The Double-Edged Sword of American Materialism

The flood of material goods has been a mainstay in American culture for several decades now, arguably taking hold in the post-war period but with roots that extend to centuries bygone. As citizens, we are perpetually awash in an inundation of things — and new ones at that. We are accustomed to a world of mass production, of robust inventories, of an overwhelming cornucopia of consumer goods. We are also accustomed to a world of glossy, slick advertising, of the art of persuasion, of the lure of the fresh, the new, the cutting-edge, the avant-garde.

As tightly woven into a consumerist culture as we are, materialism has suffered no shortage of verbal rebukes in recent years. Increasingly, a mounting awareness of the ills of consumerism fashions itself at the cultural fore. Perhaps we’re hedonistic, some say. Perhaps we’re exploitive as a nation and should feel ravaged with guilt for our economic opportunism, others say. Perhaps we’ve lost sight of what matters in life, still others anxiously remark, fearing that things have replaced values. None of these fears are without some merit. But we should be careful that in considering them, we do not demonize the so-called consumerist culture, for it too is not without merit.

The History of Consumerism

Consumerism, one could say, is simply the natural outgrowth of historical developments. We can trace down the avenues of time to its origination and follow the threads of its evolution fairly easily. A cultural preoccupation with material goods was caused not by some kind of degradation of human scrupulousness but by the perfectly natural forces of economic progress.

The usual path of development in cultures is to move beyond the starting point of an agricultural economy and into the manufacturing of goods. Consider the well-known Industrial Revolution in the U.S. that churned to life throughout the crossover from the 19th to the 20th centuries. Within decades, an extensive network of railroads scored the topography of the country, criss-crossing the nation, providing an exponential leap to transportation and impressively speeding up trade and production.

The rhythmic chugging of locomotives permeated the air of countrysides which had only ever before witnessed the grunt of human labor. And the mechanized hum of industrialized factories in urban districts swelled in intensity. So began a period of unparalleled economic growth. Mass production single-handedly liberated nations from the tyranny of nature, and from the vagaries of agricultural toil, and would carry the standard-of-living to never-before-seen heights.

Interestingly, what this proliferation of commerce also brought about was the advent of timetables. An emerging cultural reliance on the clock and the calendar begot standardized workdays and production schedules. One could say this is where our modern notion of “time equals money” initially took root.

It should also be mentioned that the physical movement of goods was just as integral to this unprecedented era of innovation as was the movement of information, via the invigorating new invention of the telegraph with, again, its dazzling speed and contributions to the new form of standardized communication.

As the original phase of consumerism, the Industrial Revolution, in all its glorious frenzy of production, was mainly responsible for liberating economic potential. It pulled living standards out of the dirt and into a new era where the simple sustaining of life that characterized earlier economic eras was replaced with the intriguing new development of augmenting life. But this feature would only be given its full expression on American soil in the aftermath of WWII.

Consumerism in the post-war period was curiously bound up with patriotism. The vigor of military victory translated to economic optimism and resulted in an age of truly rampant production. Mass production had to be met with mass consumption, after all. It was almost considered something of a national project to modernize the American home with a slew of consumer goods. And notably, much of it was very useful. Washing machines were an escape from hours of manual drudgery. Refrigerators made the task of preserving food easy-breezy. Vacuum cleaners kept homes tidy. And just as many goods were appealingly new additions that simply made life more enjoyable. Televisions, after all, offered a new medium of entertainment, colorful and exciting, a welcome diversion that increasingly moved into the middle-class living room that further bolstered the notion that life was perhaps meant to be enjoyed rather than simply sustained.

When we flick through the frames of time to our present moment, what many of us are apt to see is an unsettling glorification of stuff. There’s a growing sense of perceived overindulgence. (And there are reasons for that unease, which I’ll mention later.) Some will even go so far as to disown materialism altogether. As it is, we have far surpassed an era when vacuum cleaners of all things were novel new appliances and we’ve long since graduated to devices that our midcentury counterparts would not even have the conceptual framework to conceive of.

Of course, one aspect of our modern age that individuals feel particularly acutely is the overwhelmingness of choices. This is a product of economic progress, no doubt, but it does carry with it the perfectly unavoidable side-effect of decision fatigue and it may partially explain why some individuals are so suspect of consumerism. A culture saturated not only with product but the highly evolved art/science (whatever you would consider it) of mass marketing can cause an uncomfortable psychological state.

The Redeeming Aspects of Consumerism

There is always a sort of blindness characterizing our position in the present moment. By that I mean, we are prone to think of ourselves poised less in a current phase of a larger evolutionary narrative, and more as having reached the heights of modernity and thus, as precariously balanced on the brink of an inevitable downfall. Consider that those in the 1950s with their shiny new TV sets and vacuums probably thought they had it all. Perhaps they even felt a pinch uneasy of their own good fortune. Now, imagine what their predecessors would have thought — their Industrial Revolution counterparts? Wouldn’t there have been something dizzying about the radical re-shaping of society and economy during this time? Don’t you think there would have been some that bemoaned the movement off of “natural” land and into “artificial,” scarily modern factories? Fears about materialism are not specific to our current era — they’re actually very old, recycled sentiments that crop up without fail.

And yet, by and large, both of these periods mentioned produced sweeping economic prosperity that translated into rising living standards and productivity growth that begot the creation of leisure. All this to say, we often forget that as time marches on what looks problematic and excessive today may actually look very homespun a few decades from now, in retrospect. Of course, that’s always difficult for us to presently imagine.

We do have consumerism to thank for our liberation from the life/death preoccupation of more primitive times. We live in heated homes and can make dinners in minutes and can then prop our feet up to spend an evening choosing from a vast array of entertainment options vying for our attention. Few of us would wish to return to the cold, the dark, and the rustic.

We should remember it is not as if we were yanked into a materialist culture against our will (and that now we should bemoan that “society” has degraded us or something). It came about because we wanted it to. In its origination, it had our best interests at heart. Materialism proffered us economic prosperity which bought us happiness — to an extent.

We got to experience comfort — comfort, a luxury commodity in the eyes of our ancestors. We got to experience variety — something inhabitants of the Soviet Union, to use as one example, were robbed of as a result of strangled markets and governmental crushing of economic ambition and opportunism. We got to experience color — that is, fun and novelty, things that hardly even registered in the minds of our predecessors as anything that was even theirs to experience, let alone achievable in the forms we have today.

There are reasons, then, to credit materialism for all the good it has given us and all the helpful ways it has augmented the structure of society. To an extent, consumerism (via market competition and the act of product creation) can beget creativity and it can also have positive psychological effects — instrumental as it is in creating our identities (the physical trappings/manifestation of it anyways) and in giving us the privilege to include “pleasure” in our arsenal of life ambitions. (For we all want that, do we not?)

Cautionary Words

And yet, the telling qualifier of all these positive aspects is the cautionary phrase, “to an extent”. Materialism is not any more unique than any other force that has a degenerative potential if relied on too heavily. For many things in life there can be “too much of a good thing”. Consumerism is no different.

Furthermore, consumerism certainly has addictive potential and the ability to warp human conceptions of what ultimately matters if taken too far. Fears concerning materialism are not unfounded, it should be said.

But whether consumerism is a force for good or bad can only be decided in our human hearts — that is, within our own personal spheres, as private individuals. We should not be hauled into believing that our “materialistic” culture itself is criminal — for if that is the case, we have only ourselves to blame for creating it. “Society” is not some abstract entity wholly constructed by nefarious string-pullers at the top. It is the joint project of all of our individual actions, beliefs, and feelings, more than anything. “Society” can act as a mirror into our own souls, to some degree. (Though that’s very much a generalization.)

All this said, we must claim personal responsibility for how “materialistic” we wish to be. If we are lulled by advertising slogans and lured into pulling out our credit cards for those things which we internally recognize we actually do not need and that actually might be excessive, then we have only ourselves to find culpable.

Materialism is popularly used as an outlet for distraction, after all. Things are an escape from mental territory. They furnish our physical world and can encourage a “flee from consciousness”. If we ourselves are too materialistic and find ourselves restless, or vaguely uneasy about our own consumption habits, then that is only a personal issue. And we must search within ourselves for the wounds for which we have adopted materialism to soothe.

Here’s another perspective on materialism from Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive:

Everything is an interplay of supply and demand. And yet, it is ultimately we as consumers who have the final say and mold the social reality in which we live and the markets with which we coexist. And the social reality and the markets do indeed act as mirrors to our own inner selves — they will merely reflect what we are preoccupied with. Maybe this is obvious, but maybe we also need reminded of it.

Say you find yourself with a closet stuffed full of clothes that you would never have the time to wear but that shopping for gives you a dopamine rush so satisfying that the glimmering interiors of retail stores feel like salvation. Maybe then you should question your internal health. Humans were never designed to find ultimate fulfillment in things, after all. But here’s another two disclaimers: 1) Humans were designed for ultimate fulfillment and 2) things are inherently incapable of providing this ultimate fulfillment.

To use an analogy, in today’s culture, plenty of consumer goods are like cake — a technically unnecessary part of a meal, but nice to have. That is to say, things aren’t going to provide much “nutritional value” to your own soul, but they do make life more enjoyable. Partake of too much and soon you’re unhealthy and you’ve got a big problem on your hands.

All this said, it would behoove us as people to take responsibility for our own role in the materialism that inevitably characterizes our culture. And you can choose your own role, you know. There’s no benefit to believing you are helplessly subjugated to it — furthermore, it’s not very truthful either.

The Verdict

Materialism is two-sided — on one side it is the prime benefactor of economic prosperity — on the other side an unhealthy outlet for personal unrest, and an addictive one at that. It is largely by the masterful hands of consumerism that our economic and social reality has been radically reshaped over the course of recent history, affording us the opportunity to live longer, healthier, better lives. But with great freedom and opportunity comes responsibility and the inevitable frisson of danger.

Money, after all, can buy happiness, but crucially, to an extent. Wealth both liberates and enriches us, but can it achieve the task of enriching our own souls? No, not really. If we personally wish to limit the inherent dangers of a materialist mindset pervading our own selves, then we must resist becoming passive and pliant in the face of markets peddling a lavish spread of material goods. We ought to simply realign our priorities by the light of day rather than capitulating to the seductive pull of things masquerading as ultimate fulfillers.

I find it a particularly interesting idea that our modern, slightly frantic preoccupation with the supposed evils of materialism might actually point towards our own widespread mental unrest, our own nagging unease that maybe we’ve forgotten that the value and meaning we are hungry for cannot be sufficiently extracted from things. And if that’s the case, it’s certainly fine and understandable if we’ve forgotten that. Above all, it is our responsibility as individuals to determine our our own personal level of what constitutes excessive materialism and to take stock of our own lives and our relation to things. Like most things in life, materialism is a double-edged sword, but it’s ultimately your choice how you choose to wield it.

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Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between.

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