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Money can’t buy happiness - don’t let capitalism fool you

Writing by Tasha Stewart. Artwork by Kate Granholm.

In a metropolitan, modern world, pure and ethical catharsis feels very difficult to come by. Catharsis in the modern age is an act of supreme difficulty. Defined as the process of releasing, and thereby experiencing relief from strong or repressed emotions, finding it is worsened by the chains of consumerism as an innately capitalistic, superficial device. A device that falsely proclaims itself to be capable of providing liberation from societal burnout. Consumerism’s promise of relief and comfort through retail ‘therapy’ is inherently oxymoronic; the consumerist culture that has been forged in the post-industrial world is simply a tool of repression and subjugation that places us even further away from pure catharsis. Nevertheless, consumerism hypocritically proclaims itself to be capable of producing it.

The fast-paced, capital-driven consumer landscape of modern Britain, and that of the Western world, is leading to a drastic increase in rates of burnout and societal fatigue, with the dangerous forces of consumerism and over-working at the helm. In a study conducted in 2011 by Helga Dittmar and Pallavi Kapur, it was shown that a materialistic value orientation was linked to lower well-being. Although unsure of the factors that influenced this association, the author of the study developed a model in which endorsement of materialistic values was linked to spending habits motivated by identity projection and emotion regulation. These were then found to be linked to lower well-being and dysfunctional consumer behaviour. In testing these associations, in adults in India and the UK, the authors found that they were consistent with the model.

Over the years, the sophistication of advertising methods and strategies has been fuelled by a capitalist agenda, with a consumerist culture creating desire for goods where desire is simply non-existent. Worsening over the years by advancements in mass production and low-wage worker exploitation, a vicious cycle has been created: increased desire leads to faster production, which in itself feeds into the creation of desire for more, quickly and cheaply. Booming social media trends on apps such as TikTok further this; the term ‘microtrends’ was coined to describe the speed with which fashion and style rapidly changes, and how desire has been fuelled by a constant bombardment of media and content, intent on selling us things we do not even need. The acceleration of trend cycles has increased tenfold within the past few years; In decades past, clothing and goods were made to last, and advertised as such. These days, however, we are consistently supplied with the belief that more is better, and with the rise of fast fashion giants such as Shein and Fashion Nova, promoted by influencers on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, this is quickly becoming a reality.

The greatest lie that we have been fed by capitalist propaganda is that greater consumerism (read ‘retail therapy’, ‘treating yourself’, ‘self care’) has the ability to provide us with a sense of emotional release. In reality, these are creating emotional fatigue and a desire for release from repressed emotions. Consumerism in the modern age is drawing us further and further away from a true and pure catharsis, whilst forcing us to buy further into it as a means of temporary satisfaction.

Consumerism has come to be representative of a neoliberal capitalist agenda, with individualism at its helm. Implemented with rigour in the late 1970s by Margaret Thatcher and her band of drivelling yes-men, neoliberalism has become the language of politics in the 21st century, and the yardstick by which all political achievement is measured. Neoliberalism, whilst obviously concerned with laissez-faire fiscal policy and the free market, is at its core a praxis of cruel individualism and introspective, obdurate society. Consumerism and commercialisation, therefore, can be well understood as both products of, and tools used by, a neoliberal consensus that has been driven, at its helm, by inward looking egotism and an unwillingness to care for others.

The effects of consumerist culture are inherently damaging our ability to achieve catharsis in a way that is completely unsustainable. Retail therapy has been put in overdrive in the past 20 years, and the culture we find ourselves in is entirely unsustainable in its goals. The effects of mass production have been examined time and time again, and reveal astonishingly harmful effects on the world’s climate, yet their effects on mental and personal sustainability also cannot be overstated. Consumerism in and of itself prevents us from reaching a state of catharsis and emotional release, leading to burnout and general discontentment, whilst furthering the claim that more is better and consumerism can be the answer to all our problems. Consumerism finds its grounding as a peaceful alternative to tribalism and war, with which affluent societies can engage, yet it merely perpetuates harmful behaviours, and fuels greater class divisions. Our society cannot continue to maintain this attitude towards such individualistic consumption, that self-identifies as a method of catharsis.

Of course, no one is saying that to buy a jumper, or a new toaster, or to treat yourself to a spa day is some kind of heinous crime, yet it is undeniable that our daily lives have become filled with the need to consume and absorb more, in a manner that has become exceedingly harmful. Consumerist culture provides a distraction from the achievement of true catharsis; it temporarily fills a gaping wound that a capitalist economic environment inflicts with fleeting, and unremarkable, betterment - think putting a plaster on a broken leg. Our current indulgence prevents us from looking further, beyond the bounds of commerce and towards a future of radical change, away from a culture that cannot provide us with real satisfaction and genuine, long-lasting contentment. A weapon of the capitalist elite and fuelled by ever-evolving, sophisticated marketing strategies, consumerism and commercialisation stands in direct opposition to the goals of pure catharsis, and disallows the downtrodden masses from attempting to achieve radical change.

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