Lead Us Into Temptation: American Materialism

To speak of American “materialism” is…both an understatement and a misstatement. The material goods that historically have been the symbols which elsewhere separated men from one another have become, under American conditions, symbols which hold men together. From the moment of our rising in the morning, the breakfast food we eat, the coffee we drink, the automobile we drive to work–all these and nearly all the things we consume become thin, but not negligible, bonds with thousands of other Americans. — Daniel J. Boorstin

What’s wrong with American culture? This question has become prominent in Christian circles as the moral course of the United States becomes more and more frightening. The answer, in one respect, lies in the materialism of the American people. This is not materialism, in the philosophical sense, where all that exists is matter and one denies the existence of God — though that sort of materialism easily establishes this second sort. This materialism is the fruit of avarice and greed. It’s a common mentality — we’re all guilty of it — that we don’t really care about things per se; we know who we are without our possessions. Our sense of self is not bound to the material world. Of all the so-called “-isms” of our time, none has ever been more misunderstood, more criticized, and more relevant than materialism. Who but fools and the occasional nutty libertarian rise to its defense? It’s safe to say that while materialism may not be the most shallow of all the “-isms” plaguing the world, it certainly is among those that have triumphed.

There are two questions that come to mind. Both are profoundly interesting. (1) Why are we so materialistic? (2) Why are we so unwilling to acknowledge and explore what seems to be one of the central aspects of modernity?

This consumerism is not forced on us. We’re just overwhelmingly attracted to the world of goods. That’s why we call them “goods” and not “bads.” Perhaps we should call them “bads.” Across the ocean, American culture is criticized for being too materialistic — we’re only 10% of the world’s population and yet we’re leaders in the consumption of the world’s resources. While percentage may shift, the shame remains. Its been said that Americans aren’t materialistic, if anything, we are not materialistic enough. If only Americans desired objects and knew what they meant, there wouldn’t be signifying systems of marketing, packaging, fashion, and branding to get in the way. Theoretically, Americans would collect, use, dispense, etc. based on some inner sense of value. It is precisely that inner sense of value that we don’t have.

In many ways, consumption of goods and their meanings is how most Western young people cope in with the existential anxiety that is only more acute since “modernity” has dismissed traditional religious meanings. The culture of America is one in which most people can have practically anything. The common sayings “use it up, wear it out, make do with, or just do without” don’t exist anymore. Thanks to credit cards and installment debt, we can be instantly gratified and all before middle age — no need to work for it, no need for a sense of value or meaning, no need for accomplishment.

It’s fairly simple. Play by the rules and you’ll have a lot in life. What are the rules? They’re fairly simple. Finish high school, go to college (maybe), get a job, don’t get pregnant or get someone pregnant — luckily, we have abortion now, right? — don’t become addicted to drugs and you’ll make it in America. The dramatic change in American culture in large part has something to do with the fact that in the last thirty years — for the first time in Western culture — lower economic classes have had access to “goods” that were previously reserved for the wealthy. It’s a gift so great that we’ve lost all sense of personal responsibility.

Humans, by their nature, are consumers. Humans use tools because what they create with the tools are useful. In other words, tools are not the ends but the means. If “modernity” tells the story, materialism does not destroy one’s sense of spirituality; spirituality, rather, is the substitute when “goods” are lacking — what else are humans to do? When you don’t have anything, you sit around and “invent” a life to come that is rich and splendid because it’s the obvious psychological projection man would make. Heaven is just mythical nonsense, isn’t it? On the other side of the coin, when you possess plenty, the “goods” began to enchant you. The life to come is obscured by the here and now. “I deserve richness now, not in the life to come.” Right? This cycle is self-nurturing. There is a circular route from desire to purchase to disappointment to renewed desire. It’s in fact what advertisers want. After all, we are consumers of everything–of health services, education, political representation, and the list goes on.

Given all this, is it worth it? Does it make us happy? Do some suffer inordinately for the excesses of others–does it even matter? Why should we care? The more relevant question, perhaps, is what are we going to do with all this stuff we have bought when it becomes junk? What’s the link between our rate of consumption and thus our culture with the fact that America leads the industrialized world in rates of murder, violent crime, juvenile violent crime, imprisonment, divorce, abortion, single-parent households, obesity, teen suicide, cocaine consumption, per capita consumption of all drugs, pornography production and consumption?

There is yet another consideration. Given this unquenchable desire for goods, we can only appreciate how poverty can be so crippling in the modern world. Since meaning derives from owning and possessing, it logically follows that poverty is not just a lacking of things, but meaning as well — the exclusion from the most important aspects of modern life. When one hears that some young African American male has killed someone over a pair of name-brand sneakers or a monogrammed athletic jacket, it becomes painstakingly clear that the chronically poor, unemployed youth are living the absurdist life described by modern existentialists. It, too, becomes clear that such people are after what all people want: association, affiliation, inclusion, and purpose; the problem lies in the fact that they are being bombarded, as is everyone else, with commercial promises of being “cool,” etc. Meaning is added to objects by advertising, branding, packaging, and fashion because that meaning–which should be called “status”–is what we’re after. Why else would some woman spend thousands for Prada besides the mere possession of such a product “says” something about her? She’s a woman of status. Right?

Social identity by means of consumption can be summarized in the popular catchphrase “you are what you eat.” In the same way, Americans are what they wear, what they drive, how they spend their vacations, where they live, and what they watch on television. In these terms, what’s being packaged is not the goods as much as the buyer of the goods — man is looking for an identity because in a godless world, there is no such thing. In an open market, we consume both real and imaginary meanings, fusing objects, symbols, images, and ideas together, and so rather than living lives, we live lifestyles. For good or for ill, lifestyles are more or less secular religions and consistent patterns of valuing objects. One’s lifestyle is not related to how much one makes, per se, though that’s part of it — it has more to do with what one buys.

One reason (and this is my personal opinion) that we use terms like “hippies” or “Generation X” is that we don’t understand social class anymore — what we understand is lifestyle. It seems that we might not be able to say how much money it takes to be a hippy, or how old you have to be, but we all know where hippies gather, how they dress, what they play, what they drive, what they eat, and what their general worldview as a group is. The same is true of nerds, jocks, druggies, etc. In a movie, we immediately can identify a person with such a stereotype simply by their dress and by their action. These images imprint upon us and in many ways, we attempt to live them out. We conceptualize everything, which is not a bad thing; the problem is that we seem to have programmed ourselves to live up to conceptualized models instead of toward the fulfillment of our human nature.

Given that this is the age of empiricism and data, a marketer can easily chart your shifting purchases. If a consumer specialist knew, say, your purchases for the last year, they might — with some accuracy — be able to predict what you’ll buy in the next year and attempt to sell it to you. This is both good and bad depending on their intention and the effects of such action on society. People are “labeled” — we’re a nation that conceptualizes and puts people into groups using models. Therefore, to a consumer specialist, an American consumer fits into a group and not a social class — we’re beyond class barriers, remember? This means that the group you affiliate yourself with, in many ways, has more to do with the brand of computer you bought last week and how expensive it was than with your income, age, education, job, or religious views.

In many respects, commercial culture is playing out the historic role of “organized religion.” The daily concern for piety has been replaced by daily concern of consumption. The concern is pocketbooks and not prayer books. The concern is not for the priest who preaches about God and heaven, but the salesman who talks about “goods” and services — which will, of course, bring us the same joy. The language of community and shared values is now on the package, in the brand, and in style. All one has to do to confirm this is argument is turn on the television and watch the flood of commercials — sitting before the electronic altar that owns the souls of millions of Americans, we immediately began to take in the sermons of corporations on how to get the “most out of” their products. The organization and swiftness in which they evangelize should be of concern to Christians trying to “sell” the Gospel of Life to sinners. What is most concerning is that the marketing industry has little moral taste in how they make their money, e.g. half-naked women on a magazine cover. (On a brief tangent — often enough the cover of a man’s magazine is a beautiful woman, yes? She is lovely and there is a sense that one must live up to a certain identity to have a woman like that. This is especially the thinking of younger men. If you look at the cover a woman’s magazine, often enough it’s a woman. She’s so slim and beautiful. What does a young woman think? “I have to look like her and act like her for a man to notice me.” At least that’s how I perceive it).

The real work of advertising is subliminal. What’s so fascinating is not only do we lend ourselves to the creation of advertising, but we proceed not only to buy the products but the aura around it. The great irony of the American culture of individualism is that it’s profoundly a culture of conformism. Fit in, don’t stand out, be cool, chill out. Does the current identity you have conformed to not work anymore? Well, that’s no problem! You are not what you make, you are what you buy. Don’t like who you are? Buy different brands. Shop for a new lifestyle. American youth, don’t like the Abercrombie & Fitch image and lifestyle? Visit Hot Topic — be “emo” and gothic. Nevermind the two stores have the exact same owner. If you don’t like either of those, you can go buy saggy jeans and let them hang down to your knees.

Another problem is that these images are delivered to us in abundance by the mass media. Think of the show Beverly Hills 90210. Perhaps, you haven’t watched it. God has blessed you if that’s the case. Nevertheless, the audience is invited to experience the lifestyle of affluent Southern California teenagers. But is the show’s portrayal how California teenagers really are? It doesn’t matter really, one might say, so long as the fictional characters are somewhat congruent with the audience’s expectations. Regardless, the image now imprinted on America is that the life of a teenager in California involves trips to health spas, wearing midriff-exposing t-shirts, and driving fancy cars. Would it surprise you that people try to live out that image? Strangely enough, the desperation to become some image — not the image of God – actually gave rise to “knock-off” brands. If you can’t have the real thing, there’s always the next best thing. But doesn’t that involve a risk of rejection? People who wear “knock-off” brands aren’t good enough for the real thing; often enough, they aren’t real supposedly. They’re fakes, or to use the common term of American youth, they’re posers. Realness is allegedly based on how well one sells an image and not having the right brand can be a bad start–it has nothing to do with the interior self, whatever that is.

This all presents a profound challenge to say the least. All of this demonstrates all the more, the necessity and urgency for Catholics and people of good will to live moral, upright lives in accord with the will of God and not that of this world. The eternal words of God’s Wisdom is ever more revelatory in light of this reality: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and stea. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. (Matthew 6: 19-21).

Note: Here I argued that Americans divide themselves into subcultures that in many ways become monolithic. Might there be some connection between consumerism, identity, and the socio-political groups in which we divide ourselves? Thoughts?

5 Responses to Lead Us Into Temptation: American Materialism

  • The philosopher Max Scheler noted that in the modern age, people tend to seek the minimum amount of pleasure from the maximum amount of things, whereas the previous ideal was to experience a maximum amount of pleasure from a minimum number of objects. I think the materialism you describe largely arises from the collective lack of temperance, not to mention a forgetfulness of the spiritual world. We are material creatures, embodied spirits, meant to enjoy material goods, but we do not enjoy them well. Speaking in the ethical terms of Aristotle, our materialism is excessive. What we should strive for in our dealings with material goods is virtue.

  • I would think that our materialism comes from a number of factors coming together at the same time. First, American industry, especially in the aftermath of WWII, but even well before that. The US is an amazing producer of goods. Second is the aftermath of the Great Depression and WWII, where people in general who had to scrape by now had the opportunity to actually acquire. And it should be noted that the act of acquiring is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when certain devices aid us in making a living, or help keep us more sanitary conditions, and so on. Third is the interconnectedness of our large, thriving nation, especially thanks to the interstate highways, and this interconnectedness has only grown with the widespread use of television and even more recently the internet.

    These factors coming together have had the result of making Americans very consumer driven. The thirst to have a few odds and ends to make life simpler–a toaster, a microwave, and so on–was met with an explosion of marketable products that could be shipped quickly across the nation. And with the ability to reach larger and larger audiences through such things as television commercials, one could make even a trifle (that once would have never sold well, due to limited appeal in a local area) profitable. Over time, as necessities are met with increasing ease, the focus shifted from necessities to time-saving devices, and then to recreation as we continually managed to accomplish more in less time.

    While I cannot deny that we Americans are overly consumption-driven, one question I might ask (and one I don’t necessarily have an answer to) is: how necessary is the materialism? I might argue that to some extent, we can’t do away with it without committing grave errors as well (cutting off our noses to spite our faces). As necessities are met with fewer and fewer workers (think of how large farms are, and how few people are needed to work them), is it not the case that employment comes from non-essentials? Consider how many people work in fast food and restaurants. Consider how many people work in other areas that provide luxuries that most people take for granted, and yet could easily live without.

    I think it is possible to live amidst all this excess without letting it deteriorate the soul, but then, there is the whole camel and eye-of-needle thing. It is a problem, but at times I wonder if we haven’t entered into a mess where the cure is worse than the problem.

  • I’m not condemning consumption entirely, but rather the effects it has on us because of the meaninglessness of it all in the eyes of ordinary American consumers. Just to clarify, though I think that’s obvious.

  • My mother is a very strong atheist but she is also non-materialistic. When I was younger I loved escaping to my grandparent and got a lot of happiness through their catholic teachings and the way they brought Jesus into their life every day. In Australia we have a saying ‘Sunday Best’ it comes from the fact that everyone dressed up for church (all looking very similar in their modern outfits), my young mind believing materialism was bad connected it with the church, I never got confirmed and lead an atheist life for a long time with bad results I have since started studying Catholicism I’m not entirely sure why but I believe it is the right path. I still never attend mass.

  • Myra, if you haven’t been doing so already, daily prayer would be a help for you. I’d suggest an Our Father and a Hail Mary. You might think of purchasing a Rosary and begin using that to pray. When you are ready, start going to Mass. A good talk with a good priest, followed by a good confession, and you will be ready to start a new life. My prayers and best wishes for you.

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