Another puzzle piece fell in place for me today. I was listening to an Aurora Forum conversation between Juliet Schor and David Loy
. I’ve known about Juliet Schor’s work on conspicuous consumption and overwork, so I was interested in hearing her ideas for a new system
. But it was a comment by David Loy that struck me. Loy argues that consumer capitalism is a religion, in fact the first true global religion. As all religions
, consumerism then attempts to fill a fundamental human need: Giving us a sense of meaning, a sense of self. However, consumerism, by definition, cannot give us that since it is built on the notion of more: “consumer capitalism as it’s functioning now [is] constantly persuading us to buy more, and what I would talk about as a sense of lack.” This sense of lack creates what Victor Frankl called an existential vacuum
. How? That’s the puzzle piece
that fell into place. Loy draws on Buddhism to explain the mechanism but I prefer to use science. As Susan Blackmore
summarized research on the self: “every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction and not the same ‘me’ who seemed to exist a moment before, or last week, or last year.” There is no self. Deep down, we understand that our self is an illusion, this creates an ungroundedness. “We experience this ungroundedness as something as a sense of lack, as a sense that there’s something wrong, something missing.” To counteract this ungroundedness, we construct the self by the stories we tell ourselves. Timothy Wilson
calls these stories “self-narratives.” We used to draw these stories from religion: There’s this being out there who knows everything and gives my life meaning and me a sense of self. Loy suggests that this grounding is now provided by consumer capitalism: I am what I do and what I own. In addition, consumer capitalism redirects our sense that there’s something wrong. Instead of filling the vacuum with connections to other people and stories to create a sense of self, consumerism tells us that we’re lacking stuff. And if we only have enough money and stuff, we will have found the key to filling the vacuum.
So, the key link between the existential vacuum and consumerism is that sense of self (or lack thereof). Loy argues that therefore we need to acknowledge the religious dimension of the issue. I don’t think that’s necessary and possibly even dangerous. I do think it is very much important that we need to understand the tremendous importance of the self-narratives. They ground us, they give us meaning and a sense of self. History shows that religion can give us that grounding but unlike Loy, I think that grounding is still inauthentic because it is imposed and thus can be easily commodified, something Loy calls “junk religion.” To develop an alternative, we need to understand how self-narratives develop. According to Wilson, self-narratives are interpretations of our behavior, most of that occurs when we interact with our environment, including other people. Other people reflect back our behavior, so interaction is important. Community is important.
There’s still a puzzle piece missing – or maybe several pieces: I think that our narrowed definition of relationship has also created some detrimental effects. The word “relationship” is now almost exclusively reserved for that “special relationship” we have with one other person who we – so goes the cultural narrative – ultimately marry. The claim that I, as a single woman, am not in a relationship is absurd to me. I have tons of relationships but only if I use a broader, connecting, definition. I sense that this narrowing of the definition has also something to do with our overconsumption and all the other problems but I haven’t quite figured out how yet.