Materialism that Undermines Capitalism

Postmodernism is of detriment to the resistance against capitalism in a number of ways, including: taking moral relativism to such absurd extremes that making any genuine critique becomes impossible, removing the possibility of social unity by pretending to reject consistent systems of thought, and a total inability to offer alternatives to the subject of its so-called critique. Here we shall discuss how postmodernism facilitates capitalism through ignorance of the value and meaning of objects. The appeal of postmodernist thought is encompassed in the following quotation:

 “Existing scientific research on the value of materialism yields clear and consistent findings. People who are highly focused on materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant.” – Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism

A reading of the above quotation could be perceived as proof that a materialistic lifestyle is always bad for people. Capitalism requires people to be materialistic for it to function. Cherishing a stereo, or a television, or a car, is all part of what capitalism wants; to love objects that are, as the postmodernist would argue, inherently meaningless. Capitalism forces us to be materialistic, forces us to have “lower personal well-being and psychological health”. Capitalism forces us to believe that flooding our lives with meaningless “stuff” will somehow bring us happiness. The answer to such a materialistic onslaught is to recognise that stuff is just stuff and objects are inherently meaningless.

By recognising that stuff is just stuff, the ultimate weapon of capitalism is disarmed, and we attain “higher psychological well-being” and happiness. A glaring problem with applying postmodern approaches to understanding capitalism is summed up by Christopher Lasch: ‘…the more intellectual purity identifies itself with “value-free” investigations, the more it empties itself of political content, the easier it is for public officials to tolerate it.’

Claiming that objects are inherently meaningless is wrong and ignorant. Within the realm of human experience, everything has meaning and value. Any claim of meaninglessness is a boring, puerile, and on the level of political resistance, dangerous, attempt to give some kind of coherent analysis of the world. One can play with abstract ideas of meaninglessness, imagining everyday objects and attempting to strip them down to reveal their true meaningless character. These thought experiments do not, as the postmodernist would argue, reveal an object in its raw, meaningless form. These thought experiments expose the meaning of the object, but exposing meaning does not in any way remove it.

The specific meaning of any object, though, is not permeant or inherent. Culture, history, language, and ideology, shape and change the meaning of an object. Despite this, meaning, so long as humans can experience, always remains. By ignoring meaning and, by extension, ignoring the relationship between objects and culture, postmodernism becomes, as religion was for Marx, “opium for the people”.

The oppressive effects of alienation felt by the members of a capitalist society become normative because everything is seen as meaningless anyway. When we pretend that objects are meaningless, once emotional attachment is removed, disregarding objects becomes natural, disposing of “stuff” becomes part of the process of “self-enlightenment”. At this point, capitalism flourishes.

Materialism

Why capitalism flourishes at the point of ignorance of meaning can be summed up, I think, with an anecdote. I used to have a pair of walking boots. After two, extremely privileged, years with them, I’d accumulated a mass of experience. Trapesing across jungles and deserts, walking along side new friends, hopping on freight trains, seeing the world; I had those boots strapped to my feet. The direct experience I had while wearing those boots was one thing, the personal development and emotional journey I had was another. Well, I experienced all that with the boots but I didn’t need the boots to remember it, right? They’d become haggard and torn, so, throw them away, get some more boots and start a new adventure. The boots are meaningless, they’re just objects, just bits of fabric, the experience is in my head and I don’t need the boots to remember it all. And that is how postmodernism facilitates capitalism. By denying the value and meaning of objects, by pretending that they are just “stuff”, we become consumers by disposing of meaningless stuff and buying some more. I actually tried to get the boots repaired but no shoe repair place was able to. The boots were designed to break and stay broken.

Such a facilitating of capitalism creates a second problem: a disconnection between the subject and the material. If all objects are meaningless, then we’re surrounded by meaningless stuff. Here is where postmodernism facilitates capitalism through normalising alienation. The only possible thing that we, as subjects, can connect with, is a mass of inherently and naturally meaningless stuff. What we perceive as the physical world becomes a grey void in which we have no control, we become atoms floating around with no direction or guide or hope. The mug on my table is just a piece of clay, it doesn’t mean anything. The clothes you’re wearing are just bits of cotton, they don’t really mean anything. All of our interactions with the world are meaningless and void of life. The boots on my feet were not, despite what the postmodernist might argue, meaningless. I gave them meaning through my lived experience, I had sentimental value attached to them, they are part of my memories; part of my meaningful existence. I didn’t wear some meaningless pieces of fabric, I wore the boots that cushioned my feet for thousands of miles; that meant something.

Unlike the postmodernist, who is completely incapable of doing so, I’m going to offer an alternative. Of course, one can probably predict the illusive and vague postmodernist retort to my suggestion. As always, postmodernist retorts are, as Kate Soper puts it:

“…the invitation to view history as littered with the victims of well-intentioned visions and utopian projects, and in the light of that to give ourselves over to a pragmatic acceptance of the loss of values—an acceptance, moreover, that we might as well feel as cheerful about as we can. For if utopias are never to be realized, is there any more harm to be done in accepting their loss than in lamenting it?”

The meaning of anything is socially constructed, and we are the social. Rather than ignoring meaning, we can and should take control of it. An example, to take us back to the quotation by Kasser, is the meaning of the word “materialistic”. As used by Kasser in his book, it is clearly of negative connotations: a person obsessed with new gadgets, new cars, and the latest fashion; a person who obsesses over the latest technological trend; we can see this person queuing outside the Apple store, waiting to upgrade to the latest extortionately expensive phone simply because it’s new. We don’t need to subscribe to this meaning of “materialistic” (partly because “consumeristic” would be more fitting). Being materialistic doesn’t necessarily need negative connotations. It could mean valuing objects for their sentimental value. A materialist can be a person who takes an object and fills it’s meaning with emotion, with sentiment, with stories, with value. A materialist can be a person who recognises that they are part of the social that created the meaning of objects, and therefore, has the power to change the meaning. Materialistic can mean not allowing capitalist hegemony to dominate the meaning of the material world in which we must live.

Cherishing objects, being materialistic, can, I think, undermine the negative effects of postmodernist capitalism by reuniting the subject with the material, by removing the desire for new objects as normative, and by exposing the meaning of the objects around us to remove the illusion that the world is inherently, and unchangeably, meaningless.