What’s the Point of It All? Life in the Commodified, Compartmentalized Age of Consumer Capitalism

The compartmentalization of life in consumer capitalism serves a political purpose: lonely, hopeless workers don’t mobilize for political power


16/02/2021

As we enter yet another extension of the lockdown across Germany and much of the rest of the world, a sense of emptiness seems to pervade modern life. Even before the pandemic, the job titles, expensive tech toys, and vacations never seemed like they were enough. A longing for a higher purpose or a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves haunts the shadows of our days and twinges on the edges of our dreams in the dark of night.

Members of the military often discuss a satisfaction that comes from a commitment to a shared goal; in which they form bonds with one another and derive moral purpose from their common mission of defending the nation. For those who will, for one reason or another, never put on a uniform, that sense of purpose remains elusive. We look for it in our companies and jobs, but it cannot be found beyond the pervasive drive for higher salaries. We cling to it in our colleges and hometown sports teams, squeezing belonging out of banal and ultimately meaningless fanfare. We look to political parties to show us a roadmap to a prosperous future, only to be disappointed every election cycle by broken, or just forgotten promises. In the end, we jump headfirst into TV, into video games, into pornography and drugs, reasoning that if we cannot find meaning in the outside world, it is better to turn inward and derive what satisfaction we can while we still can. The compartmentalization of the proletariat is complete: the revolutionary vanguard is a neutered, impotent mass, too consumed by its own purposelessness to even consider political action.

The reason we feel this shared sense of something missing is because in the bourgeois capitalist system, we do not belong. There is no sense of shared participation, no opportunities for our voices to be heard, and little room for institutions of common participation and collective action to thrive. Indeed, those common activities are shunned in favor of the isolated, compartmentalized pursuits of the individual. These are in turn celebrated as the closest thing to true human freedom, while collective activities are maligned by their detractors as inhumane and restrictive. Self-pleasure becomes an end of itself, a numbing agent at the end of hours of wage labor. Real action requires energy that can only be gained through unity and a sense of empowerment. Our political capacity to effect change is thus nullified and the rigid class domination of the political system remains unchallenged. This is incredibly difficult to break into from our hyper compartmentalized lives, and it can only be done together.

The Natural Impulse of Common Problem Solving

This compartmentalization is unnatural and harmful to us as humans. Humans are social beings, and anthropological and biological studies confirm the innate tendencies for mutual assistance, collaborative problem solving, and collective action to address universally felt problems. The compartmentalization that consumer capitalism causes is unnatural; it is a rejection of human nature far more than the right’s ahistorical claim that the elimination of the profit motive is ignorant of human nature. An economic system based on competition, while excusing its destructive spillover effects to social groups, facilitates the erosion of the human community and all of the benefits that contains. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes the gradual erosion of clubs, societies, and social groups in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. Through this data, we can see that the rise of consumer capitalism, coupled with suburbanization, car culture, and mass home media, has diminished the occasions on which people meet outside of the home. Coupled with declining interest in politics and declining belief in the citizens’ own power to affect political change, civil society is no longer democratized, but is relegated to the realm of the economically privileged, who act as its gate keepers and arbiters while directing it to the service of their material benefit.

The way out of isolation

To take action, we must have a goal. Therefore, we need to envision an alternative to the hyper-compartmentalized civil society model of bourgeois capitalism. By seeing the destination, we may begin to plot a path to reach it. That goal is the replacement of capitalism’s pseudo culture with a civil society based on egalitarian relationships and an elevation of our activities toward cooperation and mutual enrichment.

This new civil society is inclusive, democratic, and universal. It will facilitate a sense of belonging across and throughout society. Workers’ participation in firm management and the organization of unions and social groups (e.g. bands or sports teams) in the workplace, will deepen people’s connection to each other and to the social and economic processes to which they regularly devote their attention. Even neoliberal conservatives agree that the feeling of having a stake in something is a high motivating factor for individuals, though they often deploy it against collectivist and democratic economics.

Democratic control of a nation’s productive implements, and the resultant wealth they generate, will enable funding for social and cultural experiences that will enrich lives by offering new skills and experiences without their commodification. Decommodified and publically supported, these endeavors will become ever more accessible to people who no longer need to justify them as “side hustles” or otherwise attempt to monetize them, and thereby facilitate a new explosion of creative energy as never before seen in human history.

Above all else, participation in the common work to enrich our societies and the lives of all within them will bring the ultimate sense of purpose, belonging, and satisfaction to the broad mass of the working people. Every item produced, every word written, and every calculation completed will be a victory for democracy and prosperity. We all have bad days at work, but even when things seem to be going wrong, all of us, no matter our profession, will be able to say that we are building something greater; a system that our children will be proud of. We will know, on the grey mornings waiting for a bus or sitting in traffic, that we are working together in the service of each other. By waking up from the stupor of capitalism’s false consciousness, we will take our first steps together on the path of freedom.