6. What Lies Beneath: The Hungry Ghosts Of Hollow Materialism
While there are a vast range of competing narratives currently playing out across human society, it appears to me that the most pervasive and influential of them all is a kind of Hollow & Oppressive Economic Materialism (HOEM). It’s an ideology that exults the accumulation of material wealth above all other pursuits, and ascribes status to people based on what they own, rather than the quality of their actions and character. It’s Hollow in that it creates an endless longing for more that can never be fulfilled through its own means. It’s oppressive in that it cares little for equity, justice or the rights of the downtrodden. It’s Economic because it’s firmly rooted in notions of who owns what. And it’s Materialistic, in that it places little worth on anything that cannot be physically grasped by acquisitive hands.
Since we first started building civilisations the HOEM narrative has been seeping ever more deeply into our collective cultural code. Over the last two thousand years it has come to wholly subsume the intricate egalitarian ethic we spent millennia cultivating together as hunter gatherers, replacing it instead with a series of interlinking dominator hierarchies that leave us constantly pitted against one another and always at war. The HOEM narrative thrived in the wake of the Enlightenment, finding fertile soil in a culture that had proclaimed God dead, where scientific rationality and mass industrialisation were on the ascendent. It then produced a series of patriarchal and systemically racist socio-economic systems that were forcefully promulgated around the world by colonial imperialism, resulting in the emergence of an ecologically and socially corrosive global plutocracy which continues to profit from the subjugation of countless oppressed peoples to this very day. As the author John Perkins spells out, it’s a paradigm driven forward ‘by a concept that has become accepted as gospel: the idea that all economic growth benefits humankind and that the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits. This belief also has a corollary: that those people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded, while those born at the fringes are available for exploitation.’ 21
In more recent times the HOEM narrative appears to have finally reached its apex, manifesting in the form of a rampant global consumerism that effortlessly transcends national borders and quickly co-opts any culture it encounters. As early as the 1970’s the economist Tibor Schitovsky labelled such a paradigm the Joyless Economy, as while it has resulted in many people experiencing higher standards of material comfort, it has stripped much of the joy out of many peoples lived experience of day to day life. In a tragic twist of irony this pervasive misery even encompasses those who appear to benefit most from the status quo, with recent research showing that higher income levels don’t equate to higher life satisfaction and that the more materialistic individuals amongst us tend to experience lower levels of well-being.22
Like all grand narratives, HOEM comes complete with its very own set of underlying beliefs, which tend to run on endless repeat in the recesses of the modern mind. They include ideas that we must:
Accumulate More - Be it a bigger house, a newer car, a better phone. We are programmed to believe that we never have enough and are entitled to more no matter the cost.
Become More Attractive - The media, entertainment and advertising industries are constantly reinforcing the idea that we are not ok the way we are, and that we must become more attractive in order to feel whole.
Achieve At All Costs - You are not worthy of being loved and respected until you achieve widespread notoriety. You will only feel truly complete once you become famous and rich.
Operating along side these beliefs are a series of assumptions that the majority of us in modern society seem to be culturally indoctrinated with as children. They include the ideas that:
It’s A Jungle Out There - Life is a thankless battle for limited resources, there isn’t enough food, love or attention to satisfy everyones basic needs.
Look Out For Number One - Selfishness is rational, and rationality is everything, therefore selfishness is everything.23 As such it always makes sense to put our individual desires before the collective wellbeing.
Do Not Trust The Other - People who look, sound or act differently to the ‘cultural mainstream’ should be feared, treated with suspicion and never be allowed to gain too much power.
Humans Are Inherently Separate From Nature - Thus we are entitled to complete dominion over the rest of the natural world, and that the animal kingdom exists to be exploited however we wish.
Death Is Taboo - It should be feared and hidden away. It is best not thought about, let alone celebrated as part of the mystery of existence.
Over time this collection of beliefs and assumptions has driven us further away from each other and towards the comfortable numbness of our increasingly isolated and digital worlds. These ideas act as self replicating mind viruses that further perpetuate themselves by compelling us to try and fill the emotional black holes they create within us with even greater levels of material security and success. And as the work of the theorist Theodor Adorno explores, they are a part of a narrative that is difficult to ever overthrow, as it is continually reenforced by a cultural industry and entertainment machine that keeps us distracted, pliant and intimidated, whilst simultaneously draining our will to alter the status quo.
So if the hungry ghosts of Hollow Oppressive Economic Materialism grow ever more prevalent by the day, where are they leading us? What kind of future lies in store for a society helplessly addicted to a never ever ending buffet of technologically fuelled consumption? What strange dystopia might we be in the process of birthing?