Adapted from the forthcoming book Renegade Consumer: The Battle for Your Economic Freedom.
Some subjects are easily learned. Beginning with the first fact, the ideas are clear in the mind and grow with the acceptance of each new detail. After some time of study, be it hours or a lifetime, a full understanding of the topic is reached without there having ever been a time of confusion. The early understanding may be basic, but it is correct and becomes clearer as more facts are learned.
Other subjects are murky, opaque, and difficult to grasp. Learning them means accepting presented facts at face value and trying to hold them in an arbitrary arrangement until understanding coalesces from the accumulation. The early steps are difficult, because the facts don’t seem to fit together. Eventually, though, there comes a breakthrough, an epiphany, when it begins to make sense.
For many readers, grasping the shape of consumerism and the effect it has on our lives will be in the latter category. It will take effort, concentration, and a willingness to accept some things at face value until a complete supporting structure is gained. You should have a grasp of the basic renegade thesis from the preceding essay; hold those possibly uncomfortable and disconnected ideas in place while we take a deeper look at the what of consumerism, and build out what we know of the why.
The Illusion of Freedom
In the Indian dharmic religions, a key concept is māyā, which is usually translated as illusion—the illusion of the world around us, which must be seen past in order to reach fulfillment. In Hinduism, those who cannot bring themselves to see through the world-illusion can never free themselves from the cycle of reincarnation and rebirth. Those who remain transfixed by the illusion are forever doomed to playing a meaningless part in perpetuating it.
If we can jump from the sublime to the mundane, this concept is part of the pop philosophies that underlie the 1999 film The Matrix. In the film’s world, all but a few humans live their lives within a shared, virtual illusion—the world of our present day, more or less—that keeps them mentally palliated while the robotic conquerors of Earth use their cocooned physical bodies as energy sources. Until a handful of humans manage to see through the virtual reality, none can be saved from this exploitation. Māyā, the illusion, is all until one of the cinematic renegades draws back the curtain for the next convert.
Theology and fiction often draw their ideas and precepts from reality. We may never know what led the founders of the dharmic religions to conceive of life as existing within an illusion, and in turn inspire millennia of belief, intricate philosophy, fiction such as The Matrix… as well as a little sheer crackpottery. We can, however, use these examples to understand our present-day world.
We live our lives within an illusion no less sweeping than that of māyā, no less detailed than that inhabited by the characters of The Matrix. We see, we touch, we interact… and we agree, for the most part, on what we collectively behold. The world is as we make it—so we have been told—built up layer upon layer, one brushstroke or pointillist dot at a time, until it seems solid and three-dimensional and unchallengeable. However, those dots make up not reality, but illusion. Our lives are not what they seem to be; our purposes are mostly false; and our efforts are almost wholly for the benefit of things unseen.
This veil of illusion is not a religious construct, and unfortunately not fictional, either. It is made up of our collective belief in the social and economic structures of the world. We see our actions as having a set meaning and purpose, never realizing that those are the fictions. What drives us are not the sturdy and comforting verities that are ground into us from childhood, but an outside and artificial force that turns our efforts to benefit itself.
We believe that we are individuals with free will, each choosing his or her own path and making only decisions that please and benefit us, our children and those around us. We admit to few absolute influences, and regard most of those as followed only for convenience—should we wish to do something else, we think we’re perfectly capable of doing so. We believe we are free and pursuing a life of freedom (the odd tax man, religious stricture or oppressive regulation aside); no one tells us what to do except in ways that bring us compensation. We are convinced we have free will to burn.
The truth is that consumerism has so enveloped and corrupted our thinking that belief in such freedom and individuality is touchingly, heartbreakingly foolish. The vast majority of us are slaves to an ingrained system that seeks only to exploit our lives to the last wringing drop, but we strenuously reject such notions, just as you are probably rejecting it as you read this. But slaves we are, and of the most pitiable kind: we are slaves who believe ourselves free, and thus will never seek genuine freedom. We revel in the freedom of our virtual, mutually-agreed illusion, and tacitly agree to ignore the clank and rattle of the chains we all drag, and the clammy embrace of the energy cocoon sucking away our lives.
The deeper truth is that consumerism has so changed our world that we are no longer individuals. It is of secondary importance that we are parents, children, husbands and wives, students, teachers, makers, doers, believers… thinkers. We have all been reduced to a single role, although it comes in millions of costumes. That role is one of being an economic engine of consumption. We exist to exert ourselves to power the cycle of consumption.
In a sense, we have returned to a primitive model like that when early humans had little energy and time except for the work of staying alive—food, water, shelter and protection took every waking minute of every tribe member’s day, and a good part of the night as well. After passing through a variety of socioeconomic stages, we have returned to a single-minded level where our every waking effort is not to survive, but consume. Early man had little time to consider the big questions; we have little time to consider anything but our next round of consumption.
Life Choices: Choosing Consumption First
Stop and think for a moment about the big life decisions you’ve made. Were any of them completely dissociated from your consumption of consumer goods and services? Or, very likely, was every one of them consumption-entwined, if not consumption-centric? Let’s examine the major life choices made by most people and see to what extent they represent freedom and individuality, and to what extent they represent something else.
Most people make their major life choices with the basic goal of increasing their ability to consume, with all other considerations being secondary, or even discarded. Very few people think of their choices in such naked, basic terms, but a few moments of honest reflection should tell you that the proposition is not as crazy as it may sound… that the only crazy part of it is that it’s true. Unless you are one of a very select minority, you have made the majority of your significant life choices with the goal of maximizing your ability to consume. The touchstone question for evaluating your life choices is this:
If income were no part of the decision, would you have made the same choice?
Don’t confuse this question with its trite variation, “If you were a millionaire/billionaire, would you…” because that form simply assumes that having enough money in a pile would feed your consumption desires without need for further income. That’s not what we’re asking here.
Let’s revise the question a little:
If its effect on your ability to acquire wealth was no part of the decision, would you make the same choice?
Would you have chosen the same educational path? How many of your education choices, beginning late in high school, were made with the highest achievable salary and income curve as a primary consideration? That doesn’t necessarily mean you chose the highest possible salary options (not everyone can or wants to be a Harvard M.D. or M.B.A.), but that you chose, within the options that were within your grasp, higher-salary ones over others that you knew would yield lower income. Did you ever make a conscious decision to pursue education that would lead to a career that paid less than others that were within your grasp?
Once educated or trained in your field, how many of your career job choices were made on a similar basis? (Skip over those first few random jobs most of us begin with.) Did you choose your first career jobs by their salary, or by the income they promised later on? Have you ever made a career job choice that you knew would lead to lower income, either permanently or for a significant period?
If your income were no part of the matter, would you have chosen a different education and career?
If your income were no part of the matter, would you live in the region where you live? The city or town? The part of town or the neighborhood? The actual house or apartment?
If your income were no part of the matter, would you be with the same spouse or partner or otherwise in the same relationship or absence of one?
If your income were no part of the matter, would you have any different number of children?
If you’ve ever made these or any other major life decision against the grain of always seeking the maximum ability to consume, you’re in a very small minority. Chances are good that the longer you think about your choices so far, the more you will recognize the economic—the consumption-oriented—the consumerism-driven basis for many or all of them.
Can you think of anything sadder or more wasteful of human potential—your potential!—than living a life driven by maximizing its ability to consume? I can’t. There are so many better roads to choose. The renegade movement is about opening those roads.
The Cost of Consumption
So we arrange our lives to consume as much as possible: so what?
It’s a fair question. Could it be that living to consume is as worthy a goal as any other?
No. We all know, on some level, that that’s not true. We can all see specific examples of the wastefulness and pointlessness of unbridled consumption: the woman who has five hundred pairs of shoes; the guy who has a dozen motorized toys in the garage; the family whose precariously-mortgaged house has a huge flatscreen TV in every room. Such examples are the stuff of sitcoms, jokes and shock news stories, and we can all shake our heads at them.
But are any of us really any better? How much money have you spent filling your house or apartment with things? How many of those things have you exhausted or discarded in much shorter time than you planned when you bought them? Is that spending any more justifiable because it doesn’t represent one mania or a single area of excess? Isn’t spending a large proportion of your income on things excess, or a mania, in itself?
The problem with living to consume (as opposed to the necessary consuming to live) is that it drives our personal economics to the limit: to consume at a maximum level, we have to earn at a maximum level, which means working at a maximum level, which means choosing a field, education, career, residence and even family structure to support that maximum level.
Are there no more meaningful, more satisfying and more important choices? Don’t you have better options than maximized income for consumption? What have you given up in your life by choosing for income and consumption ability? Have those losses really been worth it for what you have—for the pile of crap that surrounds you? Again, is it worth it to expend your life working past your needs?
There’s another significant downside of living, working and earning for maximum consumption, as well. In short, money spent now, for trivialities, is gone forever… and there will come a time in your life when you will want that money back. We’ll go into detail later on, but careers end, both eventually and sometimes much earlier than planned. Suddenly having a fraction of your income will make that pile of crap look like the crap and waste it is. You will have worked away your life… to have consumed. The cycle of consumption you spent your life feeding will have turned out to been feeding on you all along. The illusion will have won; your Matrix cocoon will have drained you dry. Unfortunately for most people, this wisdom will come too late to do any good. That knowledge is the one acquisition you need now.
Spending Your Future
Sometimes extreme examples bring the more common instances into focus. Everyone knows the story of a former sports star, actor or performer who had a scintillating heyday, being paid astonishing sums every time they held a bat, threw a football, headlined a blockbuster movie or filled a stadium with adoring fans. Then the heyday passes—the athlete is no longer competitive, the starlet no longer gets plum roles and the singer is no longer up to the touring life. Then, not always very long after, we read the shocking story of how they are broke, homeless, living in a shelter or with their last possessions in a car. Awards and rings have been pawned, there is nothing left and they likely made the news as the perpetrator or victim of a crime... or an ER flatliner.
Extreme, and brief, but all too common. This is one of the reasons the pro sports leagues now commonly require their young stars to attend seminars on financial management, so that they don’t blow every dollar on luxuries and homes that will be unsustainable when their half-decade of mega-dollar contracts ends. But it still happens, sometimes to the most unexpected individuals.
And It is precisely what happens, on a far smaller individual scale but a vastly larger collective one, to hundreds of thousands of people every year. (Perhaps even millions, in times of downturn.) They had families, homes, hot careers where the income only went up, year after year; by any reasonable judgment, they were set for life. Then, suddenly at forty-five or fifty or sixty, they are found in the direst of circumstances, selling their property for little or no profit, living in greatly reduced circumstances, straining to make it between meager paychecks or retirement benefits.
All this happened for exactly the same reasons as the celebrity failure: when the money was good, so was the spending. Every extra dollar went to comfort, luxuries, extras and crap. Their credit cards never said no, nor did anyone else. There was no need for more than token savings, because there was so much more money to come that the current holdings were just lottery winnings to be blown.
Only one day, there was no next check, no further money. Health problems or a failing employer ended the career, with no further equivalent employment available. Or a mandatory retirement age is reached, or other circumstances derail the gravy train of fat paychecks. But it’s too late, because all the money that came before is gone—gone as surely as if it were burned in heaps. The remaining chattels are worth little in resale and even houses and real estate may have little or no equity value against their mortgages and loans.
Those to whom this happens aren’t celebrities; no one will ever pay them for their Superbowl ring or to sit in on an autograph convention. No news story will ever tell of their sad plight. They’re just one more individual or couple who spent it all while they had it to spend, never seeing the oncoming cliff until it flashed beneath their fast-lane headlights.
We already know why the destination they reach is not the future they were aiming at, but it’s sobering to spell it out. When a life’s income is finite, as they all are, it must be managed so that the low points are sustained by the high points. This is especially true of the long, declining passage after the end of a conventional career, when income is minimal or impossible and expenses remain—or increase. You cannot spend every discretionary dollar, every year, year after year, and expect that lost wealth to be magically replenished. There will be a time when all that “extra” income fades away, to perhaps none at all.
This is why the siren song of consumerism is so devastating—it carries destructive potential for nearly everyone, to one degree or another. Some will be lucky and manage to adapt to a smaller, less lavish lifestyle and pay no other price for a lifetime of profligate spending. Others will find themselves in midair like Wile E. Coyote, having run off a cliff without seeing it coming. Their fall will be crippling, or lethal. Only a very few will have had such exorbitant income as to have resources left after having spent, spent, spent throughout their adult lives.
While the media and common wisdom is full of exhortations to plan for retirement, save money, watch debt ratios etc., these calls to sensibility receive lip service or less from most people. Like flossing, exercise and community service, financial planning for both the present and future is something most people have warm feelings towards but can’t quite seem to work into their busy schedules. Besides which, the endless onslaught of ads work against any such sensibility—you can afford this… you deserve this… you can’t live without this… buy this… buy this… buy this.
Only by plugging their ears with wax could Ulysses’ men resist the song of the Sirens. Only by doing the same, but on the level of our sense and sensibility, can we learn to resist selling our lives, our future and perhaps our very souls to the lure of those who live by our consumption. The cycle of consumption exacts a terrible price in return for illusory benefit. It’s time to pierce the veil of illusion and see the reality beyond; it’s time to stop expending our lives as economic engines powering the cycle of consumerism.
Beyond the Tropes
One of the blunting factors for these arguments is that they carry a general sense of “everyone knows this.” Everyone knows we buy too much junk, that most of it is junk, that we spend too much, use consumer credit badly, mortgage our futures, fail to plan for the low spots in life, etc. and so forth; lather, rinse, repeat. Such things are well-worn tropes in social commentary and even more so in humor; it was a good laugh when Lucy came home loaded with packages after Ricky told her they had to economize. It’s become such a punch line in comics and satirical cartoons that the urgent aspects of the problem pass away easily with the laugh. (All of this is a component of the co-option of the anti-consumerism movement, which we’ll discuss in the book. For now, understand that it’s not surprising that you didn’t figure out the renegade position for yourself; you’ve been distracted and deflected by masters of those arts.)
With respect to the “everybody knows” argument, alcohol comes to mind as an understandable simile for consumerism. Through the 1980s, drunk driving was tolerated, socially and legally, to an unbelievable degree. Yes, everyone knew it was bad. Everyone knew people killed themselves and others—sometimes innocent others—while driving loaded. Everyone knew that they, or guests, really shouldn’t drive home after three or four drinks. There were the stern, finger-wagging PSAs on television and radio, and every holiday some group or another ran newspaper ads ranging from reminders to pleas to threats to gruesome shock ads with the message to drive sober.
But far fewer took it seriously, as a serious problem with serious consequences, than today. The efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other groups, and the increasing severity of punishment, have reduced drunk driving casualties and—much more importantly—made it socially unacceptable to drive drunk. Sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s would toss in a drunk driver for a laugh; that’s almost unthinkable today. Uncle Fred staggering out the door, dropping his keys and doing a sad-clown act trying to find them, is just not funny any more.
We are at that primitive stage with consumerism, maybe even further back than that to the kind of attitude people had towards drunk driving in the 1950s: it wasn’t just overlooked, but subtly encouraged by having parties with gallons of alcohol and the winking expectation that everyone would have little adventures driving home.
So yes, we all know that we are greedy consumers who spend too much on useless things, and that there are consequences for it, like when Aunt Sue maxes out the credit cards without telling Uncle Bob. We know that we are wasting money on goods that are neither what are promised nor any good value. We know that spend, spend, spend is a dangerous high wire act when future income is not guaranteed. But we do it anyway, and shrug off the little warning feelings, and laugh when a comic, a comic strip, a political panel, a sitcom or a movie shows us someone doing this sad-clown act with a giant armful of purchases. We can be appropriately—and distantly—rueful at portrayals of people with a mountain of unpaid bills.
This is the point—in this essay, and in your life, and for us as a society, community and nation: to shake off the jokes. It’s not funny that people casually spend themselves into short-term economic slavery and long-term economic disaster. It’s not funny that we have to spend nearly every waking minute deflecting insidious commands to buy, buy, buy things. It’s even less funny that most of us cave in to far too many of those demands, and like a hungover drunk, can’t really imagine why we did that thing… but go right on to doing it again.
It’s time to sober up and realize that our addiction to consumption is as bad as any other addiction; it damages us in the process and in the consequences. It’s time to push through what we all vaguely know and tacitly agree to keep light, and face the problem, and do something about it. It’s time for us to think of a day, not too far off, when someone who boasts about his latest purchase of crap, made by blowing a hole in his credit and bringing no real improvement to his life, is regarded in the same way we see someone who boasts about how blind drunk they were driving home last night: with pity, and horror, and rejection.
When I outline this thesis of the consumerist basis of our lives for a new listener, one of the most consistent responses I get is emphatic blame for the consumer. If I present the ideas to a group, there is sure to be one or more individuals who take the position that consumer excess is the fault of the consumer and no one else. Typical assertions are that it’s a matter of individual weakness or lack of willpower, or a lack of adequate education. It takes little pressing to make them reduce their claim to some form of “only stupid people buy things they don’t need.”
Those making this argument, of course, have strength and willpower and intelligence and education, and can’t possibly be induced to buy anything they don’t genuinely need or desire for defensible reasons. Ads don’t affect them; they have never bought a single product in their lives because of a marketing campaign. They are the independents, the “self-directed consumers,” one of those who moves placidly among the noise and waste of consumer marketing and remains untouched by it.
They are also, not to put too fine a point on it, full of crap.
I have met only a handful of people who truly live outside the grasp of consumerism, and none of them take the above position. Although they are genuinely free of consumerist tendencies, they often have a high awareness of the problem and be deeply concerned about it. They do not see those who have been consumed by consumerism as stupid or weak or at fault.
It rarely takes more than a few minutes of conversation with a denier to expose their consumerist influences and actions. It’s not a sport I enjoy; it is wearying and tedious and sad. I would prefer that people who disagree with my thesis perform their own quiet analysis and realize how deeply enmeshed in the cycle of consumption their lives are. Self-discovery is more powerful than being tripped up or tricked into a realization. Given that people genuinely outside consumerism’s influence are rarer than Olympic medalists, the thought of trying to convincing the remaining majority in individual uphill arguments is not a pleasant prospect.
To summarize things said at greater length throughout this collection of writings, those who dismiss the power of consumerism, marketing, excess consumption and all the ills those demons bring are likely ignorant of their scale, intensity and ubiquity. Consumerism permeates the fabric of modern life, our lives are based on the assumption of maximized individual consumption, and the producers of consumer goods long ago left behind any goal or consideration but that of extracting maximum wealth from the population. These are deeply unpleasant things to consider, but it does not take long to realize that they are real matters, not scary phantoms or fairy tales.
Those who deny likely do not understand that the producing-marketing-selling axis of consumer goods is based on powerful and long-proven behavioral science. Those controlling the marketing and sale of consumer goods have among their ranks some of the most talented and capable behavioral engineers in the world, using their deep knowledge of human perception and hard-wired biological response to evade resistance and sell yet more effectively. Marketing, as a whole, is a phenomenally sophisticated field using tools and principles of power and subtlety belied by the clown act of most advertising.
This is the first place where I would like to make this clear statement: It’s not your fault you’ve been misled and misdirected. It is not a matter of your weakness or lack of will power. You are likely not so stupid as to be unable to figure out when you are being sold something… but you are just as likely to be defenseless against the tuned, targeted and stealthy influences getting you to buy it.
Caveat emptor is still as valid a warning as it was in Rome’s heyday; it will never cease to be the buyer’s responsibility to exercise judgment, caution and skepticism. However, a world that has built an entire reality around deceiving mass populations into buying products they do not need with money they cannot spare is a difficult place to traverse without making mistakes—the mistakes that millions of us make every day. Those who dismiss claims of unseen and undue influence and insist that only stupid, gullible or willfully short-sighted people fall for marketing’s ploys are themselves empty—empty of knowledge, understanding, compassion and anger. Knowing and understanding the nature of the fight is essential, as is having some compassion, however distant, for those whose lives have been misdirected and wasted by consumerist influence. Anger at such a system is a natural result and the basis for effective action. The maxim should be recast for our era, perhaps, as not just caveat emptor but also caveat vacuus… let those empty of understanding beware.
This is not about personal responsibility or some failure of it and a wish to blame individual mistakes on anything but one’s own choices and actions. This is about a society, nation and world that have been manipulated, programmed and directed in ways even the most intelligent and wary individuals rarely perceive.
This is about a war few of us are aware is even occurring. It is an economic war, fought every time you are asked to hand over money for a questionable consumer good, and we are losing.