the opiate of the masses

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I just began reading Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion (Carrette and King), an academic book that suggests that neoliberalism and its free market bent have co-opted spiritual symbols and rhetoric to increase profits.

I completely agree.

I worked for a company that really wanted me to drink the kool-aid. Though I worked terrible hours in a monotonous and physically demanding position, I was frequently asked why I wasn't happy. "Are you enjoying yourself?" "We can't read you very well." "You aren't happy enough to do customer service."

This policy of mandatory happiness was clearly supposed to distract me from the fact that I was working a dead end job with lousy hours that left me socially isolated. They wanted to convince me that they had everything I needed so that I would keep working and they could keep making money at my expense. I'd like to think it wasn't malicious, but it seems clear to me that executives employed a strategy of spiritualizing the workplace (in terms of community building, team values, and loyalty) with the specific intention of conning me into undervaluing myself. Anti-establishment as I am, I left after 5 months.

On the other side of the coin, advertisers are evolving their tactics to appeal to consumers' quests for meaning in an age increasingly devoid of meaning. Marketing has always been disturbing, but it's becoming more invasive. Everything is about branding, but not in terms of having a cute logo or a catchy slogan. Companies are trying to convince us that everything will be better if we buy into their brand. They promote new age religious practices alongside products. They convince us that what they're offering will help a cause, support a moral goal, or shed light on injustice.

Corporations want to convince us that our consumerist habits are the primary and best way to exercise our values.

But it's a lie! Changing the world, historically, has had very little to do with where we shopped or what brands we supported. I went to a talk given by the director of a local homeless resource center last night and I think he got to the heart of it. Being a catalyst for positive change in the world is, at its root, about seeing people, about acknowledging full humanity in ourselves and others. Then it's about becoming a partner in struggle with those we encounter. Buying a t-shirt can't do that. Wearing hippie clothes can't do that. Buying glasses can't do that.

I believe we have a responsibility to shop in ways that sustain and support people and planet. But we aren't consumers. We're human beings. Don't let the market dull your senses. Don't let the marketing blind you.

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3 comments

  1. I agree that our consumer habits cannot be the end-all be-all for how we help make the world a better place. However, I think it's completely valuable and effective as a method. Disadvantaged people around the world DO need fair jobs and economic opportunity, just like I do. It's an act of shared humanity to participate in a system that helps provide that. But I also agree that mindless consumerism is a dangerous habit—any purchase should be made with thought and consideration.

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  2. What I've gathered from the book so far is that there's concern that people will think that meaning is ultimately found in consumerism or the free market or being an efficient worker. Of course our consumer habits round out an ethical lifestyle, but I fear that increasingly we see ourselves in light of what we can offer through our spending. That becomes problematic because it tends to glorify the material efforts of people who have a lot of money and can afford to continue a decadent lifestyle, albeit in a more "ethical" manner. I just read a home design feature in In Style that lauded the efforts of a model turned actress to make her home completely sustainable. And that is great! But she's still obsessed with objects and that's still unsustainable.

    I think I'm at a point in this journey where I feel like nothing I do will be good enough, nothing I do will offer an adequate alternative. But I'm sure things will continue to march toward more mindful production practices. Hopefully it won't stop before it really gets there.

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  3. […] The Opiate of the Masses – Leah shares her thoughts on why ethical consumerism shouldn’t be the only way we express our values and concern for people and the planet. Very thought-provoking! (Style Wise) […]

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