Culture is perhaps the most unifying force across societies. It offers people a commonality by developing shared values, which helps us structure interactions with people belonging to the same social fabric. It also dictates how we respond to people from societies that are fundamentally different from ours. But perhaps the most instrumental role of culture is that it adds meaning to our lives.
During the mediaeval period the dominant cultural fabric dictated that people must live their respective lives preparing for an afterlife. And the honourable and meaningful way of living was the discipline believed to be one in which people conformed to rituals that are viewed as sacred. The pursuit of earthly comfort was arguably meaningless because of our mortality. Furthermore, an imagined existence of an eternal afterlife dictated what is ought to be done in this life.
Yet, after the Renaissance and the rise of mercantilism, a noticeable change in people’s attitude began to develop. People felt that the promise of a good afterlife is not enough (perhaps because many started questioning if it existed at all) but also wanted material comforts in the present world. This is possibly the cross-roads where the culture of consumerism took off. Moreover, after the first industrial revolution where states and markets started collectively selling the idea that material abundance in this life is possible if average people only play by the rules of the markets and states, the culture of consumerism finally reached maturity.
Today, consumerism dictates who we are and shapes the norms of a good life. What we wear, where we live and what we drive have started to define us. We are rarely judged by our passions or ideals, but we are almost always envied for our possessions. And it is not all bad! This recipe has allowed a large section of the world to evade the pain of deprivation caused by poverty and the lack of freedom. But at the individual level, there is no doubt that people are increasingly feeling empty with how they live under such a social contract.
No matter how much we work and play by the rules, it never seems to be enough. The market today mercilessly informs us through various instruments such as commercials and movies that we are missing things – a better car, a thinner waistline, a younger complexion, a luxury house, the heavenly holidays, etc. And all of this will be possible if we just decide to work a bit harder. But, what do we really get when we fall for such promises? We miss out on our kids’ childhoods, we fail to invest time in healthy relationships, we fail to give our ailing parents the emotional support they need; in fact, we are so bogged down by the tall order of things that we need to accomplish in a single day that we simply do not have the time to reflect and recognise what we are missing.
From the cradle to the grave, we are expected to work and consume even if it offers no sense of fulfilment. Not surprisingly, according to the World Health Organization, depression is the next big epidemic in today’s world; expected to cause more suffering than accidents, war, suicide, cancer, and strokes by 2030.
Of course, the socio-economic order built on consumerism is not without its material defects. While a large section of human societies today lives in material abundance that is almost unprecedented in history, the economic order guiding and sustaining unbridled consumerism is fuelling environmental problems of catastrophic magnitude. As NASA has recently noted, 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have now occurred in the 21st century. Thus, without major changes to how we manage our economy, we are effectively opening an environmental Pandora’s Box which can threaten our very existence.
What kinds of paradigm shifts are needed in our thought process to move out of this culture of consumerism? Can the modern markets or states survive if the human cognitive process starts viewing the promise of consumerism as empty and meaningless? In fact, will the state and the market even allow people to challenge the consumerism-centric view of life? It is becoming clear to us that governments and corporations are increasingly developing and manipulating big data on citizen characteristics to influence our decision making from what to buy to who to elect. Hence, are we even free to challenge the socio-economic fabric that consumerism has created? Are people living in gilded prisons? Is there a pragmatic key to open its doors? And how destabilising will such change be, even if we are somehow successful in bringing it? Will an end to unbridled consumerism threaten enduring chaos or is there a better recipe to structure a humane society? Going further into the 21st century, it is time for public thinkers to indulge such concerns. The answers are not yet clear, but the problems of the existing consumerism-centric cultural hegemony are evident.