Homo consumens attaches considerable meaning to the sheer volume of consumption. The actual concept of excess has taken on new and refined meanings. It used to convey the notion of redundancy and uselessness with regard to the elements that exceeded some measure of requirement. The active pursuit of excess was once framed as a moral decision that was potentially offensive on the basis of waste, indirect deprivation of others, or social codes about the virtuous nature of conservation. But consumer culture has introduced a revised social dynamics that sanctions insatiability and honors the unappeasable person as an ideal citizen.15 At the same time, the prospect of excess rekindles the hopes that were once derivable from commitments to the human world.
This new ideal citizen can compensate for inner vacuity with high degrees of excess that signal successful cultural participation. The social message that one has attained comfort and contentment has lost its potency and has been supplanted by the need to surround oneself with consumer trophies that blazon one's achievement of excess. The trophies that disclose consumer mastery increasingly are ones that convey technological chic and modishness. The consumption of new technology is quickly becoming the primary stage upon which consumers champion themselves.
No moral condemnations are forthcoming even if the quest for excess has only the effect of further amplifying greed and avarice. The brief reign of conservation mindedness has been silenced by cultural motives that have banished almost entirely the dated idea of "too much." In order to facilitate the mentality of excess, members have had to be conditioned in order to want, but not to pause when wants are threatened by satisfaction. Some early theories of personality espoused the view that human beings, by their nature, go on to satisfy the full range of their higher needs once they have met their basic ones. But current enculturation plans allow members to remain needy regardless of the amount of consumption and accumulation that has taken place. Modern modes of consumption are almost entirely unrelated to a sense of satisfaction; that means that members are never liberated from low-level discontents.
The perceived need for excess interacts with constant frustration in order to elevate the demand for financial resources. It has been estimated that the life-style to which people aspire has become twice as expensive as it was less than two decades ago.16 The cost of this dream has now risen to more than double the average income of American households. This means that a large and widening gulf is developing between actual income and consumer aspirations. This is reflected in the dissatisfaction that is experienced with regard to people's incomes.
In a 1998 American survey, 85 percent of respondents reported that a "six-figure" income would be required in order to service their yearned-for life-style.17 Only 15 percent of those surveyed stated that they would be contented with "living a comfortable life." Even high-income earners felt that their material needs were unmet. Of those earning between $50,000 and $100,000, over 40 percent reported, "I cannot afford to buy everything I really need." At incomes above $100,000, there were still 27 percent who felt themselves financially incapable of funding their basic needs.
In the United States, the saving rate has dropped to below zero, demonstrating the determination of consumers to procure unaffordable life-styles. The discrepancy between income and consumer desire has smoothed the way for an all-pervasive credit industry that enables members to entertain the illusion that they have greater consumer potency than their finances would otherwise dictate.
Media socialization has jollified indebtedness, and consumer consciousness has been endowed with a magical thinking format that gives a mystical feel to the act of exercising credit. The magical properties of new age indoctrinations of credit are easily revealed during interviews with heavily indebted credit users. Many of them report that it never occurred to them that the exercise of credit involved any sort of repayment requirements. The psychodynamics of credit entails an irrational hyperbolic discounting, a term used by economists to describe how future consequences are disregarded in favor of immediate gratification.
Rather than an announcement of financial ineptitude, credit has become to the hyperbolic consumer an intrapsychic currency that reassures people that they are worthwhile members of society. It symbolizes choice, opportunity, power, and solvency. A lack of credit has become a recently circumscribed infirmity that diminishes self-respect and fuels a sense of social abandonment. In trying to rebuild lost credit, people are aiming to restore their credibility as consumers who have at least some capability of enjoying excess, and thus of being somebody. It is therefore not surprising that economic prosperity and rising wages only serve to increase consumer debt.
Consumer debt in America continues to set new records, as nearly 20 percent of household income currently goes toward the servicing of debt. At the end of 1997, total household debt in the United States stood at $5.5 trillion, and it has been on the rise since then. Credit card debt more than doubled in the past 1990s. This general situation would be perceived as a sign of serious social pathology were it not for the positive cultural connotations that have been attached to credit. The enhanced social status of credit-mindedness has masked the emotional stress and interpersonal turmoil that are often the result of debt life-styles.
Excess that is achieved by way of credit differs from a real circumstance of excess. In fact, credit consumption has the opposite result since regular interest payments siphon off part of the person's spending power. Debt also makes the person more vulnerable to total financial insolvency. Bankruptcies are running at nearly 1.5 million annually in the United States. Yet a credit mentality engages a type of psychology in which the individual experiences credit as an honorable methodology for alleviating the pain that is imagined with regard to waiting. Consumer culture has transformed waiting into a shameful limbo that can only be escaped with sufficient quantities of credit. Therefore, credit transports consumers ahead in time and makes them acceptable now.
Thornton Wilder, in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, describes a detestable group of people who are "drunk with self-gazing and in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires."18 This description captures quite well modern consumers' forsaken journey through unremitting longing and petition. One way in which this might contribute to unhappy consciousness is related to the physical and emotional demands of greed. Another has to do with the stunting of motivations that could promote growth, creativity, and elevated awareness. Still another potential pitfall comes to light in terms of the old adage "After intercourse the animal is sad," which refers to the existential deflation that derives from the loss of anticipation as the basis for motivation. Continual realization of targeted objects of desire results in an emotional void that is experienced as failure because of the persistence of emptiness that mocks all attempts at satisfaction.
In a classic essay, Philip Cushman wrote about the "empty self" as the identity structure that is fostered by prevailing cultural dispositions.19 That is, people tend to have a view of themselves as empty entities that require filling. The growing profusion of services, possessions, comforts, and extravagances that are becoming available to the middle-class majority do not mitigate people's experience of themselves as empty. Consequently, their behavior is geared toward actions that involve consumption, or taking in, so this empty self can be filled. But people become more and more desperate as they seek to resolve their emptiness. This empty identity is permanent; therefore, the person never experiences the self as full, or fulfilled. Thus an ongoing life-style develops whereby the person feels compelled on a continuous basis to nourish the self.
A negative outer modernity has been described in relation to the exaltation of consumption and materialistic motivations.20 This refers to a mode of modernity in which cultural members restrict themselves to the realm of materially purposeful thought and action that is, in turn, tied to the economic aspirations of infinite productivity and unfettered consumption. Such cognitive shaping is at the other end of the continuum from that envisioned by the Buddha in his enlightened society. There, great emphasis was placed on all sorts of materially useless pursuits, including peacefulness, social harmony, understanding, freedom through selflessness, reflection on the essential nature of reality, the cultivation of positive emotion, and liberation from artificial worldly desire.
In some ways, Buddha's enlightened society was considerably more modern than today's society in that it recognized a need for being, which was far more advantageous to psychological well-being than desire and material imploration. To achieve a state of being is to become fully alive and to experience a genuine relatedness to oneself and the world. As the modern world gravitates increasingly toward materialistic ways of comprehending reality, one sees fewer and fewer signs of joyous living that is achieved by way of being.
It is interesting to hear about people who have enjoyed deeply satisfying lives by enabling themselves simply to be. For example, Robert Thurman writes about his years of training to be a Buddhist monk.21 By his account, he owned nothing at that point in his life, other than the modest clothes on his back. He spent no money on consumer goods, watched no television, and never listened to music. Thurman gave not a thought to cars, houses, career, competition, money, or fashion. Yet he recalls existing in a rich orgasmiclike state of being that was suffused with inner well-being and enormous excitement. By making himself poor and small, he had made possible the greatest contentment he had ever experienced. Eastern thinkers have long known the inner peace that is made possible by overcoming the ego. In an opposite way, the outer modernity of Western culture has the effect of maximizing ego in order to lead people down the path of consumption more easily.
Contemporary modes of capitalism flourish on ego inflation that is activated by consumer involvement in response to need vexation. Consump tion has been so accepted as a remedy and guide for living that we no longer even flinch when we are referred to, both individually and collectively, as consumers. Little skepticism is generated by politicians who designate consumption growth as a measure of social and economic prosperity. The traits of materialism, greed, and unbridled consumption are so ingrained that it is impossible for us to comprehend cultures that are not structured in this way, yet some governments, in a preemptive strike against the commercialization of children, have begun to enlist regulatory legislation. For instance, in Sweden and Quebec, advertising aimed at children under the age of 12 has been banned. It will be enlightening to follow the results of such measures to see whether they can prevent consumption from becoming an illness.
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