumerism provides a comfort blanket for our overworked, malnourished, anxiety-stricken, underslept souls. Once we have clocked-out of the totalitarian workplace, complete with it’s hierarchical sadomasochism and insecurity, we find respite in the consumption spectacle, which monopolises “the majority of the time spent outside the production process.”, in Debords words. This passive leisure time, where we succumb to ready meals and reality TV, is not the inevitable result of humanities inclination toward languid frivolity. Rather, it is the product of capitalism’s dissection of our souls into a dichotomy of supervised production and directed consumption; workers and consumers. As Black notes in The Abolition of Work, this condition of empty hedonism, reminiscent of Nozick’s pleasure machine and the ‘soma’ fueled gluttony of Huxley’s Brave New World, is a bastardised conception of the liberty of ‘free-time’:
“The alternative to work isn’t just idleness. To be ludic is not to be quaaludic. As much as I treasure the pleasure of torpor, it’s never more rewarding than when it punctuates other pleasures and pastimes…Leisure is nonwork for the sake of work. Leisure is the time spent recovering from work and in the frenzied but hopeless attempt to forget about work”
Consumerist pleasures thus owe much of their potency to the monotony of compulsive production. “Oblomovism and Stakhanovism” writes Black, “are two sides of the same debased coin.” We only recline so comfortably into the couch of consumerism because of the tyranny of labour. And whilst capitalism robs many of adventure, connection and purpose, consumerism repackages them, selling them back to us as the qualities of whatever hunk of metal or heap of plastic we are convinced to purchase.
Capitalism therefore defends itself through a one-two punch. Firstly, it dizzies and exhausts us in the workplace, with our capacity to resist and organise further constrained by the omnipresent threat of material deprivation. Genuine freedom and self-realisation are prohibited by the necessities and inadequacies of waged labour. Then, as its second act, we are assuaged with tranquilising consumption, appealing to base wants and conveniences to numb it’s abuses, like the lollipops following a trip to a particularly malicious dentist. Consumerism is thus the surrogate for the meaning and richness denied to us by capitalism’s mechanisms. It is the quick-fix solution to prolonged unfreedom, insecurity and purposelessness.
As a little too perfect example of this complementary dynamic of late stage capitalism, Seats new advert depicts a workaholic, clearly dissatisfied with the tedium of their routine — the commute, the paperwork, the office politics — whose salvation comes in purchasing their brand new car. The tagline reads: “when you change your point of view, routine can be marvellous” as the once lifeless monochrome of her work suddenly opens up into a rapturous world of possibility. What an irony it is that even our alienation has been commercialised, with its very source presented back to us as its solution.
Now, the sceptical reader may have long been thinking I’m overstating my case in this critique. Consumerism, they may contend, is at worst a bit of harmless embellishment of the human condition, and at best a fantastic source of pleasure in the world. There are many who truly do love the products they buy, who do genuinely get a lot out of them, and who wouldn’t like it any other way. In this sense, consumerism is not a barrier to true happiness, but a route to it, making our lives a lot more enjoyable. I have sympathy with this argument. I certainly wouldn’t like to live in a world without Playstations and sneakers, and I appreciate the value such comforts provide, within reason. My argument is not predicated on a desire for a utilitarian world of joyless asceticism (despite my inner Buddhist) — I think there is a place for the material world in human society. But my critique arises from the centrality of this material world to our social existence. It’s omnipresence. Its engorging of the ego, crowding out alternative values, distracting us from what matters, and leaving us dissatisfied. But most importantly, any defence of our right to endlessly consume must confront a stark choice between necessity and frivolity; a choice arising from the unsustainability of our material habits.
Planned and fabricated obsolescence, the latter the dynamic of advertisements vacuous imperative to stay on trend, leave in their wake mountains of trash, floating masses of plastic the size of nations, and cross-species genocide. Earth overshoot day, the dystopian holiday marking the point of annual overconsumption, reached its earliest point in 2018 — the 1st of August. Humanity consumes over 70 billion tons of resources each year, depleting our natural reserves too rapidly for Gaia’s rhythms to keep pace. Our obsession with creature comforts has superseded our admiration for our fellow creatures, as we usher in the planets sixth mass extinction, annihilating species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural background rate. Since 1970, the animal population has declined by a half, whilst freshwater populations have dropped by 81%.
And yet we continue, our insatiable consumption of the superfluous violently ravaging the fundamentals of existence; the vital earth systems without which our epochs generous, life-giving conditions recede, descending into a realm of dying oceans and toxic air, asphyxiated by our petty desires, manufactured and amplified by the rapacious commandment of profit. What a peculiar world we live in, where our collective suicide arises from purchasing things we don’t need, at the expense of what we do. Calls for green-growth and sustainable consumption lack empirical legitimacy, unable to overcome the basic fact that the emulation of Western gluttony exceeds any efficiency gains in production. If we are to truly avoid environmental collapse, our civilisation must replace its material soul with alternative ends, constructing implicit metrics of success and fulfillment independent of material affluence.
This will be no great loss. It is my contention that those that appear most enamoured by consumerisms delights engage not out of fulfillment, but a lack thereof. Many purchase compulsively to temporarily alleviate internal pain, shooting up on 1-click orders in darkened rooms, faces illuminated by a pool of blue light emanating from their devices. Others, lacking social routes to fulfil genuine purpose and meaning, resign into the path of accumulation, filling their homes with useless junk and decorations. The spectacle of appearance that consumerism portends elicits feelings of deep personal inadequacy, minds haunted by our own revolting normality — our teeth not crystal white, our bodies not stick thin or rippling with muscles, our house not big enough, our skin not smooth enough, our wristwatch not expensive enough.
A material Darwinism pervades individual dynamics, worth and stature inextricably connected to our presentation of affluence. Indeed, these are not (just) the bitter musings of a young contrarian, but reflected in the psychological literature. “Twenty-two different studies have…found that the more materialistic and and extrinsically motivated you become,” writes Johann Hari in Lost Connections, “the more depressed you will be”, with twelve more studies concluding the same in relation to anxiety. Not limited to self-harm, materialism degrades the quality of our relationships, breeding disconnect between us and those around us, as well as the natural world. Research confirms my postaulation that the acquisitive drive absorbs energies away from truly fulfilling pursuits, placing “unrealistically high expectations on what consumer goods can do for [people] in terms of relationships, autonomy and happiness.” And as the Huffington Post reports, consumerism feeds off of chronic self-doubt and deep insecurities, falsely promising “products to address every dissatisfaction.”
But I don’t think we need scholars to tell us this. I think we recognise it ourselves, if not consciously then tacitly. We feel it every time the rush of our latest purchase subsides, and our mind returns to whatever anxiety the dopamine fix was intended to suppress. We feel it when we reach the midpoint of our lives, the ‘empty nest’ filled with stuff but absent people, our once feverish dreams dissipating as our debts and items accumulate. The mid-life crisis, when our aspirations for what we hoped our life to be are revealed as far from what it turned out, is, I contend, a symptom of a culture that penalises risk and venerates vacant consumption.
But above all, as we lie on our deathbed, the remains of our day receding briskly, we do not mourn the items we leave, or the promotions we missed. We do not lie there reminiscing of our favourite purchase, but our favourite people; the delicate web of life that we danced through in our short time on Earth. We trace back all the wondrous sights and ecstasies of love, those conversations that nullified the passage of time, and those celebrations that made us feel unified. As we meditate on true life, the comical insignificance of the material emerges at this point into the most crystal view. What we need is not the plasticised, standardised, ersatz approximation of life that consumerism regurgitates, but genuine existence; wrapped in its all its euphoria and grandeur.
In jettisoning consumerism, then, life’s luxuries are not lost. On the contrary, they are discovered, dug out from the heap of trivial distractions and gratuitous cravings they lie beneath. For, by liberating what we truly value from the clutches of the commodity, prioritising the actualisation of our needs and reveries over the acquisition of our wants and conceits, we liberate life itself. We come to serve not consumption — but existence. And what greater ‘good’ could there be but that?