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Beyond the steel cage of consumerism

Written By: - Date published: 6:10 am, November 22nd, 2017 - 46 comments
Categories: capitalism, Deep stuff, Economy, political alternatives, vision - Tags: , ,

Translation: beyond the steel cage of consumerism

Tim Jackson in Prosperity Without Growth on John Stuart Mill’s quote:

John Stuart Mill‘s quote in context.


46 comments on “Beyond the steel cage of consumerism”

  1. Ant 1

    Teenager Robin lee Graham, youngest person to sail single handed round the world in 1965 (National Geographic, Oct. 1968), stopped off for supplies on a remote Pacific island. Impressed by the simple life-style of his hosts and far from the affluent USA society from which he came Graham observed “I learned how little one needs, not how much.”

    Consumerism begets consumerism. The more appliances we purchase to make tasks ‘easier’ the more exercising devices we buy to tone up those parts of our bodies which we formerly stretched and flexed by kneading, beating, wringing, rubbing, pushing, polishing and sweeping, digging. Alternatively we burn fossil fuel to get ourselves to the gym where a host of devices put us through our paces in stuffy confines amidst fellow sufferers.

    The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered “Man…. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

  2. Colonial Viper 2

    By ‘killing God’ (ending belief in a vast immaterial, spiritual, moral universe of consequences) the west only has abstract intellectual ideologies, out of touch theoretical frameworks and academic indoctrination left to fall back upon.

    Out of these, ‘happiness and success through consumerism’ is just as rational and rhetorically defensible an ideology as any other.

    • Bill 2.1

      Surely you mean other “abstract intellectual ideologies”…

      And what is it that the “out of touch” frameworks and indoctrinations are out of touch with?

      Finally, is consumerism really as “rational and rhetorically defensible” as any other ideology given its very real and negative consequences on the world? I’d have thought not.

      • Colonial Viper 2.1.1

        1) Man’s spiritual calling is not an intellectual endeavour, although intellectual endeavour can of course form part of it. It is a reaching towards something far beyond intellectual comprehension through contemplation and creation. Even primitive man had a sense of this.

        2) A reality and nature beyond materialism. As a contrast, consumerism is of course a highly materialistic philosophy.

        3) Of course consumerism is defensible – the products, technology and services we consume make our lives easier, more comfortable and enjoyable, increase our personal standard of living and those of our family. If you want to build even a basic hut for survival and protection against the elements, you’re going to have to cut down some trees.

        • Bill

          My point was about abstraction – not the intellectual (or otherwise) component of the ideology.

          And while it’s obviously true that consumerism is highly materialistic at one level, the psychological and/or emotional rewards that some hope to achieve or experience through it, aren’t.

          And yes, consumerism is defensible. But I questioned your statement that it was as defensible as any other ideology.

          • Colonial Viper

            And yes, consumerism is defensible. But I questioned your statement that it was as defensible as any other ideology.

            Well, I don’t know how exactly you would measure ‘defensibility of philosophies’, but yes, I’d say you could debate and defend the point for a couple of hours and consumerism would still hold its ground and justifications just fine.

            To be clear, I think consumerism is a deeply limited paradigm, but it is also a very powerful one.

            As for abstraction – since man learned that his reach could exceed his grasp, yep we’ve used abstractions of one form or another.

        • Draco T Bastard

          1. I think you’ll find that it is about intellectual comprehension because there is nothing beyond that.
          2. For basic survival we need to consider the physical. For happiness we need to consider what makes us happy and Consumerism actually doesn’t but it does destroy the physical bounds that we need to live within.
          3. Cutting down trees to make a house isn’t Materialism. Materialism is owning a mansion when you only need a house. Having three cars when none will do. Etcetera. And, no, it’s not defensible as it’s simply destructive.

          • Colonial Viper

            1) A false and ideological premise
            2) You just inserted a value statement about happiness being central.
            3) Materialism is the belief that only material existence is real – atoms and molecules and their constituent parts, and what you can do with them, and that there is no reality of significance beyond that material world.

            • Draco T Bastard

              1. You have proof that there’s something beyond the physical? Because until you do then your imaginings of anything beyond it is purely intellectual.
              2. So? I think happiness is fairly important:

              Happiness is about being able to make the most of the good times – but also to cope effectively with the inevitable bad times, in order to experience the best possible life overall. Or, in the words of the biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard: “Happiness is a deep sense of flourishing, not a mere pleasurable feeling or fleeting emotion but an optimal state of being.”

              3. Yes, I should have said Consumerism rather than Materialism.

              • Colonial Viper

                1. You have proof that there’s something beyond the physical? Because until you do then your imaginings of anything beyond it is purely intellectual.

                What exactly do you mean by “proof”?

                How on Earth are you able to categorise “imaginings” as an intellectual exercise?

                • What exactly do you mean by “proof”?


                  a fact or piece of information that shows that something exists or is true:

                  How on Earth are you able to categorise “imaginings” as an intellectual exercise?


                  products of the imagination : thoughts, images


                  the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality

                  Do you not understand English?

                  • Colonial Viper

                    So experiencing thoughts and images is now synonymous with “intellectual exercise” in your books?

                    And your idea of “proof” is that it tells you that something ‘exists’? What is ‘exists’?

                    Do you not understand English?

                    That’s little more than a lazy jab from a lazy mind, Draco. You can do better.

                    I have to laugh that you don’t have original thoughts of your own to present, instead you refer to other peoples’ definitions.

                    • You can do better.

                      Why bother?

                      You’re going to continue spouting tripe.

                      I have to laugh that you don’t have original thoughts of your own to present, instead you refer to other peoples’ definitions.

                      The amazing thing about language is if we go round changing the definitions of words to suit ourselves we lose the ability to communicate.

                      So, yeah, I use the defined definitions. People who don’t are either trying to hide something or can’t communicate well enough to get their idea across.

                    • One Two

                      You’re ‘debating’ the subject with the wrong people, CV…

                      It is seemingly beyond the ‘imagination’…

                      Being tied into such narrow parameters, all defined and ‘invented’ by self named human beings…

                      It is a problem!

                  • McFlock

                    I’m just waiting for cartesian doubt to step in…

                    • greywarshark

                      Cartesian doubt – by the time that some philosophers have had their way with one’s mind, it wouldn’t know how to find its way home.

                      Descartes: Overcoming Doubt – Philosophy Pages
                      The Method of Doubt. The basic strategy of Descartes’s method of doubt is to defeat skepticism on its own ground. Begin by doubting the truth of everything—not only the evidence of the senses and the more extravagant cultural presuppositions, but even the fundamental process of reasoning itself.

                      I was going to put a small video up but the voice-over starts off with a USA voice, and how can one have anything but doubt about anything that comes from that country until it is unpacked and thoroughly shaken out?

                      Then there is a great discussion from some ayn rand outfit and that would be skewed as everyone knows that she was pretty screwed up, preferring to live in skyscrapers and reaching for the stars. Hardly grounded.

                      Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartesian_doubt

                      I don’t think from watching NZ for decades that there is much evidence amongst the wider population of Cartesian doubt. It involves doing a check on one’s thoughts and beliefs, and this being troublesome and very likely, unprofitable, it hasn’t taken off like rock concerts, sports matches and parades of various sorts, clothed and partially clothed.

                      There is probably a name for the philosophy of going along with whatever is the most convenient and personally useful to people with some advantage in society. It is interesting to toss around these ideas, and just annoying that people often interrupt asking for money for various things, and lie on the footpath and get in the way, causing accidents when tripped over.

              • One Anonymous Bloke

                You have proof that there’s something beyond the physical?

                Wrong question.

                “If it has a name, it’s just another thing.”

    • By ‘killing God’ (ending belief in a vast immaterial, spiritual, moral universe of consequences) the west only has abstract intellectual ideologies, out of touch theoretical frameworks and academic indoctrination left to fall back upon.

      What a load of bollocks and such tripe simply shows your ignorance.

      A punishing God is not necessary to work out moral actions and our philosophers have been working on these things for some time. Many of those philosophers were even priests.

      Out of these, ‘happiness and success through consumerism’ is just as rational and rhetorically defensible an ideology as any other.

      Actually, it’s not. Plenty of research shows that having more doesn’t increase happiness, what actually does increase happiness and even why truth and trust are necessary in society.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 2.3

      ending belief in a vast immaterial, spiritual, moral universe of consequences

      [citation needed]

      Atheists are perfectly capable (perhaps more than deists) of ‘experiencing without self to sense the World’.

  3. greywarshark 3

    That is such a great quote from the Dalai Lama. Very wise and thanks to him and you for passing it on.

    Thinking on how to be, while we are being, and how to be both happy and practically busy while we try to achieve our wants,without getting hooked on gold and things beyond reason, I liked this last para from Chris Trotter at Bowalley on how we might bring these things about.

    It seems to me that Jacinda has already caught a glimpse of this radically different future, and she is as determined as we are to reposition New Zealand in a way that keeps its people safe, prosperous and independent.

    My term for this drive towards a new consensus encompassing New Zealand’s diplomatic, military and economic future is “constructive engagement”. John [Minto] might prefer to call it “active democracy”. Whatever its name, I do not believe it is in any way unbelievable, idiotic or wrong to call for a united front of progressive activists on the ground, to complement and energise the united front of progressive parties – Labour, NZ First and the Greens – in Parliament.

    • Ant 3.1

      Agreed; not only has Jacinda Ardern endorsed ‘kindness’ but the speaker made a plea for more of it in his inaugural address. (Asked what religion he actually practiced the Dalai Lama replied “loving kindness.”)

      CV (above) seems concerned too many westerners quote the Dalai Lama rather than Christ, but it seems to me Christianity has become overly swamped by dogma/doctrine.

      Yet, (for those who had ears to hear it) the Nazarene indicated it was our task to evolve personal recognition of a transformative force whose domain was consciousness not form, – attained through harmonious interaction with fellow beings rather than through supplication to a faraway deity.

      Emerging amongst many is the perception that evolution has a new and subtler card to play, – not in terms of mutated forms but as altered mind set. The principle of natural selection remains unchanged: the survival and propagation of the new is dependent on its success, – in this context its ability to out-compete the elements that keep degenerative capitalism alive.

      In the revised paradigm success becomes defined as the discovery and exploitation of outlets for personal talent and skill that are of benefit to one another and the planet. “Ego” as we know it has the capacity to transcend its customary polarisation towards material possession, physical beauty, skill or strength. Indeed it can be drawn to flourish on a higher turn of the spiral affirming the role each is destined to discover in the reconstruction of viable societal forms promoting goodwill and pride in the human race.

      After all the dexterity (symbolised by opposable thumb and vertical gait) enabling the construction of material objects ranging from micro-surgical instruments to vast cities is about to be taken over permanently by automation. If that wasn’t enough we are inevitably going to be living with UBI, leaving us free to nourish what we sense as value lying at our deepest core.

      The time of the competitive ego, indulgently massaged in a milieu of one-upmanship and sickeningly sustained by aggressive advertising, is up.

  4. Ad 4

    Mills is mostly reacting to Malthus at the time.

    He’s also in the middle of the 1848 famines and civil uprisings right across Europe, so he can have his little utopian surge for that time.

    He hasn’t lived through the development of the entire social welfare system, nor the massive expansion of state wealth redistribution in the following century.

    Mill’s quote is stripped of context and has little relevance today, unless it’s setting up the tired “debate” of the usual complaints about consumerism at Christmas.

    Even public readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol didn’t kick in to 1849, though it was gaining in popularity.

    • weka 4.1

      Lol, no, not Christmas (didn’t even think of that). More providing a talking point off the back of recent conversations on TS about capitalism.

      The Mill’s quote is linked to both its original text, and recent analysis from Jackson, so hardly stripped of context. I also put in the wikipedia article on Mills so that people could see the historical context.

      I think it’s interesting to look at what some people (albeit the white dudes of privilege) were thinking at the time that much was changing in the West. I found it interesting to see the connections with liberalism, the attitudes of the time that were struggling with liberal politics and welfare politics for all people, and how those things are entwined with the drivers of selfish culture, imperialism, capitalism and eventually neoliberalism. For those of us that think capitalism and neoliberalism are failing us badly and/or doing mass damage, that shit is relevant especially where you have people like Jackson looking for ways out/past.

      • Ad 4.1.1

        It’s Jackson that took the quote out of place, not yourself. You at least made an effort.

        Jackson needed more time studying Hobsbawm and some of the Marxist geographers. Also he could skip back to some of the hybrid feminist Marxists like Cixous and Irigaray: a world without desire ain’t much fun, no matter what you have or do not have.

        Even writers who show how movements form around climate hits, like Mike Davis, show that relationship between desire formation, geography, and social change with more subtlely than either Mill or Jackson.

        So far, the Kardashians are having more impact than the desire-free utopian academics.

    • AB 4.2

      “Mill’s quote is stripped of context and has little relevance today”
      Not so sure about that – “nor has any reason to fear being thrust back, by the efforts of others to push themselves forward” – has a sort of timeless feel to it I reckon.
      In fact doesn’t it partially explain the Auckland housing crisis – the desire of rental property investors to ‘get ahead’ helps fuel a price inflation bubble that kills the choices and quality of life of low income people?
      I actually think it is still the moral problem at the heart of competitive, market societies. The losers in any competition get hurt, and given that, how much harm can we tolerate before we have to fundamentally alter the nature of the competition, rather than just throw some scraps of social welfare relief to the losers?

      • greywarshark 4.2.1

        I remember at one of the disabled olympics in athletics, one of the competitors fell down and some of the others nearby stopped and gathered together, helped the person up, and they all went on together to cross the finishing line. Now is that a memory of an actual happening, or is it a good heartening story I heard about? Of how things could be, done differently with less need to push on to be first.

        Actually I have had an idea about how some at least of major and Olympic events could be kinder and fairer to us humans. Before a race where there was likely to be only millisecond between athletes, there would be a time-lapse allocated for first place so that anyone who registered within that period was awarded a first cohort place.

        Times have got to the tiniest fractions for placing, and any ordinary person would think if there were even three who managed to finish almost all at once, they had all performed with excellence and all deserved to be honoured. It’s madness to allow people to be cheated of their rightful recognition by the effect of a metaphorical blade of grass.

        Anyone who agrees please start spreading this idea around. The wonderful sportspeople are encouraged to knock themselves out by the present demanding rules of the competitive machine.

  5. Bill 5

    The thing about cage metaphors is that they miss out motivation. If we are in a cage, what’s to stop us swinging the door and walking out?

    Maybe a fuller picture can be drawn if we imagine that we’re individually and/or collectively on a stair case. Before us and behind us (or above us and beneath us), the staircase is shrouded.


    Well, is it that we tend to imagine that clouds shroud the staircase up above us and mists shroud the staircase below and behind us? And since we generally imagine clouds as being benign and as housing only good things, and mists as harbouring unseen threats and dangers, we might say we’re driven by our notions of pleasure and fear (driven to attain one and avoid the other).

    And the staircase is a downward travelling escalator 🙂

    Hell, maybe in some strange way we are the escalator – and its motion as well as the entity scrambling to ascend or avoid descent?

    • greywarshark 5.1

      Deeep Bill, but once the mind gets exercised the prospects for change and how we run on a formula that’s familiar and what could we do if we stepped to the path less travelled the possibilities that crop up are interesting sometimes shocking.

    • JO 5.2

      ‘If we are in a cage, what’s to stop us swinging the door and walking out?’

      But… would we know we were in a cage? If we did, would we know it had a door that might swing open? Plato’s cave-cage – the shadow-bars in front of us while the reality creating them only allows us a shifting mumble of white noise?

      Would that familiar ‘reality’ be less terrifying, like the ‘reality’ of an economic cage constructed in an ideological cave several decades ago…?

  6. patricia bremner 6

    A third way is to live in the moment, but with hope for the future, and to value the people in our lives by what we say and do. KISS xx (keep it simple stupid).

    Many of us live alternate and different lifestyles which assist us and others. i.e. my husband and I have house sat and pet minded (hobby) for many years to extend our Australian contact with our sons brother/brother in law and cousins.

    While we spend 5 winter months in Australia each year, we have a relative or house sitters mind our unit cat and garden.

    We have all our bills and saving on the fortnightly drip from our pension and a small extra pension, which helps us save for airfares and costs.

    We also hire accommodation in OZ and share with the other brother/brother in law and friends, this helps keep us connected with things to look forward to.

    Many years ago, we made a decision to avoid the property trap when we were in our 50s.

    All our friends were trading up to larger “better” homes, but we chose to down size to a two bed roomed unit to get mortgage free.

    It caused comment, but when we retired at 60, to live in a motor home for five years, letting out our unit, I guess they realized what our choices had been about.

    Further we were available to mind their properties and pets while they visited relatives and friends.

    We grew our vegetables in pots and buckets, did freedom and motor home membership parking, as well as stays in camp grounds which welcomed motor homes. (there were 20 000 members then, about half were on the road)

    We visited our remaining parent, parking up for a week or two, three or four times a year, staying long enough to clean gutters the roof and the concrete paths. We would do the heavy tasks including fence renewals and painting.

    We had solar with an inverter for the fridge freezer lights and battery charging and internet power using sticks. We had a prepaid ‘phone and learned to text. Our friends were amused by Norm’s first answer phone message. “Please try again later, as we are otherwise occupied”

    It makes us sad to realize that we have added to the carbon footprint, as all our choices were aimed at keeping life as simple as possible, and the people we cared for included as much as possible.

    We are now 76, and we hope to do the house and pet minding and sharing ’till we are 80. We had 5 years part time in the motor home, and 11 years house sitting.
    We always have something to look forward to, and love life. It is the greatest gift.

    • Rosemary McDonald 6.1

      Hiya patricia bremner. We too spend most of our time ‘on the road’ (our number is in the low 30000s) and have also learned that ‘stuff’ is an encumbrance. Who has room in a space 7mx2m for excess? We live lean. We might consume 230 litres of water from our tanks per week…and that’s for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene. So far no one has squirted air freshener in our direction. 😉 We have the very basic of fit outs, space for my partner’s wheelchair dictating space utilisation. We are warm, dry and comfy. We have a ‘not very smart’ phone for when we are in cell range, and access the interweb via the Aotearoa Peoples Network at a local library.
      We can save when we’re on the road from the Super…paid work being out of the question owing to the care needs of my man…but we do save $$$. We just don’t buy stuff unless we need it.

      And we don’t need much.

      However…have you checked out the latest motorhomes? Talk about examples of rampant consumerism and oneupmanship. Campers so big they struggle to find parking which ‘necessitates’ the towing of another small vehicle. Campers that already occupy ground space at least half as much again as us…and they still need the slide outs to increase their living space and accommodate their ‘stuff’. No solar on the roof is enough when you neeeeed that coffee machine and hair dryer….

      If and when we ever decide to settle down to fulltime housedwelling…and may that day be longtime coming…we would buy/build a very wee and basic abode that would be not that much bigger than the Bus, with maybe an extra bunkroom for family and friends, and not much more.

      “It makes us sad to realize that we have added to the carbon footprint, as all our choices were aimed at keeping life as simple as possible, and the people we cared for included as much as possible.”

      We too have the odd twinge along those lines…but I confess they are fleeting. When a safe and efficient bio diesel (or similar) is readily available we’ll be in like Flynn…but without going into the minutiae, I think our travel footprint is at least partly offset by our very low consumption in other areas. Travelling NZ, and meeting and talking with hundreds of folk from a vast variety of backgrounds is so… mind expanding…. for want of a better expression.

      In the meantime…that vilest of seasons is upon us. The Gods of Mindless Consumerism will demand their due from those silly people who have been sucked into the cesspit of christmas.

      regards, the Grinch. 🙂

      • patricia bremner 6.1.1

        Thank you for your reply, Rosemary.
        I too now need a walker, but our pet and home owners have booked us for 2018 and 2019. We have just been online with possible sitters for our wee home in Rotorua. We have a very small unit, our eldest son 1m 90cm said”Overnights only now Mum?” (He has visited longer than that.)
        That was a lesson in down sizing. Most things have 2 or 3 uses. Friends come in and comment how warm and welcoming it is. So easy to heat.
        Yes, some of the modern vans are “look at me” much like the boating fraternity, we come in all types. Mainly it is a great community. Our number was 189000s, so we were before it doubled after 2001.
        Like you we feel we offset our carbon by living inside others footprints and having our home occupied by someone as well.
        Christmas is lunch with our eldest boy, and skyping the rest. Real simple.
        Keep well and enjoy your travels, all the best to you both.

      • patricia bremner 6.1.2

        Ha ha, see I put one too many zeros in our van number group!!

        • Rosemary McDonald

          Haha…had an email exchange the other night regarding an inquiry about the availability of our POP. Their number was in the 76000s! I had to explain that no, we did not charge other members for safe, overnight parking (remember the old days patricia when we greeted fellow travelers as friends, rather than customers?) but a koha for power hook up is the convention. The ‘club ain’t what it used to be. Most folk these days join up for the benefits…especially discounts from major retail companies. Sigh.

          • patricia bremner

            Rosemary do you still take part in Rallies?
            We have considered having a POP for smaller/med vans, but felt that was for when we are home full time.
            We had a second hand Maui 6 berth originally, 5 yrs, followed by a Toyota Hiace4 yrs which we used for house sitting and short stays. Our final van was a disaster.
            Our camchain broke in our small Ford 2 berth, which we loved and only had a year, and wrecked the motor. On getting that repaired we discovered we had serious hidden rust. So major refit and replace and paint
            To repair all that was $10 000 6 yrs ago. We sold, partly because of that and my loss of physical ability as I had Polio at age 6 and aspects of muscle weakness crept up on me and made the step up hard work.
            We missed the life, but talking to others things have changed and many abuse the system now, and there are many who are not involved in the old idea of “leaving it better than you found it” club. If you are ever in Rotorua we are in the phone book under Norm, give us a ring and come and park over.
            We are home Dec to end of May each year. Regards Trish and Norm.

  7. eco maori 7

    What about the theory that we are all just data everything is data on a computer. To much for me to grasp. We all know that consumerism has to be changed we have finite resources so this is logical. I like the dalai lama words peace and kindness Ka pai

  8. MOULAE 8

    Well put—Happiness is temporal, and seeking to obtain it or achieve some constant state of happiness is a product of consumerism (among other things). Materialism isn’t just a belief, it’s a subversive practice that pistol whips reason in the face….Anyways- good points by all. RARE to see such intellectual hater-free conversation on the intronet…seek not to define and categorize, for everything in the world is perish-able, and everything produced and created through consumerism and materialism is finite and not a . It doesn’t help end wars and it definitely does not create peace-only the illusion of peace and the illusion of some particular state of being (happy, youthful, beautiful, wealthy, famous, being old, being free, etc), because all these share an impermanence and bring us further from god (not the one in Western religion). It takes ones focus and energies away from things that can nurture and sustain happiness via outcomes, such as genuine relationships and intrinsic goals and expectations, and replaces them with extrinsic ones (what one possesses, or how others regard you, and other things that aren’t satisfying in and of themselves. —blah blah blah—boring I know—I’ll shut up.

  9. MOULAE 9

    It also destroys woman–via the “Man”, which destroys the family, which are relationships that can’t be replaced—-Western philosophy and culture fails exceptionally in this aspect, and to compensate we blame our problems and insecurities on weaker and/or potentially superior/ or whoever the fuck we want, and murder them by the millions for mother fucking borrowed pennies that we don’t intend to ever pay back.

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    7 days ago
  • Applications invited for $7 million Regional Culture and Heritage Fund
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  • Budget 2020 date announced
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