Many thousands more do not have enough to buy a ticket, whilst some have been thrown off the machine by the conductors. Yet, the machine keeps whistling along the path that the captains of business and their political lieutenants are keen on having us travel.
Meanwhile, on board we enjoy the ride because it offers us the baubles of success, fame, luxury and leisure. We happily consume these. They occupy our time so that we don’t have to look out the front of the machine to see where we are going. If we did, we might take fright, for on the horizon there is a gaping chasm into which the machine is bound to tumble if we continue in that direction.
What is it that is powering this machine? Our consumerism. Our affluence. Our greed. Although most of us would not recognise, let alone acknowledge, that it is our greed that fuels this juggernaut. We have been manipulated. The captains of industry and their marketing sergeants have prodded at our fears and greed, and at our hopes and desires with a message that says “if you buy then you will gain happiness.”
Indeed, they have been quite blatant about this. Not long after the end of the second world war Victor Lebow (a corporate director, co-chair of the Economics of Distribution at Columbia University, and a writer) was declaring that,1
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”In order to make this happen, Lebow exhorted his corporate colleagues that,
“We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.”They have been doing it ever since, getting better and better at it. More and more cunning and devious. This century the marketers have managed to shift consumption beyond that of social status and meaning. In the past decade or two they have managed to imbue consumption with our self identity.
They’ve got us. We are now trapped. We go out and buy in order to build our sense of self, to find our identity in a corporate logo worn by our favourite pop singer or sports star. Then within days (or sometimes even hours) we become dissatisfied. There is no self-hood in what we have just bought. We stop using it, we throw it away. Then what do we do? Go and buy something else to fill the void in our lives – exactly as Lebow and his colleagues would have us do.
All of this continual buying, discarding, consuming, buying more, discarding more is fuelling that runaway machine.
It’s time that we, the passengers, began to question the machine. We need to question not just the direction, but the machine itself. We need to also question the fuel – our own sense of who we are. If we do that, we might just find that by opting off the machine we find the satisfaction that we really desire. We may find that our self identity and our satisfaction is found in quietly and simply wandering in the vast earthly realm, well away from the consumerist machine.
So let us question the machine.
1. Victor Lebow in Journal of Retailing. Spring 1955.