Although it won’t get bleeped out on TV or attract disapproving, judgmental looks for parents should it ever leave your lips, “materialism” is still one of the dirtier words in the English language. It inspires images of callous, Scrooge McDuck-type characters and Republicans who love cash and inanimate objects more than they care for other human beings. The stereotypical materialist is often caricatured as a mean-hearted miser who is so obsessed with their riches that they won’t give to charity or pay up taxes, actively prolonging the misery of the less fortunate so they can maximize their own wealth. Anyone familiar with the traits and behaviors of prominent conservatives will know that this stereotype is largely accurate, but there is another side to materialism that isn’t quite so repugnant.
In his new book Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World, Australian economist and author Richard Denniss argues that we often mistakenly conflate materialism with consumerism, but there’s a key difference between the two: at the heart of materialism sits the love of things, while consumerism is the neurotic love of purchasing things. Where materialists derive joy from owning and using products, consumerists compulsively buy stuff they don’t truly value or need because consumption unleashes an addictive dopamine hit in the brain. That satisfaction, however, is short lived because it fades shortly after the purchase is made — hence why so many of us are swept over by feelings of buyer’s remorse. The acquired product itself is secondary to the act of buying it.
Denniss argues that materialism is less contemptible than consumerism because people who genuinely love their belongings will use them, take care of them and repair them rather than simply replacing them once they lose their sheen. This is because they derive satisfaction out of owning them. Consumerism, meanwhile, compels us to spend compulsively to feed economic growth — so a product isn’t purchased to fulfill a specific purpose but to drive economic activity. To keep spending and growth predictable and stable, we’re conditioned through advertising to replace perfectly good products with new purchases. But the fact is that this constant demand needlessly uses up excessive resources and is destroying the planet.
By Denniss’s reasoning, if people were materialistic rather than consumeristic we’d get more mileage out of the things we do buy because they truly matter to us. This would cause demand to go down, which would then ease the pressure on Earth’s very finite resources. Of course this would negatively impact the economy, but so will catastrophic climate change when it eventually turns the world into a Mad Max-style wasteland where we cannibalize the rich because we have nothing else to eat.
It’s a very novel way of looking at materialism, one that guilt-ridden left-of-centre types who find traditional materialism distasteful and gaudy can get on board with. In fact, outdoors brand Patagonia adopted this model years ago, pleading with customers to bring their products to be repaired in-store rather than lazily replacing them with new ones, thus actively eschewing bigger profits for the sake of the environment. It’s a far more sustainable and responsible form of capitalism that all companies should be forced into adopting by government regulators. But I’d also argue that materialism needs to go a step further: we need a new materialism that doesn’t simply reevaluate our relationship with the things we own, it needs to redefine the way we spend and the things we choose to buy.
We need a new materialism that’s very literal, one that focuses on the intrinsic value of a product rather than imagined hype: things like materials and craftsmanship rather than scarcity or prestige. If we all adopted neo-materialist values then a brand like Vetements wouldn’t be able to sell polyester hoodies for the price of a fur coat because consumers would point out that polyester is cheap as shit and the only reason they’re able to charge so much and thrive is because enough people buy into the consumerist con.
Supreme is a fairly reasonably priced brand when bought in store, but the ridiculous prices on the reseller market are driven by hysterical hypebeasts who derive their self-worth from owning something that most people can’t simply go out and buy. This, again, is a consumerist delusion: Supreme’s products don’t really matter to them, it’s what those products represent. Sure, limited stock is a factor, but that’s not enough: the real reason why Supreme is so coveted is because of its imagined value, which is reinforced through its aloof, too-cool-for-school brand image. The products merely exist to monetize that image.
I think that a genuine materialism would foster greater scrutiny among consumers. If the object itself really mattered to them, buyers would ask themselves: “wait a second, why would I pay five times the retail value for a very ordinary hoodie or t-shirt?” With greater scrutiny comes a greater awareness of deceptive marketing tricks. People would be better equipped to see through the bullshit and more inclined to assess their own desires when they feel the urge to buy something. A genuine materialist will be able to identify what it is that attracts them to an object and whether that quality is inherent in the product itself or if it’s imagined value. If you can identify imagined value when you see it, you’re far less likely to fall for the scam. This, I believe, will drive down consumption because a discerning materialist doesn’t feel the urge to buy compulsively. Compulsive consumption is a manipulation of advertising that bubbles up from our subconscious.
There are those that would argue that we don’t really need a new materialism, instead, we need to do away with materialism completely. That’s a valid point and one that I agree with, but let’s be honest: materialism is a fundamentally human impulse. People like nice things. We are drawn to pleasing aesthetics and beauty. Wars were fought over silk because its qualities were so pleasing to the senses. The leftist urge to eliminate materialism is as realistic of an aim as rightwing sexual puritanism. After all, many of the states with the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S. are solidly conservative ones that take a hardline abstinence-only approach to sex ed. This is conclusive proof that you can’t fight biology. Materialism is similar.
I may often nod in agreement with the Marxist writings of the Frankfurt School, but I also won’t deny that I get a lot of satisfaction from my pair of Common Projects. They look good and they feel nice on my feet. Yet, at the same time, I will always vote for whichever political party promises higher taxes. This might be somewhat contradictory on an ideological level, but reality tends to be a lot more complicated than ideology. The communist regimes of the Eastern Bloc were, among other things, severely undermined by their citizens’ in-built materialist tendency. Any lefties who want to snuff out materialism are fighting an unwinnable battle.
Consumerism, on the other hand, isn’t quite so inherent and only really gained traction as a political project after the end of the First World War — as Adam Curtis outlined so brilliantly in his seminal documentary, The Century of the Self. The consumerist impulse is a conditioned one that can be deconditioned. Reassessing how we think about materialism might help us do just that.
Next up; here's why we should consider banning social media.