On Materialism

By October 13, 2012Other

I can remember when the good and great in our society lectured us on our wilful behaviour in spending instead of saving. Today the good and great implore us to go out there and spend, in order to ‘save jobs’. I’m reluctant to do this, and so are millions of other Australians. We are somewhat apprehensive about what is likely to happen. Will Greece fall over? Is the euro finished? Is the mining boom over?

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’ that we are incessantly urged to buy. Unless we buy these things 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 your 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 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’.

From one perspective the obsession on the part of businessmen and politicians with ‘economic growth’ is part of the problem. Japan has not had economic growth of any consequence for the past fifteen years or more, but it is a wealthy country and has had some opportunity to learn how to come to terms with both a static population and a static economy. We have become used to the idea that economic growth is necessary for our national survival. This is an assumption that needs to be looked at critically, because it puts pressure on all of us, in subtle and less-than-subtle ways, to go to ‘the market’ to buy more when we really have no need for what we are buying.

I don’t wish to throw out the market. It is the best means we have yet discovered to bring together the interests of producers and consumers, and it does its 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 is not to be sneezed at. But the market does not do everything well, and what it does best is to service our basic needs — for shelter, food, clothes and the like. 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. Over the last fifty years Australia has moved to place 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.

I think we might move to a world in which developing creativity in everyone was seen as the point of being an Australian, and I’ll write about that tomorrow.

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