Yes, consumerism is a trap. But things might not entirely be as they seem.
Ever since Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic ‘Theory of the Leisure Class,’ many have denounced consumerism. And many calling out consumerism thought they were culturally sophisticated or morally superior by doing so.
Veblen criticized what he called ‘conspicuous consumption’ as showing off the social class with expensive items. Addressing the real needs of the consumer is secondary to representation.
Thus, Veblen concluded, greed and desire to show one’s financial prowess are the driving forces of capitalism. Additionally, the ‘leisure class’ people are not productive. They pursue leisure and representation instead.
As a result, ‘conspicuous consumption’ is the consumption for the wrong reasons.
Consumerism Is a Trap Because it Externalizes Control
We can argue that consumerism is a trap on various levels. Let’s look at the individual level first.
At heart lies the dilemma that consumerism diminishes individual agency and thus externalizes control.
And aspirational consumerism even pulls people’s legs in broad daylight while taking away our control.
Advertisements for lifestyle accessories invite us to ‘express yourself.’ Who wouldn’t want a healthy dose of self-expression in their life? For example, RayBan tells us that their eyeshades are ‘giving you what you need to express your individuality.’
How can anyone believe that we can express our individuality with a mass-produced and mass-advertised item?
Logic tells us that we can’t. Buying and using an item that hundreds of thousands of other people are consuming is not an act of individuality.
But it is an act of seeking external validation. We allow social reasons to guide our individual decisions by convincing us of the exact opposite that we act to enhance our individuality.
What appears deeply ironic, if not cynical, holds the key to human nature and motivation. We seek the acceptance and recognition of others. And this need to belong and to be safe is part of our inheritance from living in tribes of hunter-gatherers. Evolution hardwired this need into our minds, and it trumps the need for self-actualization and individuality.
We consciously seek to thrive individually, and through consumerism, we subconsciously serve our need for belonging:
Put poignantly: we think we build special status while, in reality, we succumb to status anxiety.
Aspirational Consumerism Tells Society’s Story of Success
Self-driven actualization is society’s mainstream narrative of success. Aspirational consumerism tells us this story through advertisements and products.
Never hide’ tells us formerly mentioned sunglass make Ray-Ban. Likewise, we learn from the advertisement what clothes to wear, which car to drive, and what Champagne to drink.
The story has one crucial caveat: Society has a success definition in which most people are failures. It’s a trap that leads to discontent and anxiety.
Aspirational consumerism creates a gap, aka cognitive dissonance, between our self-image and perceived external expectation. If the difference becomes too striking, many fall into severe unhappiness.
On top, it is a game that you can never win as there is no end to consumerism. And there will always be somebody else with a more fancy gadget than you.
Minimalism Can be an Answer, But It’s Not the Only One
One possible answer to avoid the trap of consumerism is a minimalistic lifestyle. The reasoning is compelling: Consumerism distracts from what we want and who we are. So get rid of all the stuff and focus on what is essential to you.
This way, minimalism tackles the second level of the consumerist trap. Consuming fewer challenges a society that wastes resources in producing unnecessary things. It is more environmentally friendly.
Practicing simplicity in life comes with many benefits in personal growth. But the question is why we want to simplify and in which areas we reduce our consumption.
If the answer centers around focus and concentration of resources, the overall direction appears to be on track. Likewise is the reduction of distractions and freeing of capacities for a worthy personal goal.
However, if the motivation for simplicity is exclusively moralistic or based on systemic criticism, act with caution.
While being far from perfect, it is a free society and the exchange of goods that has enabled the material wealth we can enjoy today.
Moving from Moralism to Functionalism
Many identify the excess of conspicuous consumption with the rise of capitalistic mass production in Western societies after the second world war. But even Veblen himself noted illustrations of conspicuous consumption from Japan to Iceland.
And history boasts a plethora of blatant incidents of conspicuous consumption. Opulent palaces, golden thrones, and lavish jewelry bear witness through time and space that we are dealing with a universal phenomenon. Crossing the border to the animal kingdom only further supports this stance.
The evolutionary psychologist Douglas T. Kenrick convincingly describes in ‘Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life’ how conspicuous consumption expresses our reproductive desire. Hence, lamenting an evolutionary fact on moral grounds is a fruitless endeavor.
Instead, it would make sense to integrate this insight into what guides our decisions to make the most out of life.
Conspicuous Consumption is One Rule in the Game of Life
Researchers John Marshall Townsend and Gary Levy showed in a study that status symbols positively influence sexual attraction. In their tests, women preferred average-looking high-status clothing and accessories over handsome men in low-status clothing, like a Burger King employee uniform.
Our knee-jerk reaction cringes at this fact. But we have all seen this evolutionary instinct at work. And it is supported by the fact that more men engage in conspicuous consumption than women.
Consumerism Is a Trap that You Can Make Work For You
So not all is lost, but the initial stage of any meaningful change in life is full acceptance of reality. Only then can we begin to avoid the trap of consumerism and make its mechanisms work for us.
First and foremost, don’t buy into society’s definition of success.
You can do so by realizing the underlying evolutionary instincts described above. That even can be fun once you come to see the gold-chain-laden bully alpha male as what he is: a prototype of the human species demonstrating the incredible genetic and behavioral proximity to our closest relative in the animal kingdom, the chimpanzee.
And by accepting consumerism as an evolutionary reality, you beware yourself of the misery that overly moralistic people so often experience.
You may not be able to change the rules of the game. But you certainly can choose how you play once you are aware of why players behave the way they do.
Nobody can tell you what success is. You and only you alone decide what success means in your life. However, this decision is only possible once you have learned to identify and detach from our more primal instincts.
Then you can regain an inner locus of control, which can lead to true fulfillment because consumerism cannot easily hijack your needs anymore.
And you may even choose to make use of conspicuous consumption to your benefit selectively. But it now would be a conscious effort rather than the blind waste of money.