Stewart McRobert: The materialist monster that’s eating society…

This piece originally appeared in Humanitie Magazine, in the Autumn 2013 edition 

Ever thought there’s something rotten at the heart of society? Hate the consumerism attached to Christmas? You’re not alone. In her book The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives, Carol Craig, chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, argues that materialist values are promoting a way of life that’s corrosive and unsustainable.

Humanitie took the chance to talk to Craig about her views and how to tackle the monster that is materialism:

“A great deal of work in this area has been done by the American psychology professor, Tim Kasser,” she explained. “He believes that if you define materialism as the pursuit of money and what it can buy – appearance and image, popularity and status – you find that the more people chase these values, the worse the impact on their wellbeing.

“There are many reasons why pursuing materialist values is bad for you, but in essence they take you away from things that matter for positive wellbeing relationships: a sense of meaning and purpose in life, hobbies, a sense of engagement and so on.

Craig recognises that materialist values have always been around and always will be. “People have always cared about money because it means access to resources and they have always cared about issues like appearance since it relates to basics such as sexual attractiveness and social acceptability.

“What Kasser would argue is it’s the extent to which materialist values have become dominant. In previous generations influences such as religion and political values that stress the importance of the common good would have provided balance. Now, we have an all-pervasive mass media constantly communicating materialist values, and an entire political discourse that focuses on materialism. Meanwhile, the church has collapsed and major charities are busy embracing marketing techniques and materialist values.”

Craig contends that the UK and US are particularly affected thanks to their adherence to turbocharged capitalism. “It’s a specifically American, individualistic way of looking at the world. By and large we go along with it, although we still have some concept of public good, which has virtually disappeared in America.”

The focus on materialism brings huge social costs.

She added: “Our society is so dominated by these values, to the extent that virtually nothing else matters, and we shouldn’t be surprised that there is rampant inequality – and social justice has become a major issue.”

Alternative voices are few and far between, argued Craig and on a personal level, she’s had to make a conscious effort to avoid being ensnared.

“Over the years, well before writing the book I’ve always made a point of cutting myself off from commercialised culture. For example, I never read women’s magazines of any kind. I also hardly watch television. I’m not trying to make out that I’m perfect. I still buy clothes that are advertised for example and wear make up. However, no one is suggesting that we should try to eradicate these things from our lives. People are always going to care about their appearance or other materialist values. It is about shifting the balance so that they are only a small part of your life and not the centre of it”

Despite the seeming negativity of her message. Craig remains hopeful: “It doesn’t take much to convince people; most know that something’s wrong. Unfortunately, we can’t look to politicians for solutions, but there can be a popular movement that convinces politicians we need another way.

“The Scottish activist and writer Mike Small says we can tackle all of this is as individuals, but not as isolated individuals it has to be on a community basis. Because this boils down to values humanism can play a part. For significant change to take place there needs to be a value shift. It’s difficult in a modern world where people don’t like to be judgmental, but we need to get back to some way of saying certain things are wrong.

“I think change will come one way or another, even if it is forced on us. Clearly, the best way is for us to ready ourselves and embrace change. But we have to be more community focused and people have lo be prepared to support one another.”

The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives is part of the Postcards From Scotland series, produced by the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing. Carol Craig outlined the reasoning behind the series:

“There’s a big focus on Scotland at the moment generated by the independence debate, but there’s little discussion on what we might want sovereign powers for. Many people believe that the way we live in western culture is not sustainable, or even desirable – it challenges people’s wellbeing, the environment and stable society. Therefore, we need to start talking about how we can think and live differently. We’re not getting new thinking, particularly from politicians. The series is designed to open up debate, to generate more informed discussions and to highlight changes that are already happening.”

The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Argyll Publishing ISBN -13:9781908931061

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