Narcissistic Consumerism and Self-Destruction…


From CHARLES HUGH SMITH
of tw0 minds

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism now include narcissistic consumerism and definancialization…

Today I’m going to tie together the major themes I have been discussing in the context of Japan being the bellwether of economic stagnation and social recession.The basic idea is that Japan offers a limited but still insightful experiment in what happens to advanced consumer-driven economies as definancialization hollows out the economy.What happens is that economic malaise leads to profound social recession that affects society, workplaces, families, individuals that then feeds back into the economic stagnation.

Definancialization is the process in which excessive speculation, debt, leverage reverse, crushing the economy with malinvestment and legacy debt while the crony-capitalist Central State attempts to stem the resulting deflation with massive, sustained Keynesian stimulus (fiscal deficits).

What we’re seeing in Japan is the confluence of three dynamics: definancialization, the demise of growth-positive demographics and the devolution of the consumerist model of endless “demand” and “growth.”

Japan is the leading-edge of the crumbling model of advanced neoliberal capitalism: that consumerist excess creates wealth, prosperity and happiness.

What consumerist excess actually creates is alienation, social atomization, narcissism, and a profound contradiction at the heart of the consumerist-dependent model of “growth”: the narcissism that powers consumerist lust and identity is at odds with the demands of the workplace that generates the income needed to consume.

One theme that weaves together this week’s essays on Japan is the cultural/economic shift that is eroding the traditional Japanese corporate workplace.

The younger generation of workers raised in a consumerist “paradise” are facing an economic stagnation that reduces opportunities to earn the high income needed to fulfill the consumerist demands for status symbols. Given the hopelessness of earning enough to afford the consumerist lifestyle, they have abandoned traditional status symbols such as luxury autos and taken up fashion and media as expressions of consumerism.

But the narcissism bred by consumerism has nurtured a kind of emotional isolation and immaturity, what might be called permanent adolescence, which leaves many young people without the tools needed to handle criticism, collaboration and the pressures of the workplace.

Narcissism is the result of the consumerist society’s relentless focus on the essential project of consumerism, which is “the only self that is real is the self that is purchased and projected.”

Christopher Lasch (1932 – 1994) wrote The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations in 1979. The book’s subtitle captured the angst of the 1970s; though rampant financialization and the Internet reinvigorated the U.S. economy in the 1980s and 90s, the subtitle accurately expresses the New Normal.

While his analysis cannot be easily summarized, he zeroed in on the ontological essence of narcissism: a fear of the emptiness that lies at the very core of consumerism.

Sociologist Daniel Bell’s 1988 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism brilliantly laid out the contradiction at the heart of all consumer-dependent cultures:

This classic analysis of Western liberal capitalist society contends that capitalism– and the culture it creates–harbors the seeds of its own downfall by creating a need among successful people for personal gratification–a need that corrodes the work ethic that led to their success in the first place.

In the modern iteration of the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, the narcissism that results from the focus on personal gratification via consumption cripples the person in the workplace. Ironically, the flattening of corporate management and the demands for higher interpersonal skillsets has eroded the security provided by the strict hierarchy of previous eras.

Instead of working less and doing easier work–the implicit promise of “endless growth”– the work is becoming more challenging and insecure even as compensation declines.

If there is any personality that is unsuited for the “New Normal” workplace, it is the narcissistic consumer–the very type of person that our consumption-dependent economy creates, nurtures and demands. That is the new Cultural Contradiction of Capitalism.

“Personal gratification” is the driver of narcissism and consumerism, which are two sides of the same coin. Consumerist marketing glorifies the “projected self” as the “true self,” encouraging self-absorption even as it erodes authentic identity, self-esteem and the resilience which enables emotional growth–the essential characteristic of adulthood.

Personal gratification is of a piece with self-absorption, fragile self-esteem and an identity that is overly dependent on consumerist signifiers and the approval of others.

No wonder Japan’s “lost generations” are lost: not only are expectations of secure, high-income jobs diminished, the work is more demanding and the security and pay are too low to support the consumerist lifestyle that society has implicitly promised everyone who goes to college and works hard as a birthright.

Jesse recently wrote a brilliant, insightful essay, Empire of the Exceptional: The Age of Narcissism As he observes, narcissism has been on the rise for 30 years in advanced neoliberal economies.

In my analysis, this is the direct consequence of the supremacy of a consumerism that is dependent on financialization: an economy dependent on debt-fueled consumption to power its “endless growth” is one that will necessarily implode from its internal contradictions: debt and leverage eventually exceed the carrying capacity of the collateral and the national income, and the narcissism of consumerism leads to social recession, a crippling state of “suspended animation” adolescence and great personal frustration and unhappiness.

The ultimate contradiction in this debt-consumption version of capitalism is this: how can an economy have “endless expansion and growth” when pay and opportunities for secure, high-paying jobs are both relentlessly declining? It cannot. Financialization, consumerist narcissism and the end of growth are inextricably linked.

As I wrote yesterday, this leads to a dispiriting “no exit”: It’s as if there is a split in the road and no third way: some young people make it onto the traditional corporate or government career path, and everyone else is left in part-time suspended animation with few options for adult expression or development.

We need a third way that offers people work, resilience and authentic meaning. In my view, that cannot come from the Central State or the global corporate workplace: it can only come from a relocalized economy in revitalized communities.

Narcissistic Consumerism and Self-Destruction

Health is horribly unprofitable; illness, anxiety and alienation are highly profitable. That is the destructive essence of our sociopathological “engine of growth,” narcissistic consumerism.

Correspondent/physician Birgit insightfully extends the narcissistic consumerism at the heart of our economy to its self-destructive conclusion: an essentially suicidal cultural antagonism toward any intact ecosystem.

Thanks for your concise way of connecting consumerism and narcissism. I frequently wonder at the energy my patients devote to television, three-colored hair streaks, the right shoes and purses, expensive cars, big vinyl houses, and then are completely aghast when I tell them to just plain turn off the TV and go for a daily walk and cook some actual vegetables; somehow these are too time consuming and expensive. The cognitive dissonance is painful to the point where I feel a very strong suicidal impulse from our culture. (emphasis added, CHS)

I know you are aware of the recent results of the human microbiome project, showing our heritance includes 10 times more bacterial genetic material than human DNA; and it is becoming very obvious that this is an obligate relationship, and we need our microscopic flora at least as much as they need us (skyrocketing food allergy, MS, Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, autism rates all attest to this). I think that our cultural antagonism toward an intact ecosystem is suicidal. Actually, I know it is suicidal, but I think it is manifesting more and more strongly in our capitalist subconscious. So much sanitizer and plastic!

Strangely, I see a cultural refusal to acknowledge our dependency on an intact ecosystem most strongly when driving my in suburban neighborhood. All those mulch volcanoes, frantically trying to hide any hint of roots branching underground. The good citizens somehow feel the soil that supports all life is obscene and must be completely covered. Luckily the fermentation underground is there to balance the sterility impulse (Sandor Katz’s new fermentation book is like a bible, I recommend it).

I also wanted to thank you for your career advice. I finally gave notice at my conventional healthcare practice and have cast myself loose in a private practice, with low overhead, no support staff, and my own ideas. Thanks to you I see the complexity of the insurance and Medicare systems as the marker of their unsustainability, and I know that business as usual won’t be for too much longer.

Thank you, Birgit, for a brilliant and incisive description of permanent-adolescence narcissistic consumerism. For readers who are unfamiliar with the microbiome, here is an excellent overview Your Inner Ecosysem: Your Microbiome Community Brings New Meaning to “We the People” (Scientific American) and Explore the Human Microbiome.

In our heavily sanitized culture, that includes anything related to micro-organisms, i.e. “germs,” dirt, etc. Those of you who know basic biology understand the irony of this sanitization: in killing off bacteria, we not only eliminate “good” bacteria we need to stay healthy, we also eliminate the weakest “bad” bacteria and leave only the most resistant few to reproduce.

This heavily marketed obsession with sanitization of everything has led to super-bugs which cannot be killed by conventional antibiotics.

In a way, the self-destructive consequences of obsessive sanitization is an apt metaphor for the self-destruction at the heart of the entire narcissistic consumerism project. Where does reacting to constant, exaggerated messages of fear lead to? To the loss of the ability to make realistic assessments of reality.

Permanent adolescence is the state of resolving insecurity, fear and social defeat by buying things that promise the invulnerability of a fantasy self and world, and by indulging in instant gratification to mask the self-destructive derangement of broken ecosystems: not just in the natural world, but in our bodies, in our society, in our economy and in our politics.

Nurturing permanent adolescence, anxiety and alienation are highly profitable, for people responding to the fear and anxiety of Thanatos (the instinct for destruction) will not only become malleable consumers, they will lose their grip on Eros, the instinct for life and love. Once lost to the Dark Side, they have no way to experience health or intact ecosystems; their world darkens as there appears to be no alternative to the Status Quo.

Health is horribly unprofitable; illness, anxiety and alienation are highly profitable. That is the destructive essence of our sociopathological “engine of growth,” narcissistic consumerism.
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3 Comments

Cynical…every one of my peers 23-25 years old are full of self loathing and misogyny. No new discoveries have been made by any of them. No artists among them. Alcoholism prevails, cowardice dominates, class-consciousness is absent. An obsession with morbidity, death, absurdity abounds in all their artistic endeavours. Some turn to ChrySt and Krishna others defiantly negate and belittle faith. In each case their nose marks the boundaries of their sphere of involvement.

    If that’s not scary enough, that behaviour is becoming increasingly prevalent amongst our youth, starting from as young as 14.

    I recently went back to college to study for a second degree among students 20 years younger than me. I could not believe the sexism and plain ignorance that was prevalent in the classrooms — among the students and put forth by the teachers, both male and female. It absolutely disgusted and saddened me. I made acquaintance with girls with a great deal of talent who dressed in outfits with the their bra showing to class. These same girls changed majors by the time I was in my second to last semester because the all-male department failed to take them seriously. Both sides of this situation were like a pathetic feedback loop. It makes me very discouraged to see this level of intellectual laziness and equivocating on the part of young women. But the young men are even worse. They know there will be no one calling them out for making insulting comments directly to the female students, even in the middle of a class or a rehearsal. At the time I graduated school in 1990 (for my first degree) I had met some mature, intelligent men — who were then in their 20’s — and several of them I have valued as friends for over 25 years. Some of the men I knew from my generation even felt it was part of their education as adults to read books on women’s issues and feminism. We had (and have) thoughtful, intelligent conversations on the subject. I cannot name one fellow student in the department I recently graduated from for whom I could say the same. Now students are all about their internet “legacy projects” — which generally means a self-absorbed blog and images of themselves looking as close to pop stars as possible. A lot of grandiose deluded tripe. Nearly all the young people I went to school with never mentioned the external, natural world. There is no web page or TV show to reference. So perhaps it does not exist? For many of those who get outside, nature is a free, scenic gym for them to work on their bodies and image. They trade stories on the internet about their “extreme” adventures. Otherwise, who would bother – if it won’t make them look hip or smart or sexy to other people… I am sorry, but how dumb this era is.

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