I understand that presenting a topic or relating a point of view and suggesting that people are thick, stupid and that they’re donkeys led by carrots doesn’t go down very well. I want to be quite clear that I think people are fantastically, beautifully, wonderfully different and brilliant. I’m simply looking and noticing the patterns of what is happening in our lives, in our society, economy and culture. I wish to be a humble canary in the coal mine or at very least to offer an alternative perspective for your consideration.
So, humans are fantastically, beautifully, wonderfully different. Assuming that to be true, if there weren’t forces around us, we would live in a world of fantastic, beautiful diversity, complexity and difference wouldn’t we? Yet we don’t, I don’t think. I think we live in a world of amazing, unbelievable structure and conformity.
Why is that? Because I think that essentially we live in a ‘consumer’ society which takes our ability to be wonderfully, beautifully different, creative and innovative and makes us live in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise.
I look around at the populace and I see people who believe they’re making complex decisions about what it is they wear, for example, the suits, the glasses, the shirts, the hand bags, the socks, the whatever. We make these decisions about who we think we are and what we think we are as part of the conditioning we receive in a consumer society. It reduces our ability to think and act for ourselves. Decisions are basically automatic, even predictable, depending on the times and current societal trends in the area of consideration.
Every society has tended to try to reproduce or clone itself from generation to generation but this is now one that is doing it to an amazing effect, across cultures and borders --- worldwide.
So many important factors are much more different now than how they’ve ever been before in mankind’s history. We have seen world population shoot up exponentially in just the last couple hundred years with greatly many more people living on Earth now. Our huge advancements in technology have given us the huge ability to harvest and harness our global environments and reap planetary resources more than ever. We’ve developed a vast socio-economic engine that allows for mass production of millions of different things beyond scales ever seen before. There are now huge companies and corporations spanning many countries at once, conducting their business with huge swaths of population everywhere. Products made in China, for example, can be purchased in just about every single country on the planet. There is the ability now of worldwide shipment of goods and materials in relatively short times and there’s quick transportation of people from any point on Earth to any other with ease.
The underlying workings of all this is consumerism. Everyone, it seems, is preoccupied with getting things, having things and upgrading their condition on Earth. Consumerism is an ideology that the entire world now embraces and agrees strongly with.
Is this bad? I think so.
Where did this come from? Where did it start? Well, let’s simplify it for a second; the old, “talk to me like I’m a 5 year old” approach.
Going way, way back, a basic need for any human is food. They will probably also seek some sort of shelter for protection from the elements, from scary animals, warmth. Clothing makes sense to keep warm in cooler climates, while we are out and about, and to protect our bodies against abrasion, etc. (Socially, of course, it took on other meaning as we developed attitudes of modesty and arbitrary standards of interaction within groups).
It is from this point that things progress.
You might like your shelter, for instance. Suppose it turns out to be a very good one with a nice view of the landscape that pleases you, or is close to clean water, or naturally set up well to carry out day-to-day activities or you’ve made it that way with hard work. So now you may be willing to defend having it taken away from you by someone else; you might be willing to fight off anyone coming by, noticing how nice your shelter is, and wanting to displace you. Now you need to be strong, defensive and it might be to your advantage to have a weapon of some sort to fend off intruders.
So things have now progressed. Just your basic food, clothing and shelter now include a new addition --- food, clothing, shelter and a weapon.
Then one day, on an outing for food, you kill a bear. Later, sitting bored and restless in your shelter, feeling stuffed on bear meat, you take its claws and fashion a lovely necklace to wear around your neck. Your friends tell you it looks very fine and makes you look like a great hunter. You love that! You feel proud and try often to look at yourself in the reflection of pond water. It becomes a prized possession of yours'. Other hunters who don’t have one of their own secretly wish it were theirs’ or that they had one of their own. You even break one of the claws off one hot, steamy summer evening and give it to your woman as a gift to signify the bond the two of you have.
So things have progressed again, haven’t they? Your ‘needs-of-life’ seem to have expanded a bit. Now it’s food, clothing, shelter, weapon, cool-bear-claw-necklace, and all the 'new-lady-in-your-life' stuff.
See how easily it grows? Notice though, that beyond the basic needs of life it all starts to appear very much like simple ‘greed’ and ‘indulgence’. Cannot almost everything be boiled down to these two things? These two motivations for humans seem universal.
How do you stimulate greed and indulgence? Turns out it isn’t very hard. Just the action of coveting seems to take care of most of it automatically. It’s often all the motivation needed to carry out a plan of action to acquire. Angst is good too. Have a person dwell on something obsessively, wantingly and they often become compelled to do something about it.
These days, it helps to make the world appear increasingly depressing. Happiness isn’t very good for the economic engine. After all, if we were happy with what we had, why would we need more?
How do you sell an anti-aging moisturizer? You make someone worry about aging by emphasizing youth as the end-all, be-all! How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making the people worry about mostly everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? You identify physical traits as ‘physical flaws’ and appear as an expert speaking for what is beautiful and attractive in society. How do you get them to watch TV shows? By making people worry about missing out in the next day's petty conversations around the office water cooler or coffee machine. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone even though their current one works perfectly fine? By making them feel like they are being left behind by the progressive, sexy masses all around who are snapping up the new technology simply because it’s new (and improved!! -- as we've been taught and drilled). How do you make people absolutely need to book expensive, luxurious tropical vacations to every point on Earth? By making them feel like everyone else is and they are socially deficit and banal if they aren’t.
To be calm, thoughtful and reasonable becomes a kind of revolutionary act; to be happy with your own non-upgraded existence becomes odd. To be comfortable with your messy, human self is not good for business.
Like in ‘The Matrix’ we live to serve the ‘machine’ not the other way around. We’re born to consume, we consume avidly most of our lives, or are consumed in the activities that will allow us to do it presently. ‘Work’ becomes only a means to an end for most; a way to get the things we desire. Of course, I know it isn’t the only thing we do but it is by far the predominant way in which we now reproduce our society and certainly conduct our lives.
We consume and we believe we have free will in our choices but actually we follow, and now the entire globe follows, the same kinds of trends in the same kind of direction.
There is finally becoming, worldwide, only one way to be or one way to strive to be. But yet we believe we’re free. We believe we express our individual freedom because we buy this particular style of red shirt or those particular blue jeans with their distinctive back pocket embroidery or that bigger screen smart phone or the blue Dodge Ram truck instead of the grey one but actually we’re all just on the same tread mill pretending that we have free choice, that we have free will, that we can decide what kind of life and what sort of world we want to live in. We’re conditioned to do that from early on in life and very soon we hardly notice the transformation at all.
We’re conditioned to do it everyday via the hundreds of suggestions and brand images that are projected at us everyday on signs, billboards, televisions, radios, magazines, the Internet, etc. Behind all this push is a vast consumer industrial complex ‘army’ of designers, psychologists, advertisers, marketers, etc. whose everyday jobs are to make us all think the way they want us to think about the things they are trying to push on us. We’re just the creamy, frosty icing on the giant cake of the consumer society engine as they figure out how to get into our brains to understand where the ‘buy’ buttons are, what they are, and how they’re activated with increasingly refined technologies, new methods and sensations. It’s the whole way in which internet sites like eBay, Google and Facebook and those like them are accumulating masses and masses of data and information from common daily internet activity to understand exactly what we like, exactly who we think we are, what we desire, when they can sell to us or when to throttle back, how much saturation we can handle, etc. all managed to keep us on the tread mill to feed the system.
Well, have you noticed the angst or urgency you (or most people) feel around Valentine's Day, for example, to buy your honey-bunny something to express your love, if you are in a relationship? This is simply a market driven dilemma or necessity that usurped an older, simpler, purer cultural tradition and turned it into a creepy, slightly defiled consumer event. Or the overwhelming pressures to get your relatives and family that token 'gift' during the Christmas season? More evolved, assumed consumer participation, totally puzzling to most if not done so. At Halloween time it's milder -- it's about providing a bit of candy to strange children and dressing up the house in odd webs and ghouls; a milder social pressure to purchase but it's still pervasive. And notice they've now added new traditions to your yearly cycle, i.e. Black Friday! the day after U.S.A. Thanksgiving (now recognized in Canada too), used to launch the holiday season in a buying frenzy of 'discount' deals, but the competition to grab customers first is keen. Stores like Walmart, Target, Canadian Tire and more are open Thursday evenings in what they hope will be a one more new holiday tradition, Mad Thursday. This is all societal conditioning and you are the mouse totally running in the maze, lapping up the sweet, tasty milk uncontrollably.
But of course we’re not stupid. We all know this. We know that we’re on this tread mill but --- once you look around and finally notice --- there is nothing else to do.
A telling advertisement that I was exposed to as I randomly clicked around the internet one evening a few months ago was a British one that popped up on one of my screens. It was from some company over there (I no longer remember who) that was running a yearly sale (on something or other). It was like so many of them that we all routinely see but what caught my attention this particular time was the message in the ad:
“You want it. You buy it. You forget it.”
It made me pause. They know exactly that we know this is all a preposterous, useless way to live --- getting yet another random thing that will soon gather dust in the basement, closet or garage along with the countless other things. They know we know so they play that back to us and so now we become part of the game; we’re in on the joke. It’s disarming to us. It now doesn’t worry us, it doesn’t raise alarm that we’re being sucked in yet again, or even matter anymore because we’re all in on the same joke and it’s so comfortable ‘belonging’, isn’t it?
The idea of the game is to stifle or eradicate alternative ways of being and it’s incredibly successful. It’s not a conscious thing or a ‘conspiracy of old men in dark back rooms scheming how to control the minds of the population’. It’s not done with any specific malicious intention in mind but is simply the direct result of the natural action of our ever hungry global socio-economic engine, humming along trying to satisfy the gluttony and consumption that the humans on this planet have become accustomed to as they demand more and more.
So why do we do it? We have to think of why that is.
Could you free yourself from this lifestyle? Of course you can say “Well, don’t buy then” --- seems simple enough. But have you ever tried that for an extended period of time? How’d it go? Not well I suspect. Everyone consumes and continues to do so. It’s omnipresent, all-pervasive.
Could someone be on the outside of this system, live alongside it but not participate? Nope. Not without great social sacrifice, even to the point of being somewhat ostracized and in some cases persecuted. Could someone upset this system in some kind of social revolt? Nope, not single-handedly and certainly not without educating so many people to even recognize that it’s even a factor of our existence, which most don’t and won’t consider at this point.
There have been cases of people who have tried. These are the few people we read or watch documentaries about who have pulled up their lives, moved away from it all and live very simply out in nature somewhere. We think they’re odd. We think they’re unusual. We think they’re lives are deficit and hard. We think we like our furnaces and hot water tanks and fridges and cell phones a little too much. Do you see how moving away from a consumer culture makes you look to those who are in it? Notice how these people are portrayed as less.
In some areas in the ‘western’ world it is even actually against some by-laws and higher laws to set up an existence ‘off-the-grid’. It is discouraged through legislation for various reasons but could it be that the root fear is deeper than we realize? These people are seeking to leave the consumer hamster wheel. That would be a bad thing if we all started to think this way!
There is one description that gets close to defining the kind of society we now live in. That’s the scary word ‘totalitarianism’. The word totalitarian essentially means the eradication of alternative ways of being. And in our consumer society there are virtually no alternative ways of being. Unlike socialism, communism or fascism I think consumerism is getting much, much closer to the kind of totalitarianism these ideas strived for. We are now forced to live as if we are free and that’s the way it catches us.
We are smugly comfortable these days and tend to think of totalitarian cultures as ‘back there in history books’ or taking place in dictator states in scary parts of the world. But that is just due to lack of perspective. We are smack-dab in the middle of one right now.
The conditioning to get us to comply with the social norm isn’t so acute and obvious around us because it isn’t done by the ‘Jack boot’ of historical totalitarian forces but by the more subtle and pleasant, modern ‘Gucci boot’. It does it all by seduction, subliminal social pressure. We’re seduced into this lifestyle. We warm up to it early in life and tend to like it and we soon believe we get enough from it. We have conformed, embraced and accepted that this is what life is. We feel there is just compensation and reward for this attitude in what we perceive as ‘well being’.
We enjoy the thrill-of-the-till!, we enjoy buying, we enjoy accumulating, and we enjoy participating in the extravagances all our friends also participate in. It becomes an automatic although nescient and opaque ‘game’ of trying to keep up with everyone else or at least with those immediately around you who will notice! your lifestyle and ‘gains’ (it doesn't hurt to post it big and in color on Facebook) and they'll feign complementary approval and praise, all the while planning their very own green-eyed next excursion into consumerland to match or supercede your own.
Each time of participation keeps us going until the next time, the next fix, the next shot of adrenalin and verification. Eventually in society, there isn’t anything else to do. There are no other kinds of social places to be. They eventually all involve and embrace consumerism in some form. You eventually aren’t a citizen anymore, you are only consumers. You’ll notice if you take the time to look, that there is no other way to be that would be considered equally valid.
What is especially clever about the system is how it is virtually ‘self-policing’. Those within it keep constant vigil on everyone else within it, monitoring the system for spikes and bumps that don’t blend in well, ready and willing to be alarmed and appalled then mete out social ‘punishments’ or ‘judgments’ for lack of or meager participation by those not being good, strong consumers.
One unfortunate group, the poor people of society and the world at-large, have a ‘special’ place within the structure. They have not yet acquired enough wealth to participate avidly in the consumer game (in some cases -- not at all) and so tend to be altogether ostracized and marginalized by the great consumer group. Their social status in society is nil. ‘No consumer power’ equates to, basically, an unspoken ‘no human worth’ in today’s society.
But!, as it wonderfully turns out, the poor do serve a valuable purpose to the consumer class in that their very existence actually polices the consumer class. They’re the one thing that keeps us on the tread mill of consuming because we don’t dare fall off --- we’re afraid of that happening because we don’t want to be like them, the failed consumers! They don’t have a car like mine, they don’t have a house like mine, they don’t travel where I do. I don’t want to become uncomfortable like I believe they are. They don’t have the social badges that legitimize everyone, everyday. It is not only a black eye to be failing consumer-wise but it is a huge social black eye as well. You failed, you don’t belong, you aren’t contributing to the engine. Upstanding consumers don’t want to go there.
The technology of the world has shrunk the world. The planet is quickly becoming more and more aware of itself. Even in remote, poor places the people are seeing snippets of what is being presented as the ‘good life’ out there. Everyone is quickly becoming aware that there is something out there that is claiming to make their lives better, easier. Even in cultures where lifestyles are simple but quite sustaining, the message is strong encouraging them to abandon that and 'move up' in significance in human existence.
There have been, in recent years, demonstrations and uprisings of people in mass protest against the '1%', for example. (Largely crowds of very young adults who mostly are unemployed and still living off their parents, some well into their 30s --- that's a whole other topic). I think these demonstrations have been interpreted a bit incorrectly by media. The poor don’t want to overthrow the rich; they just want to be like them. They have heard the message of consumerism and now believe it. 'Life will be better.' I.e. China and India. “I need to get me some of that prosperity, wealth and comfort!” These populations and groups may not be considering or understanding the large effort of hours and work needed to get to such high levels of consumer potential but they certainly understand the allure of shiny, nice things. They've listened to and watched the adverts and the message has sunk in and made an impression.
It’s interesting to see the rise of ‘bargain’ stores such as Dollar Store, the many other bargain stores, Goodwill and Salvation Army stores, or even the worldwide Walmart chain that all cater to masses of 'low-rung' consumers who have little disposable income but who can none-the-less now participate vigorously in the consumption culture also, albeit to the silent smugness of the richer folk who can afford the prettier, more extravagant items of the marketplace. There are paradoxically different levels of ‘class’ within the consumer class now. For example, isn’t it fun to make fun of the poorly dressed, socially deficit Walmart shoppers via Youtube? Such a good time and so validating for everyone else who consider themselves higher up the food chain.
So it’s difficult to think where the alternatives to this overpowering lifestyle are going to come from. It's a nearly bulletproof process that abhors change and globally defeats new ways of being at every turn.
Before the society of the consumer it was the society of the producer, the 'do-er'. We knew and identified each other and ourselves by what we did, by the things we created or built, by the work we did. We’ve obviously always have consumed in smaller forms, and we always will do so, but it wasn’t the singular or the priority way in which society reproduced itself until about 45 to 60 years ago. The producer/do-er society has the germ within it of an alternative lifestyle -- a different view of what the priorities of life are.
People once knew more about creating the things they needed in life. They could carve their own mixing spoon or axe handle. People could sew their own clothes, and in some cases, from cloth they created themselves from wool or cotton, etc. Knowing how to plant a proper garden and even making yourself a wheel barrow or hoe for working in it were skills common to many people. They got the food they needed from the animals they tended or the wine they drank from the fruit they grew or gathered and processed. Consumption was largely from things in your direct community and extravagances were considered out of the ordinary and special rather than commonplace and ubiquitous, as they are now.
Consumerism creates a mass of population that slowly loses its skills. Creativity and talents go unused and start to fade, rust or never develop at all. We slowly become less and less able to do even the most simple things in life to take care of ourselves or maintain our existences. Psychologically we’re starting to all be driven by the same desires which are simply implanted in us by the big machine. We’re told what to like, what to do, how to be, what to desire, how to spend our free time between gathering-money-time to get more things.
We’re all human and prone to these similar forces. If there’s such a thing as a seven-blade-razor why would you settle for a five-blade-razor? At first you might say that it doesn’t really matter to you. But consider the marketing that you are constantly exposed to in our consumer society and the subliminal social pressure that whispers to you --- that you might be missing out. ‘You don’t know the pleasure your fellow fellows are experiencing with this razor and you are not -- the advantages it’ll give you in the dating jungle!’ ‘My God man, your very manhood depends on you considering the upgrade!’ ‘You’d be mad to settle for a five-blade-razor. Get in the game or sit on the sidelines as a loser!’ That is the tread mill that we are on.
So is there no exit?
Well, if one allows even a glimmer of a possibility of an exit you’re allowing for hope, I guess. I don’t think I’ve done this. But I concede that from the ashes of anything, from anyone’s failure, disappointment or humiliation can spark some glimmer or suggestion of an alternative; some different way of thinking and being. A waking up can occur. Perhaps that has happened to me and maybe that’s all I’m saying here.
Yet, I wonder how that glimmer can even begin to take a grip in a world in which we can comfortably imagine the end of the planet but, god help us! not the end of consumer capitalism. That is exactly the world that we live in. Where do alternative mindsets come from in a society where outside considerations are discouraged and over-ridden? In the midst of our frantic, scurrying lives we notice that we are wrecking ourselves in so many ways (socially, physically, mentally, emotionally, culturally, health-wise, etc.) and slashing our world and environment too. We see obesity problems, people depressed from being in debt and barely ‘getting by’, unhappiness with not having or doing the things our friends do, etc. etc. Yet we go on collectively, doing the exact same things day after day, push these dire realizations comfortably to the back of our minds, and submit once again to the domination of consumer culture.
Yes, some of us try to live in the cracks where we can, doing different things, behaving in different kinds of ways but it doesn’t amount to any kind of serious challenge to the system. It doesn’t challenge the dominant way of life and direction our society seems to love and embrace. And we certainly cannot leave it for extended periods of time, if at all, because we’ve all grown dependent on it for survival -- it's become the only way to be.
Even recently, when the great banking/real-estate crash or cataclysm of 2008 occurred causing worldwide social and economic upheaval, caused by this very consumer society of greed and ‘getting’ caused by the massive indebtedness to buy stuff --- the biggest financial crash since 1870 that we are still living in the waves of --- all we did was patch it all up (using public taxpayer money no-less) and we all got back on the tread mill as soon as possible! We were panicked! We were scared! After all, it’s the only way we know to be. We don’t use the event as an opportunity or trigger to inspect our way of life for possible correction, modification, or renovation; we simply scramble back on the raft, desperately try to repair the damage to it and then we continue to cascade wildly down the rocky-consumer-lifestyle-river.
Nowdays, as you approach virtually every moderately sized town or city in the country, you’re always met with the tremendous, gaudy, sprawling box-store architecture growing up on their outskirts. There’s the area where we live in our towns, the areas we work to make dollars, and then there's these gigantic, expansive areas we now flock to afterwards to consume like possessed souls and get more and more stuff and be entertained in our free time. I even recently saw a thing called ‘Baby Gap’ where we identify and display infants now, in cute, expensive consumer outfits. This consumer indoctrination begins very early now, doesn't it, as it then continues on throughout our lives right up to picking out the lovely, lined, laminated box to be buried in.
Even our state’s (governments) role now is basically overseeing/managing the ‘market state’ or ‘market state conditions’. Consumerism now virtually 'consumes' all government's time, energy and purpose. They’ve become basically just another arm of our consumer society system. The state’s role has evolved to ensure that consumer capitalism continues at all costs because that’s the only way our society is deemed to be able to function anymore. We continually privatize the things that were formally owned publicly. They have, one by one, become identified as just one more commodity that can be sold at profit to private corporations instead of being maintained as a social need or utility (that was initially created by us to make our society and lives easier and better). It might be argued that some of these things might even be considered a ‘right’ to a member of society instead of the asset of a privately-owned corporation that now benefits only a handful of shareholders and owners.
It seems that the trend of society is to consumerize every aspect of life and it’s going on in every place and everywhere. We are clever and we think we possess free will but there is great pressure and incredible force on us that is deflecting us in a way that takes us all in the same direction. It’s happening across the world. Every developing country is adopting it as its lifestyle too and moving in the same direction.
I understand that it may seem that I’m simply trying to regulate and stop shopping or vacations or something. I’m not. The problem is much greater than mere shopping. What I’m saying is that what I want on offer is the full range of choices of human experience. Not this contrived, agenda’d, superficial selection we experience now. I want included, the choice not to choose without the negative social implications of such thinking. We need to understand why we think that we have to go out there and that we have to play this singular game. It seems to me that the unanswered, the undeniable single point is that once upon a time we had different visions of utopia, different notions of how our world could be. You only need delve mildly in our recent human history to notice it. This knowledge has been lost.
That’s the thing that has been eradicated. There is now pretty much only one way to be, there is only one direction for our society. If you’re outside of that you’re a lunatic, you’re mad, you’re not playing the game, and you’re not keeping up. A reintroduction of utopia of different ways for our societies to be is in order. And not solely different choices down the shopping isles; we need actual different ways of living the good life and having a good society.
We're hypnotized and need to awaken. We need to
look at life and see it as it is and not as we’d like to think it is.