Living in a Material World

July 12, 2020 // Tom - philosophy , pandemic

Boredom is something we all experience, it’s universal. In this post I explore my recent experience with extreme boredom, examine modern consumer culture and how that influences our sense of freedom, autonomy and discuss their ramifications in an ever increasing virtual world amid a global pandemic.


Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing a week of vacation. The company I work for has two week-long shutdowns, once over the 4th of July and another over Christmas. Had this been a previous year, I would have been either at home seeing friends and family, or traveling abroad, or perhaps taking a road trip in the U.S. Instead, largely confined to our house, while my significant other had to work, I had an inordinate amount of time. Things weren’t quite open in South Bay, although cycling and hiking was definitely an option. I was experiencing boredom in vast quantities, with little to no motivation. At first, satiating this boredom was quite easy: I went and bought a game or two on Steam during the Summer Sale, caught up on some old episodes of LOST, read some more of Cultural Theory, and worked on my next personal project. As someone with a very active mind, boredom is usually a perfect space for creativity, my best ideas usually come to me when sitting in a work meeting or waiting at the doctor’s office.

However, this boredom was different, time seemed to drag on and on. This was the kind of boredom I would experience as a child, usually a few weeks after summer vacation started and I had been burnt out on sleep overs and day camps. I was aimless and had a mild case of anhedonia. Things that would usually make me happy in small or moderate quantities were burning me out when I completely indulged in them. Playing through a bunch of old games, each one bringing less joy than the last. I kept cycling through the same loops: checking my phone, checking my email, checking Instagram, checking HackerNews, watch half a Netflix show, check the news, check the weather, go see what my cat is doing.

Rinse and repeat.

Consumption

At a basic level, consumption is a process which keeps us healthy and happy. Everything from food to love to entertainment can be used to further these goals. Consumption is normal. An important structure which breaks down the levels of consumption and need is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This hierarchy helps us understand where our motivations come from; ranging from the most basic needs of food and water, to the more abstract needs such as esteem and self-actualization. Where does our current consumption culture fit into this model? Well you’ve no doubt seen a fast food commercial, or a commercial for housing, these are some of the obvious appeals to our more basic needs. For higher levels of abstraction, advertisements appeal to our sense of ego, our place in society. At the very top, self-actualization, the answer becomes murky. Self-actualization can only be defined on an individual level, and this is where consumer culture produces some of its best tricks.

Growing up in Kansas, I used to spend long summer days helping out my grandfather at his barn in the country. He owned a couple of farm plots, one in particular with a dusty 100-year-old farmhouse his grandparents lived in. On his property he had this big, red Morton barn. Inside he had a full automotive / farm equipment shop, a wood working shop, plenty of space for tractors and cars, and even a small live-in space. It was filled with all sorts of stuff, from old farm equipment, to old bicycles, to old kitchen appliances. All stuff he had purchased at a local auction or online at sometime or another. He mentioned something to me, one day when we were sorting through some of his stuff. He said:

A man is a slave to his possessions.

When I was younger, this phrase seemed kind of silly. As I grew older I realized the true meaning: more stuff requires more energy, as one’s consumption of material goods increases it demands more and more of your mental energy. Take a car for example, you have to worry about paying for it, keeping it in good condition, washing it, changing the tires, and more. The same goes for that box of junk in the closet, every time you move, it has to be dealt with just like every other material possession you own.

In modern America, consumption is paramount. We’re the world’s largest consumer economy, second only to China. The mass marketing we see as ubiquitous today was born in the 1920’s. Based largely on Freud’s work in psychology, it firmly placed marketing in the realm self-actualization, effectively kicking off a revolution in advertising and the mass consumption culture we see today. Spurred on by the economic boom exiting the second World War, we retooled our factories from producing bombs and bullets, to radio sets and family cars. Returning GIs were issued federally underwritten mortgages to settle en mass to the suburbs. Entire communities were built around city planning that prioritized large car-centric shopping districts. Credit was revolutionized through actuarial systems such as social security as identification and primitive computers, allowing people to afford more while spending less.

People had more free time, more space to fill, and more disposable income to spend. As consumption became more entangled with morality, life was redefined around the possessions one owned, rather than their personality, or disposition, or contributions to society as a whole. Marketing projected visions of the “perfect” lifestyle, one that promised to be available via direct material means. Naturally when the market for a particular good was saturated, demand was created elsewhere, new modern problems that could only be solved via the mail-order catalogue.

Meanwhile in the 2020’s, buying a large house and filling it with to the brim with the latest appliances, furniture and gadgets is only reserved for the most affluent individuals. Home ownership is down 8.4% between Gen X and Millennials. What is seen as a defining characteristic of the Millennial / Gen-Z generation is the exchange of physical ownership of goods for experiences such as traveling and seeing concerts. We all remember the infamous avocado toast articles. Unfortunately most articles in this realm present home ownership as a choice, and fail to reflect the current material conditions being faced today. Between suppressed wages, the “gig economy” and massive student debt, material consumption at the scale of the previous generation is reserved for the few. The material conditions for those in my generation are bleak, people are forgoing funding their 401K to pay student loans, and skipping out on health insurance to pay rent.

In recent decades, wealth inequality between middle and upper income households has flipped, with the upper income group capturing more of the aggregate U.S. income. Largely, the mass-market consumption of goods lives and dies on the disposable income of the middle class. While priorities seem to have shifted in response to this inequality, another trick was pulled, quietly shifting attention from political reality to the realm of the social and the material.

Freedom

Modern American society today, as messy as it seems, is founded on a set of principles. Liberty is the key principle. It is the freedom to act as one pleases within the realms of the political, social, civil, and so on. From the throes of the French Revolution, the ideology of Liberalism was solidified and adopted in the United States’ Declaration of Independence in the famous phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. In practice, liberty was only protected by the state if benefactor was a land owning male. In quite possibly the greatest historical irony, slavery was largely justified by a liberal defense; that the state could not limit one’s supposed economic freedom to own human property. Perhaps the most visible aspects of Liberalism today are that of the social realm, expanding protections to certain persons by race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and disability. Despite these protections, Liberalism continues to deny even the most basic human rights to all people.

In fact, our society fails to provide the basic tenets of life and liberty to broad swaths of the population. Positive health outcomes are (obviously) highly correlated with access to healthcare, which regularly bankrupts and linked to your employer. And you need look no further for justice denied to the disproportionately Black young men filling our prison system, through the cash bail system which keeps innocent persons in jail until trial and 20% longer sentencing for the same crime when compared to white men. One could fill a library with the injustices people suffer under our current system.

After the failings of our system to provide life and liberty, we are left with the pursuit of happiness and the freedom of choice. The government is largely hands off when it comes to pursuits of happiness, however, these ideals and the systems they create are heavily influenced by politics. We’re spoiled for choice, our society is awash in choices. Take a look at any American grocery store or car dealer’s lot. Any type, kind, make, or model in 6 different colors. Consumer choice is paramount today, endless customization, and endless supply of new gadgets. Enterprising individuals are free to invent and capitalize on their inventions. Often times the negative externalities of such consumption are off-shored to poorer manufacturing-based countries, the U.S. Government facilitates this through tariffs and favorable trade deals. These externalities are exactly why we’ll never return to pure manufacturing-based economy. It’s much easier to hide the poor working conditions and pollution if it isn’t in your back yard.

The freedom of choice is a false one, as all choices are not equal. For example, the choice between what you should eat for breakfast isn’t remotely the same as what healthcare plan you can afford to choose. We’ve been pacified with freedom of choice in consumer goods, while losing the freedoms that bring meaningful benefits to us and our communities. The freedom to not go bankrupt when going to the Emergency room, the freedom to take more than 2 weeks of vacation a year, and freedom from alienation. And even worse, when these systemic failings inevitably harm the most vulnerable populations, that blame is placed exclusively on the individual and not the conditions.

The perfect illustration of this point, the idea that wearing a mask is somehow a personal, individual “choice”. The current pandemic has exposed a lot of rot in our society, especially in the idea that someone’s personal “liberties” overrides the health and safety of other people. Give me Chili’s™ or give me death. Public policy has become detached from the actual material conditions. We’ve become so exceptional at off-shoring negative externalities that when experiencing them in our own country directly, we’re utterly ineffective. Both socially and politically we’re urged to look the other way when it comes to suffering. We’re in the middle of a hurricane and our government has shrugged its shoulders, bailed out the wealthiest 0.1% and left the 99% to the sea.

Virtual Realities

Societies that wish to ignore the material conditions, must first reject reality. Consumer culture creates virtual projections of the self onto products and services to distract from the real world. Brands and products aren’t just associated with the physical, they have strong emotional and cultural values attached to them. Hyper-consumption isn’t driven by reality, it’s driven by the virtual reality created through advertisement and cultural reinforcement. By themselves these ideas and projections aren’t dangerous. What is dangerous is the obfuscation of systemic issues created and perpetuated by hyper-consumerism: the exploitation of the working class, both domestic and abroad, the possibly irreparable damage done to our environment, and the shielding people most responsible for doing so.

The recent anti-lockdown protests are an attempt to rectify the virtual reality of consumerism with the anxiety and alienation of the current situation. These people lack any meaningful political leverage to bring about actual change, i.e. extending unemployment benefits, mass production of PPE via the Defense Production Act, let alone funding for the hospitals on the front lines preventing more people from dying. They have retreated fully into the virtual, consumed by the material, where consumption is no long morality, but mortality.

This system is designed to circumvent any meaningful efforts towards building institutions to address the material conditions, instead redirecting that energy inwards towards consumption. We turn this separation anxiety and lack of participation in the political process into meaningless purchases and vague social gestures.

Where do we go from here? At the current moment it’s hard to imagine the world returning to normal. I ultimately believe that is for the better; exposing society’s failings is the best way to mobilize the population to demand better from their political system.

Addendum

First of all, thank you for reading. I pour a lot of effort into these posts and I appreciate if just one other person enjoys it. No doubt if this is your first time learning about this particular system you might be feeling anxious and alienated. If this is the case, I would highly recommend volunteering if you are able. There is no better way to help the people in your community than through direct action and mutual aid. South Bay has a lot of great programs to help drive meals and groceries to those who can’t leave the house, and programs to provide assistance hotlines to those who are filing for unemployment. For resources in your local area checkout https://www.mutualaidhub.org/. I would highly recommend volunteering in addition to any monetary donations to the groups you care about.