I know a rich man who buys properties. He decorates them, fills them with consumer goods and then leaves them unattended for most of the year. On a rare visit, he surveys the house from the outside, circling it with hands clasped behind his back. But without the skills of introspection, not knowing how to reflect, draw or play a tune, not even knowing how to properly appreciate the sunset – he returns to his car in search of a restaurant or shop, the only venues where he really belongs.
The problem with money is that it can only buy so much. Sure, money can buy you a fancy house and a shiny car, but it can’t buy knowledge. It can’t buy insight or humour. It can’t even buy individuality – even though advertisers will try to convince you otherwise. You can’t become eccentric, artistic, or intriguing by having money. These characteristics come from what you do, know, learn and experience, not from what you buy.
The rich cultivate few skills because the art of spending money takes up so much time. So yes, we can pity the rich, but it’s not really their fault. Consumerism is the dominant ideology of our time. It is the “ism” that has won.
“The consumer culture may be for cowards and the lazy, people who cannot find themselves or relate to others without the clutch of goods,” writes Professor Gary Cross in An All-Consuming Century. “But who among us does not fit this definition in some way? How may of us are really outside that culture?”
Cross outlines the contemporary obsession with buying stuff to make us happy. We fill garages and not minds, we spend our weekends maintaining a carpet of grass and renovating kitchens. The home, which, in the Victorian era was a place reserved for family, a refuge from the marketplace, is nowadays little more than a shop, an ever-changing place of appliances, electronic gadgets and furnishings.
As consumers, goods define us and tell our stories for us. We relate to others through our clothes and accessories. We are pitted against each other in suburban streets, and as our houses bulge and carports fill, we commit more hours to the drudgery of work to pay for it all. Despite all this, many experience a quiet resignation in somehow having failed as a human being because others have more shiny things.
Without the constraint of funds to control spending, the rich man, woman or child views the world as one continuous shopping mall. For them, the future is an endless horizon of spending – and advancement in life means upgrading the house and car and buying a first-class ticket overseas.
One problem with playing this game is that attainment to the highest order is unachievable. The rich person fails ultimately because there’s always someone richer, or soon-to-be richer, rising up the ranks. The rich can never truly “make it” no matter how hard they try.
Having money today is nothing like centuries past. If riches could grant you a castle, a township and an army, then riches might be something worth striving for. Today our riches enable us to make “aggressive social gestures” to strangers in the street via our choice of car, watch, sunglasses and shoes.
“The commercial bias” writes Cross, “under which everything has a price and everything can be possessed and ‘used up’ without regard to the living, dead, or yet to live, has frustrated what we really want for ourselves and our prosperity.” Consumerism stands in our way of greater happiness. It is a threat to high culture, true community, individuality and the environment, Cross argues.
Marketers and advertising executives are much to blame; they’ve pulled our heartstrings, yanked at our ego, shaken our frail souls to make us buy, buy, buy. Today we discuss the specifications of cars, the RAM in computers and differing Internet speeds as though these are topics worthy of discussion. House renovations and constant pleasure trips abroad eat into our evershortening hours of free time.
Philosopher John Dewey saw a way out of this quandary: we should use our “leisure time” for higher pursuits. He reminds us that ratcheting up more hours in meaningless jobs to buy consumer items is not the stuff of happiness. Time is our scarcest commodity, and free time, not work, is the purpose of life.
It’s probably best summed up by 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who wrote: “All of man’s difficulties are caused by his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself.”
Stoics, ascetics, sages of times past have stressed as much. Happiness is not found in money-grabbing, status seeking and in working ourselves to the bone. Happiness comes from insight, the cultivation of self, delaying gratification, having a social conscience. It’s the quest for meaning beyond goods.
When thinking back on your short life, which moments do you think will stand tall as the happy times? Will you smile lovingly at your bank balance, remember fondly that pay rise you received, get dewy-eyed about your electrical appliances? It’s unlikely. It will be moments in time, free from the slavery of money and status and the accumulation of stuff that will rise to the surface as the happy times, the times worth living. So, aren’t these the moments we should be pursuing?
This article first appeared in New Philosopher magazine, a quarterly print publication for people who like to think.
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