Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Narcissism, Consumerism and Capitalism

In recent years, more attention has focused on the apparent rise in narcissism in society, especially in the younger generation. Some have called this a "narcissism epidemic", and for good reason.

As mentioned in the lecture linked above, there has been a noted sharp increase in young people who identify themselves (or can be classified) as being narcissists. An article some months ago looked at the rise in narcissism in the so-called "Generation Y", the possible influence that parental guidance (or lack of) may have, and some of the wider social influences.
While these social factors may well certainly account for part of this apparent generational "attitude" changes, there has been a blind spot. We'll come to this in a moment. Elsewhere, the author has looked into the link between narcissism in modern society, and the role that economics (i.e. the type of economic system) can have.

Broadly-speaking, so-called "individualistic" societies seem to have higher levels of narcissism (and potentially psychopathy, too - more on that here). Arguably the two biggest socio-economic changes to have happened in industrialised society in the last forty years have been the rise in consumerism as a method to fund economic expansion, and the rise in narcissism in society in general. This is the blind spot referred to earlier. We'll look at the detail shortly.

Put into a historical context, consumerism as a method to grow national economies only really began to take off in the 1970s. While everyone thinks initially of the 1950s as the "Golden Age" of consumerism, the "baby boomer" generation were really the "infants" of consumerism; it only reached maturity as those born after the Second World War coincidentally began to mature themselves and begin to have more money to spend on consumer goods and property; in the UK this became known as the "Barber Boom" under the Heath government of the early 1970s. Richard Nixon's economic policies supported a similar tack. Both efforts lead to prices inexorably rising as people had more money to spend.
Wracked by a conflation of different economic factors, inflation continued soaring upwards throughout the rest of the decade, resulting in prices being massively higher by the end of 1970s compared to the start. The end of this decade also coincided with the Thatcher government coming to power in the UK, shortly followed by Reagan in the USA.
Under the policy of Monetarism enacted by both the British and American governments, the 1980s saw the restructuring of the economy away from (seemingly inefficient) manufacturing, and towards more service-based sectors (e.g. retail). At the same time, the economy was geared more towards finance, allowing banks to speculate far more easily (and with larger risks and potential profits). Credit became far easier to obtain, as banks encouraged its use as a way to extend their profits. Governments saw consumer spending as good for the economy, regardless of where the money spent actually came from. This policy has continued effectively in the same way ever since.

In short, we see the birth of credit on a mass scale being used in society, which in turn boosted the rise of consumer spending. Saving for the sake of it is seen as frumpy and old-fashioned. At the same time, even those who didn't indulge in credit were spending far more of their money on consumer goods compared to before. The same can be said for property investment, on an even grander scale.

Where does narcissism fit into all this?

A recent article looked at narcissistic personality traits. A narcissist is a fundamentally insecure person who is constantly in need of "narcissistic supply", and will do anything to get it, regardless of how he treats others and society at large. A narcissist is a child-like personality construction, in some ways comparable to a drug addict who is briefly bathed in the glow of his "fix" (i.e. a source of adulation), before quickly crashing and needing something else to fill the hole. This is an infantile, almost pathetic person who is unable to function independently without "narcissistic supply".
The psychology of the retail industry operates on the same premise towards its consumers. While what happens from the retailer's point of view is nothing innately evil, what happens towards society as a whole over time may well be. The point is this: marketing and advertising is privatized propaganda. There is no other way to describe this. Of course, this is perfectly normal in one way. The difference between society now and society sixty years ago is that ever more advanced communication methods allow companies to enhance their "exposure", targeting consumers more and more expertly. At the same time, the rise of credit  over the last thirty years has allowed individuals to easily access disposable income to spend. These two factors act as a "double pull". Advertising has created the famous phrase "Because you're worth it", which easily summarises the insidious nature of modern consumerism.

In other words, consumerism fuelled by easy credit nowadays has turned many people into "grown-up children". By creating a social environment where people are told they "are worth it", bombarded with endless messages about products they "must have", while also tempted by numerous methods to obtain credit, it is not surprising that a significant proportion of society develop the narcissistic traits mentioned earlier. By design or not, this is exactly the type of person who retailers want: an infantile and dependable "consumer" whose behaviour can be manipulated to improve retail profits.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for this, if we look at the change in narcissistic attitudes prevalent in "Generation Y", as mentioned earlier. It is more prevalent still if we look at the changes of today's young people (i.e. those under the age of 25), the feeling of "entitlement" that is far larger in young people today.
In darker terms, it could also be argued that the 2011 England riots - effectively an uncontrollable orgy of looting - were also a symptom of this narcissistic strain that has festered due to a rampant consumerist culture. At the risk of dismissing wider social issues, what is telling is that the spontaneous riots that occurred were used by many as an excuse for opportunistic looting. While it may have started on grounds of perceived racial prejudice, it almost instantly morphed into a chaotic orgy of consumerism. Compare this to riots in earlier years that were also triggered by race issues: looting was far less common an activity than simply "getting back" at the police. Likewise, the 2005 riots in France were characterised by an orgy of burning cars and nihilistic "revenge", not looting. This tells us a lot about the psychology of those involved, and the type of society that exists.
In this sense, we can argue that "consumerism" and the rise of narcissism are innately linked to the Anglo-Saxon economic model of Capitalism. The England riots of 2011 were distinct in the way they were an extreme manifestation of the divisive, ego-driven nature of the Anglo-Saxon economic model: after injecting its younger generation with a sense of "because you're worth it" entitlement one one hand, while divisive government policy took away their sense of control with another, the result was a build-up of narcissistic rage.

So this is the summation of modern Capitalist society: by creating the ingredients for narcissism, it "infantilises" individuals, with consequences for everybody. But also, the development of narcissism is fundamentally "useful" to an economy over-reliant on consumerism and the service sector, because it distracts people from the fundamental weaknesses in this economic model. It is a "natural by-product" of a consumerist society, and equally an essential ingredient to maintain the illusion.

For consumerism to function, consumer "need" must be created: this is where the advances in modern marketing and advertising techniques come in, using technology to make every form of consumer action appear as an "opportunity" on one hand, and a form of "individual empowerment" on the other. Thus by creating an environment where consumers are made to "need", they behave like narcissists always in search of the next source of narcissistic supply. On the one way, people are made to feel all-important and "entitled"; on the other they are equally made to feel emotionally-insecure and prone to repeated acts of "self-validation" (i.e. superficial sources of narcissistic supply, gained through consumption). This is how consumption occurs.

Indeed, it could well be argued that in a consumption-led economy, pathological levels of narcissism in society are thus necessary to ensure its continued existence and "growth": in order for consumer "need" to be guaranteed, the psychology of the consumer must be carefully calibrated - manipulated - in order to generate insecurity, dissatisfaction and entitlement. The most effective way to achieve this is to create a "consumer psychology" indistinguishable from the pathological narcissist.

By doing this, the creation of a consumer-led economy creates a self-perpetuating feedback loop, that nourishes on itself, and at the same time, becomes economically dependent on itself. A consumption-led economy quite literally eats itself. From an economic point of view, "growth" can only occur in this model if consumption occurs perpetually. Anything that causes consumption to reduce is a threat to a consumption-reliant economy. This also explains why interest rates are at historically-low levels. In this way, the creation of debt through cheap credit is in fact an essential aspect of the economic model: because debt creates dependence, and feeds the narcissistic delusion that consumers are "richer" through the possession of high-tech goods and other "must haves".
The irony is that in creating a consumption-led economy, individuals are - if anything - losing their individuality as a result of this. They are being manipulated - "infantilised" - much more insidiously in a consumer-led economy than one based on a more balanced perspective (e.g. where exports and manufacturing, rather than inward consumption, are the main sources of revenue).

Finally, it goes without saying that if a socio-economic model "infantalises" society, it also makes it easier to control.

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