Consumption as a Curse

In a recent video, I argued that economic growth is not always beneficial, because rising economic growth is associated with rising inequality, spiritual unhappiness via the Keeping-up-with-the-Joneses syndrome, and because the environmental effects of endless economic growth are becoming less and less tolerable as climate change advances (Mr Liu’s Opinion: Is Economic Growth Unqualifiedly Good?). Today, I want to focus on the second point to argue that consumption is a societal curse rather than a boon.

Our culture tells us that we have to consume as much as possible or else we are not worthwhile human beings. Naturally, because we are still a liberal democratic society, the powerful in the companies and the government can not force us outright to buy as much as we can. So Edward Bernays had made the argument in the 1920s that what liberal democratic societies needed was the submission of the mass of the population to the consumerist order, where people’s opinions and habits are steered by the rulers of society. This submission is generated through relentless propaganda in the form of TV commercials, newspaper advertisement, public branding of firms, political campaigns, school instruction and news anchors telling us that we should buy Christmas gifts and shame on us if we waited until the very last minute to get a gift.

The latter example is really what had motivated me to write this post. My first association with Christmas, which I think is shared by many people, is an opportunity to meet relatives, to not be so stressed out about work for a few days and to enjoy longer sleep. These practices are implicit as part of the holidays, though it is used by more religious people to be reminded of the birth of Jesus Christ, a rather radical figure, who had the idea to spread the monotheist religion to Gentiles.

Unfortunately, I had the TV on, while being back home for a few days just to discover that the local TV station was reminding people of holiday shopping and showing the crowded shopping malls. Some of the TV presenters said in jest, “You really should feel guilty for pushing it up until the last minute to buy your Christmas presents”. The newscasters, naturally, do not reflect on why they are imploring people to loosen their wallets, and it does not seem that they have to, because the crowded shopping malls clearly show that the newscasters are merely reinforcing what already exists in US culture.

On a more benign note, people might simply decide to shop for Christmas presents as an affirmation that they care for one another, and loving thy neighbor or loving thy family at the very least is clearly very spiritual and very Christian. But there isn’t any obvious link to celebrating the founder of Christianity and gifts except the mythical story of the three wisemen gifting gold, frankincense and myrrh to infant Jesus. But why is the gift in the Jesus story linked with gift-giving in today’s world? Capitalist interests, especially in the retail sector, live off exploiting the story of Jesus for their own benefit, and by convincing people with the help of the complicit media that the circle of gift-receivers should be as large as possible and the spending per gift should also be as extravagant as possible.

Gift-giving is nothing peculiar to consumer capitalist society, and also existed in ancient societies. In Malinowski’s classic study of gift-exchange of the Trobriand islanders, gift-giving has a reciprocal element, i.e. gifts that were given out had to be returned with a gift of greater magnitude; the items that were traded were non-useful items like necklaces and armbands; the gift-giver had a higher social status than the gift-receiver; because most of the gift-items were under the possession of very few individuals in those communities, those same few owners had the m0st influence and power.

In today’s capitalist society, this element of social hierarchy is reproduced with gift-giving, because it tends to be parents, who give their children presents rather than vice versa. (This is a principle that is strictly enforced in my family where my parents refuse to even entertain the idea to let me pay for anything when we go out together.) Though the fact that children upon earning their own income then also become normatively obliged to buy gifts for their parents and other siblings shows that the ancient forms of gift-hierarchies become muddier.

But what I am really trying to say here is that in consumer-oriented societies the social rank hierarchies may or may not get reproduced, but it is all secondary to the commodity structure that filters these gift-relations. Gift relations are retained only within the family or friendship network, but given that most people nowadays don’t use their own mechanic skills to build a product from scratch, but instead buy the gift from the supermarket or online, there is priority for the commodity relationship. From the standpoint of the capitalist producer, he/she does not care whether the buyer or the gift-receiver consume the commodity as long as the buyer transfers the money to the capitalist.

Economic sociologists may be perfectly happy in just pointing out that money can be “earmarked” for specific purposes (see Zelizer 1997), or gift-items for that matter. But for me it is normatively not sufficient. The question, which I raise, is whether gift-giving is absolutely critical in the framework of Christianity? If we could say for sure that people’s moods are uplifted with practical acts of kindness, then we should by all means stay with gift-giving. If people have treated me well or if I hope to be viewed favorably, I would use gifts as a means of appreciation. But in the case of Christmas, we are institutionally required to hand out gifts, which evidently has nothing to do with an act of kindness but fixed social expectations.

It would be difficult to establish the different levels of spiritual happiness effects of a gift received at random when the gift-giver thinks the receiver deserves it versus a gift received during Christmas, but I would hazard to assume that the former produces a greater level of happiness for the receiver because the gift is linked directly with the individual person rather than the institution.

The conclusion that I make can, therefore, neither be to abolish gift-giving nor Christmas, but to question whether gift-giving should be intrinsically linked with Christmas and should require the combined propaganda of corporations, retailers, schools and media to mobilize the largest amount of Christmas shoppers with the most willingness to loosen their wallets.

Let us consider the problems: It is problematic that the innocent act of Christmas gifts can produce anxiety among lower-class children, whose parents cannot afford the nicest gifts. It is problematic that the consumer propaganda makes people feel guilty for not intending to purchase gifts for others. It is problematic that so many people return the gifts the next day because they don’t like them (which suggests to me that people might be better off with a gift card rather than gift items; I, for instance, only value books and only very few people would know the kind of books I would want to read, so I reward myself with “gifts” through online book orders). It is also problematic that gift-giving has been absorbed into the normal capitalist order.

Consumption that exceeds people’s genuine needs and controlled wants become a curse to the extent that our spiritual happiness (defined as long-term contentment rather than joy for the moment, eudaimonia in ancient Greece) is not increased, but to the extent that we are trapped in the hedonic treadmill, where only added increments of material goods can increase pleasure further. For most people not born with a silver spoon in their mouths, that means more exertion, more work, more performance, more overtime, more promotions, more bonuses, more raises.

Cheerleaders of capitalism claim that more consumption and hard work is associated with human progress. In capitalism’s creative destruction, there is, after all, a creative element in it. I am no opponent of progress, but I am an opponent of hedonistic consumerism, which shall not be confused with the desire to tinker and create new things, which make us very human and shall continue to exist under any social mode of life.

The stoics argued that contentment and satisfaction can only be received if our material demands on life are reduced to a minimum. We don’t have to go that far, and may appreciate the benefits of what has been created. But we can heed some of their calls to attempt to live a more fulfilled life. I come from everything but a rich family, and one of the most important lessons I received from my family was the importance of being very frugal on my spending habits. Capitalist propagandists would condemn me as a miser, who refuses to benefit the economy and spur the creation of new jobs (or celebrate me as a hero for generating high savings for the country’s investment, but we’ll go with the first argument for now).

But the frugality has also allowed me to not have the desire to cheat on people, so that I can have a temporary pecuniary gain. It has allowed me to maximize my leisure preference, which may have come at the expense of “productive work” for society, but has allowed me to live a life of the mind (albeit imperfectly), read an inordinate amount of books, newspapers, journals, write numerous blogposts, watch movies and documentaries, and join long intellectual discussions with bon vivant friends. I can scarcely imagine any better life, yet consumerism blocks the path toward such a free and content life for most individuals.

Some critics might object that most people may intrinsically have a consumer-good rather than leisure preference and that my intellectual preferences are peculiar to few other individuals like me. But how can such critics know for sure that consumer-good preferences are autonomous decisions? The standard libertarian has to assume that people intrinsically choose how they can maximize their own levels of utility, but to ignore the externality of influence through the consumer propaganda machine is short-sighted. It is true that consumer culture has formed the standard common attitude toward consumer-good preference, but we would not really know what people’s genuine preferences are unless there is a parallel universe or society where people are not exposed to the consumerist propaganda.

Ironically, it first requires leisure before people realize what they are really after and what really produces contentment in life. And in such case, there will be a much greater number, who will then voice their leisure preference, than what is the case today, while a few people nonetheless choose workaholism even when given the leisure, because work is the only thing that fulfills them. That would be fine too, because the work and consumer-preference would not result from coercion through manipulation (rather than coercion through force). We are ripe for the universal basic income to test the waters on people’s true preferences.

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