A Buddhist inspired critique of Conspicuous Consumption

I hope this actually makes sense – I think I may have overcooked it! May add in a few examples to illustrate what I actually mean laters.

The purpose of this blog post is to outline a Buddhist inspired critique of ‘conspicuous consumption’ – which I define as ‘the act of picking, choosing and purchasing products and services with the intention of other people noticing either the products or the effects of the services purchased’.

As I see it – Conspicuous consumption directly contradicts many Buddhist values, seems to go against every aspect of the Buddha’s noble eightfold path, and encourages a number of negative human emotions. For example, because it is inherently linked to the process of ‘self-expression’ it promotes, in the literal sense of the word, self-ish-ness, it is a practice rooted in ignorance (of the truth of no-I) that essentially involves lying in public about the true nature of self by parading around one’s carefully ‘constructed self’. It also involves attaching oneself to objects, making one’s continued happiness dependent on the continued consumption of these objects, thus promoting a condition of radical unfreedom, while at the same time encouraging us to define the very concept of ‘freedom’ as the ‘freedom to pick and choose objects with which to construct my identity’ rather than seeing freedom as being about seeking ‘release from the necessity of being attached to particular objects which I deem to be significant’. Furthermore, the imperative to ‘identify through consumption’ requires money – and thus conspicuous consumption can, in some cases, encourage individuals to seek a livelihood primarily for its monetary reward rather than its social usefulness. Finally, this ritual demands that others pay attention to the ‘social self’ I am expressing’ – thus entangling others into a web of constant distraction in which we are all expected to pay close attention to the microscopic detail of numerous social selves, rather than simply focusing on ‘what we are actually doing’ – which ultimately works against the Buddhist goal of meditative practice in daily life.

The rest of this post analyses how conspicuous consumption goes against many Buddhist values –

The first problem with conspicuous consumption is that it works to prevent the individual from quietly sitting down and realizing the ‘true nature of self’, which (and to the non-Buddhist this will sound paradoxical) is that there is no inherent, distinct, isolated ‘self’. Conspicuous consumption is the antithesis of this simple, albeit hard to realise truth, as it is a self-expressive act which involves ‘me’ investing time and money in picking and choosing products and services that ‘I’ like in order to consciously construct a ‘social- identity’ – an identity that, ultimately, has no essential nature outside of the effort that I put into constructing it.

Conspicuous Consumption is thus, quite literally, an act which promotes ‘self-ish-ness’ – in the sense that ‘I’ start with the assumption that not only do ‘I’ exist, but that ‘I’ am significant enough to warrant other people’s attention when ‘I’ express myself through the products and services ‘I’ consume –  ‘I’ then return the favour of other people’s attention by noticing and commenting on their consumption habits, the end result being that our ‘society’ consists of people mutually engaged in the reflexive construction and expression of fictitious selves.

A preferred alternative to this farcical world of mutually reinforced ignorance would be a society in which we really do (and, again, somewhat paradoxically) act as individuals and quietly reflect on the ‘truth of non-self’ – which involves the gradual, and difficult to accept realisation that ‘I’ don’t actually exist as an independent identity at all, but rather, at root, ‘I’ am just one with everything else, and, in the grand scheme of things, am simply not that significant.  

The second problem with conspicuous consumption is that it encourages us to seek happiness through attachment, rather than peace of mind through freedom.

The fundamental logic of conspicuous consumption involves linking together a selection of things, and then linking these things to ‘my idea of myself’ – and then consuming this selection of things in a public space, thereby constructing a ‘social identity’. The problem here is that my social identity is dependent upon things outside of myself – it is thus contingent and fragile – and open to the possibility of being destroyed unless I can maintain the continued consumption of those things which ‘I’ deam to be significant. This notion of ‘self identity through conspicuous consumption’ is characterised by a profound sense of unfreedom –because it locks ‘me’ into a cycle of continuous consumption in order to maintain myself. Put another way, identity construction through conspicuous consumption is identity consumption through attachment, which stands in contrasts to the Buddhist notion of seeking happiness through non attachment.

To make matters worse, we fail to see that this ritual of consumption is characterised by ‘unfreedom’ because, in our collective ignorance, we have come to define ‘freedom’ as the ‘freedom to pick and choose a selection of objects in process of identity construction’ – rather than defining freedom as ‘freedom from contingent identity construction through conspicuous consumption’.

A third and, for now final, problem with conspicuous consumption is that it demands attention from others and thus distracts us from the mundanities of daily life.

Think about it – there is an assumption behind the act of conspicuous consumption that other people should pay attention to ‘my social self’ – which in turn means their making the effort to understand the subtle meanings that I give to the products and services which I consume.  

It is usually expected, for example, that people at least acknowledge new items of clothing, or a new haircut, or that ‘I’ve been on another holiday’ – and the closer my relationship to another person – the more attention they are expected to pay to my consumption choices.

The assumption that the fictitious self I have constructed is important enough to warrant input from other people really is the height of selfish arrogance – not only do I distract myself with consideration of how ‘I’ appear to others, but I also expect others to recognise and thereby assist in the perpetuation of this fictitious and insubstantial self-identity. Ultimately, this works to distract the attention of others away from ‘whatever they may be doing’ – away from the calm, meditative practices of daily life that are crucial to developing the kind of sustained concentration necessary for realising true peace of mind.

Of course the conspicuous consumption does not make it impossible for individuals to lead a Buddhist inspired lifestyle in some respects, but its very logic is so antithetical to Buddhist Ontology and the potential to discourage Buddhist ethical practice so huge, that if anyone wants to achieve real happiness, rooted in truth, it is probably best to avoid it altogether.

So to conclude, if you want to develop lasting, stable happiness, or more accurately peace of mind, that is non-contingent, and based on the ‘truth of self’, and if you wish to contribute to the construction of a society which allows others the freedom to do likewise, then don’t waste your time on constructing a fake and insubstantial social identity through conspicuous consumption.

So what – you may ask – is the alternative? Well, for a start, you could just sit there!

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