Adrift in a spendthrift society

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This book reflects the image of contemporary Australian society: a culture obsessed with over-consumption. It depicts a deeply unfulfilled population addicted to credit and aspiring to lifestyles of the ‘monied classes’. With the longest working hours in the developed world, Australians’ personal relationships are deteriorating and ‘self-medication’ with legal and illegal drugs is prevalent.

Affluenza aims to deconstruct the psychology of consumerism. It is sharply critical of tactics used by advertisers and marketers to manipulate purchasing behaviour. In this book, the Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss examine the economic ‘growth fetish’, the politics of middle-class welfare, and the social costs of ever-increasing working hours. The thrust of their discussion, however, is downshifting—the challenge to regain control over our spending behaviours and our lives.

Hamilton and Denniss assert that Australia’s best-paid psychologists work in marketing, carefully constructing language that manipulates us into believing that everything we desire, we deserve. Further distorting this manipulation is the issue of our self-image, and our desire to bring our actual self into accord with our ideal self. Advertisers exploit our fear that the ‘real us’ is inadequate, so we consume objects of identity and status to reflect the image we want others to see. The authors assert that almost all consumption today ‘is to some degree an attempt to create or renew a concept of self’.

However, according to the authors, broader discontent with our over-consumption is evident in the downshifting phenomenon, which they argue is the antidote to affluenza.

Indeed, the overarching theme of the Australia Institute’s research is to demonstrate that most of us feel Australian society has become too materialistic. However, the challenge to address our behaviour is complicated by confusion over what constitutes a need or a want, and how we measure up against others’ spending habits and incomes.

Through Affluenza, Hamilton and Denniss explore discrepancies over our personal wealth perceptions: nearly two-thirds of Australians believe they can’t afford to buy everything they really need, and most of us believe we’re doing it tough. Yet statistics illustrate that Australians’ personal wealth is three times the 1950s average.

It’s not hard to see why dissatisfaction and disappointment are the perpetual experience for participants in the consumer society. Retail transactions serve as therapy to fill the void created by affluenza, but our actions prove as superficial as they are meaningless. And so the cycle continues.

However, beyond the authors’ astute observations, many questions still remain. Certainly, most of us experience comfortable levels of affluence, and we need a reality check on what constitutes the good life. Without doubt, advertisers must take more responsibility for their questionable tactics—most notably their growing penchant for exploiting children’s vulnerability through the process of brand-imprinting which aims to own the consumer from a very young age. But children aside, these tactics only work on those who depend on consumption for acceptance, belonging and meaning.
What the authors don’t do, besides offering up the option of downshifting, is explore the complexity of possible solutions. At the core of Affluenza is the idea that we search for meaning, a sense of belonging and identity through increased material wealth and consumption. So, instead of simply asking how we can downshift, we need other ways of belonging.

If we don’t depend on consumption to construct our identity, we must find it elsewhere. As a culture, we need to reflect on where previous generations found their sense of belonging: in stable employment,
extended families, and communities of faith and place. If these traditional support structures have eroded, we need to create new ones, or re-instil value in those that remain.

Hamilton and Denniss note that downshifting often frees up time for community activities. Yet, downshifting is an individual response, not a direct solution to affluenza. If affluenza represents our drive to replace the void left by the worth and meaning we once found in our communities, then the cure is to rebuild them.

Downshifting, as the authors describe it, relies on a new understanding of our roles in community. We are people, not consumers, and people do not thrive when their worth depends on superficiality. Human beings depend on meaningful interaction with other human beings. When we become obsessed with acquisition, we no longer find the time to nurture our relationships. We forget our sense of responsibility to others in our communities. If acceptance in our culture is dependent upon consumption, we marginalise those truly living in poverty.

It is the role of the community to give us our sense of belonging, participation, self-worth and meaning. No one should feel the need to buy self-esteem and acceptance. Where we foster supportive, invigorated communities, our desire to consume should naturally fall. Where we find meaning and belonging in our community, our ever-increasing need for money would be curtailed.

In this way, Affluenza is a launching pad. It offers a detailed analysis of the problem, but not enough by way of solutions. This culmination of the last five years of the Australia Institute’s research should help us to start finding ways to take back responsibility for our neglected communities, and reinvigorate the creation of a society where everybody can belong.  

Affluenza, Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Allen & Unwin, 2005. ISBN 1 741 14671 2, RRP $24.95

Tania Andrusiak is a freelance writer and editor.



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Existing comments

When I read 'Affluenza' a couple of years ago, I thought an excellent commentary of Australian society. A visit to any super-super-market as an observer and student of what one sees(especially during school holidays) will demonstrate how accurate are the comments of the authors and what a roller-coaster our country has become.
Ray O'Donoghue | 16 October 2009


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