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  • Writer's pictureJoe Lightfoot

What Lies Beneath: The Hungry Ghosts Of Hollow Materialism

Artist Unknown

This is a slightly edited excerpt from A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community by Joe Lightfoot.


Behold the dominant narrative of the day. Hollow & Oppressive Economic Materialism (HOEM). 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.

  • Hollow in that it creates an endless longing for more that can never be fulfilled through its own means.

  • Oppressive in that it cares little for equity, justice or the rights of the downtrodden.

  • Economic because it’s firmly rooted in notions of who owns what.

  • 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, slowly subsuming 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 in a state of war.

Following the Enlightenment the HOEM narrative found fertile soil in a culture that had proclaimed God dead. It swiftly produced a series of patriarchal and systemically racist socio-economic systems that were forcefully promulgated around the world by colonial imperialism. It directly resulted 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.

In more recent times the HOEM narrative appears to have finally reached its apex, mutating into a form of 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's also stripped much of the joy out of many peoples lived experience of day to day life. And like all grand narratives it 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. We are led to believe that we will only feel truly complete once we 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 and 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. 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 animal kingdom and the rest of the natural world.

  • 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 have driven us further away from each other and towards the comfortable numbness of our increasingly isolated and digital worlds. And as the work of the theorist Theodor Adorno explores they are part of a narrative that is difficult to ever overthrow as they are 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 HOEM grow ever more brazen, where are they leading us? And 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?


Joe Lightfoot is a writer, podcaster and apprentice community weaver. He is the author of A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community and the host of The Lightfoot Podcast. You can sign up to his newsletter The Lightfoot Letter and find him on Facebook & Twitter.


2021 Joe Lightfoot

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