Consumerism Qua Materialism: A Modern Confusion

Materialism has become a rather dirty word, principally through its connection to consumerism. Indeed materialism seems to have become so thoroughly conflated with consumerism as to be wholly indistinguishable. For example, in the study, Changes In Materialism, Changes In Psychological Well-Being: Evidence For Three Longitudinal Studies & An Intervention Experiment, the authors write: “Studies 1, 2, and 3 examined how changes in materialistic aspirations related to changes in well-being, using varying time frames (12 years, 2 years, and 6 months), samples (US young adults and Icelandic adults), and measures of materialism and well-being.”

It would be mistaken to conflate a philosophy of materialism, with mere consumerism as behavioral practice. I am not here suggesting that this is what the authors of the document have done (indeed, it appears as if they are simply using ‘materialism’ as a placeholder for ‘material object; principally, those objects manufactured and distributed in modern western society’), however, at first glance, it is difficult to tell and this is the crux of the problem. When one word is conflated with another, after a sufficient period of usage the two become implicitly associated, regardless of whether they are actually interlaced in any meaningful way. Thus, when one deploys the term ‘consumerism’ one instantly thinks of ‘materialism’ and vice-versa. This, I shall argue, is wholly mistaken; however, before proceeding, let us define our terms.

Consumerism is a term which rose to prominence in the 20th Century with the advent of mass production and denotes a social order wherein goods are purchased and used (‘consumed’) in ever increasing quantities. It has a few other more technical definitions, however, this is generally the explicit meaning of the term when it is negatively deployed (and it is almost always negatively deployed, at least, as of this writing, though positive variations of the term were used, such as by J. S. Bugas who deployed the word to refer to consumer sovereignty). In this negative characterization, consumerism is keeping-up-with-the-Jones or Patrick Batemanism — normative behaviors which privilege non-noetic objects over noetic ones with the exception of the referent consumer (the individual who is consuming the non-noetic objects, who naturally does so, not because they care solely about the objects themselves, but because they gain something from the consumption of those objects).

Materialism, broadly, briskly and vulgarly speaking, is a philosophical position generally characterized by substance monism, which holds that because everything which has been observed is energy and matter, it is rational to conclude everything that exists is (or is likely to be) composed of energy and matter (the same inductive reasoning is at work in expanding the theory of gravity to all places in the universe, even those wholly unobserved). As a school of thought, it has gone through numerous incarnations ranging from Democritus the atomist, to the cosmic mechanists prior to Newton, to the scientistic physicalists of the modern age (such as Hawking, Krauss and Dawkins).

More rigorous, sophisticated and logically defensible forms of ontological naturalism (sometimes referred to as ‘realism’ in contradistinction to ‘idealism’) which have been referred to as various materialisms can be found in the work of such philosophers as Wilfrid Sellars, John McDowell and Jeremy Randel Koons and the neuroscientist, Paul M. Churchland.

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the ontological assertions or arguments of any variation of materialism – atomist, mechanist, Sellarsian or eliminativist – it should be clearly noted that consumerism is a descriptive set of social practices, not a holistic formal ontology. One may be a Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or Daoist and still be a consumerist. Indeed, the vast majority of those who have ever lived western consumerist lifestyles within modern society have been Christians (principally Catholics and Protestants), not scientistic materialists (as is sometimes alleged); this is demonstrable simply by reference to religio-demographic composition, as most consumer societies were, from their inception, constituted by Christians who are, obviously, non-materialists (philosophically speaking). Of course, it is perfectly possible to be a stalwart materialist (in the philosophical sense) and still be a consumerist, but it is not intrinsic to the position.

Drawing a clear distinction between materialism and consumerism is important given that because consumerism has become so thoroughly disdained, referent to it likewise besmirches any materialist ontology through negative moral assignation, RATHER than through rigorous logical refutation, thus engendering an impairment, not only of the thorough-going materialist diagrams, but also of critical, logical thought itself.

Towards Parallel Institutions

Truly dissident political movements in America have, for some time now, failed and failed horribly. The election of Donald Trump, under the auspices of Steven Bannon, has electrified the nation and brought back the kind of old fashioned nationalist populism that was commonplace during the agrarian reformation. However, the history of American nationalist populism is one of almost complete and utter failure. There are always exceptions, but a exception does not disprove a general rule, it therefore seems likely that the Trumpist populist movement will go the way of the Agrarian Radicalists of old – that is, nowhere. One of the reasons why this seems a likely outcome is the fact that what the modern American populist desires (if they even know what they truly desire, and they oft do not) is not antithetical to the prevailing power-structure but is merely a extension thereof. Like all nationalists worthy of being called as such, the Trumpist populist desires to put “America First”  – a undeniably worthy aim, if only they knew what America happens to be. America, like any other nation, is an idea and like all ideas, it changes overtime and it changes in accordance with the whims of its public. The more the demographics of the country change, the more the conception of what it means to be American. The people ultimately make the laws and the codes, not the other way around and yet America has become so globally expansive, so consumeristically self-absorbed, so capitalistically dogmatic and so confoundingly multicultural, that a clear and present identity of national scale is almost impossible to find. If it cannot be found it must therefore be crafted. By this I do not mean that some kind of inorganic idea-set should be cynically developed and subversively disseminated, no, what I mean is that when one comes to know oneself one’s fellows come to realize how very little they themselves understand their social placing – realizing, in horror, that there is not, nor will ever be, within the system, any place for them, no residency for true communal participation – for such a thing is a construction of the past; they are merely cogs who turn not for any greater purpose than the total sublimation of any and all identities underneath the self-replicating, iron-monolith of capital and politics for its own sake.

Understandably, such individuals, upon becoming cognizant of the horrid reality of their situation desire to extricate themselves from the internet of things. Exit. But they can’t. A father with a wife and kids can not simply pack up and quit his soul-crushing, dead-end job, punching stamps under eye-bleating florescent tubes, no more than a college student can just leave the filthy, condom strew, multi-culty coastal slum without severe repercussions to their prospective “livelihood,” communal circle (if they even have one) and societal standing and, in some cases, their very lives.

An abrupt exit is neither possible nor, typically, truly desirable. Yet something, anything, must clearly be done. Some modicum of action must take place. I thus posit parallel institutionalism. Rather than revolt or subversion one should opt instead for complete and total separation from the prevailing, modernistic machine, from the number crunching and the jittery cataloging of bio-hum suppression. Ideally this would not be a separation of territory but rather a separation of resources. That is to say, one must build towards economies within The Economy. Markets within The Market. A clustered, well structured network of communities which each operate with semi-autonomy, yet cede some portion of their total resources, both financial, physical, mental and otherwise, to the central organizing body or bodies to better bring other prospective cells into the whole body of this grand new organism.

Therefore, if you’re tired of Hollywood propaganda, stop paying for their movies, stop buying their merch. Instead, seek out independent film producers that are devoid of the needling propaganda, who adhere to an ethic of artistic integrity. If you don’t like the plasticine food at your local grocer or the fact that they are shipping jobs overseas or undercutting residential works by utilizing foreign labor, both legal and illegal, then find a small grocer or order from one or start your own or help someone else start their own. This same principal applies to every single sphere of society – if someone is saying something you don’t like, something that you truly cannot abide to listen to, you don’t walk up and punch him in the face, nor do you attempt to de-platform them (least not if you are a civilized individual), you merely walk away and set up a countervailing speech platform elsewhere. So too should those who have no use for, and no prospect of placing within, the current social ordering, set up shop – but not elsewhere – but rather in the beating heart of darkness itself; their congregation growing from dull, dawdling pinpricks of light to soaring spears of solar effervescence that, in goodly time, shall envelope the world entire.