This Hamlet-like dilemma presented in the title refers not to the imaginary Denmark kingdom but our modern capitalistic reality. I begin with ta question: is the capitalistic system in which we live, the same as it was during the time Marks and Engels, and even later on during the Bolsheviks revolution? The answer is: yes and no. Yes, there is the upper class of rich and ultra-rich, a lower class of workers, now called employees, and also the middle class.
So why “no”? Because the boundaries between the middle and working-class are less clear, and three classes merged into one category: the consumers. Of course, at the time of Marks, and later, during times of the Soviet regime, people consumed – they have to in order to stay alive. However, at those times, the poor lived on the level, which now would be called utter poverty. Their consumption was limited only to bare necessities, and anything beyond that was unthinkable. At those times, the majority of objects equivalent to what we use in our everyday lives would be considered as an unthinkable luxury. Even during the thirties of the previous century, an idea that a worker can own three pairs of shoes and an average member of the middle class can own a car was absurd.
Now things changed. The working-class person can easily own three pairs of shoes, and a member of the middle class owns a car (or two). But there is a price: due to the unsatisfiable drive to possess more and more, the class of rich became extremely powerful and de facto control not only the economy but the totality of social and political life. But that is not all, as a result, that the only way to increase their wealth is to produce and sell more, the world natural resources became misused what created an extremely dangerous ecological situation, and the colossal, over 180 trillion dollars world debt. To keep that absurd system functioning, the increase of production must be accompanied by increased consumption.
And here could capitalism could encounter a road-block. While the means of production is entirely and directly under control of their owners, the rich, the consumption is not. To solve that problem, a powerful form of brainwashing has been created and successfully implemented, which mercilessly forces humanity to buy far more than needed continually. And its name is consumerism.
Development of consumerism
It is difficult to pinpoint when massive consumerism began because its early form existed among the rich for millennia. However, its modern and powerful version can be traced to the beginning of the era of the popularity of television. Its visuality, combined with sound, permitted presenting seductive images of the objects and services to buy. This early era of the advertisement of some washing powder when one housewife shows another super dirty child’s pants, which after washing became supremely clean or Dinah Shore singing in 1953: “see the USA in your Chevrolet” looks now innocent and even sweetly nostalgic.
By now, everything has changed dramatically due to the incredible development of mass media technology and the sophistication of marketing methods, and nothing is sweet and innocent anymore. Television still plays an important role in propagating consumerism, but it cannot be compared with the power and all-invasiveness of internet media. Each of us who uses digital devices connected to the internet, particularly a smartphone, is used to be bombarded by an ongoing stream of adds, which concerns everything one can imagine. You may ignore them and even be annoyed, but there is a sufficient number of people who are seduced and buy whatever is promoted. There is no question that this propaganda is one of the most efficient ways to seduce us to spend money.
The scope of the present form of consumerism expands day by day. The avalanche od ads filling the internet space is ranging from new kind of socks through plethora of electronic gadgets, the miraculous cures for your psychological problems, vacation in luxury hotel in Thailand, learning a foreign language in 2 weeks, sliming in ten days, health and life insurance including seniors, investment in fossil fuel or green energy, to the newest SUV and luxury houses and apartments. But it is not the end: your mailbox is regularly filled with info about promotions from local supermarkets, hardware stores, and so on.
It works phenomenally well. However, it is not all: we must not forget about often overlooked but very important kinds of consumers: so-called “investors A,” that is, people who buy stocks, bonds, etc. Their lives oscillate between hope that their investment will produce more money and fear that it may be otherwise. Their greed profits the super-rich: the owners of large quantities of share, fund and bank managers and similar.
Two greatest absurds of consumerism are SUV and virtual money. SUV means Sport Utility Vehicle, so I question how owners of these, growing in size, monsters use them for “sport” or for, not too clearly defined,” utility” purposes. Of course, if you call driving to the supermarket or shopping mall “sport” and bringing back the newest, fashionable clothing “utility” than they indeed fulfill their roles.
The virtual money is something even more absurd: people pay real money to buy, for example, “bitcoins” and similar, which do not exist in any form other than some bits of information on some obscure databases. They may disappear much even faster than they appear.
The consumerism in our life
The consumerism is a form of indoctrination, which begins very early on in our lives. A few weeks after a baby is born, we begin to buy variety of garments: cute little shoes, pants, shirts, etc. We are made to believe that we do it for the baby, but in reality, we do it for nobody else than ourselves. Though the baby has no idea about baby-fashion, our attitude somehow soaks into its psyche, and as soon as it can recognize it. Later on, we “teach” it to enjoys new toys, sweets, etc., so soon, it began to demand them: first by expressing its feeling and later on verbally. This way, a new adorable future consumer has been created. After that, the caring parents install a new consumer in front of the TV set where it watches children programs, which are, of course, infused with ads, specifically tailored for such an audience. So, since it is susceptible to that, it starts asking: “mommy, daddy, buy me ….” whatever the child is indoctrinated to posses. At this point, a new consumer begins to mature. Soon after getting all imaginable toys, it demands a smartphone because its little friends have them, and of course, more cheap jewelry (girls), lego (usually boys) and garments.
As a child becomes a teenager, most likely, it would demand a tablet and, often also, a gaming device. Consequently, very often, it becomes addicted to games and messaging to its friends late at night. As a result, its school grades are falling, and the caring parents bring the teenager to a (well paid) therapist.
I do not think I have to continue to go on showing how consumerism in injected into our psyche. But have to say that it becomes one the most dangerous addictive poisons, even more dangerous than opioids because they are recognized as an addition while consumerism is considered as a natural human characteristic.
The dark underbelly of consumerism
The growth of consumerism is not just one of many aspects of modern life. The modern capitalistic system desperately needs it to survive and continue. Why? Because to maintain, that is, to pay interest for the colossal world debt, there is the necessity of continual growth. If it slows down, the banks and other investing institutions will get desperate to get back the money they loaned as quickly as possible. That will begin the chain reaction of catastrophic bankruptcies, and despite intervention by various government and world financial institutions, the whole system would fall like a house of cards. If you remember, in 2008, when just one investment house, Lehman Brothers, declare bankruptcy of 600 billion, it nearly caused the world financial catastrophe. But what means mere 600 billion: it is just 0.3% of the world’s debt.
Consequently, we have to buy, buy, and buy; otherwise, world finance would fall in the abyss. The present-day revolution against capitalism could be simpler and bloodless: just buying 10% less, the whole system would collapse with a great BOOM. That is is the reason why we are consistently indoctrinated, mostly by ourselves, to keep buying.
But only buying as much as we do is not sufficient: to keep the modern capitalistic machine functioning, there must be an increase of the so-called Gross National Product (GNP) by at least 2.5% (anything below is called a recession). Consequently, we have to buy more and avoid a dangerous question: “do we have to do that?”
Wisdom Living in the era of consumerism
At this point, modern capitalism and its indispensable tool consumerism are facts of life. The chances that people will suddenly buy less are slim, unless some world catastrophe may occur (see Closing remarks). So we have to utilize wisdom living as a relatively easily available protection method.
First, we should use openness to view our situation without forgetting that we are not an isolated entity but inseparably connected to the world. We can see clearly that all our unquestionably positive actions like selecting recyclables and buying local bio food may slightly slow down but not prevent ecological catastrophe. Such realization is not as easy as it appears because we do not want to know the gravity of the situation and seeing that we, as a single person, cannot accomplish anything meaningful except for buying less. Such an attitude does not change the overall outcome, but at least we know that we are addressing the source of the problem rather than its manifestations. This knowledge may help us to go further towards cutting the root of all of that called: stratification
As the next step, we can use our dignity to realize that we do not have to surrender ourselves to the imposed upon us indoctrination and social pressure. The impulse to buy is, in this case, as often with other emotions, triggered by some external factor. If we can see it, then we can, at least for a moment, pause and return to the state of mental rest. After that, our attitude of discernment kicks in and guides us to make the decision: is this act of buying truly necessary. If the response is negative, we need stability not to fall back into the trap of consumerism. However, if it is positive, we may encounter the dilemma of what to buy because very often we have a choice. Again discernment is the most useful attitude to take.
In general, if restrain ourselves from the impulsive seduction of buying, the attitudes of patience and stability protect against of recurrence of it. We have to be clear that such a reoccurrence is very often possible. Finally, whenever we regret our decision and action, returning to the state of mind rest, is the simplest and most relieving response.
As I mentioned earlier, the phenomenon of consumerism is not just one of many aspects of modern capitalism. We can compare it with its digestive system, where the source of nourishment is our indoctrination to possess which it exploits. Without that the capitalism will starve to death.
When I began to write this chapter a few days ago, the invasion of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, if you prefer, was already well known, but its impact on the stock market was insignificant. The momentary attack of fear lasted a day or two. It was sufficient that the Idiot in Chief pronounced that it would miraculously disappear, for the stock market to return to normalcy. However, any miracle, so far, has not occurred, and panic has revived and continued.
The reality helped me to convince you how fragile is modern capitalism: so far, nothing serious has happened – only there is less tourism, and some supermarket and shopping mall has been temporarily closed. But even the prospect that the capitalistic system will be deprived of its nourishment is sufficient to make various, so-called pundits to begin howling that the dirties words can be uttered: the RECESSION is on the horizon. And, who knows, it may be true.