As I write this, it's Black Friday, which to my mind is the highest ritual of consumer religion, attracting untold numbers of devotees of all races, classes, faiths and belief systems. Symbolically, Black Friday is the reigning idol of consumer religion. Already I have read reports about crowds of people vying for deals -- people shot and stabbed, arrests made, fights and scuffles (there were even fist fights over towels at Walmart) -- all triggered by engineered scarcity and the promise of savings.
I am not a fan of consumer culture, especially on days like this.
That might seem like an abstract position to take, since I am, like you, a consumer.
I am a consumer in the same way that I am a bipedal animal. It's a behavioral attribute, not the whole story. But it is a real aspect of human life and consciousness. We all eat. We all breathe. We all share ideas. Problems start when it becomes the defining aspect of human life and consciousness.
Let me explain.
Biologically, we are consumers.
We all have to eat, obviously, and we all have other basic needs too, as well as reasonable desires. What we eat and how we eat makes a difference physically and psychologically. Recent studies have shown that the health of the gut impacts mental health.
What we eat and how we eat, or whether we eat at all, can have spiritual implications as well. A variety of religious disciplines -- from certain forms of Judaism and Christianity to Buddhist monasticism and Islam -- often restrict or require certain foods for spiritual or religious practices.
The correlation between food and our well-being takes on further significance in traditional Christian churches in which the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, not only has a symbolic function, but is believed to provide life to those who partake in an actual, synergistic, and mysterious way.
So the question isn't are we or are we not consumers, but how can we be responsible consumers. In an age where everything is a commodity, how can we live in a manner that leads to the health of the whole psyche, as well as impacts our environment -- socially, locally and globally -- in a positive, rather than a destructive, way.
In other words, given that I am a consumer, how can I be a good one?
We live in a consumer-oriented economy
The fact that our economy is driven by consumption is not surprising. Most of us assume this because it is our experience both in daily life and over a lifetime. Due to increasing technological capability, we are subject to numerous ads every day, appealing to the privileged status that we each have as consumers.
Consumption is the name of the game, and as the philosopher Baudrillard suggests in The Consumer Society, whether the needs are actual or manufactured hardly makes any difference, the two may even be conflated. Commodities are made into cultural signs in a paradise of overabundance for those who have the means of grace (credit) to enter in. Dislocated from origin, packaged and hermetically sealed, made significant by advertising and brand name identification, products appear on the shelf from which to choose like manna from heaven.
That's looking at the consumer economy from the inside out, which tends towards a psychological view. There is another way to look at it from the outside in, which allows us to see consumerism as intrinsic to the economy, which tends towards more of a sociological perspective.
We all know from experience that a growing economy is reported and generally regarded as a good thing, while a stagnating economy is bad. The reason for this is obvious. An up, or growing economy feeds affluence and enlivens consumer culture, which is a source of comfort, security and identity. A down or stagnating economy usually results in unemployment and a greater rift between the haves and the have-nots.
If you want to keep the growth machine running, you need to maintain adequate levels of consumption. The role of the consumer becomes inseparable from the dynamic of the perpetual growth machine.
There are numerous problems associated with this dynamic. Not the least of difficulties is one of having adequate resources to meet demand. Sustaining constant growth requires resources from a supply that is mostly limited, or that cannot keep up with demand. The basic quandary is obvious and mathematical. Sooner or later, growth will outrun the availability of resources.
The basic question that I want to ask, however, is this: In the context of that kind of dynamic, how are human beings psychologically affected?
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