We live in a world of material abundance, to the point where few Australians experience what would have been regarded in my youth as real poverty. To be without shelter, food and clothing is now uncommon and indeed unnecessary, which is not to say that there are not homeless and ill-clad people. My guess is that most of us are unaware of how recent this state of affairs is. Increasing knowledge and technological competence have made it possible for contemporary Western societies to produce enough food for themselves, to produce enough natural and synthetic fibres to clothe everybody, and to construct enough buildings of various kinds to house, school, heal and otherwise support their populations. Of course, there will be people who have little compared to others, but today’s ‘little’ is much larger than it was fifty years ago, let alone 100 or 200 years ago.
What is more, the time and energy needed to produce these useful goods has also decreased, a result again of knowledge and widespread technological competence. It is possible now for the great majority to plan to pursue a certain kind of life — a ‘lifestyle’ — undistracted by the daily necessity to find food, shelter or warmth. Work itself is not undertaken simply for money: for many people it usually possesses both an intrinsic interest and a social context which they enjoy. We are now so wealthy a society that most of us, as adults, can afford accommodation, clothing, food, a motor vehicle, furniture and all that goes with it, and the means to allow us to engage in at least some of the activities we like to pursue: travel, music, art, gardening, sport and so on.
Quite understandably, the view has grown during the last hundred years or so that a perfectly valid life can be designed around the comfort and pleasure we gain from all of these things. You could call this a pain-avoiding, or pleasure-seeking, or hedonistic view of life, but since its essence seems to me to be the acquisition of things (travel is, for this purpose, a seat on an aeroplane and a subsequent room in a hotel, for example) and the possession of the money that allows these purchases, I think it better to call it a ‘materialistic’ view of life. Of course, with all these purchases come new experiences, and the pleasurable ones provide their own reward too. ‘Materialism’ is widely present in our society. Some would say that it is simply a function of capitalism, but it does seem to be common almost everywhere in the 21st century, whatever the nature of the regime. People in poor societies want what they imagine to be common in richer societies — plentiful food, stability and security, and the basis on which to plan for one’s future. Materialism seems more basic than capitalism, because the urge to protect ourselves against the environment is fundamental, and on the whole the larger our means the more we will be able to protect ourselves.
The obvious response is that after a certain point there cannot be much sense in having more clothes or cars or tins of food simply to guard against the deficiencies of the environment. There must be some other reason, and my guess is that, in all societies, human beings show an urge to distinguish themselves against one another, and to possess higher status within their societies than the next person or family. The American sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, argued in the late 19th century that once we have acquired the basic necessities of life an increasing proportion of our income goes into what he termed ‘conspicuous consumption’. Underlying that switch is the assumption that the rich have a higher status than the poor, and that higher status is an important attribute to possess. We do like to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, to fall back on a phrase from the middle of the 20th century and, today, to move past the Joneses. Our market economy is there to help us to do exactly that. Materialism is there to satisfy psychological as well as physiological needs.
When we are young, we seem surrounded by desirable things that we cannot have because we do not have sufficient money of our own. It seemed deeply unfair to me, when I was 17 or so, that middle-aged men could drive Jaguars where I could only ride a bicycle. When I had a job, I reasoned, I could start saving for my own fast car. But I found, as we all do, that as soon as I had an income there were other things I needed to buy, then quite soon the rent to pay for separate accommodation, then basic furniture to equip the flat with, and so on. The fast car seemed as far away as ever. Before long we have new and more urgent needs. We learn to budget. Yet the lure of ‘what if…?’ remains before us all the time, on television, in newspapers and magazines, in films and in advertising generally. It is one of the appeals of gambling. A television advertisement for a lottery tells us that if you win ‘you could spend the rest of your life!’
There is no doubt that our society is bound up economically with an almost manic urge to become larger and richer economically, and to produce more ‘things’ and services that we are incessantly urged to buy. Unless we buy them they will be unsold, and those who produced them will be unpaid, and instead of ‘growth’ we will have ‘recession’. Growth requires more consumption. Some of the things may lack an intrinsic interest, but they are made attractive to us through advertising of all kinds. Such advertising is almost inescapable in our society. Our kind of busy, productive economy demands consumers — ‘clients’, ‘customers’, ‘shoppers’ — who find themselves responding to the appeal. ‘There’s a sale on’, they might say, in justification, as they head off to another round of purchases.
Yet one of the lessons that successive generations have learned from a century or so of this industrial and commercial activity is that buying for the sake of acquisition, or because we are out of sorts (‘retail therapy’), or because the neighbours have one, is ultimately unsatisfactory. Anyone who won the big lottery would discover that ‘spending for the rest of their life’ quickly palled. Material acquisition is probably best seen as a means to other ends. If we enjoy painting we will need canvas, brushes, paint; if we like to play music we will need an instrument; and so on. If acquisition becomes an end in itself then it focuses us on ourselves, which is ultimately dry and unsatisfying. We human beings need other human beings in order to live an enjoyable life, and we need to reach out to them. Beyond a certain point material wealth is as likely to cause envy as respect, and it does not lead anywhere.
There is no evidence that above basic subsistence the general level of happiness rises with income levels, and there is some evidence, in the existence of wealthy ‘gated communities’, for example, that the more some people have the more fearful they become, the more they see others as potential thieves rather than as potential friends. True contentment, it does begin to seem, comes not from being surrounded by material things but by being creatively active and engaged with other people. Australia is some three to four times wealthier than it was fifty years ago; it is certainly not three times happier as a society. Indeed, the online Macquarie Dictionary now lists the recent coinage ‘affluenza’, a word meaning ‘the dissatisfaction that accompanies consumerism as a path to happiness’.
But I would never dispense with the market. It is the best means we have yet discovered to bring together the interests of producers and consumers, and it does its best work without requiring any daily interference from government or anyone else. Indeed, the ability to choose and to buy — to participate in the market — gives each of us an extra feeling of power and competence, and that is not to be sneezed at. The market does not do everything well, and what it does best is to service our lower-level needs. Moreover, unless we have the means to enter the market we will not have any capacity at all to choose, let alone to buy. Those who are relatively poor are to a considerable extent excluded from the market. Our society has placed education and health, to name two important examples, in the market, rather than to see them as indispensable benefits of living in our society, and available to everyone. The market is not superior to the society. Rather, it is the society that decides what may be sold in the market (we no longer sell babies or adult human beings or pistols there, though our forbears have done so), and what the market’s basic rules are to be.
Nonetheless, it is ‘the economy’ or sometimes ‘the market’ that is seen as the true pulse or driver of our society. It doesn’t have to be, and its effects can be pernicious as well as useful. Our exploitation of the natural resources of the earth, our degradation of air and water, our over-stressful lives — all come in part because the urge to acquire, to amass wealth and to grow our estate have, for too many people, passed sensible limits. I can give one cheer for ‘Materialism’, but no more. Do I have anything to put in its place? Yes, creativity, and developing everyone’s creative potential. But that’s another essay.