Critiques of consumerism bore me. It’s an anodyne debate that serves no purpose other than to placate SWPLs who order Starbucks and then make vapid, pithy statements all in the same breath. How unsurprising that some capitalist made a business empire out of selling Che Guevera shirts… But I digress. I began this essay with a repudiation of consumerism polemics only to engage in one myself. But this time, it will be different. I would like to definitely point to the evils (or rather, inevitables) of consumerism as a consequence of the philosophy of individuality.
It is hard to say when it started (though some posit 1789), but we are in the midst of a dissolution that has been going on for some time now. Ties that once bound us have been loosened, and the center does not hold. The most obvious example is in in the concept of the nation, and the shared ethnic, cultural, and geographic ancestry that enabled a people to build cohesive communities that could unapologetically act to better themselves and their society. The elite forces of government, media, academia and their social justice shock troops are in the midst of destroying these social bonds, in the name of secular, humanitarian progress. They know not what they do, but thankfully, we are not so ignorant.
The cleavage that has occurred has penetrated almost all aspects of modern existence, with few bastions remaining somewhat–not wholly–free from the dissolution. Although it is tempting to speak in sweeping, macrocosmic statements, for this essay to have the gumption needed to challenge the philosophy of individuality (and consumerism, its consequence) we must hone in on the microcosm of human existence, and scale down from the national level to the communal one.
Man exists not as simply a man, but a role. In a more traditional society, these would have included warrior, son, patriarch, as well as his given craft. In this sense, he was defined not by who he was as a personality but as an identity. Does he properly assume the roles that are mantled upon his shoulders, or does he reject them? Does he live up to his position as patriarch, or is he weak, and allows his household to run amok?
This man is not judged by who he is as a person, that is to say, his personal idiosyncracies and pastimes, but by his ability and aptitude for the various roles that have been incarnated through him. He is not free, but bound by chains of responsibility and duty to an ideal which transcends him. What we are discussing here is something fundamentally different from the atomized individual of modernity. It is Identity, and is to be considered antithetical to individuality, which is a rejection of Identity.
But what happens when a man is stripped of Identity? It is no understatement to say that he is fundamentally disempowered. The roles that once gave meaning and obligation to his life are revoked, and he is left as a meager soul, scratching at barren earth for some semblance of purpose. Is this wild hyperbole? No. It is the condition we find ourselves in as atomized units. Individuals, in the truest sense of the word.
The individualists may speak up here, and raise the point that the duties of the past hampered man from pursuing his interests, his hopes, his dreams. And, in a sense, they were right. He was not able to go off and pursue his dreams, or travel to far and distant lands in search of himself. What they fail to understand is that most dreams are simply that–dreams. Ephemeral and fleeting. For the millions who sought fame in Hollywood, how many have actually succeeded? Or in any endeavor? As for those who sought to find themselves, was there ever really anything to find? He is nothing in any meaningful sense without the roles he embodies. A man without an Identity is simply a random scattering of needs and wants. There is nothing to aspire to in that.
Moreoever, the individualists miss the point of a traditional society. They believe that these communities lacked the means of self-actualization, which is what many people crave. These societies were in fact more effective, in that they provided socially accepted, civic means by which self-actualization could occur. The avenues of gaining social prestige, and even of artistic development, were all there. Did individualists think that their rebellion and thirst for something more was unique? To quote the Tao Teh Ching, “How do I know about the world? By what is within me.” Only a fool believes that the answers he seeks are in another culture, another place. The keys to happiness and fulfilment are not found without, but within.
But let us return to the idea of the individual. He is a sampling of needs and wants, none of them unique in themselves, although perhaps unique in their assortment. He is a creature of want, without knowing how to want, that is to say, what drives him. It is only in this climate of individuality that consumerism can take hold. Does not the phrase, “I didn’t know I wanted it until I saw it,” speak to the lack of self-knowledge?
Consumerism promises the individual an identity (lower case). People do not buy certain goods because they are enamored with the products, but rather that they exist as a means of social signaling. Look around at the world. Conservative, liberal, young, old, educated, or not; none are defined by their ideals, but their patterns of consumption. Doctor Who fan, country music fan, Republican (ideas as commodity), none of it matters. If you were to look at someone’s “Likes” on Facebook, you would have a far better idea of who they are than by anything that they have said or done. It is replacing Identity with personal taste, a fetishizing of the label. But it is a mere fata morgana that can offer no lasting satisfaction. After all, these things are made to be thrown away after the veneer of novelty has worn thin.
A man with an Identity is capable of sublimating want for the sake of the roles he plays, and for the good of other people in his life. More than that, because he has his roles, he is already rich beyond measure. The glamour is lifted from modern trinkets, and their profanity revealed.
Consumerism can only take hold in a society that is no longer a community of persons with Identity, but a collection of atomized individuals with various wants and desires. Therefore, it would be fair to call consumerism a consequence of individuality, rather than a prime evil in and of itself. When SWPLs and various well-meaning but otherwise clueless persons decry consumerism, they are missing the mark. It is one thing to understand that something is wrong with the world, but another altogether another to seek out its root cause. The true problem was the loosening of social bonds, which was perhaps an inevitable result of secularism, globalization, and the cult of democracy. But this inevitability does not mean that the path humanity now walks is without consequence. Alas, that we must stand and watch from what’s deemed the “wrong side of history.”