Why are we encouraged to buy ever more stuff?
I’ve come to see that I can best understand why excessive material consumption – the ‘American Dream’ lifestyle – has taken centre stage in our recent history by getting to grips with just what ‘capitalism’ is all about.
I’m a great fan of the BBC, and the Radio 4 ‘In Our Times’ programmes often throw light on what can be difficult subjects. One such was when a group of academics discussed Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’, considered the ‘bible’ of capitalism.
The central ideas seem to be:
- Released from a ‘government knows best’ model of centralised control of the economy, the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market will bring us all to a good life.
- Entrepreneurs will use their own capital and initiative to create wealth which will trickle down.
- If we all look after our own interests the whole will benefit.
But as mentioned in my last blog, there is an overlooked part of the Adam Smith story.
Perhaps most crucially, capitalists are always looking for new investment opportunities. This ‘light bulb moment’ has helped me to make sense of so much that is happening in the world today, especially the constant pressure which is put on us to buy the latest fashion, take yet more exotic holidays, change the colour of our kitchen cupboards …
Is Having More Stuff Good For Us?
David Edward’s book ‘Free to be Human’ has the intriguing subtitle ‘Intellectual Self Defence in an age of illusions.’ His message is that it is to the benefit of our economic ‘system’ that we are all kept discontented because we will go out and buy, buy, buy.
The very same message came through loud and clear from Matt Haig’s brilliant book ‘Reasons to stay alive’ which is a pretty damning indictment of our modern consumerist society which has seen a massive increase in depression, as discussed in my blog about the rise in mental illness:
“The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more?”
Many have laid the blame for much of the modern-day epidemic of mental illness at the feet of capitalism’s need for new investment opportunities:
- Oliver James travelled the world interviewing the wealthy elite who might be considered to ‘have it all’ but found them often far from happy, often finding relief in drugs and alcohol and suffering from a condition he called ‘Affluenza.’
- James Wallman in his book ‘Living More with Less’ described ‘Stuffocation’ an affliction caused by the over accumulation of ‘stuff’.
- If you’ve managed to avoid suffering from affluenza and stuffocation, you might simply be experiencing the stress caused by the ‘paradox of choice’ because you have too much choice in your life. Where to go on holiday? Which restaurant to eat at? What colour should the curtains be?
- As if that’s not enough Alaine de Botton suggests that many of us may be suffering from ‘status anxiety’ – “A worry so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may, as a result, be stripped of dignity and respect.'”
- Finally, whether we ‘have it all’ or are struggling to keep up with society’s expectations John F Schumaker in his book ‘The Demoralized Mind’ suggests rather than being depressed we could well be feeling ‘demoralised’. He says that the driving forces of our consumer culture, individualism, materialism, hyper-competition, greed, over-work, hurriedness and debt, have a negative impact on our all-round well-being. We struggle to find meaning in life, we often suffer boredom, we feel frustrated and demoralised.
So, if I’m looking for reasons why life on Earth in the early 21st Century isn’t working out too well for many of us, capitalism’s need for ever-growing investment opportunities might well be playing a part.