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September 22, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Desire and Consuption

I was talking to my neighbour on the weekend, about how lucky we really are in this country. He’s a development economist, with a hot wife (more on that later) and has spent much of his time and career observing real poverty. In a developed country such as New Zealand, every basic need is covered. Food, sanitation, sleep, clothing and shelter. We all have these. Well, Brother thinks the last two are optional… but once there’s a DVD player in every house, most material needs are pretty well covered.

We live without fear of serious threats to our material wellbeing, what more is there for us to want? Plenty, as should be obvious: sex, emotional fulfilment, and social acceptance. All of which are worthwhile. So it is only natural that the makers and sellers of products would seek to connect our needs for these things with the products they sell.

Our economic system would collapse without constant growth. Even the Great Depression was not a contraction of the world economy, but a slowing of the world growth rate to 1%. A drop in the mechanism of consumption sends great nations into recession. Which of New Zealand’s political parties even considers abandoning growth? We have to want more. It is our patriotic and economic duty.

Advertising is the fairytale of capitalism. Once people’s basic needs are looked after, there needs to be advertising for things to be sold. Advertising proceeds wherever capitalism goes, telling stories of better lives. When was the last time you saw something sold through the presentation of life in all its faults? Instead, the situations are idealised, and we are identified with those idealised people doing idealised things. If we consume more, we can come closer to achieving perfection, and fulfilling those deeper needs we have, like love.

This desire for what we do not yet have means that even when we have someone quite lovely beside us, we’re exhorted to want more. Even when we ourselves form the happiness of another, we’re told that we must do more to deserve their love (and by implication, to stop their heart and interest from straying). They say that sex sells. It isn’t sex we are being sold, but the promise of sex, a promise that advertising can never deliver on.

A better set of legs, a better car, better clothing. Most of us are almost constantly victims of desires. But it isn’t an unmediated set of things we are presented with and told are needs, but one that is optimised to create the most consumption. Some of us successfully resist the images we’re presented of ‘better people, made whole through the consumption of items.’ The rest will never be happy, because there is always something that we do not have.

Capitalism is the ultimate tease.

Cheating is about taking that idealised other. Lust, desire, raw sexual energy, directed at someone other than the person we’ve agreed to remain faithful to. Not accepting the one we have, who will always have his or her faults, and will never have the perfect breasts or personality. It’s the act of looking lustfully at others while you reluctantly make do with the one you’re with that is so awful about cheating. But this is precisely what advertising is about.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s hot young wife. Thou shall not have sex with her either. Sometimes cheating is worthwhile, and the benefits promised are real, and other times, there is less than promised. But there is always a cost to making good on this desire, and the same is true of taking the fruits offered by advertisers. Buying more than we strictly need means enslavement to work, debt, and a system where we spend most of our time doing things we rather wouldn’t. In the past they predicted that we would in the future only work a few hours a week, because our needs would be satisfied. We now recognise the stupidity of such predictions. Our ‘needs’ are unlimited.

However, there isn’t much that we can do about the manufacture of desire short of abolishing the capitalist system and replacing it with a system that does not require the production of needs. We have to consciously realise that real desire and sexuality are largely outside of the realm of commerce. It isn’t a life of privation, but one without the constant bombardment of unfulfilled desires.

“Can’t buy me love,” Lennon sang. And he was right. When was the last time you saw love, emotional fulfilment, wisdom, or acceptance advertised?

And this is where Marx (and others) went wrong. With his philosophy of action, and his belief in liberation through production, he seriously thought that if things were organised well enough, and there were enough material goods in the world, we’d essentially be happy. Don’t laugh at him though. There are capitalists who at this very moment believe essentially the same things. Go down to Lambton Quay, or turn on your television if you don’t believe me.

So what do we do? Work out what you need. And realise that other things aren’t necessarily things that you want, but desires that have been presented so many times they’re now imprinted on you as real. We need to be free of this endless desire for more and better things we are sold as a proxy for fulfilment, acceptance, love, sex, and psychological desires. Only then can we spend the rest of our time doing what is really important: engaging with our very human desires which can be fulfilled.

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