“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” Karl Marx
This quote is often reduced to the epithet “religion is the opiate of the masses”. This was quite an apt summation of religion as Marx knew it: institutionalised monotheism utilised as a means and system of control. Opiates made for a fitting comparison as they dull the senses, leaving a person vulnerable and dependent, forever chasing a reward that they can never attain, all the while oblivious to the fact that the thing they crave the most is what is doing them the most harm.
However, things have changed since Marx penned this well known and often quoted piece. Organised religion has loosened its grip for a number of reasons, at least in the Western world anyway. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too do drug dealers, even if they are only metaphorical ones. There’s a new opiate in town, one with an even greater reach than religion: consumerism.
It’s been pretty well noted over the last few decades that consumerism is becoming the new religion. Considerably more people go to shopping malls on a weekly basis than to church. Brand loyalty and values have replaced religious affiliations in how many people identify themselves and express that identity to others. What you’re wearing is now more important that what you’re thinking, unless you’re thinking about what to wear, in which case there are huge resources being poured into how to manipulate your spending decisions.
But I think a more accurate observation is that consumerism is the new opiate of the masses. Consumerism fits the description of an opiate even better than it fits religion, and also better than religion fits that same description. Consumerism is not simply materialism. Nearly everyone on the planet is materialistic to a certain extent. We need things to make our lives better. There’s nothing wrong with having nice things, and placing a value on them.
Where consumerism departs from materialism is that it is not about the “thing”. Consumerism is all about the act of consumption. There is no end goal, no point where the consumer can say “I have enough. I am happy with what I’ve got.” There is always more shit you don’t need waiting around the corner, because it’s not actually about the shit you don’t need. If it was, we would quickly stop buying it! Instead, it’s about the brief high we get when we make a new purchase. The feeling that we are some how better, more complete because we have the newest shoes. All our problems are solved because we have the latest phone. The world can’t be a bad place if I have a big enough television.
This is where the parallel with an opiate really lines up. You’re being sold an illusion, a short break from reality that promises far, far more than it can actually deliver. And when that vacation is over, reality comes screaming back into focus even harsher than before. Feelings of guilt and anger and despair ensue. Why hasn’t my new jet ski changed my life? How is it possible that I’m still the same person after paying a small fortune for a pair of Yeezys? As the facade crumbles and you realise that you’re now the same loser you were before, just poorer and standing in a ridiculous pair of shoes, there’s only one way to soothe the burn. Buy more shit! Just like a junkie chasing that elusive thrill of their first hit, you’re trapped in a downward spiral.
Of course, there is no end to this cycle. Consumerism is all about the act of consumption, so it’s not in anyone’s interests to have a finishing point. Keeping you consuming is the goal. Happiness, satisfaction and all that warm fluffy stuff is counterproductive. Shopping malls and the internet are the dealers/houses of worship. Multi-national brands and corporations are the new cartels/religions. Advertisers, overt and covert, are the new pushers/priests, shouting from pulpits that follow you everywhere you go. Heaven is always just around the corner, and the imperative to make money for shareholders trumps all morality and ethics. Consumerism, the perfect blend of drugs and religion.
Consumerism is not just material either. We consume more food than we need to. So much, in fact, that it’s bad for us. Has there ever been another time in human history where having too much food has been a widespread health issue? Human beings are losing sight of what food actually is and the role it plays in our lives. So long as there’s more, more, more, who cares if it’s any good for us or our environment? Dying of “consumption” has taken on a newer, more literal meaning these days.
We also consume information like never before. But are we any the wiser for it? We live in an age where we have an unprecedented amount of knowledge and information literally at our finger tips. We are kept so up to date with current affairs that we can barely keep pace with the flow of news. Yet we seem to be more ignorant and confused than ever. Technology and gadgets are confused with the intelligence and wisdom to know what to do with them. We are just monkeys with guns and an endless supply of porn. The information flowing into our over-excited brains hardly touches the sides. The importance of an event is reduced to its life-span in the “news cycle”. It’s always “on to the next thing, more, more, more”.
Consuming mindlessly does not improve your life. It just keeps you busy until you die. There in lies the hidden cost of consumerism: the opportunity cost of the time spent consuming, and earning money to fund consumption. How would our lives be different if we stepped off the treadmill and broke away from the consumption addiction? Is it even possible when everyone around us is bowing down to the mighty gods of retail? Stay tuned, there’s more to follow…