I don’t like consumer capitalism. I don’t understand it in great detail, what I do know are these two things: it requires the ceaseless pursuit of more and it doesn’t make people happy.
I realized that our consumption-based system was somewhat broken and dysfunctional a while back. I have become concerned with how much value and status we place on stuff. But I didn’t realize until sitting on the porch today that consumer goods themselves are not only ridiculous but structured to be inherently hierarchical. It’s not enough to buy stuff. You always have to be striving for the better, more expensive stuff. It is, after all, how worth is to a great degree is judged.
I was listening to the neighbour lay down the rules of conduct for his new car to his son the other day. Shameless eavesdropping is one of my guilty pleasures. There were a lot of rules. The dissemination took quite a few minutes. “Remember,” he said as he wound down and the boy took the seat at last, “You’re on probation.”
I get it. It’s a very nice car. It’s shiny and stylish and I’m sure it has all the optional extras. It has expensive-looking, low-profile tires and the full outside detail package. The paint sparkles. I’m sure it cost well into the five figures. If I’d bought such a machine, I’d have probably thought about rules too. But that’s a big if.
I wonder about the car. Does it do anything differently than a cheaper one? Is it constitutionally better than a less luxurious car, a car that doesn’t scream, “Look at me, I’m important. I’m better than people who can’t afford a car as nice as this.” Does an expensive vehicle translate into greater societal worth? What is a car for, really, other than for getting you from point a to point b and sometimes transporting piles of stuff? Less status-y vehicles do that just fine. But old and serviceable is now frowned upon. For the system to survive, you have to always want more.
Newer is better. Bigger is better. Better than your neighbour’s is definitely better. And that is the ultimate goal, isn’t it? Validation via acquisitions. A sense of superiority over those who can’t spend as much, to cover up emotional holes that no one talks about. Holes that aren’t really yours or mine. Holes created by a system that needs you to feel less than so you will buy stuff to feel better.
Consumer capitalism is addictive. It’s like a drug. You take a hit and feel better for a while but then the high wears off. You come down and life is still life, struggles abound, and maybe now you have debt. Or, more debt. And the new outfit didn’t make you instantly popular, and the new phone isn’t pinging, and the new dishes still haven’t seen a dinner party. So, you take a spending hit again. Because more stuff, new stuff, better stuff – it makes you feel special again for a space of time, and we want to be special. We want to have status.
Why, no one can really stay. Perhaps what we like about status is the power and the stuff. Especially the power to get the best stuff. A big boat, private airplanes, trips to exotic places as often as we go to the corner store, expensive clothes. Expensive clothes that like expensive cars don’t perform their inherent function any better despite exorbitant costs.
We want the freedom we believe those higher up the hierarchy have. The freedom to do what they want when they want and damn the consequences and judgements. We want the shiny life we see in the magazines we waste money on in the grocery aisle. We want the accolades and the props. We want to live without rules, because people who can afford the really good stuff – not just the everyday, sort of good stuff but the really high-end stuff – get to do that too.
The system has been on my mind for a while. In part, I’m forced to think of it because I’m economically impoverished. I am not able to define my worth with a shopping trip or a purchase. So, I have to be careful to ensure that my thoughts aren’t coloured by feelings of jealousy. I don’t really think they are, however. I think my musings on the fundamentally flawed nature of consumer-based capitalism are kind of correct.
I read Russell Brand’s Revolution recently. He focuses a fair bit on all the ways in which the current capitalistic and political systems have let us down. He’s not the best writer in the world but you can hear him in his words, which is a nice skill. And the points he makes, well, they resonate.
I have come to the conclusion that we’re doing it wrong. Life. Society. Government. Economics. Unfortunately, I don’t know what doing it right looks like. One, I lack the education. Two, supply and demand still underpin society and that is likely to be the case until someone wins a Nobel Prize for their achievement in creating a Trekkian replicator. When we can create whatever we want and have a limitless supply of energy to do it with, problems like scarcity and status for stuff will be solved. Stuff becomes less impressive when everyone can have whatever they want, whenever they want. That day is not today, however.
I’m trying to withdraw somewhat from the game. As mentioned, part of that is my financial reality, but it’s also personal choice. I could save up to purchase the more expensive and therefore better things I instinctively want when I see commercials and print ads. I prefer not to. I’m getting into the habit of asking myself if the thing I’m ogling or planning to click on is a want or a need. I’m getting into the habit of inquiring into the true nature of things. One is less willing to spend fifty dollars on a T-shirt when one recognizes that in reality it’s nothing more than a pile of thread, which itself is nothing more than bits and pieces of plants.
I’ve become a fan of vintage acquisitions and by vintage, I mean old. Secondhand almost everything. First hand on some things, like this lovely computer I’m writing this on, but even this is just an ordinary computer. Not top of the line, not filled with a variety of fascinating extras I neither want nor need.
I spent a great deal of my life assuming that I had no value and lacked a place in the world because I was fat. That is the language of the eating disorder. I refuse to spend more time believing I’m worth less because I’m unwilling to drop $350 on a white T-shirt that will degrade as fast if not faster than the one I purchased for $5 at the thrift store.
Plus, there’s the matter of storage. In our pursuit of the newest, biggest, and best, what happens to the old? There’s a limit to the market-size for trickle-down artifacts. The rest goes into the bin and by bin I mean landfills and they’re all at capacity and more stuff just keeps rolling up.
I’m not sure hierarchy and status will matter much if we bury ourselves alive in waste and useless debris just to keep consumer-based capitalism alive.