Daniel Pryor argues that loving the free market and hating consumerism are reconcilable viewpoints.
“The things you own end up owning you.”
- Tyler Durden
In the years following the release of David Fincher’s cult classic film ‘Fight Club’, which sees anarchic mayhem mixed with vicious basement brawls, life has ̶ in some ways ̶ imitated art. Many well-documented cases of copycat fight clubs exist: presumably created for the same purgative reasons as those given by the film’s two main characters (‘Tyler Durden’ and a nameless narrator). But behind the lashings of blood and violence, the film also carries a more nuanced message. Tyler, played by Brad Pitt, summarises this message in the following observation:
“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy **** we don’t need.”
Cue equal parts mirth and derision from the majority of right-wingers. Such vehement anti-consumerism is likely to appear contradictory to any notion of a free ‘market’, and this is forgiveable. Shunning the importance of material possessions is commonly thought of as the preserve of misguided monks and cultural Marxists! Commentators such as those of the Frankfurt School (i.e. Theodor Adorno and his elucidations of ‘commodity fetishism’) are dismissed as having nothing to offer the libertarian, classical liberal, or indeed any other advocate of a small state. Apparently, the merits of consumerism are unquestionable, and advertising is simply a benign force for aiding the spread of knowledge.
I’m not so sure. In my eyes, the very essence of the free market is allowing varying interpretations of a ‘virtuous’ life to peacefully compete for followers and coexist. Maintaining an open mind to the possibility that consumerism and mass media exert negative influences upon the world is perfectly valid for any free marketeer, despite countless left-wing caricatures to the contrary. Earlier this month, Pope Francis decried “…the poison of emptiness that insinuates itself into our society based on profit and having [things], that deludes young people with consumerism”. Whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to describe owning an iPhone as succumbing to ‘the poison of emptiness’, there is more than a grain of truth in the anti-consumerist argument.
Two brief examples of consumerism corroding arguably beneficial social institutions can be found in Thailand and Bhutan. Thailand is experiencing a marked decline in the relevance of Theravada Buddhism (the country’s most popular religion), partly due to the increasing abundance of material possessions amongst the nation’s monks. Meanwhile Bhutan, having become the last country in the world to legalise television (as recently as June 1999), has had mixed experiences with a consequent wave of consumerism. Whilst the Bhutanese are undoubtedly better connected to the world, it can be argued that the accompanying desire for more material possessions (brought about by commercialised TV channels) is not only wasteful but positively harmful to Bhutanese culture.
There is nothing in Hayek, Friedman or Rothbard’s writings that says fulfilment is attained through buying more stuff. Being against an overbearing state says nothing about your definition of happiness: only the context in which it can best be pursued. Each individual should, as far as possible, be allowed to strive for fulfilment within their own personal sphere – free from coercion.
There is nothing in Hayek, Friedman or Rothbard’s writings that says fulfilment is attained through buying more stuff.
For those unhappy few interested in my own viewpoint, I believe that a sort of doublethink is required when presented with the quandary of consumerism. Consumption alone is insufficient to make us happy, but it can help; the best approach is ̶ to me ̶ balancing the importance of the external world with the value of the internal one. Mind is as vital to happiness as matter. Advocating the free market doesn’t mean you must obsess over fast cars and Calvin Klein underwear. It just means you can.
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