The Religion of Consumption
Earlier this week, Lisa sent me this post from the blog Becoming Minimalist: 21 Surprising Statistics That Reveal How Much Stuff We Actually Own. A few of my favorite statistics include:
- The average American home has tripled in size in the last 30 years.
2. 1 in 10 Americans rents off-site storage.
3. The average American family spends $1,700 on clothing per year, and throws out 65 pounds of clothing per year.
4. Nearly half of American households save zero money.
5. 93% of teenage girls rank shopping as their favorite past-time.
These and the other statistics paint a stark picture of our culture. I have often thought that our culture is stuck in the material phase. It is as if we never realized that we figured out the material problem – having warm houses, ample food, cars, etc – fifty years ago, and most of us have not moved on to higher goals. Aside from the financial, environmental, and social costs of this myopia, these choices have an impact on our emotional and spiritual lives. The quote below from Eric Fromm’s “Man For Himself” explains how consumerism and careerism are actually a new religion unto themselves:
We see in our own culture millions of people devoted to the attainment of success and prestige…. But is it not apparent that the intensity and fanaticism with which these secular aims are pursued is the same as we find in religions; that all these secular systems of orientation and devotion differ in content but not in the basic need to which they attempt to offer answers? In our culture the picture is so particularly deceptive because most people “believe” in monotheism while their actual devotion belongs to systems which are, indeed, much closer to totemism and worship of idols than to any form of Christianity.
This paragraph is striking to me, because it illuminates the consumerist, brand-focused culture that pervades the lives of many Americans and the global middle/upper class. In my post “Bansky, Chomsky and Lifestyle Consumption,” I go on somewhat of a rant about the various segments of consumer culture, and how the advertising agencies have duped everyone into buying masses of consumer goods by exploiting their unconscious desires. While this remains true, Fromm’s position above raises much greater concerns. If he is correct, and I think he is, then our culture’s obsession with brand identity is a form of religious devotion. People, aided by the high priests of the advertising agencies, actually believe that they will be imbued with certain powers or character traits by acquiring and possessing certain cultural “totems.”
As I alluded to in prior posts, we all know the cultural meanings that are associated with the various consumer culture totems: German cars project success, large trucks and SUVs project sportiness or masculinity, yoga-themed clothing projects “spirituality,” and various clothing brands project our individualism despite the fact that millions of other consumers have purchased the same products.
From a cultural relativist perspective, one could argue that this consumerist orientation is no worse than any other religion, philosophy, or ideology for relating to the world. However, I think that it is very problematic because such an orientation leaves a void of true spirituality, and a feeling of emptiness as we deal with our own impending death. We are led astray, believing that we can achieve our highest human aims by buying consumer totems rather than by trying to live up to our true human potential. David Foster Wallace, in his brilliant commencement address at Kenyon College, explains quite clearly:
In the day to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as Atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual type thing to worship; be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles; is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.
While certainly there is a personal finance cost to participating in the consumer culture, the greatest loss comes with the spiritual void that consumerism leaves. Specifically, we observe all around us people in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s who are still focused on acquiring more things – nicer cars, bigger houses, more status – while neglecting the true nature of life as a human – we will soon die and anything that we have achieved will likely be lost. The truly lucky and driven may be able to leave some legacy that contributes to the continued progress of the human race, but even such legacies are often ambiguous or short-lived.
What then, are we left to do? Certainly, we should not sacrifice our amazing potentiality that is a human life to accumulate more status totems! Fromm would say that the highest aim of a human is that which we are uniquely evolved to do: to love one another, to exercise our rational thought, and to engage in creative, productive work. The correct use of money, then, is to allow us to reach this potential – to choose our work such that it is meaningful, thoughtful, and loving – rather than to use it to acquire status totems that can never imbue us with the qualities that we are told they will by the high priests of consumerism.