The predominant culture relentlessly promotes two things. One is economic success. Endless cues, incentives and sanctions push us prepare for a career as we grow up and push us to devote enormous amounts of energy to it, when we come of age.
The other is consumerism. Our children are so inundated with toys that skipping a rock, kicking a can down the street, and tree climbing are becoming lost arts. And throughout our lives, there are endless opportunities to shop – promoted by nonstop ads and our uncritical celebration of the latest ingenious gadgets, and the newest and fanciest clothes, cars, and houses.
In this Reflection, I describe the ways in which this consumer mindset infiltrates our lives and hamstrings our efforts to live differently and better.
Several years ago I participated in a service trip to Mexico. Early one morning, our hosts took us, in open-air trucks, to work on an organic farm. We returned to our guesthouse to a lunch of macaroni salad and bologna and cheese sandwiches. As I ate my lunch and talked with my companions, I noticed how good I felt. My body had a wonderful ache from the work. My spirit felt energized from the shared experience and solidarity I felt with my companions. Even my bologna sandwich seemed tasty.
Our group consisted of people like me, privileged North Americans thoroughly habituated to a consumer-oriented way of living. So as eager and expert consumers, we planned a dinner, that night, at one of the fanciest restaurants in Cuernavaca.
Drinks were served on a gorgeous lawn where peacocks quietly grazed. When there was a sudden downpour, waiters with oversized umbrellas appeared, in an instant, to escort us to our tables. The place settings were elegant in every detail, the food perfectly presented and delicious.
The stark juxtaposition of lunch and dinner stunned me. Sitting at dinner I realized that the seductive beauty of what others had created had lulled me into a state of passivity. That morning and at lunch, I was an active participant in creating my experience. At dinner, I reverted to the habitual consumer posture that I know so well. In that role, I was the passive recipient of someone else’s creation. I was inert, infantilized.
This posture of passivity flows inevitably out of our engrained consumer habits. Our implicit expectation is that most everything we need has been prepared by others and can be purchased. Our only job is to choose this product or that one.
And what makes this mindset so problematic is that it extends far beyond clothes, cars, and electronics, permeating virtually every area of our lives.
Take intimate romantic relationship, for example. Properly conceived, it is a journey. People are drawn to a partner by our back of the brain “love” chemicals. Then, as the relationship evolves, its success is measured by the partners’ ability to heal and grow together; to share themselves and express their needs in contactful ways; to see the other and stretch to meet that person’s needs.
The norm that exists in our consumer-oriented culture is, however, very different. Making no distinction between people and things, it encourages us to evaluate both solely in terms of what they can do for us. So choosing a partner becomes an exercise in comparative shopping, not very different from the search for the right car or laundry detergent. If a partner meets (and continues to meet) our criteria, we keep her. If he falls short, he is replaced. And, sadly, this outlook often persists even after children are added to the equation.
Habitually adopting this approach, we pay an incalculable price.
Our neurobiology makes intimate connection an indispensible part of our self-regulatory structures, both physically and emotionally. For that reason, we need to persevere in our relationships, not only with our intimate partners but also with family, friends, and others with whom we share our lives. There is no other path if we hope to develop the intimacy that sustains us.
But with our consumer oriented focus on “what can you do for me,” we squander opportunities for intimacy. Instead of doing the hard work of relationship, we move on. In the end, our relationships are, far too often, limited and transient. The close, mutually cooperative, and enduring connections with others – so essential to our emotional well being – perpetually elude us.
People who take this approach to relationship often think they are taking charge of their lives. But this belief is illusory. Like me, sitting at a banquet prepared by others, their stance is passive. As consumers, their options are actually limited and constricted: Either take what is being offer – or leave it. There is no opportunity to struggle, learn and grow in the crucible of relationship; to be an active participant in the creation of the relationship.
This same process – at work in our intimate relationships – has massively infected our larger communities as well. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam documents a massive decline in our communal involvements in the last half of the 20th century. And our consumer mindset is a prime cause.
When it comes to our communal organizations, most of us are like shoppers pushing a cart down the Acme aisle. The question we instinctually ask is this: What can this organization do for me?
What is lost in the process is a sense of involvement and ownership; an instinct to contribute to the organization’s growth and effectiveness. Instead, we join to get something and feel little, if any, obligation to volunteer for the many necessary but thankless jobs that keep the organization alive and vibrant. And, of course, we are all too ready to leave when difficulties arise (as they inevitably must), and the fun part of our participation is compromised in any meaningful way.
This same process shows up in the workplace. While management’s lack of loyalty to workers is no surprise, the extent to which workers, themselves, passively accept this attitude of casual indifference is truly astonishing.
Unions have been in decline for 50 years or more and our pervasive consumerism is one of the less appreciated causes. We now live in a world in which the prevailing attitude is that workers – like virtually everything else in our culture – are commodities, to be bought and sold. Implicitly accepting this perspective, most workers take for granted management’s unfettered right to treat them in any way they see fit. The idea of resisting management’s dictates – or, even more farfetched, organizing in opposition – seems beyond most workers’ imagination.
This consumer-oriented mindset also defines our politics. Instead of being active participants in co-creating our public policies, we look for a magic candidate – still another type of product – to cure our ills.
Barack Obama’s 2008 election is a perfect example of this process. As Peter Gabel pointed out in a 2010 article in Tikkun magazine:
“A major weakness with that 2008 moment is that it was constituted by 6 months of watching Obama on television, by an overreliance by each of us in our separate space on watching that remarkable smile and listening to that sometimes-transcendent oratory. It was not constituted out of our own social movements, emerging from our own idealistic actions over time through which we stitched ourselves together in real social relations. It was mainly a cheer led by one person through TV. Without his ‘mediation,’ we didn’t exist.”
If we hope to effectively deal with consumerism’s pervasive influence, we need to understand the breadth of its influence, as well as its debilitating effect on our ability to be active agents in our lives.
Beyond that, we need to understand that we are in a war of attrition. The only way to wean our selves from this engrained, self-defeating consumer mindset is to systematically practice new habits of living that more effectively serve our purposes. And that, of course, is what Radical Decency seeks to provide.