As those of us who are graduating prepare to enter the world, get that 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. job, and splurge our first big paycheck, we should remember that individuality is more expensive than we think.
We often get caught up in the everyday hustle and bustle of buying as fast as we can punch in our credit card numbers, grabbing anything to satisfy a temporary need for happiness. According to Guy Debord’s book, The Society of the Spectacle, we are molded to believe that with each impulse buy, we are getting closer to happiness.
The Society of the Spectacle addresses the mass consumerism problem in France in the 1960s, but Debord’s 221 theses can be universally applied to critique the pervasiveness of consumer culture across the globe. In the five decades that have preceded the original publication of the book, there has been such an alarming growth of technological advances and the absurd amount of useless things people can buy that Debord would probably be rolling in his grave.
Companies use marketing tactics, flashy logos, bright colors, the deceptive nature of a sale, and the promise and allure of being accepted and adored as mechanisms to convince us to purchase whatever fad is currently trending. Even the most level-headed minimalists can fall prey to these strategies, becoming an unavoidable and inescapable reality that we can’t even separate from the privacy of our own minds.
In Debord’s 30th thesis, he explains that even in the quiet isolation of our minds, we can no longer trust our own thoughts because our thoughts and desires have been handpicked for us. He explains that our individuality is actually not individual, rather, it is a mass-produced by a mass marketed blueprint with slight variations.
“The spectacle’s alienation from and submission to the contemplated object...works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more readily he recognizes his own needs in the images of need proposed by the dominant system, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires.
The spectacle’s externality with respect to the acting subject is demonstrated by the fact that the individual’s own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere.”
What does this have to do with you? Well, it means that as a consumer, you have to be aware of the efforts of companies to get you to buy their goods.
Every Starbucks drink you order, every chair you buy from Ikea, every bright box of cereal you look at, is an attempt to make you a mindless consuming zombie, unaware of what is being done to you and effectively molding you to look like everyone else.
It also means every credit card offer you receive as a post-graduate is essentially encouraging you to fall into a pit of debt. Do not let companies bully you into believing that your life will be vastly improved if you buy “x” item or let yourself be tricked by words that entice you to believe you are actually getting a good deal.
Amitai Etzioni’s 2012 Huffington Post article “The Crisis of American Consumerism,” explains the difference between capitalism, consumption and consumerism. “As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs — safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education — it is not consumerism,” Etzioni says. “But, when one attempts to satisfy these higher needs through the simple acquisition of goods and services, consumption turns into consumerism — and consumerism becomes a social disease.”
Etzioni suggests that in order to decrease our consumerism, we need to find ways to limit our consumption and ultimately change how we view this limitation. “What is needed next is to help people realize that limiting consumption is not a reflection of failure. Rather, it represents liberation from an obsession — a chance to abandon consumerism and focus on, well, what exactly?
What should replace the worship of consumer goods? It must be a culture that extols sources of human flourishing besides acquisition. The two most obvious candidates to fill this role are communitarian pursuits and transcendental ones.” Communitarian pursuits, Etzioni argues, are a better alternative to blind consumerism because they involve the concept of actually caring about the wellbeing of others and the community rather than the material possessions that claim it, while still acknowledging that the idea is more utopian than practical.
I understand that there is no easy solution to mass consumerism. However, it is our job to be able to decipher the strategic code companies use to sell us our own individuality. Find ways to make yourself standout by your character and your actions, not the things you’re told you need.