For a Materialistic Society

I am for materialism. Let’s be comfortable. Let’s get more stuff. Let’s focus on acquisition. Searching for meaning in life? It’s about a better sofa and a bigger flat screen.

When I see one of those bumper stickers on a Prius that says, “Live simply so that others may simply live,” I drive very, very carefully. The last thing I want to do is have a fender bender with this person and have to meet and talk with her.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but what prompted me to write about it now was Thomas B. Edsall’s regular Wednesday oped in the New York Times this week. Edsall explored a question I often write about: Why do people vote against their own economic self-interest?

Blue collar voters would be much better off with the economic policies of Democrats and yet they’ve abandoned them for the other guys. Why? Because the GOP connects with them on social and cultural issues while the Democrats repulse them.

That’s it in a nutshell, but Edsall, as is his way, pulls that apart (“unpacks” it for those of you who are NPR listeners) in excruciating detail. His method is to quote academic researchers at length. That’s unfortunate because academics write like shit. His stuff would be so much better if he’d just summarize the researchers’ findings, but in any event it’s good stuff if you can wade through it, which I will do for you now.

Edsall references a piece written by a Cambridge PhD candidate named Rob Henderson, whose writing is pithy because he wrote it not for an academic journal, but for the New York Post back in 2019. The essay is entitled “Luxury Beliefs are Latest Status Symbol for Rich Americans.” Here’s the gist of it:

White privilege is the luxury belief that took me the longest to understand, because I grew up around poor whites. Often members of the upper-class claim that racial disparities stem from inherent advantages held by whites. Yet Asian Americans are more educated, have higher earnings and live longer than whites. Affluent whites are the most enthusiastic about the idea of white privilege, yet they are the least likely to incur any costs for promoting that belief. Rather, they raise their social standing by talking about their privilege.

In other words, upper-class whites gain status by talking about their high status. When laws are enacted to combat white privilege, it won’t be the privileged whites who are harmed. Poor whites will bear the brunt.

(I added the emphasis.)

Henderson and other academics quoted, less effectively, by Edsall made the point that, because the affluent have become very affluent they all essentially have all the stuff they want. So if there isn’t much difference between your BMW and your friend’s Lexus, how do you show your superiority?

The answer is a sort of self-flagelating moral olympics. You point out all of your “white privileges” and you discount any hard work that might have earned you what you have. (Of course, you don’t really mean that. You’re damn proud of your effort. That’s not the point. The point is to display your sensitivity to social injustice and to demonstrate your disdain for material things in a way that doesn’t require you to give up any of them that you really care about.)

There’s a fundamental dishonesty and snobbishness about this that blue collar voters can feel. ‘Yeah, you can disregard material things because you’ve got all the ones you want.’ And that’s why they react so viscerally against liberal Democrats. Trump embodies for them their disdain for these people.

We would be better off if we moved away from this emphasis on moral, cultural and social issues and focussed back on tangible things. Go to work. Earn some money. Buy a house. Fix it up. Get a car. Get a nicer car. Go on vacation. Buy a boat. Buy a nicer boat. Earn a comfortable retirement. Then you die. A life well-lived. You died of consumption and that’s just fine.

Of course, for many of us it’s not enough. And that’s fine too. My point is that we shouldn’t expect our politics or our political. social and economic systems to deliver meaning. Finding a purpose is an individual responsibility. I don’t know. Go to church or go to yoga or read or meditate or take drugs. Whatever you need to do to find meaning, go ahead and do it as long as it involves consenting adults and no animals are harmed.

The political problem in relying on government or the broader society to provide meaning for your life — beyond that it will surely lead to disappointment — is that it makes every issue existential. When everything is about fundamental values, compromise becomes much more difficult, if not impossible. But when the issues are primarily just about the distribution of resources in society, well, compromise is still hard, but it’s more achievable. You can, literally, take half a loaf.

At its most threatening, making government about meaning leads to fascism. Fascism offers a broader purpose for individual lives. It’s about blood and soil. I can’t think of a better argument against looking to government for meaning.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

8 thoughts on “For a Materialistic Society

  1. Been following Rob Henderson for a year or 2 on the twitter. Good guy. Makes me think the country needs a chief psychologist.

    “Why do people vote against their own economic self-interest?” They don’t.

    The question assumes that we all have access to perfect data and we all agree on it’s meaning. Those conditions don’t exist. There’s no consideration of short term v long term either.

    Some people are better at seeing the future (Michael Burry is a good example) but are ignored or laughed at. In the end there’s no sure thing. It’s egotistical and dangerous to think you absolutely know what is best for other people.

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  2. Yes, finding meaning is an individual business. But I think it’s silly to insist on it as an isolated one. Community is what everybody wants, and that government cannot directly provide. But meaningful collective action is certainly something that politics offers, and supporting or undermining its ability to create community is something that government, tutored by or hostile democratic politics, does all the time.

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  3. “When laws are enacted to combat white privilege, it won’t be the privileged whites who are harmed. Poor whites will bear the brunt.”

    It depends which laws you’re talking about. Some like more liberal immigration policies or the radioactive “defunding the police” probably would hurt poor white more than rich ones. Taxing corporations and billionaires at fairer rates to fund social services or welfare programs would not hurt poor whites. It would help them.

    As for the broader point about materialism, twenty years ago I may have agreed with that argument, but stoking rampant consumption is exactly why the US is nation most responsible for CO2 emissions and climate change. (And more taxes on the wealthy would dampen gratuitous consumption)

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  4. The down side of materialism, in modern life, is that the pursuit of it continues to have so many negative byproducts that the consumer ignores. Slavery, existence-threatening pollution, torture, subjugation…

    So sure, materialism is fine with me, but only so long as rights are upheld. And I believe that rights don’t have borders, and that humans, animals, and nature have rights. Thus we’re a long long way from materialism being ok in my book.

    I too hate the term white privilege because of the way affluent whites use it. The concept makes sense in the context in which it was originally developed, but now people just walk around saying how privileged they are and my I wish it wasn’t this way but it is and I guess everyone sees my blonde hair and automatically thinks I’m just so beautiful….

    I totally agree about your warning about looking to government for meaning. I wish we didn’t brainwash our youth to pledge allegiance and believe mythical origin stories about our country with the aim of building up their emotional attachment and self-identity towards patriotism.

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  5. Hi Dave. In what ways do Democrats’ policies help blue-collar workers’ economic interests? In what ways do they harm them? Compare and contrast if you would. I ask because your description might have held some water back in the 60s or so, but in the 2020 not so much. Democrats seem hell bent on giving other peoples money away and telling everyone what they should be doing – ie legislating morality.

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    1. Michael, I assume you’re a third party voter? As if Republicans aren’t all-in on legislating morality…

      This idea of “other people’s money” also extends well past what you seem to be highlighting. All money ultimately comes from labor. Money derived from ownership is also “other people’s money”. I urge everyone concerned with the morality of taking “other people’s money” to divest from your investment portfolio and focus on making all your money from your own labor.

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      1. Rollie, as we’ve exchanged ideas in the past, I will get to the point. Your idea of labor as the sole source of money is quaint.

        I am trans-partisan. No party represents the commonwealth.

        Dave, your examples of benefit are rather tepid. Most blue collar workers earn more than, sometimes substantially more than, the minimum wage, so limited if any benefit there. Obamacare benefited Big Pharma far more than the average person. There are no protections against rapacious behavior, something Big Pharma is exceedingly skilled at. Road building is done by both parties, so no Democratic benefit there. On the negative side, once Clinton came into office, the Democrats erased any beneficial differential and actively sided with the monstrosities of trans-national corporatism. The Democratic Party never looked back.

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