How Shopping Robs Us of Freedom
Here’s a quiz. Who said this: “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.
“But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Pope Francis, right? Maybe Fr Chris Chatteris SJ in last week’s column? Would it surprise you to hear that this was said by an American president?
In 1979 President Jimmy Carter gave a speech in which he addressed the causes for the economic crisis and recession of the 1970s and identified consumerism as the reason for declining confidence among the American people.
To our modern ears, it may seem strange that consumption could be seen as a cause for economic crisis. The logic of our culture is that spending drives the manufacturing and retail industries, and this in turn provides jobs to millions of people, giving them increased spending power.
However, Mr Carter proposes that true poverty is not the ability to spend but the loss of identity and meaning. Pursued to its bitter end, this unchecked consumption, “leads to fragmentation and self-interest” where we develop a “mistaken idea of freedom” which ruthlessly gives us the sense that we have “the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others”.
The only way out of the purposelessness of endless consumption is a “restoration” of values, through which “true freedom” can be found, according to Mr Carter, a devout Christian.
These are courageous words for the president of a nation that is driven by a capitalist model whereby the economic prosperity of the individual has a trickle-down effect on the financial prosperity of an entire society.
We have seen that this neoliberal economic philosophy is not true. The gap between rich and poor is ever-widening.
In South Africa we see how a small percentage of the population has the luxury of changing cellphones and cars every few years, and buying new clothes every season simply because we’re tired of items we’ve worn only a few times.
Yet, the masses of the nation cannot even afford to feed their families. They live in haphazardly hammered pieces of tin on overcrowded hillsides and wastelands far from the respectable parts of the city.
These citizens, with supposedly the same rights as you and me, scratch through our garbage for the clothes we throw away, for a piece of plastic, paper, glass or tin that they can sell to recycling companies for a few meagre rands.
Conservation is linked with sacrifice
How can we look at the homeless man who will wander the streets tonight looking for a semi-sheltered corner to sleep in this bitterly cold winter weather, and still justify our need for the latest smart TV or this month’s fashion trend? Although I may have the financial ability to purchase all this stuff, is it ethical?
President Carter suggested that it isn’t. In a call for the restoration of values, he emphasised that “our nation must be fair to the poorest among us”. This included a system of aid to the poorest members of society.
We can liken this to the grants system in South Africa, without which hundreds of thousands of families in South Africa would probably starve.
But Mr Carter went further. He called for “conservation…in terms of sacrifice”.
Using the example of oil consumption, he said that “every gallon of oil each one of us saves is a new form of production. It gives us more freedom, more confidence, that much more control over our own lives.” This makes more sense now than ever before.
In the Western Cape we are experiencing a severe drought. By reducing our water consumption, we are giving ourselves a better chance of replenishing our dams during the rainy season so that we’ll have enough water for next summer.
By reducing the amount of stuff I buy and ultimately throw away, I am giving my children and grandchildren a better chance of living on a planet that has not been completely decimated by the pollution of the air, water and landfills. There is a direct correlation between my expenditure and the pillaging of the earth’s resources and the exploitation of the most vulnerable strata of our societies.
Think of it this way, every new cellphone or computer I buy contains a small trace of cobalt which has been mined in inhumane conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That new shirt or pairs of shoes I simply must have has been stitched in a sweatshop somewhere in China or India or Indonesia by people who barely earn enough to feed their families.
Our society’s extreme consumerism has not brought us more happiness. Instead, it has filled us with an even greater emptiness and dissatisfaction.
Nor has it contributed to the social and economic betterment of the millions of people who form the backbone of our consumer society.We need a different model that distributes wealth more equitably.
The heart of the Christian message
That is the heart of the Christian message. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-48), Jesus gives us a blueprint for how we are to live. In the beatitudes, he gives us the secret to true happiness.
By reminding us that we are the salt and light of the world, he gives us the key to finding meaning in our lives. The salt is our purpose. The qualities that we have been given only find their true goal when it is mingled with the food we prepare. The food we share.
There can be no meaning in my life if I live in the isolation of my jealously guarded material acquisitions. It is by sharing what I have received that my life takes on a greater meaning.
In this sharing, we become a light and a hope for others. When I share from my abundance, I allow someone else to dream that a better future is possible. That is very different from exploiting poverty and hopelessness so that I can obtain another cheap commodity.
Jesus challenges us even further. Before we can leave our gift at the altar, we must first be reconciled to our brothers and sisters. Notice the wording of the scripture: “if your brother or sister has something against you…” The demand for justice does not come from me. It comes from the other, the one I have wronged.
The beggar on the corner I dismissed with a gruff comment; the unknown woman who operates a sewing machine on the other side of the world for long hours for a pittance; the blind eye I turn to miners who are little more than slaves and whose wasted lives power my devices: these are the people I have wronged and who demand justice from me.
I might not personally be able to do anything to change their lives, but a sacrifice — no matter how small — of my personal comfort or lifestyle becomes the atonement I bring to the altar in repentance for the great injustice of social and economic inequality in our culture today.
We need to be reconciled to ourselves and to our brothers and sisters, and make small sacrifices so that we are not devoured by the spirit of unbridled consumption. We must adopt a posture of living with less so that others may have more.