The psychological effects of living within a free market society distort how we value ourselves, others and things we buy.
That's according to best-selling American author and essayist Eula Biss. She tells Kathryn Ryan pyschological conditioning under comsumer capitalism is disturbing and that it robs the middle-class of an authentic sense of what is valuable. At the same time it also robs workers of their human essence, their life-energy, which is transformed into products imbued with human qualities.
Biss' book Having and Being Had looks at the psychological effects of consumerism, and what it tells us about who we are and how we see ourselves.
Eula scrutinises our tendency to monetise everything, the baggage that comes with buying a house, set against her own experience of buying, furnishing and decorating her own home.
She looks at the lies we tell ourselves and others about money and tells Kathyrn Ryan the biggest lie now being told is that the free market functions as a preordained system that reflects the natural order of things.
Her book looks at the ways in which consumerism affected her ways of thinking and how she felt, since purchasing her own home. She kept notes on her discomfort of owning this home and observed its contradictory delights and comforts this had brought. She says she found herself in something of a double bind - of enjoying the financial security of being an upper middle-class homeowner, but being repulsed by the system underpinning that security.
“I don’t think it is inherently harmful to have or want a thing. I think the harm is in what is largely the invisible system behind how we acquire things and the people whose labour is used, or poorly compensated, in order for some of us, not all of us, to afford the things we have," she says.
“There’s a moment in the book where I reference a book called A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things and this book is partly about the cost of cheap things… They’re made cheap often by other people’s labour being more or less stolen. I think that’s where the harm is.”
She says the upper middle-class don’t see this harm, and that society allows them to think it’s not costing anything to others' lives.
“Part of the project of this book was for me to look very closely at my life to listen carefully, look closely and try to identify the places where harm was being done.”
Her own sense of having 'white privilege' came shortly after moving into her new home, when a filming company asked to rent her house for three days.
Her house was formally owned by an actor and set designer and they had made extra money by renting the house as a set for commercials. They got a call from a casting agent offerings $8000 so they could make a Walmart commercial. She reluctantly agreed.
“It was banned from doing business in our area for quite a long time because there were protests over there low wages, but had started doing business around Chicago where I lived shortly before this commercial was to be filmed.”
A set designer came in to make the house look like an African-American grandmother’s home. The house next door was identical and owned by an actual African-American grandmother. “A friend said of the payment 'I think that’s the definition of white privilege'."
When it came to furnishing her own home to her own tastes, she noticed a different kind of psychological harm and sense of discomfort.
“This harm was new to me. I had newly arrived at a kind of financial security where I could, for instance, buy new things. I had the experience of being in a furniture store.
"I’d never bought new furniture and what I found very quickly is what many people already know is that the experience of being a consumer has an emptiness to it. There was not tremendous satisfaction to be had in acquiring things like furniture.
“Part of that was the emptiness of the promise. We are surrounded by messages and promises that we will feel some gratification if we acquire certain things like a house and furnishes for it and it’s not like some things aren’t nice to have or don’t make one’s life more comfortable. But it’s not a replacement for the truly gratifying things in life.”
The book tracks things that fed her soul, as well as the things that unsettled it.
She found authentic value “in non-monetary exchanges with other people”. But says some of the most disturbing aspects of consumerism was the internalisation of market values and the effect these had on her ideas and ways of looking at herself and the external world.
“Much of what I saw or noticed had previous been quite invisible to me it took a real conscious searching and looking to see what was happening, not just to my everyday lived experience, but also my psychology…looking at how the system - the type of capitalism system, how that system had shaped my own thinking and how that much of the values and the logic of capitalism I had internalised.”
The hardest realisation was that she had put earning power at the pinnacle of what was valuable, even as someone creative who defined herself as an artist.
“How much I had internalised the idea that what is worthwhile is what earns money… I started to try to change that attitude.
“For me this is a very dangerous attitude to have as an artist, because art-making and writing do not reliably produce money within capitalism or is undervalued.
“I realised that was shorting myself of time and undervaluing my own worth as an artist.”
Her book references fellow writer Elizabeth Chin, who wrote My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries. In that work she summarizes Karl Marx's economics, borrowing from his deeper ontological analysis that workers are leached of their human essence and become a commodities within the production process, a market ‘object’ to be exploited, whereas conversely, products they produce take on human attributes, and are imbued with value. She says this inversion rang true in her lived experience.
“We’ve projected qualities innately human on to objects around us and there’s a real sadness and a loss there when objects start doing our living for us.”
Biss also looks at the inclination of the upper middle-class is to minimise what assets or spending power they have.
It was a social temptation she too had to resist. “I was caught off guard how deeply uncomfortable, excruciating it was to name the sums of money involved in my life, name my salary, of instance, or the amount my father paid for me to go to college… All of these were surprisingly painful moments.”
The social taboo is based around a sense of preservation, she suspects. It’s something that serves those who have the most financial wealth, helping to protect what they have. “It hides the extent of our inequality.”
That inequality was highlighted in bold type in a way never seen before during the covid-19 pandemic restrictions and lockdowns, she says. Any ambiguity or subtlety in class inequality faded away for her.
“It’s been laid bare by the pandemic in the US. It’s now abundantly obvious. There now doesn’t seem to be any subtlety to the dynamic.
"People like me, who are well resourced and middle-class professionals, get to stay at home and protect our health, while our everyday needs are serviced by what we’re now calling essential workers, who are delivering goods, stocking grocery stores, providing healthcare. Many of them are very poorly compensated and do not have access to healthcare themselves.”
The US middle-class itself is shrinking due to neo-liberal policies of the free market, she says.
“This is something that politicians bring up all the time – the idea that the middle-class is threatened. I think this stokes a sense of fear and economic insecurity in the middle-class, a sense of being right on the edge of not having enough.
“At least in pre-pandemic numbers, the middle-class in the US was shrinking slightly, but it was shrinking because more of the middle-class was becoming rich… It is an indication of the country becoming more and more stratified, more unequal. The inequality is growing.”
Biss argues that there is an assumption that the market system is in some way preordained by the stars as the natural order of things and therefore can’t be changed. This spell of mental passivity must be broken and the system replaced, she says.
“The system is made by people for people and if it’s not working we should change it. Reading economists who have emphasised that did give me hope actually.
“Economists like David Graeber… these economists are arguing for the possibility of us making policies and laws and practices, so that we can build an economy where what we value as a society is also economically sustained.”