Freedom and consumption: always wanting more

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I am reading a book called The Freedom Paradox by Clive Hamilton (2008). Throughout the book Hamilton questions how we as humans can be free when we spend so much time chasing the perfect body, the perfect home and in general when we devote our lives to consumerism. We consume in order to reach the material state that advertising makes us believe is a happy life.

Consumption is a paradox; on one hand it supports our basic needs and creates economic growth, choices, a feeling of freedom; but on the other hand consumption is one of the core problems in several social and environmental issues, and forces us to continuously earn money. High demands, fast obsolescence and never-ending wants puts pressure on our common natural resources, and for what? Why is it so necessary for us to consume continuously? Why has materialism become a measure of a good life? And why has neoliberalism become an accepted way to freedom?

Individualism

Economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek (1960) has influenced western society with his thoughts on liberalism and we are now living in a ‘individualisation’ era. There is more and more focus on the individual, making our own way in the world, self-promotion and so on, which is often driven through consumption. Clothes, technology, cars, houses, have become a way to define ourselves and we promote this through social media.

While it can be argued that this is a personal choice – what and how much to consume – it can also be argued that this kind of consumption is artificial and forced by societal norms. Furthermore it can be argued that consumption sets a standard of who can take part in society. We also need to work to be able to consume. Hamilton argues that ‘freedom often comes with obligations or expectations’.

Obsoletism

Several industries benefit from increasing need for novelty. New iPhones each year, ever-changing fashion, improvements in cars and other high tech gadgets: planned obsolescence is part of many product life-cycles. Advertising makes us want the newest and fastest, creating a need for constant change.

As consumers we have to realise that we are part of the big corporations’ money game. We think we are rich because we can afford to buy a lot but in reality we get poorer and end up owning much that we do not need. Earnest Elmo Calkins, an influential advertising man in the 1920’s introduced ‘obsoletism’ as a strategy for companies and stated:

“We no longer wait for things to wear out. We displace them with others that are not more effective but more attractive.”

Conspicuous Consumption

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1899) described the notion of fabricating wants: the idea is to add value to products to make people believe that by buying the product they will reach another level of happiness or success in their own life. Veblen argued that this is a way to create conspicuous consumption. Using desires and wants is also a way to control the public. The public becomes objects of the machine called society, that is controlled by the corporations. Materialism becomes a way to measure a decent life and compare success with your neighbors – also known as keeping up with the Joneses.

Markets were originally based on the idea of rational consumers making rational choices. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman (2013) has thus proved that consumers in many cases are irrational and make choices and buy based on emotions and are thereby easily manipulated. Noam Chomsky states in Requiem for the American Dream that:

“The point is to create uninformed consumers who make irrational choices, that’s what advertising is all about.”

Materialism

Consumption has a marginal diminishing return and only to a certain point will it improve the life of the consumer and make the consumer happier. Tim Kasser (2003) has found negative impact on psychological well-being with materialistic values and consumption. Karl Marx (1844) says,

“The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things.”

The Good Life

The point is that most of consumption is based on artificial demands, created from advertising and society accepting that there is a formula for ‘the good life’. Most consumption is not necessary, we do not really need a new fashion trend every week or a new iPhone every year to live a good and happy life.

So does consumption actually make us happier? Is it an illusion? And how can consumption be responsible and sustainable? Would it take a fundamental change in values to make consumption responsible? Furthermore, there is a need for focus on these wants that big corporations create: most of our consumption is not to fulfil our basic needs, but to appease our wants in hope for a better life.

The more we consume, the less free and responsible we become.

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