Sunday, February 14, 2016

Enoughness and the Age of Consumer Capitalism, part 2

   This is the continuation of my earlier post on Enoughness . . .

Consumerism lies at the heart of our current civilization.  I don't mean we like shopping.  I mean that buying stuff stands at the very heart of our way of life.

A culture can include for its people a vision of a larger project beyond themselves.  Our own civilization has dabbled in grand projects - from Christian missions to the Space Race - from nation-building and modernization - to Manifest Destiny and America as beacon of democracy.

When you look around today, you'll find little in the way of grand visions.  Progress has been variously imagined, but today it has been pruned down to little more than the incremental tweaks of a smart phone obsolescence cycle - or at best, imaginary self-driving cars.

You might well argue that it's not such a bad thing that we set aside grand visions.  Not only have they proven dangerous, they also have rarely been the concern of the average person, who generally prefers to be left in peace to invest their energies into the mundane concerns of working and wooing and raising their offspring.

But no one really escapes the assumptions and demands of their culture, and here in the mundane is where consumerism truly permeates.  In a thousand subtle ways, our society tells us that the very point of our existence is to consume.  If you are poor you have failed in every important way.  You ought to have the wherewithal to buy those things that demonstrate your ambition and commitment to success.

But of course there is no ultimate success - there is only more striving.  Consumerism is not something that has a conclusion.  On the contrary, there is no level you can reach where you will be safe from an army of marketers that is taking aim squarely at whatever potential inklings of satisfaction or satiety or enoughness you might achieve.  Once the needs of life have been met, then production and advertising becomes all about irritation - trying to create an itch that only this product can scratch and soothe.  To distract you from any budding sense that you might actually already have what you need.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year creating that itch and that lure.  It's commonplace to complain about the oppressive ubiquity of advertising around us - and the way it uglifies and degrades the spaces around us.  But we don't often think about how much of the world we inhabit is designed and built as a stupendous architecture for fueling and enforcing consumerism.   Enoughness must not be allowed to take root.

Human culture is a dynamic inter-reaction between the actual practices of everyday life and a set of guiding ideas, motifs, myths and grand narratives.  What are the implications when our myths are no longer stories that we tell each other, but stories sold to us by vast profit-making corporations?  When we don't sing our own songs to our children and our lovers, but consume them from a music industry?     What does it mean when all of our information about our communities, our political leaders, our collective realities is processed for us by media companies whose sole and overriding goal is to sell our attention to other companies who need us to buy their stuff?

Many of the largest, most familiar, most sophisticated and most profitable corporations in the world don't make their enormous profits from the products they create.  They make their profits by selling us, our attention, our vulnerability and our consumerist potentials to their actual, fee-paying clients.  For Google and Facebook, you are not a customer, but the product they sell to advertisers.  CNN, Fox News, the networks, Clear Channel Radio don't sell their media productions to you.   Those concoctions exist for the sole purpose of luring you away from a life you might be leading in order to keep you in front of that screen absorbing a paid advertisement.  The NBA, NFL, Major League baseball would wither away if they had to rely on ticket sales.  The big money comes from selling all the eyeballs that an entertaining game secures for the sponsors.

I began this essay, by saying that consumerism lies at the heart of the matter.  The powers that be will tell us that this is just our natural, inevitable state, but clearly there is a vast amount of creative and economic energy devoted to molding us into consumers - consumers who just can't get enough.

Next week, I'll continue with some thoughts about the limits and exits from consumerism . . .