“Fundamentalist Consumerism” Kills Us Quickly and Slowly

While fundamentalist Jews, Christians, and Moslems are singularly attached to their literal interpretations of particular texts, fundamentalist consumerists are singularly attached to cheap stuff. All fundamentalists decry, deny, or ignore the multiple dimensions of life that fall outside their particular theologies and ideologies. Fundamentalist consumerists could not care less about workers’ rights, human-scale business, environmental sanity, and — as the surviving friends and family of Wal-Mart temporary maintenance worker Jdimytai Damour will attest — human life.

The unofficial American holiday that celebrates the pursuit of cheap stuff falls on the day after Thanksgiving and is called Black Friday, so named because retailers hope that a horde of consumers will turn their red ink into black ink. This year on Black Friday, approximately 2,000 shoppers impatiently waited in the predawn darkness outside of a Long Island, New York Wal-Mart, chanting, “Push the doors in.” According to Jdimytai Damour’s fellow Wal-Mart worker Jimmy Overby, “He was bum-rushed by 200 people. They took the doors off the hinges. He was trampled and killed in front of me.” Witnesses reported that Damour, 34-years-old, had gasped for air as shoppers continued to surge over him, and when police instructed shoppers to leave the store after Damour’s death, many refused, some yelling back, “I’ve been on line since yesterday morning!”

So who or what is to blame for Damour’s death?

(a) Fundamentalist consumers singularly attached to their goal of purchasing a 50-inch Plasma HDTV for $798 and other sale items that Wal-Mart was selling on a limited basis.
(b) Irresponsible, uncaring, and sadistic Wal-Mart executives who knew full well what kind of frenzy their sale — with limited availability of items — would create but chose to risk a stampede and law suits rather than cough up the few bucks necessary to ensure safety.

(c) A fundamentalist-consumerist culture.

(d) All of the above.

The safe answer is “d” but “c” is also acceptable because without a fundamentalist-consumer culture, Wal-Mart cathedrals and Wal-Mart worshippers would be ostracized out of existence.

The Black Friday death of Jdimytai Damour is a glaringly painful aspect of fundamentalist consumerism. However, people — at least those with any remnant of a soul — are, everyday and in numerous ways, pained by a culture of fundamentalist consumerism. And this pain fuels depression, substance abuse, and other self-destructive and harmful behaviors.

A fundamentalist consumer culture:

1. Creates increasing material expectations.
These expectations often go unmet — creating pain which fuels emotional difficulties and destructive behaviors. In a classic study examining changes in the mental health of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States, public policy researcher William Vega found that assimilation to U.S. society meant three times the rate of depressive episodes for these immigrants. Vega also found major increases in substance abuse and other harmful behaviors. Many of these immigrants found themselves with the pain of increased expectations that went dissatisfied, and they also reported the pain of diminished social support.

2. Devalues human connectedness. There is a disincentive in fundamentalist consumer cultures to nurture supportive families and friendships. Fundamentalist consumer economies thrive on increasing numbers of “buying units.” Anything that helps strengthen families and communities is a threat to a fundamentalist consumer economy, because fewer lonely people means selling less plasma televisions, DVDs, and cable television. More subtly, if you care about human relationships more than money and material goods, you become less predictable and controllable — and create havoc for the industrialized order, which needs predictability and control.

3. Socializes people to be self-absorbed and selfish. Self-absorption is one of many reasons for skyrocketing rates of depression in the United States, as human beings are often depressed to the extent that they are exclusively preoccupied with their own needs. The Buddha, 2500 years ago, recognized the relationship between selfish craving and emotional difficulties, and many other wise observers of human beings, from Spinoza to Erich Fromm, have come to similar conclusions.

4. Obliterates self-reliance. This creates painful anxiety, which fuels depression and other problematic behaviors. In modern society, an increasing number of people — women as well as men — cannot cook a simple meal. They will never know the anti-anxiety effects of being secure in their ability to prepare their own food, grow their own vegetables, hunt, fish, or gather food necessary for survival. In a consumer culture, such self-reliance makes no sense. However, at some level, people know that should they lose their incomes or should the dollar become worthless — not impossibilities these days — they have no ability to eat and survive.

5. Alienates people from normal human emotional reactions. The priests of consumer culture — advertisers and marketers — know that fundamentalist consumers will consume more if they are especially pained by normal reactions such as boredom, frustration, sadness, and anxiety. If these priests can convince us that a given emotional state is shameful or evidence of a disease, then we will be more likely to buy not only psychiatric drugs but also luxury cars and all kinds of products to make ourselves feel better. However, when we become frightened and alienated from a natural human reaction, this “pain over pain” creates more fuel for self-destructive behaviors and other harmful actions.

6. Sells false hope that creates more pain. The faith of fundamentalist consumerism is that we will one day discover a product that can predictably manipulate moods without any downsides. Modern psychiatry is a full member of consumer culture; its “Holy Grail” is a search for that antidepressant which can take away the pain of despair but does not destroy life. In the late nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud thought he had found it with cocaine. In the middle of the twentieth century, psychiatrists thought they had found it with amphetamines, and later they thought they had found it with tricyclic antidepressants like Tofranil and Elavil. At the end of the twentieth century, there were the SSRIs such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft which were ultimately found to create dependency and painful withdrawal and to be no more effective than placebos. Whatever the antidepressant drug, it is introduced as a fulfillment of the dream of the Holy Grail: taking away depression without destroying life. Time after time, it is then discovered that when one tinkers with neurotransmitters, there is–as there is with electroshock and psychosurgery–damage to life.

The essence of fundamentalism is a rejection of both reason and experience. Fundamentalists are attached to dogma, and if their dogma fails, fundamentalists don’t give it up but instead resolve to deepen their faith and double down on their dogma. It is easy to recognize the destructiveness caused by another’s fundamentalism but difficult to acknowledge the damage caused by one’s own fundamentalism.

Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).