That they are crass, brash and trashy goes without saying. But there is something in the pictures posted on Rich Kids of Instagram (and highlighted by the Guardian last week) that inspires more than the usual revulsion towards crude displays of opulence. There is a shadow in these photos – photos of a young man wearing all four of his Rolex watches, a youth posing in front of his helicopter, endless pictures of cars, yachts, shoes, mansions, swimming pools and spoilt white boys throwing gangster poses in private jets – of something worse: something that, after you have seen a few dozen, becomes disorienting, even distressing.
The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl's head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled on her vast bed. It's captioned "shoppy shoppy" and "#goldrush", but a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She's alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.
Perhaps I'm projecting my prejudices. But an impressive body of psychological research seems to support these feelings. It suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as "a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project", is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It's associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.
There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.
In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they became happier.
In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country's economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group higher levels.
These studies, while suggestive, demonstrate only correlation. But the researchers then put a group of adolescents through a church programme designed to steer children away from spending and towards sharing and saving. The self-esteem of materialistic children on the programme rose significantly, while that of materialistic children in the control group fell. Those who had little interest in materialism before the programme experienced no change in self-esteem.
Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.
A third paper, published (paradoxically) in the Journal of Consumer Research, studied 2,500 people for six years. It found a two-way relationship between materialism and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism. People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions. This attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.
The two varieties of materialism that have this effect – using possessions as a yardstick of success and seeking happiness through acquisition – are the varieties that seem to be on display on Rich Kids of Instagram. It was only after reading this paper that I understood why those photos distressed me: they look like a kind of social self-mutilation.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons an economic model based on perpetual growth continues on its own terms to succeed, though it may leave a trail of unpayable debts, mental illness and smashed relationships. Social atomisation may be the best sales strategy ever devised, and continuous marketing looks like an unbeatable programme for atomisation.
Materialism forces us into comparison with the possessions of others, a race both cruelly illustrated and crudely propelled by that toxic website. There is no end to it. If you have four Rolexes while another has five, you are a Rolex short of contentment. The material pursuit of self-esteem reduces your self-esteem.
I should emphasise that this is not about differences between rich and poor: the poor can be as susceptible to materialism as the rich. It is a general social affliction, visited upon us by government policy, corporate strategy, the collapse of communities and civic life, and our acquiescence in a system that is eating us from the inside out.
This is the dreadful mistake we are making: allowing ourselves to believe that having more money and more stuff enhances our wellbeing, a belief possessed not only by those poor deluded people in the pictures, but by almost every member of almost every government. Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a formula for mass unhappiness.
Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at Monbiot.com
The culture of the West is usually seen as deeply, even incurably, materialistic. Many of the evils that disfigure Western society, its greed and wastefulness, are blamed on an excessively materialist view of the world.
This needs to be challenged. For a truly materialistic society would have a far greater respect for the material world than the West displays. How can its heedless abuse of the resource-base of the world be called materialistic? Truly materialistic societies are those of indigenous peoples, those who live in symbiosis with the earth, for they treat the source of their well-being with reverence. The fact that they make sacred what is useful to them helps to conserve and to continue traditional cultures.
We in the West are in the grip of dangerous fervours, a feverish zeal that has no regard for the material basis, not only of its prosperity but of its very survival. Such a strange response suggests we are in thrall to a curious form of mysticism: it is as though we were eager to tear through the fabric of the earth that sustains us, seized by a nihilistic desire to reach the other side of destruction, to gut the planet of its treasures, so that we may face and defy the gulf that lies beyond.
It is, in fact, a strange kind of transcendence that is being sought in the unquiet, restless model of development which the West now proposes to an eager and for the most part welcoming world.
If this were not the case, consumerism would not be the fastest-growing cult in the world. For it represents a quasi- religious conversion of the people of the earth from goals of self-reliance and sufficiency into a promise of a plenty beyond the dreams of avarice.
Throughout recorded time a majority of the world's people have been tormented by poverty or by the fear of poverty, by want, hunger and insecurity. Consumerism promises not only that they will be released from this ancient bondage, but also that they can by-pass a bare sufficiency, a frugal security, and break through into the satisfaction of limitless desire.
For it is axiomatic in Western economics that human desire is infinite; and it is this which feeds the dogmas of perpetual growth and expansion of industrial society. Consumerism is the belief-system that 'rationalizes' this unreason. Its iconography now penetrates the whole world through the global media. There can now be few people on earth who have not seen selective images of Western wealth, the profligate lifestyles, the effortless ease with which money guarantees the rich a smooth passage through the world. The ideology shows human life, not as toil, labour and want, but as endless fun, entertainment, escape, money, sex; and perpetual distraction from the pain and pleasure of being fully human.
Those who wish to resist the bush-fires of desire which are sweeping the world, as the hopes and dreams of the poor are swept up in the seductive embrace of universal consumerism, must first understand the structure of feeling in which it operates, the nature of its appeal, the paradox of the spiritual element in its intensely materialistic compulsions. Without some such analysis, we shall be left denouncing gross materialism to poor, wanting, suffering people, who have always lacked basic necessities. The opposite of excess is not poverty, but a secure sufficiency.
It is quite clear that the patterns of consumption of the richest 20 per cent of the world's people cannot be replicated, cannot be extended to the earth's needy. The belief that they can is further evidence of the irrationality and disorder of a choiceless globalization which is now presented to the people to be as irreversible as time itself.
Making a global market
HALF THE WORLD'S population have ready access to televisions. For many of the poor around the world, what appears to be the land of milk and honey - the West - is visible nightly on the world's 800 million TV sets.
ADVERTISINGis everywhere, bombarding typical members of the global 'consumer class' with some 3,000 messages a day.
But this is the instrument whereby the consent of the poor is to be won for an imperial design which, at an earlier epoch, they resisted with heroic and selfless struggle. This time, their arms are open to the colonizing thrust of an order which itself promises liberation deliverance from subservience to the earth and its necessities of seedtime and harvest, the vagaries of climate and lean seasons.
The first objective in this project is the creation, within each country of the South, of a high-consuming, privileged middle class. This class will provide an outlet for Western goods, will offer a model of hope to the mass of the people of their particular country, and who, by their addiction to this version of the good life, will not flinch before what must be done to conserve and to extend it. In other words, as well as serving as a conduit for Western products, they will police the poor of their own country.
The new middle classes in the South are often agents of transnational companies, employees of global conglomerates, as well as professionals servicing them: whether directly as sub-contractors, suppliers and small entrepreneurs, importers, sales personnel; or indirectly as the military, politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers and doctors who buy and promote the goods. They are pioneers of the throwaway society, a model and example for the poor to aspire to. In that sense, they are also the guarantors of a kind of social peace: 'If you behave yourselves you will become like us' is their unspoken message to the poor. Just as this is the message of the rich world to these, their surrogates and representatives among the poor of the earth.
This is why so many of the setpiece developments at the heart of all the towns and cities of the South are shopping malls. These permanent exhibition sites display all the coveted logos of the Western transnationals cosmetics and couture, watches and fashion, cameras and electrical goods, the magical names of Adidas, Nike, Courreges, Balmain, Elizabeth Arden, Gucci, Sanyo, Mitsubishi, Sony and Mercedes. These names burn, gaudy fires against the night skies, hovering over the cities like apparitions. The gallerias and hotel shopping-arcades are where the rich go shopping and the poor seek refuge from the heat of Bangkok, the tropical storms of Jakarta, the violence of São Paulo, the squalor of Mumbai, the unbreathable air of Mexico City.
However, since it is the objective of the transnationals to maximize their sales and profits, and since the high-consuming middle class remains a minority other ways of opening up markets must be sought. Most transnationals are very jealous of their logos, and are sorely exercized by pirating and counterfeiting.
However, as long as this remains within their own control, most transnationals do not disdain to fake their own goods. Using their own logos and brand-names, inferior products are substituted for the originals for sale to the unsuspecting people of the South. Familiar logos and names frequently conceal articles which consumers in the West would not recognize: a debased, altered, or downmarket imitation. Savlon, from Johnson & Johnson, for instance, is in India a lurid orange colour that stains everything it touches; the item sold in London is quite different. The Indian version contains both Quinoline Yellow WS and Sunset yellow FCF. The same thing is true of Dettol. Colgate toothpaste in the Indian sub-continent appears to consist principally of chalk and cloves. Hindustan Lever's Wheel detergent is 42-per- cent salt, which adds nothing to its cleaning capacity. In the West, detergents must contain less than four-per-cent insoluble matter. In India the insoluble content is set at eight per cent; yet only one detergent brand reaches even this modest level. In the 1980s Hindustan Lever lowered the total fatty matter in their soaps, promoting this as 'improved technology'. In fact, the principal research had been into finding out how to stabilize the tablet of soap by means of a 'filler', which was mainly clay.1
The promotion of 'the Western lifestyle' thus becomes a pallid reflection of the original; it is an idea that is being marketed, something intangible. It is another form of transcendence; this time, consumers are offered the illusion that they are taking part in a life elsewhere; that they are escaping the bleak realities of India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and are being transported to the earthly paradise that is New York, Paris or London.
Of course, the article has to be cheapened to bring it within reach of a less affluent public; this is true of many items of cosmetics, confectionery, pharmaceutical and home-care products. Chains of sub-contractors also enable the parent company to escape responsibility for bad labour practices, below-subsistence wages and exploitative working conditions.
There is therefore a hierarchy of consumption, just as there is of labour: the authentic article, and its modified cheapened version; a kind of consumer apartheid. The majority of people in India are never going to be able to compare what they buy with what Western consumers get for their money. Not only are the consumer goods and their fancy packaging destined to be tomorrow's garbage, they are actually garbage today, before they are even brought to market.
The fight for markets between transnational companies mimics and parodies the struggle for territory of the Western imperial powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nor is it less lucrative.
Of course, there is resistance. In India, for instance, the Nai Azadi Bachao Andolan the 'New Freedom Struggle' is fighting to preserve indigenous products against the transnationals and their flood of cheap consumer goods. But invaders who come in the guise of bringers of affluence are less easily fought off than those who come as conquerors; particularly when they offer a few pitiful consolations to the poor.
You have only to visit any city slum, any village in India, to find on display the first emblems of Western consumerism Cadbury's or Nestlé's chocolate, Pepsi Cola, Lux or Lifebuoy soap, Colgate toothpaste. People will offer visitors expensive soft drinks which they cannot really afford; and these are held out as though they were precious gifts. And what is worse, they displace indigenous products. What could be less helpful to the dental health of children than to replace neem twigs, with their cleansing, antibacterial properties for tooth cleaning, with Western-style toothpaste; and what more ironic than the efforts of Western transnationals to patent neem once it has been abandoned as a tooth-cleaning agent by Indian urban dwellers?
Sometimes changing the sensibility of the people so that they become hooked on Western products has brutally malignant effects. Winin Pereira cites the example of an Adivasi (indigenous) child who had been fed a diet of nothing but biscuits. The mother was under the impression that this, being a Western 'miracle food', would answer all her nutritional needs. The child died.2
There are other difficulties in resisting consumerism. For one thing, real basic human needs are also answered by means of the expensive, value-added, fabricated products on the market. The market economy appropriates both the need and the answer to it, envelops them both in fancy wrappings and then sells the whole package to the people. In this way, pre-cooked meals which contain ingredients from many countries, are also sold to appease hunger; costly trainers with Nike or Adidas embossed on them also provide clothing; secret formulae for chemicalized drinks also quench thirst; 30-year loans at high interest provide the people with the means to acquire shelter; the products of entertainment conglomerates also answer to the need to relax and play.
Consumerism's greatest weakness is that it eliminates other fundamental needs for example, the need to provide for ourselves and the need to create and to do things for each other. These equally important needs are extinguished by the market, which requires only that we get the money to buy in whatever is necessary for our idea of 'the good life'. Paradoxically, the market, even as it answers need, also destroys its own capacity to answer others.
It is these contradictions that have to be opened up in the work of resistance: the faith in transcendence that makes consumerism a debased form of religion; the creation of cheap imitations for the South; the appropriation of need by the market economy and its power to mis-shape it so that it corresponds to some marketed commodity; the snuffing out of our human capacities to do and make things for one another. Reclamation of our human powers has to be the objective of people both in the North and the South; just as in the material world, we have to reclaim the poisoned and polluted elements that sustain life itself; for these are inseparable. *
Jeremy Seabrook is a journalist, broadcaster and author of several books including:In the Cities of the South (available throughNIat £14.00 including p+p) and The Skin Trade.
1 NG Wagle, Keemat, Mumbai 1992.
2 Quoted in Asking the Earth, The Other India Press, 1992.
Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997