Descartes might say: ‘I buy, therefore I am’

THE JAKARTA POST – Opinion and Editorial – July 10, 2002

Have you watched the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? It is a successful game show that has now been shown in 51 countries, reaping regular audiences of up to 20 million, and shows how much we all desire to share in the capitalist dream. Soap operas showing the rich getting richer, like Dallas or Dynasty, lost their appeal by the 1990s; today many like to believe that wealth is within reach of all of us.

This is a similar dream shared by the networks of multilevel marketers selling the products of giant corporations — whose gatherings can often attract more than tens of thousands of hopefuls in a city like Jakarta or Surabaya.

It is the dream that drives and steers the belief that happiness — in terms of money, status and lifestyle — is within reach.

And, is it? Shouldn’t we question the result of global capitalism nowadays — a world where people’s economics and safety are primarily determined by the strategies and control of international financial investors and multinational corporations?

The dream to be able to easily reach wealth — just like on the quiz shows — seems to be utilized unaccountably. Most likely, it is the way businesses control and shape our lives.

Such a situation involves a psychological issue more than an economic one. The most cunning exploit of neo-liberalism is that it penetrates the way people evaluate things by implanting first the criteria of the “pleasure-prestige-status-luxury” principle in society through ads.

That is why the concern of customers shifts from not only clothes, perfumes, cars or electronics, but wearing GAP or Benetton or Arrow, spraying Calvin Klein or Armani, driving a Ferrari or BMW, and using a Nokia Communicator or an iPAQ cellular phone. This is not wrong, but the pursuit of such a principle is most often done to the detriment of others — in the form of environmental problems, culture disintegration, forced layoffs, etc.

A level of commercial culture has been introduced by globalization — whether we are in Jakarta, Paris, New York or even in the remote areas of Kalimantan. We notice the glittering, air-conditioned, interchangeable shopping malls and fast-food outlets. The youth identify themselves by drinking Coca-Cola or Pepsi, smoking Marlboro, wearing Nike, singing Britney Spears’ newest songs, watching Hollywood’s Spiderman and living the life of “global youth”: Freedom over everything else.

Obviously, this is part of the dream offered and maintained by the neo-liberals — by controlling the media and the way most journalists write and dictating that what is worth reporting is the most luxurious styles of life: Cars, clothes, holiday resorts, houses, mobile phones and brands, in contrast to the plight of the Shangri-La workers, labor unions, mass layoffs, Teluk Gong and Penjaringan evictions, etc., which take up unnecessary space in the papers.

At this point comes the direct link between mindless advertisements and consumerism. Yes, we are all entering (and have been inside) the age of culture and consumerism. Often it seems the whole issue of consumerism can be boiled down to a psychological issue: What is the most basic instinct of humans?

In fact, “advancement” is not the point. It is the self as the center of everything worth pursuing – prestige of self in the eyes of others. It is again neither right nor wrong. But it certainly becomes “wrong” when such a principle is pursued to the detriment of shared life, like what Margaret Thatcher once said, “There is no such a thing like society, there are only individuals.”

In short, the above line becomes “wrong” when it degenerates into a belief that shared life is only secondary to self. Here we may understand the duality and balance between agency and structure, between self and shared life/society. This also indicates that consumerism involves power. Indeed, it is not the existence of power that matters, but rather, the exercise of power in unaccountable hands.

Consumerism is manifested in the chronic purchasing of new goods and services, with little attention to their true need, durability, product origin or the environmental consequences of manufacture and disposal.

An intended consequence of this, promoted by those who profit from consumerism, is to accelerate the discarding of the old, either because of lack of durability or a change in fashion.

However, many always mistake the unintended for the intended. While some measure of such confusion is inevitable in human affairs –that is why there is an ethical tradition called “utilitarianism”—there is a serious danger of not being aware of its grave risks.

The working of the neo-liberal economic principle is entirely based on claiming that the unintended is no different from the intended. Hence the landfills filled with cheap discarded products that fail early and cannot be repaired. Products are made psychologically obsolete long before they actually wear out. A generation is growing up without knowing what quality goods are. Friendship, family ties and personal autonomy are only promoted as a vehicle for gift giving and the rationale for the selection of communication services and personal acquisition.

Even Jean Baudrillard, a postmodernist writer in 1988, says that the whole discourse on consumption is articulated on the mythical sequence of the fable: A man, “endowed” with needs which “direct” him toward objects that give him satisfaction. Since man is never really satisfied (for which by the way, he is reproached), the same history is repeated indefinitely.

There has also been, however, a particular stance on consumer society that the individual’s role in consumption is as a function of identity. The capitalist system is dependent upon the consumer to feed the mode of production, expansion of consumption through stimulation of desire for objects.

It seems that there would be almost no limit to the new and improved objects we desire, even spreading these needs beyond our own society.

The French philosopher Descartes once said “Cogito ergo sum”: I think, therefore I am. If he were here, he would have probably said a similar thing to describe the very nature of today’s society: “Emo ergo sum” – I buy, therefore I am.


  1. Monday, 9 April 2007 at 12:37 pm

    Good site!!!

  2. Tuesday, 10 April 2007 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks … 🙂

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