“… the economy cannot stop making us consume more and more, and to consume without respite is to change illusions at an accelerating pace which gradually dissolves the illusion of change. We find ourselves alone, unchanged, frozen in the empty space behind the waterfall of gadgets, family cars and paperbacks.”
Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life


“Work to survive, survive by consuming, survive to consume, the hellish cycle is complete.”
Raoul Vaneigem


A boatload of people are asking themselves “what is the meaning of all this” these days. I believe we have always done so, sporadically, but now we appear to have an underlying ongoing questioning of everything. This creates an issue. That core issue is “meaning” or “personal meaning” or maybe “is what I am doing going to matter.” This can range from small individual actions, my vote, to massive esoteric thoughts, like a legacy. Suffice it to say meaning/mattering has become a societal issue.

I could argue this meaning issue is a consequence of a variety of things: increased globalization, cynicism of organized religion, consumerism, Taylorism, 24/7 internet and several things that have slowly stripped away some of the vestiges of meaning. The issue has become exacerbated by the fact we are now actively encouraging people to “find your Why.” In other words, we are asking people to stare into the void. By actively asking people there seem to be one of three outcomes; they discover no ‘Why,” they create some ‘Why”, or they actually do have some semblance of a “Why’. 2 out of 3 outcomes are horrible and the third outcome, I am guessing, is a fairly small percentage of people. So, while we have a real societal issue, we are actively encouraging people to pursue things that are most likely fool’s errands. The void will still exist and, well, its human to fill a void (by whatever means may be at hand). It almost becomes a battle between “I & the void.” And therein lies a bit of the issue at hand.

While voids are doomed to be filled, it seems like in today’s society a void, an increasing one, is occurring between individuals and collective good/action. This may be occurring because of extreme individualism which, consequently, has a cost to the collective (individuals owning and consuming shit only creates more bad shit; not just revenue/profit). But ultimately this individualism means that an individual has less meaning (less connectivity to the collective means less opportunity to assess impact) which feeds back into a consumption society in that the individuals consume more to fill that empty space of meaning. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out meaning, while having an infinite value, only truly demands few finite things to fulfill, while consumption is theoretically infinite and the void it attempts to fill is also infinite in that it can never truly offer the highest human value, therefore, people are falling farther and farther into the void.

To be clear. there is a relationship between the void in individual meaning and consumption. No. I do not have proof, research, or any data, but if I were a betting man, I would bet it was so. I would bet it were so because if you attempt to measure your contribution to society by what you have consumed, well, that is a bit wacky and a lot unhealthy. Contribution is a measure of the benefit you have given to society. Consumption is a measure of what you have taken from society. Meaning through consumption is a weird thought because in its emphasis on consumption it is more likely to create division (or divide) simply through the natural dispersion of that consumption and while I do believe some social unification is important, in this case the division is an emphasis on individualism measurement rather than collective measurement (as noted earlier the collective interaction is important to tapping into true meaning).

I am not anti-capitalism nor even anti-consumption/consumerism, but I am anti-void.

Which leads me to how businesses don’t really help this issue.

Simplistically, the consequences of a productivity-focused business world was increased consumption. This translated into actually BEING a customer or consumer was seen as the new success. We made consumption a measure of achievement and, as a consequence, created a society of envy and comparisons in which to be poor means having less than the average; even if the average is quite high and, ultimately, being seen as less than average. Yeah. Consumption has an ugly underbelly – the people who consume less. When society begins to split people by how much they consume, the ‘consumers’ see those who access safety nets as ‘exploiters’ who are simply not industrious enough to be able to consume. To be clear. This is not reality but rather perception and, in this case, this perception becomes a mental reality grounded in a general ignorance of reality. But that ignorance creates a void and, well, we know what happens with voids – they get filled. This warped version of meaning crafted a caste system of, uhm, meaning. A huge swath of business leaders misinterpreted Adam Smith to mean that if we each looked after our own interests some invisible hand would mysteriously arrange things out so that it all worked out for the best for all. We have propagated the rights of the individual and freedom of choice for all, but without restraints, without thought for our neighbors, and it has become license to do whatever you want to win at all costs and mere selfishness. We have forgotten that Smith wrote in a Theory of Moral Sentiments that a stable society was actually based on sympathy and a moral duty to have regard for your fellow human beings. The market is a mechanism for sorting the efficient from the inefficient, but it is not a substitute for responsibility or meaning.

Which leads me back to voids and consumption.

An absence of meaning, of any degree or dimension, creates a void. And I would argue a really personal void. The type of void that either keeps you up at night or just nudges away at you fairly persistently. This persistence almost demands you do something about it. and, sure, you can watch Tedtalks, read books, whatever, but at some point, you want something tangible to show some progress against this brain worm chewing away at you. And with businesses constantly saying “buy me to solve X”, well, you jump on the consumption train. After awhile you point out to people how well you have done jumping on the consumption train often enough that the little voice in your head nudging you about ‘meaning & mattering’ gets shouted down just often enough that while you know you have a ‘meaning crisis’, it is no longer a “crisis crisis” to you personally. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that a crisis is a crisis and all crisis demand a response at some point. And maybe that is my point. Maybe we should all, collectively, answer the crisis rather than constantly suggesting each person ‘find their why’ to only have them staring into some abyss. Maybe we should all see if we can address the void together. Ponder.

Written by Bruce