Our whole civilization is based upon idolizing desire!
The ‘consumer society’ we live in teaches us to idolize desire – our whole civilization is based upon idolizing desire! The idea is that ‘we’re worth it’ – that we ought to deny ourselves nothing and that to deny ourselves would be to sell ourselves short. It would be tantamount to betraying ourselves…
So whatever the whim, whatever crappy, half-assed notion or desire comes into my head, it’s my solemn and sacred duty to obey it, fulfil it, move heaven and earth until I’ve achieved it. This type of attitude is sold to us as ‘personal empowerment’ and on the whole we’re more than happy to buy into it. As a collective, we’ve bought into it hook, line and sinker!
It’s not hard to see how everyone having this attitude benefits the global industrial mega-culture that straddles our planet, the ‘viral culture’ that’s all about turning diverse and autonomous individuals into uncritical, easily-manipulated uniform consumers. If we didn’t idolize desire we wouldn’t be good consumers and if we weren’t good consumers that would be bad news for the economy. And – so we’re told – what is bad for the economy is bad for us. This is our central dogmatic belief – that everything has to be about ‘the economy’ and that peculiar phenomenon we call ‘economic growth’.
But what is this thing that we call economic growth, which is supposed to be so vitally important to everything? Very obviously it’s a measure of how much stuff is produced, and how much is being ‘consumed’ and that’s just about all there is to it. So for our society to be ‘healthy’ the rate at which goods are being manufactured and consumed mustn’t decrease, or even stay level, it has to keep on increasing! Of course, as any ecologist will tell you, unchecked growth isn’t a sign of health at all – it’s an indication of impending disaster. To use economic growth as a measure of a nation’s well-being is nothing short of insane! Unchecked economic growth worked fine when there were just a few industrial nations and they had the whole planet to exploit, but this all changes as more and more nations develop a fully-fledged industrial economy. This just isn’t going to work; it’s like naively imagining that everyone could be a millionaire – winners only get to be winners because everyone else loses, after all. Every millionaire needs a hundred thousand low-income workers to support them. That’s how the pyramid works. When the resources are finite and the rate at which they are being exploited is sky-rocketing, there can only be one outcome and that is the Malthusian one…
This is only half the story however. The other half has to do with the psychological downside of idolizing desire. When we buy into the idea that acting out our every whim qualifies as ‘self-empowerment’ what we’re really empowering are all the pernicious ‘wants’ that have somehow gotten into our heads. This is basic psychology: any parent knows that if you buy a child everything it wants as soon as it cries for it then you end up with a monster on your hands! This is disastrous parenting by anyone’s standards – it doesn’t help anyone, least of all the unfortunate child.
And yet – although we wouldn’t do this to our kids – we cheerfully do it to ourselves through our uncritical acceptance of society’s crass values. Whoever else benefits from this set up, it certainly isn’t us! It isn’t us because via our adaptation to this value-system we’ve handed over our autonomy, our say in ‘what we put our time and energy into’. Autonomy means that we are already complete in ourselves. It means that we don’t need some ‘vital commodity’ which an external agent can either give us or not, depending upon whether we ‘make the grade’. Naturally we all still have needs that will tie us into the wider collective of people – needs for food, basic artefacts, safety, and companionship – but these needs don’t necessarily compromise our autonomy as individuals. It’s still possible to trade in such things without handing over our individuality to some kind of utterly uniform collective ‘reality-tunnel’.
What does compromise our autonomy is living in the type of world that we have so unwisely constructed for ourselves! What happens to us in this case is that we end up being dependent upon the social matrix both for the way we understand ourselves and the way we feel about ourselves. In effect, the system allows us to feel good about ourselves only when we have ‘met its criteria’, only when we have ‘ticked all the right boxes’. It’s not so much the ever-multiplying products of the consumer society that we’re dependent upon (although we are) – it’s the concept of our own worth and well-being as it’s constructed in relation to these products, and the manufactured lifestyle that goes with them. Appallingly, we’re dependent upon collectively-validated ideas about our own identity and worth. “Be different” say the ads, “Show that you’re different by buying our product, drinking our product, wearing our product…” And amazingly enough we fall for this – we imagine that we can purchase our individuality in the same way that we can purchase a shirt or a pair of designer jeans. We’ve been collectively convinced – quite preposterously – that buying this or that product is how we express our individuality, that this is how we can show our unique nature, and ‘stand out from the crowd’.
The reason this seems to make sense to us is because in accepting the marketing message that “Everything worthwhile exists out there in the Global Hypermarket” (rather than realizing that the source of our happiness/well-being is in ourselves) we automatically turn our backs on this source. If we are to feel good – we’re led to believe – then this good feeling has to come from outside of ourselves. In the global mega-culture everything is done for us, provided for us, supplied to us, so what need is there for us to look within and ‘create our own values’?
Being dependent upon the social matrix for our sense of well-being terminally disempowers us. This isn’t ‘a culture’, it’s a tomb! It is the systematized mass extinction of the individual, marketed as freedom. You couldn’t think of a more complete and more efficient way of disempowering people than cutting them off from their own creativity, their own inner life.
And yet this is the world we buy into every day! We’re being annihilated – as genuine autonomous and creative beings – right from the word ‘GO’ and no one ever says a word about it. No one bats an eyelid. What’s behind our lack of appreciation of this horror is the sheer scale of what’s going on, and the very effective suppression of any other points of view. The profound perversity of basing a whole civilization upon the idolization of desire is something that we just can’t get, because it has become so effectively normalized. There is a basic lie being propagated here and that is that if we win at society’s game then what we get paid with (the prize we gain as a result) is actually worth something! In Ways of Seeing John Berger talks about the glamour that attaches to the ‘winners’ in our society – the idea being that we only know we’re winners when we’re envied –
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest – if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness: the power of the bureaucrat in his supposed authority. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.
The point is that the prize is only in the eyes of those who aren’t winners! In other words, the whole thing’s a huge hoax – nothing real is gained as a result of playing the consumer game, no happiness, no joy, no peace of mind – nothing. The glamour we envy is an illusion created by our own desire, our own futile longing. ‘Success’ is not a real thing – it’s just the flip-side of our unending hunger! What we’re collectively chasing doesn’t exist but society keeps on telling us that it does. As Terence McKenna says about the culture we live in, “It fetishizes objects, creates consumer mania, it preaches endless forms of false happiness…”
The big deception is that happiness lies outside of us, and can thus only be gained if we become successful at playing the game of never-ending acquisition and social-adaptation that the global industrial mega-culture wants us to play…
By Nick Williams | TNP