We love consumer goods not only for their materiality, but for their symbolic value. Material objects constitute what the anthropologist Mary Douglas described as a ‘language of goods’. We use this language to tell each other stories – about how important we are, for instance. Conspicuous consumption thrives on novelty. But novelty also speaks of hope. It holds out the promise of a brighter and shinier world for ourselves and for our children.
Consumerism’s most glittering prize is the promise of immortality itself: an earthly paradise of never wanting, never needing, never lacking for anything imagination can dream of. This is how we find ourselves in the grip of a powerful social logic. Economic structure on the one hand and human psyche on the other bind us into an ‘iron cage’ of consumerism.
The first crack in this shiny surface appears with the realisation that the system is rooted in anxiety. Adam Smith called it the desire for ‘a life without shame’. Shame magnifies consumer needs. Advertisers know this too well. ‘What does your car (house, holiday, laptop, toilet roll…) say about you?’ they ask, in ever more seductive ways. In Smith’s day, it was a relatively modest set of goods: a linen shirt, for example, ‘for the want of which a man would not be seen in public.’ Nowadays the basket has expanded massively, as indeed it must for the system to work: fast cars, fast food, fast fashion: if we ever stop wanting to buy the fruits of innovation, the economy starts to fail. Unemployment rises. Instability beckons.
This is precisely why anxiety must tip over into outright dissatisfaction. Discontentment is the motivation for our restless desire to spend. Consumer products must promise paradise. But they must systematically deliver much, much less. They must fail us, not occasionally, as psychologists have observed, but continuously. The success of consumer society lies not in meeting our needs but in its spectacular ability to disappoint us.
Perhaps this seems like a dark conclusion. For me, it is not. From here we can understand why consumerism must eventually fall – and how to replace it. From here we can move beyond the economics of relentless growth – and find an economics of sufficiency. From here we can understand that the economy of tomorrow is not about scarcity and deprivation. It’s a place rich in the satisfaction of human needs. Beyond consumerism lies the society of enough. Beyond inevitable dissatisfaction lies the possibility of contentment.