In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy. -Ivan Illich, philosopher and priest (1926-2002)
I was invited to dinner at some friends whose home I haven’t been to in a few years. When I had last been there, it had been a stunningly beautiful construction resulting from the fusion of a completely refurbished old Lebanese house and a modern wing. The décor inside was modern with a hint of French farmhouse with each piece of furniture having been carefully chosen and imported from Europe or Japan. No expense hand been spared, clearly, and the effect was at a sort of tastefully restrained decadence.
This time, there almost no trace of the original incarnation of the home. Everything from the ceilings to the lighting had been changed. The entire contents of the house had been sold off and replaced with excruciatingly well-designed and carefully chosen modern furniture. Additionally, the walls and floors had been given over to a large and well curated art collection including all the current must-have modern artists in the million dollar category.
My first reaction, my initial emotional response to this much less restrained show of decadence and the incredible idea that a brand new and undeniably beautiful house would be completely taken apart and replaced by an even more expensive and carefully studied creation was suffocation. Actually it was worse than that, it was a suffocation born of being crushed under a large weight. The weight was a Sisyphean boulder that had written upon it “in the competition for material success, whatever pathetic accomplishments you may have to your name have now been exposed as trivial. You should give up the race.”
I wanted to find a flaw, a weakness in the material display of wealth or in the characters of the people or at the very least observe them miserable. I wanted some sign that material had come at the cost of something more valuable so that I could at least pose one toe on higher ground. But honestly I knew that would be a cheap and unsatisfying shot. Their taste in art, furnishing and architecture was, to my eye, unassailable. They seemed no less or more happy than most people I know. They seemed no closer or further from understanding the meaning of life than most people. They were just in far more luxurious surroundings and facing the same imponderables as everyone else.
I was fascinated by my need to bring the owners of this museum-house down. How could that need immediately shoot up to the top of my internal to-do list. I sat with the need and am trying to understand it now by writing about it. At least I can be proud of the fact that I did not give into it, not yet anyway.
The problem with wealth, any amount of it, is that it tends to stratify populations. Is it a coincidence that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are good buddies? Around me, and this is a very unscientific statement I am about to make, I have noticed that friends and acquaintances have increasingly sorted themselves into groups defined by their material success. The people who jet off on holiday to Namibia and debate whether to travel in first class or on a private plane do not have the same problems or interests, it seems, as those who scour the shelves of Tesco wondering which clothes detergent is the best value.
If the world was truly meritocratic, I suppose wealth and intelligence would correlate and so the stratification by wealth could be seen as simply a by-product of like intellects meeting. But I don’t believe for a minute that the wealth vs. intelligence relationship is that reliable.
Let me go back to Ivan Illich. We live in a consumerist society. I recall a graffiti scrawled near my university that said “Born, Consume, Die” and I think that, unfortunately, there is an increasingly truthful ring to that. It amazes me how little counter-culture there is when it comes to materialism. And perhaps that is society being honest with itself. We could not survive, all seven or eight billion of us on this planet without gulping down enormous quantities of fossil fuel. It was the steam engine that blasted the human race through the previous high points reached by civilization. By some measures human civilization is now 20 to 30 times more complex and sophisticated than it was at the peak of western or eastern civilization prior to the adoption of fossil fuel. So I guess we are all, ultimately, reliant on consumption, non-renewable exploitation of the natural world we were given.
In the consumerist world, self expression is achieved through the transaction: the purchase and display of material goods. So to be unique and creative is to be able to find something new to buy, something that no one else has bought but that will inspire envy and desire in others. Leadership in the world of consumption requires careful digging through markets to find that thing that will both express your qualities but that is also rare enough to express your uniqueness.
Then those with large resources and refined tastes can lead where others will only struggle to follow. The leadership though, requires permanent change. If someone buys a new shirt from an obscure Japanese brand which only sells their goods in Tokyo, he is a leader. But his leadership falls away when other people start to imitate him or, god forbid, the brand goes mass market. So he must constantly be on the move. Even if his purchase were of something insanely expensive, a ridiculous piece of modern art, for example, that others could not easily imitate, he would lose his leadership with the passage of time because people would digest and become accustomed to the no-longer-new acquisition. So the addictive nature of consumption may come from the need for status, the need to be moving to be seen or maybe the need to constantly refine your expressed image of yourself to the world.
And for the rest of us who cannot follow, the world is simply a source of envy. The person with the newer television, the sleeker kitchen appliances, the larger Anthony Gormley sculpture or the longer range private jet makes us feel inadequate. And there is nothing most people can do once they are in that dynamic. The material resources will, by definition, not be available to all. The ability to lead by consumption, to express oneself through materialism, to gain status by showing good taste all fall away leaving a material world with only utilitarian possibilities and a sea of envy.
And knowing that such envy exists is one of the gratifications that the materialist leader needs. His leadership is in some way defined by it. However, at the same time that envy, that little hatred, separates him from others, making him a little bit more miserable. It has to. He needs to be envied by people that matter to him, so he needs, in a way, the hatred of those he values.
And that leaves only one sane choice, which is to opt out of it all. But boy, do that and you are on your own. No one likes the guy who leaves the game in the middle…he usually ends up sitting by himself.