Ups and downs of capitalism: Americans should consume cautiously

Story by Corey Oldenhuis| Seeds Entertainment
Photo from Google Images

When Mick Jagger sarcastically sang, “But he can’t be a man, because doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me,” in 1965’s chart-topping hit “Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” it so accurately summed up the sentiment of rampant consumerism and the covetous nature of capitalism. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ has indeed always been an important pillar of the Western economic system. It works so well because it preys upon people’s desire to fit in and be normal. If you lack [insert product placement here], then you aren’t up to speed, you aren’t relevant, and maybe you aren’t even normal—don’t you want to be normal? These days, however, in an extremely clever response to observed trends, big conglomerates and small companies alike are cashing in on a ‘stand apart from the Joneses’ approach.

A significant portion of the younger generations today, including myself, have begun to recognize the futility and shallowness of the ‘keep up’ mentality, and are embracing differences rather than living in fear of them. We are, as a collective culture, beginning to seek out the things that will make us unique as opposed to the things that will ensure our conformity. One can easily cite hipsterism and the growing popularity of indie music and provocative indie movies, etc. as evidence for a growing appreciation of ‘different’ in our culture. While I’m quite proud of this evolution—which wouldn’t have been possible without the groundbreaking, probably LSD-laden revelations of our hippie predecessors—I also realize that there exists one major weakness in this shift of consciousness, and it’s already being exploited by the system.

The free market has sensed our change in thought from ‘keep up’ to ‘stand out,’ and with much success is now capitalizing on our desire to be ‘free’ and ‘unique’ by convincing us we need products in order to be those very things. Essentially, individuality in the 21st century is slowly but surely becoming more predicated on what one owns, not what one outwardly thinks or does.

One of my favorite cinematic speeches, Robin Williams’s monologue in “The Dead Poet’s Society,” is currently being abused by Apple in their iPad commercials. The entire spirit of that moving monologue is its emphasis on the beauty of outward expression and individual flames of passion that burn within us, which is why I find it ironic and sad that a powerful corporation is twisting it so that the implication is “an iPad will set you free,” or “an iPad is necessary for full individualistic expression and experience.” Most likely, the executive who envisioned the commercial saw it as harmless and inspirational, but no matter how positive the intention, ads like those still end up sending the same loaded message: without this tool, you can’t truly be a trailblazer. Apple and other high-tech companies tend to implement this ‘stand apart’ marketing approach more than other field, but it is not restricted to any specific type of market and as any television watching or billboard gazing will prove, it is actually quite pervasive.

Another technique that the system uses unfairly on consumers is the concept of choice. I absolutely love having choices in what I can buy, and this is undoubtedly the greatness of America. In no way am I insinuating that choices in the market are a bad thing, nor am I an advocate for socialism, communism, or whatever other ‘-isms’ are out there. That being said, moderation is key in dealing with a good thing. Growing up around flooded markets can water the seeds of indecisiveness; too much choice seems to necessitate exploration: “I do really like this, but wow! I haven’t had that yet, nor that, nor that over there, nor that, so how can I make the best decision without trying them all?”

Left with a gross amount of trivial choices (i.e. what candy bar to get) which in a grand scheme of things  don’t matter at all, humans tend to become more indulgent. When we indulge, the market is elated; the best consumer is one with no self-control. Campaigns always tell us to satisfy our cravings and fulfill our desires, but the encouragement of cravings doesn’t make you a master over them, and selfish desires are insidious.

So, again, I am not preaching the overthrow of capitalism (because quite frankly I cannot present at the moment a better form of government or economics to substitute) but I, a man who loves his country, am merely preaching caution.
We might think that we are ‘free’ and ‘unique,’ and that the free market even tells us so, but we must remember that it’s only telling us this to make us buy its products. To the system, we are nothing more than consumers. It’s dangerous to think that freedom, creativity, uniqueness, and all other abstract concepts can be achieved via material objects. In truth, those beautiful, wonderfully human qualities can only come from within us.

No amount or quality of possessions can prove that you are an individual. If everyone wants to stand out, and they all buy a certain product thinking that it’ll help them do so, has anyone really stood out? Mavericks should use the free market to their advantage—indeed, that’s what it was established for—and not let the free market manipulate them.

The purpose in writing this is to warn that, while capitalism certainly works, it can also psychologically fuck with people to the same degree that communist propaganda can. We as Americans have an obligation to stay vigilant against a heartless system that exploits our human hearts in order to sell, sell, sell.

Capitalism, if used properly in a delicate balance, can be a fantastic thing. But it’s up to us to make sure the things we own don’t own us. We ought to be true mavericks, defining ourselves by what comes out of us, not into or around us. We must tighten the reins of our beloved Capitalism, and always remember the quote from Goethe: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely think they are free.”