The current generation of customers seek happiness and self-realization through the possession of an irrational number of products. In this article we will analyze the cultural background of consumerism and we will try to redefine the concept of self-realization as a life-long inner drive that shapes the projects of individual existence.
Humans are not like other animals.
With the exception of Homo sapiens, every species on Earth, in order to be fine, simply has to satisfy their natural needs. These creatures do not need any additional reason to live. Their life is uniquely subjected to natural laws, with no exceptions.
For us humans it’s different. We need a reason to build our own life. We seek an ultimate purpose for our existence. It is not sufficient to just be alive: in the absence of a motive to pursue happiness, human life can be a burden and people can feel completely lost.
Luckily, being physically and mentally healthy, we should also feel an inner driving force that constantly pushes us towards the completion of our living projects: I would call this intimate motivation “desire of self-realization”.
However, nowadays is this intimate drive still solid? Do we even consider our existence in terms of self-realization?
The apparent loss of human desire as a guiding path for a satisfied life results from a combination of different anthropological aspects. We will now focus on the impact of rampant consumerism, whose influence has become extremely pervasive over the last decades, especially throughout the western countries.
The rise of consumerism in the context of the third industrial revolution
Consumerism is commonly defined as “the belief that it is desirable to buy and use a lot of goods”. Let us now try to dissect the meaning of such a notion.
First of all, the term “belief” immediately pictures consumerism as dogmatism. Becoming consumerists, we are blindly persuaded that our new status is indubitable. Our consumerist actions are therefore guided by a conviction very similar to a profound creed. In other words, we accept it without feeling the need to question it.
Then, the adjective “desirable” makes this definition even more dangerous. When something is desirable, the only limiting factor that can prevent us from its ownership is indeed its existence. In industrial terms, when the product is ready, there are no reasons why we should prevent ourselves from taking it.
Perhaps, we should ask: nowadays, is there any limit to production? That is questionable. For instance, if we were going to the grocery store ten times a day, each time we could easily fill up our bags entirely with the same type and number of products. Therefore, the offer irrationally exceeds genuine demand.
At this point, we must realize a paradox: in principle, an unlimited production of goods would make sense only in response to an unlimited demand. However, genuine needs are easily satisfied by small amounts of goods.
Thus, how can this industrial production be maintained as a perpetual machinery?
As nicely pointed out by philosopher Günther Anders (1), it is necessary to create infinite demand in order to maintain a constant production rate. We use the verb “to create” on purpose. In fact, infinite demand can only be dependent on induced needs, not on genuine ones.
In the current era, it is not the consumer who is famished of goods, but it is the products that are famished of being consumed.
Now, this creation of needs is the bread and butter of publicity.
Indeed, publicity is the main character of the third industrial revolution. It grows and prospers by the induction of customers’ needs, and customers in return constantly buy products, sustaining the eternal loop. Publicity favors the production of an indefinite number of products – but at the same time – it requires also an indefinite variety of the same product.
For instance: the customers want toothpaste. The request is simple: they desire to brush their teeth. In an ideal world, the customers would go to the grocery store, they would find a couple of different toothpastes, make their choice and satisfy their request. In the current world, the customers might have to scrutinize dozens of toothpaste brands, and they would eventually end up buying more than one.
We experience a phenomenon of a potentially infinite multiplication of products, which constantly clogs customers’ lives with an excess of “things”.
We should keep in mind this anthropological aspect, because it is relevant when we discuss the relationship between consumerism and the aforementioned human desire of self-realization.
Cultural roots of consumerism and its spread in Italy in the second half of the 20th century
Where does the consumerist belief come from?
Let us now take the Italian background as an historical example. From such a specific reality we will then make some general considerations.
After the Second World War and Mussolini’s fall, the Italian intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini pictured consumerism as one of the main causes of the homogenization of Italian culture. Pasolini blamed two major phenomena: the infrastructural revolution, that bridged together “peripheral” realities and “central” realities; the rise of television as the most common and popular media. Combined, those events caused a centralization of culture, disrupting dialects and peripheral identities, and tacitly imposing a common communicative language (2). Using standardized formulas like slogans, television could educate via the new dogma of consumerism.
Pasolini defined this new-born regime as “new Fascism”: while the original Fascism was based on repressive moralism, formal respectability and a militaristic education, this new concept of Fascism is grounded on the ideology of tolerance. What follows can be considered its manifesto: “Citizens (= customers) are free to do (= to buy) whatever they want, because whatever they want is whatever I (the system) want them to do (= to buy).”
The transition from a totalitarian perspective to a tolerant one had been already predicted by the English intellectual and writer Aldous Huxley in his dystopian novel Brave new world, published in 1932. Instead of imagining a Big Brother that perpetually watches us (3) – as Huxley’s alumnus, the more famous George Orwell, will propose sixteen years later in his 1984 – Huxley presents us a world in which citizens are educated to fully believe in what they are becoming (4). Instead of establishing a regime of fear to limit people’s freedom, tolerance is an easier way to arbitrarily restrict the fancies of freedom and let people obediently play inside them.
However, with the advent of the totalitarianisms George Orwell’s conception built its fame, which is still pretty popular in western countries, although historically quite outdated, the aforementioned shift from a repressive system to a tolerant one happened to be swept under the carpet. Now that we live in an era in which every aspect of reality is previously filtered and presented to us, it is becoming difficult to identify any symptoms (Read the article “Why all news carries a dose of fakeness” to get more insight on the matter).
In the next chapter we will analyze the most evident symptom of consumerism and its impact on human perception of happiness.
The paradox of desiring an infinite number of “things”
In the first chapter we have already clarified that those needs, which are relied on by the publicity and the entire industrial system, are not genuine. However, when we claim that they are not genuine, we do not mean they are implanted into our minds as pure artefacts. These induced needs must be grounded into our desire of self-realization. Therefore, publicity often tries to sell “things” or “experiences” as if they were the only way to attain happiness. Given that what is sold are mainly concrete objects or corporal sensations, we should also affirm that publicity aims to satisfy physical pleasure through human senses.
What does it mean?
Individuals are persuaded that physical satisfaction is all that is required to be happy. The perverse possession of objects is upgraded to the status of supreme law. Therefore, they tend to buy multitudes of things to reach self-realization.
The issue arises when customers realize that material objects cannot fulfil their existence. This is the first intellectual crossroad customers have to face: either they realize that material objects can never completely satisfy their desire, or they convince themselves that they will find happiness in the next product.
This is the consumerist paradigm: “I seek self-realization in the things the system offers me. But anytime I obtain a new product I do not feel satisfied and my desire is frustrated. Thus, I convince myself that I will find happiness in the next object.”
On this line, the process reiterates itself eternally until biological death.
But why is the desire frustrated once it meets the product?
Because the vitality of desire is based on the existence of absence. Therefore, the consumerist’s disease is characterized by the belief that satisfaction comes from a definitive filling of a pre-constituted intimate void.
However, what if we could picture desire as a driving force that is continuously triggered by a genuine lack of a definitive satisfaction? In this new light, the process of self-realization becomes a dynamic and life-long movement that reinvents itself, without the need of seeking final completion.
How should we change our behavior as customers?
We should start by reducing the number of things we own, just buy whatever we really feel the need to use or to consume. Thanks to this simple action, we will start again to experience a status of emptiness, which is a good symptom. Then, a sensation of thrilling absence will follow, capable of motivating us. As already said, the resurrection of our desire acts as a dynamic drive that pushes us forward and does not seek a finite completion.
After a while, this will become our enthusiastic approach to daily life.
To conclude with an exclamation captured in a popular interview with the Italian teacher and writer Alessandro d’Avenia: “[Talking about school education] I would say: less objects and more projects.”
- Anders, G., “The Outdatedness of Human Beings 2. On the Destruction of Life in the Era of the Third Industrial Revolution.”, 1979.
- Pasolini, P.P., “Scritti corsari”, 1975 (Available in Italian only).
- Orwell, G., “1984”, 1949.
- Huxley, A., “Brave New World”, 1932.
Received: 02.04.19, Ready: 09.04.19, Editors: CV, RG.