Once upon a time, we identified more with the work that we did and the things that we made than we did with what we consumed. In overtly stratified societies, roles were easily delineated, and had the potential to provide a source of security and comfort
Marx claimed that one of the the consequences of industrialization is that it separates us from our own nature. Since he believed that a part of what makes us human is our ability to connect with the fruit of our own labors, the reality of industrialism, which produced the assembly line, damaged the implicit meaning of work. If we are no longer connected with what we produced, he thought, we live at a point of tension and conflict, which produces a sense of rootlessness that has no meaning.
He did not anticipate, perhaps, the possibility that a consumer culture could resolve anomie and serve us by providing social roles, norms, values and ideals the same way that religion and stratified social constrictions did in the past. Yet, I have to wonder what regarding myself as a consumer and everything in the world around me as commodities does to my personhood. Can a person be a genuine person in a culture of consumption?
That's a heady question. Instead of trying to answer it, I am going to suggest ways that I actively seek to retain aspects of my personhood in what I consider to be a destructive culture.
1. I give up certainty. We all have human needs, but certainty is not one of them. In fact, it is far more rational to admit you do not know than to structure your life around a feeling dressed up as an opinion. Let mystery in. It’s okay, and should be a relief to some, to recognize that not only are you not required to know everything or to be right about everything, it is also impossible.
Once I get past the facade of the “me” that is based on my habits of consumption, I may find that I have a soul that is deep with mystery and uncertainty, a realm of exploration and discovery that uses creative and imaginative and spiritual tools as ways of knowing, which can be more fulfilling and meaningful than the pursuit and experience of pleasure for its own sake, which is often the objective of consumerism.
Once I can get past that temporal and passing objective, I can start to see the world, including my body and the whole world of matter, as related to an eternal perspective beyond present utilitarian value. This is where prayer, contemplation and mindfulness come in, and can powerfully break the restraints and falsehoods of myopic consumer identities.
2. I am aware of what I consume. The writer, farmer and opponent of consumer culture, Wendell Berry speaks to the mirage of consumer pleasures this way:
“The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared food, confronts inert, anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived. The products of nature and agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality.”
It’s especially important as our resources deplete and demand overruns supply that we think about what we consume and why, not only in terms of food, but in every area of life. The movement to buy food locally from farmers you know is a great place to start learning.
3. I buy good books and read them, not just for entertainment, but to learn how to think. Literacy is more important now than it has ever been as it teaches one how to process cognition, as well as exercises the imagination, which is the basis for compassion. In short, read more, and be aware.
4. I try to break the spell of advertising. I do not watch network TV, but I still see thousands of ads a week. I seek to consciously evaluate my needs so that I can effectively resist the subversive lessons that are being sold through advertising and other media. Do you really need a car that talks to you? Will the latest gadget really increase your happiness? Is a successful family really one that looks a certain way and lives in a certain kind of home? Do you really have to hate the bad guys to feel good about yourself? Are pursuing money and working hard really the highest virtues?
Breaking the spell of advertising requires patience, humility, gratitude and generosity. These are attributes anyone has the potential to build. But first, you have to understand that the promise of consumer culture is empty. It is a pipe dream.
Next, recall the words of Epictetus when he writes:
Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.
In order words, stop trying to control reality and learn how to live in it. The release of tension is well worth it!
5. I try to be content and grateful for what I have in any circumstance, and it is a powerful way to resist the hooks of consumer culture.
6. I seek to be reconciled with the world of things. The weird thing about a consumer culture is that we do not value the things that we have, but still always think we need more.
In fact, while many call ours a “materialistic culture”, that’s something of a misnomer because we do not value matter at all. Our consumption uses things up and discards them. We do this on the local level as well as on the macroeconomic level. We are in the process of using up the planet’s resources in a way that may bring devastating effects. Our rape of the nature for the sake of our own pleasure does not reflect an appropriate valuing of matter.
7. I seek ways to give attention to others. With the intent of bringing about the best possible good for other people as well as for myself, I try to give my full attention to whoever is in front of me. It is a small step, but the first step of loving others, both neighbors and enemies, as if I were in their shoes.As such, it shatters the illusion that we ourselves are all consumer commodities, an idea opposed to love, that can be bought and sold, controlled, coerced and manipulated. Love is, after all, integral to what is means to be a human person, and more than anything else can break the illusion that we are ultimately subjects enslaved to the marketplace.