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Two Dimensional Man

“People recognize themselves in their commodities,” pleaded Herbert Marcuse in his fame-bolstering 1964 book, One-Dimensional Man, when examining the sociological ramifications of the Industrial Revolution. At the time, along with many of his contemporaries, Marcuse had also reached the conclusion that the rise of a capitalist society had become the chief impetus for consumerism, which led to a demotion of people’s self-worth and identification to solely their exility. This, as famously expressed by historian Frederick Allen, was perpetuated by the status quo which rested on the premise that “unless (the consumer) could be persuaded to buy and buy lavishly, the whole stream of six-cylinder cars, super heterodynes, cigarettes, rouge compacts, and electric ice boxes would be damned up at its outlets,” implying that the fundamental motivation that drives and sustains the capitalist engine is the behavior and consumption patterns of new consumers. Allen would also note earlier in this quote that with the Industrial Revolution, the business industry recognized the immense power of the consumer. Needless to say, the rising awareness surrounding this "power" was not to be understood as the consumer holding sway over the market, but instead, it was a situation where when manipulated by the market, what outwardly appeared to be of service to the consumer would act as a sheep's wool disguising the wolf, and merely optimize the dominance of the market over the consumer. In other words, the notion of consumer power, posited as a means for individuals to exert agency over the market through the exercise of their purchasing decisions, was ultimately an illusory technique as the choices they made were a result of the manipulation and control exerted by capitalism.

In order for businesses to effectively utilize this power, consumers had to be trained to prioritize material possessions above all else and continuously aspire to maintain a dynamic, high standard of living, which was made possible through the cultivation of an ever-increasing desire for consumption. Famous inventor Charles Kettering would refer to this phenomenon with the words “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied,” which had also become the title of his Nation’s Business article in 1929. In it, he conveyed that maintaining a constant state of dissatisfaction among consumers would yield a propulsive power of envy[1], and in parallel, unprecedented rates of economic growth in a capitalist system.Vis á vis, if products could be designed to expire in the minds of consumers even before the components that were used to make them failed (dubbed as “planned obsolescence”), the dissatisfied consumer would dispose of everything at an ever-accelerating pace, thereby generate higher demand for new products and in turn, a thriving economy.

In the ensuing years of the Great Depression, and especially after the Second World War, it could be argued that relying on capitalist methods to propel economic growth was the most efficient way to mitigate the casualties of these tragic events, thus a sensible, or even a necessary approach. However, what set out to be an effective solution to a time of financial crisis soon became the dominant mindset of the twentieth century. The emphasis on material wealth and consumerism grew to a degree of which their abundance became a marker of success— and in turn, engendered a culture of inequality and overconsumption. People had indeed begun giving up thrifting and resourcefulness, and furthermore, their free time in exchange for longer working hours to sustain their participation in capitalist trends. This shift in values gave rise to issues in nearly every realm, from the exploitation of natural resources to an expanding gap between the rich and poor. The stark divide between what society deemed acceptable or not pressured people into conformity, and most importantly, its absence led to feelings of inadequacy and failure. In alignment with the aforementioned view of Marcuse, people sought identity, validation, purpose, and meaning in a solely extrinsic dimension; incognizant to the fact that these virtues would eventually expire with the finite materials they were attached to.

Renowned author and professor David Myers took a special interest in this matter in his phenomenal work, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (2001), where he discussed the void of spirituality in a society characterized by affluence and consumerism. He found that the relentless pursuit of material goods often replaced religious, spiritual or traditional practices in the everyday lives of modern citizens, depriving them of inner contentment. This is because according to Myers, these practices play a crucial role for humans to feel a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. Whether this “something greater” be a Divine Entity or a community, in its absence, the aforementioned concept of envy reveals itself in feelings of selfishness and isolation, thus strengthening peoples’ attachments to material possessions. This vicious cycle of materialism leading to feelings of emptiness and isolation, and then leading to an even stronger attachment to material possessions, is something Myers believes to be a major contributor to the American Paradox. Because in agreement with the earlier mentioned argument, material goods, despite their abundance and value, cannot satiate spiritual hunger as they are finite in nature. Therefore, individuals who attempt to fill this spiritual void with material goods will find themselves trapped in a cycle of emptiness and isolation that only intensifies over time.

Although the focus of this essay has thus far been the discontents of capitalism, it is important to note that this line of thinking has long been imminent in religious and spiritual interpretations of human nature since before its embedment in modern societies. Teachings of abstinence and asceticism lays in the core of many, if not all, Divine Doctrines, for regardless of consumerism gaining dominion over recent centuries, the innate tendency of humans to indulge in the contents of this world has been viewed as a prevalent barrier in one’s proximity to God. In Sufi tradition specifically, one can clearly see this in the—and the likes of the—following saying from Imam Ghazali: “Know, O Beloved, that man was not created in jest or at random, but marvelously made and for some great end. Although he is not from everlasting, he lives forever; and though his body is mean and earthly, his spirit is lofty and divine.” Contrary to the one dimensional man put forth by Herbert Marcuse, it is clear that Ghazali frequently alludes to a second dimension as per this quote. Considering he was inarguably the scholarly authority of his time in not only the Muslim world but beyond in many disciplines of thought, it is fair to assume that the vitality of spirituality has been viewed as an undeniably significant component of one’s overall well being for over centuries. The concept of the “lofty and divine spirit” posited by Ghazali serves as a counterbalance to the “mean and earthly” physical body. By emphasizing this spiritual dimension, Ghazali suggests that there is more to human existence than just physical needs and desires. Furthermore, he implies that it is crucial for one to nurture and cultivate this spiritual dimension in order to achieve well-being and fulfillment. Otherwise, its neglect will indubitably manifest itself in negative ways such as mental disorders pertaining to depression, stress, anxiety, body dysmorphia et al., which have been on the rise in parallel with the growth of capitalism. Although materialism and consumerism, as the byproducts of capitalist systems, have led to an exaggeration of the physical at the expense of the spiritual, it must be noted that the lack of balance among the two can yield serious consequences on one’s overall health, and that it is essential to nourish both to reach contentment.

[1] Kerryn Higgs


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