Thoughts on Affluenza

Yes, it’s me again. For today’s post I would like to share some exerpts from the book “Affluenza” by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. The book was published in 2005, and it’s focussed mainly on Australia, but its contents are scarily even more real today, nearly a decade later, and on a global scale, in first world countries.

Food for thought.

Af-flu-en-za n.1.The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the Australian dream. 3. An unsuitable addiction to economic growth.

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Some psychologists argue that our actions are driven by a desire for ‘self-completion’, the theory being that we seek to bring our actual self into accord with our ideal self, or who we wish to be. Today, almost all buying is to some degree an attempt to create or renew a concept of self. We complete ourselves symbolically by acquiring things that compensate for our perceived shortcomings.

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The problem is not that people own things: the problem is that things own people. It is not consuming but consumerism we criticise; not affluence but affluenza. The signs are easy to see in others – the subtle and not-so-subtle displays of wealth, the one-upmanship, the self-doubt – and most Australians acknowledge that our society is too materialistic and money driven. But is much harder to recognise and admit to the signs in ourselves because that can be confronting.

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There is a trend for manufacturers of luxury goods to make entry-level products in an effort to attract consumers other than the very rich. Gucci and Armani attach their name to sunglasses that are bought by people who cannot afford to buy clothes or accessories with such a prestigious label. This is sometimes referred yo as the ‘democratisation of luxury’: the people who buy the entry-level products feel they can emulate the image of the very rich.

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Sometimes advertisers try to make us laugh or make us think, but mostly they make us feel deprived, inadequate or anxious. It is axiomatic that they make us feel bad in a way that can be cured by possession of the product they advertise.

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The unspoken role of marketing is to keep consumers in the richest societies in human history feeling deprived. To be successful in the long term, advertising must sell not only products but also a very particular kind of world view – one where happiness can be bought, where problems can be solved by a product, and where having more things is the measure of success.

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Most people in consumer societies believe they need more money than they have, no matter how wealthy they are. Their actions suggest they are convinced that more money means more happiness. But when people reach the financial goals they have set for themselves they feel no happier. Instead of wondering if their yen for more money is the problem, they raise their threshold of sufficiency. This is a vicious cycle.

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The confusion between wants and needs is at the heart of affluenza. When people see wants as needs, it is not surprising that two-thirds say they cannot afford everything they need. And their feelings of deprivation are real, since thwarted desire is transformed into a sense of deprivation. Of course, the purpose of the advertising industry is to convert perceived wants into perceived needs.

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By some kind of financial alchemy, ‘saving’ has become what we do while we are spending. Bargain hunters can easily ‘save’ hundreds of dollars in the post-Christmas sales, but in order to save a great deal we need to max out our credit cards.

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Credit card debt, personal loans, car loans and store credit schemes are all growing rapidly – not to fund assets that will deliver benefits for years to come but to allow people to enjoy the ‘lifestyle’ they have been told they deserve.

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Not long ago, paying off the mortgage on the family home quickly was a common dream. A more recent dream appears to be to extend both the size of the mortgage and the period required to pay it off by borrowing against the home to fund a better ‘lifestyle’.

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Australians are increasingly prone to financial stupidity. People who are permanently in debt exist in a ‘money coma’ – a state of vagueness and confusion about their financial circumstances. One of the steps to recovery from uncontrolled debt is to be very clear about how much you owe and how you can manage your financial life without incurring more debts, yet retailers and consumer lenders work hard to undermine our resolve and confuse us about what taking on debts actually means.

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The upward spiral of desire, debt and consumption has fuelled massive growth in retail spending but appears to have delivered little benefit for national wellbeing.

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People afflicted by affluenza have an insatiable appetite for more things. Although our desire might have no bounds, our capacity to use things is limited: there is only so much we can eat, wear and watch, and a house has only so many rooms we can usefully occupy. The difference between what we buy and what we use is waste.

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Much of our consumption behaviour is designed to bridge the gap beyween our ideal selves and our actual selves. The advertisers work to persuade us that we can construct an ideal self out of the brands they promote.

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Of course, the marketing industry is devoted to persuading us to buy things we don’t need – and often to buy things we don’t want. But it is not just the marketing industry: it is the entire economic and political system that conspires to break down any resistance to buying. If we fail to keep spending, dire warnings are issued.

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Obsolescence is a feature of the consumer electronics industry…Slowly but surely, during the past few decades most Australians have moved from asking themselves “Do I really need a new one” to “Why should I make do with the current one?”

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…and that’s just from the first half of the book. I just hope some of these excerpts strike a chord in yourselves, and perhaps rally you towards making changes in your own lives towards the greater good. Isn’t it time we took charge of our own lives again, instead of letting our governments dictate how we should conduct ourselves?

And yes, there will probably a continuation of this vein of thought in a future post. You have been warned :).

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(Image Source: ABC News/Google. Yes, this is Australia’s biggest stocktake sale. Happening in every single mall in the country, oh say every other month and right after Christmas. Hurry, or you will miss out on buying stuff you don’t need and will never use the deal of the century that thingy that you just Have to have, you’ll know what it is when you see it).

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