Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Status and consumerism

There are lots of drivers that determine human behaviour. Once you get past the "biological necessities" of food, shelter and safety there are a number of needs that are somewhere between the biological and the psychological. One of these is the need for status.

Everyone wants status -- status determines how others view us and that impacts everything from friendships to procreation, power, wealth and authority.

Status, class, psychology and consumerism

I have just finished reading the book Stuffocation, which discusses the problem of people having too much stuff in their lives, and says that we are in the midst of a transition from materialism to experiencialism (instead of material objects being valued and conferring status, experiences will). The author thinks that is a good thing because it will lead to less consumerism and be less taxing on the natural world (the reasoning here seems very confused to me, but I'll get to that another time)

This reminds me of another book I read a few years ago, Watching the English, which is an anthropological study of the English. I'm Australian, but think it's fairly applicable throughout the English-speaking world. One of the memorable anecdotes in the book was the way that middle-class English people are extremely sensitive to the status-implications of the things they own. Fish knives were the example, and showed the way that people could be persuaded to buy useless things as an expression of status. It was also interesting that upper-class people were generally highly disdainful of such possessions -- the status of upper-class people is beyond question, so they don't need the sorts of status-symbols that middle-class people need. (this is an important observation)

I think that a lot of stress and worry comes from concerns about status -- however, it is not just direct. A big part of it comes from the financial pressure that people put themselves under when they strive for high-status houses, cars, clothes, hobbies, etc.

The compromises that status demands

Because material status is inherently superficial it encourages unsustainable personal finances, and short-term thinking. Two related thoughts spring to mind here:
  1. Most new-built houses are poorly designed and constructed, but look grand. There might be large pillars at the front (they are usually hollow!) or slate-fronting on the house (though it is just a veneer). The houses are poorly made to save money (eg. many lack eves that help keep them cool in summer) and make design choices based-on aesthetics rather than utility (eg. black roofs). This allows the builders to focus on the status perception of the building rather than its longevity, sustainability or utility.
  2. Many people spend their money to appear high-status (at least in the short term), and don't put their money into long term returns. I believe that this largely explains why Australians have so much personal debt, despite 10 years of a booming economy. The mining boom is now behind us, and we have nothing to show for it (except more debt).
But status has always been important -- why is this a new problem? As discussed in Stuffocation, the rise of consumerism was managed by the marketers who use the very powerful psychological tools of status-envy and status-anxiety to sell us things. The pathological behaviours that we see in people's short-termism, status-driven building and debt accumulation are (I believe) a direct consequence of the manipulation of status psychology by marketing and advertising departments.

The behaviours that result, I call pathological, because they are detrimental. Clearly, a person who is focused on keeping up with the Joneses will be less focused on their future well-being. Having lower levels of debt is clearly good, as is having more assets. Any money that is spent chasing status-symbols is money that is not spent doing something useful like reducing debt or making investments.

I am not saying that you should accumulate a huge pile of gold and sit on it, just for fun. If you can reduce your debt and become financially secure, it takes pressure off you at work. I know people who are very unhappy in their work but are compelled to stay there because of their debt. They are yoked to their work by their debt -- it is like voluntary serfdom!

Therefore, if you want personal freedom, if you want to be able to say "no" to your boss, if you want to do what you want with your life you need to worry less about status, spend less money, and live a more frugal life.

Does it work?

A personal anecdote: my family and I moved back to Adelaide 3 years ago and bought a house here. We could have bought a much more expensive house than what we did, but we didn't want too large a mortgage.
  • Our (single) car is 10 years old (if I was buying a car now, I'd buy one older and cheaper than that), 
  • we regularly shop in op shops and collect things from the side of the road. 
  • I've bought one mobile phone in all my adult life (the rest were hand-me-downs) and have always found the cheapest plans 
  • we cycle lots (on old but good bikes) and use public transport
  • unless the situation demands good clothes, I am quite happy to wear old and worn clothes
I am quite proud of our successes in this area (eg. we have found some great stuff on the side of the road), though it is interesting to see the reactions of other people of similar income to us. Generally, people are supportive and appreciate saving money, but I think that many people would feel inhibited from replicating our behaviour.
I've been called "tight" before -- though I don't think that describes it. It would be more accurate to say that I have different spending priorities. (I should say here that, though we are frugal, we are not that frugal. I know people who are much more frugal than we are.)

Our frugality has had marvelous consequences for our personal finances: if my wife and I were both without income for a year, it would not matter. You can benefit in the same way, if you choose.

A Vision

Imagine a 19th-century or early-20th-century member of the landed gentry in the UK countryside. They often wore plain but good quality clothes (such as tweed) and cared little what peasants thought of them. While a lot of those people were scumbags, we can learn something from them: I think that a lack of concern for the opinions that others have for one's status (as did the landed gentry, as to the upper-classes today) and a disdain for conspicuous consumption ("crass", "naff") could provide a path for people to reduce their levels of consumption and increase their personal wealth and security.


  1. Hi, Angus!

    Among most people I know, having an "experience" means using even more resources than if they had merely bought something (though that is tricky to figure). And a worthy "experience" usually costs them quite a bit of money. It's not like it's a walk in the park . . . But maybe it evens out to a zero sum - still not a good outcome if the status quo stays as it is now (which, I guess, is an impossibility long term).

    I have heard of "Watching the English", but have never read it. It sounds spot-on.

    Manipulation of status psychology - sounds like good old thaumaturgy at work again!

    I like your recommendation in the last paragraph: "I think that a lack of concern for the opinions that others have for one's status . . . could provide a path for people to reduce their levels of consumption and increase their personal wealth and security".


  2. Hi Pam,

    I agree, and that's my biggest problem with Stuffocation (the book). It has no evidence to support its fundamental premise (that experiencialism will cause a decrease in consumption and thus be better for the environment). I doubt that this is the case and think that the only people who are embracing experiencialism are those whose material needs are already vastly exceeded.

    In other words, it will be experiencialism _as_well_as_ (not instead of) materialism.

    Also your point is very valid -- that experiencialism can have high costs of its own which may well exceed materialism.

    Despite these criticisms, I think there a a lot of good points in the book, and that it's very worth reading. It's a thought-provoking book and has many anecdotes from people who have embraced a simpler life (it is very clear that experiencialism does not necessarily equate to a weekend heli-gliding at Mt Kilimanjaro and can be achieved in less intensive (and harder to compare) ways)

    Cheers, Angus

  3. Agreed that emphasis on experiences rather than material goods isn't necessarily a plus for the environment. I know someone who constantly brags about getting rid of possessions and the marvels of "living lightly". Yet, she flies all over for tours and retreats and workshops and classes, to places like Peru and France, and she clocks tens of thousands of miles a year driving across the U.S. in her late-model car (the best that can be said is that at least it's a small car, not an SUV, but I understand it still takes a fair amount of gas to get from North Carolina to California, no matter what you're driving). When I first heard about the whole "materialism to experiencialism" thing, I predicted that those experiences were going to swiftly get ever more expensive and more destructive of habitat and indigenous culture, as the privileged competed with each other for the most dramatic vacations in the most exotic locales.

  4. Hi Angus,

    Well, not everyone wants status. I've had it and seen it for what it is actually worth and then wisely rejected it and went off and did something else with my life. Of course, that comes with an immense social and financial cost, no doubts about it. But in and of itself, my gut feeling is that status is an ephemeral thing and not a worthy goal. Just sayin... There are other goals and as I type this reply a little marsupial bat flits around through the setting sun and distracts me from this reply. How do you replace those sorts of experiences? Dunno. Certainly status is not a goal that you can ever achieve and anyone who is above you in the hierarchy thumbs their nose at you, believe me they know the difference.

    The question really becomes - and here we are digging into very deep philosophical territory (but then you started it!!! Hehe!) - How would you know if you've had enough?

    Well, in your paragraph about fish knives you are delving into the realms of magic which is usefully defined as: The art and science of changing consciousness in accordance with will.

    Now you will note that the definition does not say exactly whose consciousness is being changed and also whose will is being expressed. I watch very little television because I understand all too well how easily magic is used against us. You would do well to consider the dark arts of marketing and perhaps if it is acceptable to you I recommend to drive a bit of distance between you and them. Otherwise you are thinking second hand thoughts. It is your call though.

    You've done very well indeed.



  5. Hi blackwingsblackheart,

    I agree, however (as Stuffocation points out) while there is one-upmanship in experiencialism it is a lot harder to compare than materialism. For example, (as will be familiar to us greenies) there is status to be gained from a nice garden ;-)

    Cheers, Anugs

  6. Hi Chris,

    I agree with you, and am not very status-driven -- I think I'm a bit abnormal in that regard though..

    But I'm still not exempt. For example, we had a local permaculture meeting at our place yesterday and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't proud of the systems and garden we've established. What is that, if not status? To be honest, I don't think we can ever completely escape it...
    "you've done very well indeed"
    Thanks! Coming from a high-status person (in Aussie permie circles, anyway), that praise means a lot (I mean it sincerely, but it's funny too ;-)

    (for example, I think one of the big barriers to commuter cycling in Australia is that it's perceived as low-status. That's why weekend-recreational riders are always so kitted-out in lycra and fancy bikes -- they need to show that they're high-status while on the bike)

    Your comments about consciousness-manipulation and magic are very true too. We basically never watch TV (we had it put away for a couple of years, but now occasionally let the kids watch David Attenborough). I think many movies are just as bad for the subtle programming they include -- I don't watch them either...

    ps. I'm reading "the crash of 1929" -- what a ripper -- thanks for the recommendation!

    Cheers, Angus

  7. Hi Angus,

    Thank you. I see myself however as muddling through trying to learn as I go.

    "What is that, if not status?" Perhaps it is pride in a job well done? You see you can run a race, but you can also specify your own agenda and goals. Status sort of presupposes that you are running to someone else's agenda. Dunno, what do you think about that? I sometimes say to people that I run my own race. Dunno. You have certainly raised some very complex issues here and they have often intrigued me deeply too.

    Oh yeah. You are so right about the whole lycra clad thing. I reckon there is a bit of tribalism in it too: Which sounds like - I'm exactly like you. Dunno, but they descend on the main road over the mountain every weekend.

    Very wise indeed. It is very hard to know whose thoughts it is that you are thinking and I see so many of my friends caught up in second hand thoughts that sometimes it scares me a bit.

    Oh yeah, what a great story - and you can see the exact same rhetoric spoken today. Have you watched the film: The Big Short? I recommend it as it was very good.



  8. Hi Angus-
    This is my first visit to your blog, and it's been very rewarding! I'm glad I followed you here from ADR (and am also glad to see a familiar cast of characters in the commentariat), and look forward to poking around here some more.

    I agree, as you pointed out in your first paragraphs, that the drive for status is somewhat more than just a bad case of the "gimmies"; it's hard-wired into us as primates to want to achieve status within our peer group, so as to not be left out of the spoils of the hunt, the access to quality mates, the safety from predators and outsiders, etc. I think it's our task to become self-aware enough to understand those drives within ourselves, to refuse to let others who don't have our best interests at heart to have access to those levers, and to do the inner work to find a way to satisfy, sublimate, or come to some workable arrangement with those drives that avoids self-destruction and damage to others and the world around us. The effort that this takes should not be underestimated.

    I have found, in my own life, that as I have matured, found satisfaction and security with my mate, my children, and my few close friends, and learned to do (ongoing) emotional and spiritual work related to my place in the universe and my tasks in life, the desire for those outer status markers has dropped away. It's as if they are placeholders for the actual "good stuff". I will say that I found much faster and deeper results when I began to learn to work with the subconscious parts of myself- I think you have to go under the hood, so to speak, to the level where these deep drives operate in order to really tinker with them. (Carefully.)

    I now just feel sorry for those who are still stuck on trying to fill inner needs with outer stuff/achievements- the wrong tools for the job. I wish for their sake (and the rest of ours!) that they find a way to turn that natural striving for status into the drive to work for inner peace and security. Perhaps, too, that drive to secure status among our peers can be turned instead toward efforts to make our relationships with them honest and mutually beneficial- just a thought there.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking work here.
    --Heather in CA

  9. @ Heather:

    What a perfect turn of a phrase:"It's as if they are placeholders for the actual "good stuff". "! I certainly like your description of your philosophy. I agree with it wholeheartedly.


  10. Chris:

    You are so right about television. It is a bone of contention around here. It makes me nervous when I watch it with my husband because, even though I am aware of what spells are being cast in the shows and the commercials, I have a feeling that there are still snares that I am unaware of that may come back to grab me.


  11. Hi Chris,

    Hmm. I don't really know ;-) I guess I was thinking that my feeling of pride might be tied to some perceived elevation of status that might result (perhaps that's what pride _is_ at its root?). I totally agree with what you say about running your own race, although I'm not convinced that lets you escape from this (I'm betting there's no "get away from status, free!" card ;-)

    Yes, it's deep stuff. Really should be drinking a beer under a eucalyptus talking about this!

    I haven't heard of the Big Short. I'll keep an eye out for it -- thanks

    Cheers, Angus

  12. Hi Heather,

    That's an amazing comment. I wish I'd written your first paragraph and included it in my blog post ;-)

    I'm definitely aware that my subconscious lets me down sometimes. Do you know any good resources for a complete beginner?

    Cheers, Angus


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