Money and Materialism

How we secretly desire the things we profess not to need.

It’s not fashionable these days to be outwardly materialistic.

Over the last decade, we’ve been inundated with anti-materialist messages of inner worth. We’ve been told that living simply is living richly.

Marie Kondo swept the world with minimalism, CEOs wear jeans and tee shirts, and our eco-conscious generation is much more mindful of excess.

The practice of conspicuous consumption, which is when people spend lavishly on material goods to flaunt their wealth, is now backfiring.

“You bought a Lamborghini? Hmm, I guess you couldn’t find anything better to do with your money?”

Not sending the intended message…

But even if we’re satisfied by our humble apartments with their minimalist decor, and even if we lambaste the rich for their extravagances, and even if we profess to believe in the maxim that money can’t buy happiness…

We all wish our bank accounts would magically double.

Why is that? Why, in a world where money and material wealth are ostensibly meaning less do we still yearn to be rich?

I asked people how wealthy they would want to be in an ideal world, and I heard creative answers.

A lot of folks use the word “comfortable,” but then they describe a lifestyle that puts them firmly in the 1%. Multiple people I know have said “I want to be able to walk into a restaurant and order whatever I want without having to look at the price.” That may not sound like too much to ask, but when you consider when the last time you ever disregarded the price at a restaurant and how much money you would actually need to achieve that level of “comfort,” the amount of money becomes staggeringly high.

Money, as many people my age see it, is a ticket to freedom.

Money would free us from the tyranny of slaving away at jobs we dislike. It would enable us to escape the clutches of rentier capitalism and actually buy a home instead of lining our landlords’ pockets every month. It would allow us to travel to the exotic destinations we see on our Instagram feeds.

In essence, we have the trappings of a materialist culture in which most of the inhabitants wish they could transcend it, but they see money as the only means of doing so.

Perversely, this new lifestyle and its concomitant desires have themselves been commdified.

Take Muji, for example. Everyone loves Muji: they have such great quality clothes and furniture, and their minimalist aesthetic is simultaneously chic and quirky. They have almost no packaging or recognizable labels on their products, and the word Muji itself means “brandless.”

I hate to be the wet $49.99 Egyptian cotton monochromatic blanket here, but doesn’t anyone find it ironic how a company that advocates for brandlessness is now an iconic household brand name? Is it not oxymoronic to be buying more stuff in the name of minimalism? Is it not confusing that the “simple” items Muji sells are considerably more expensive than what you would get at Target?

Rather than embracing the true ethos of anti-materialism, corporations have figured out how to capitalize on our desires by, unsurprisingly, selling more stuff.

But we share the blame as individuals. We’ve been duped yet again by the companies that tell us anything in order to maximize profits, and rather than disavowing material wealth, we still fall prey to their siren call.

To be sure, there are still genuine hippies out there who walk the walk and spurn the materialism of modern society. In fact, they are often the very people who are held up as examples by advertisers — much the same way that Jack Kerouac got sponsored by Levi’s after he became famous for his rugged portrayal of simple living in the American West. Most of us, myself included, are like Jack, and I know that my principles have a price. I work in the tech for social good sector, but if Facebook offered me a fat paycheck to be their spokesman, I’d say yes if the price were high enough.

Nowhere is this faux counter-culture of professed anti-materialism more evident than at Burning Man. Ask any Burner you know who’s been there since the 90s and they’ll tell you that Burning Man ain’t what it used to be. It got invaded by Silicon Valleyians who go there because of what it signals, not because they actually care about communitarian ideals or living without money. This is reflected in the ticket price of Burning Man itself, which has gone up significantly over the years and is pricing out the hippies who made it what it was back when it began.

We can’t just shop at Muji or go to Burning Man and then slap on a label that declares “I’m anti-materialist!” Truly transcending materialism takes work — sustained, introspective work. I’ll be honest in admitting that I’m not even sure the work is worth doing. After all, it may in fact be easier to make a million dollars these days than to find inner peace, and to be frank, I like stuff! If given the choice between Egyptian cotton and thrifted threadbare sheets, I’d pick the former every time, and I suspect I’m not alone.

I don’t doubt that most of us will remain trapped in the materialistic lifestyle, but here’s my ask: let’s at least own up to it. Instead of masquerading as ascetic yogis while wearing $120 Lululemon leggings, let’s be real with ourselves and with each other. If we’re serious about doing the work and unpacking the materialism that’s been foisted upon us since birth, then that’s terrific; but to tacitly accept the commodification of our professed values while deluding ourselves into believing we’re transcending materialism is a costly lifestyle in more ways than one.

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