Is Materialism the Devil Incarnate?

My fondest memories of childhood involve spending hours in the dressing room at the mall, with my mother bringing in yet another outfit to try on, then leaving each store with a few bags in hand, filled with my purchases for the day.

This is capitalism at its finest.

Are humans born innately greedy? Not all of us want to possess lavishly adorned lifestyles, but accumulating something provides a security blanket, plus something to show to lure in our partners.

My boyfriend has no desire to be rich or to buy new things (except the occasional expensive tech gadget). He wants to save up enough money so he can quit working, live on a commune, meditate, stare off into the mountains, and I’ll admit his lack of motivation to achieve materialistic wealth drives me nuts. Why? Because I am a materialistic person. I was raised that way.

Of course I can change. I can be happy with nothing or very little. I don’t need a new pair of shoes, but lord knows I want them.

All of this, dear readers, is in response to a post over at Get Rich Slowly entitled: 84 Year Old Social Worker Saves $1.4 Million.. The woman was frugal, but only because she didn’t care about fancy possessions. She paid for her house in cash. She drove a 30 year old car. She didn’t care about having the latest and greatest. Those who grew up during the Great Depression tend to live this way. Case in point, my boyfriend’s grandparents, who horde everything they’ve ever obtained, have a house that’s falling apart, drive cars that should be breaking down… any… minute… barely use any electricity, and while I don’t know for a fact, I’d bet they’re worth a small fortune. They worked. They didn’t spend. They saved.

That leads me to a related topic: Dubai. What on earth does Dubai have to do with all of this, you ask? I read a very interesting (and very long) article last night titled “The Dark Side of Dubai” – a controversial opinion piece published in The Independent. Don’t let it’s novel-length scare you, it’s worth reading from top to finish.

Dubai – at least from this writers point of view – is capitalism (minus the democracy) at its worst. Those who are rich become very rich, those who are poor are indebted and end up in jail or are basically unwilling indentured servants. Dubai is a surreal city that has been built to be an adult playground. The party capital of the middle eastern world, no longer an oxy-moron. Shopping malls and hotels piercing the sky. Luxury at its finest.

While Dubai may be an extreme case — if the article is true — this type of upper class gets richer and lower class gets poorer has been going on for decades. Even as I write this, I have workers being paid $2 per hour on the otherside of the world completing projects for me. When it comes down to it, capitalism is about cutting costs as much as possible so those who have can have more, and those who have not never shall have. It’s a vicious cycle. Democracy helps swing the pendulum in the direction of “fairness.” Human rights groups protest cruelty to citizens of the world. People who are hurt by people who don’t want to drive 30 year old cars.

Granted there are many shades of gray when it comes to greed. But we’re all guilty of it. If we weren’t greedy, our society as we know it would collapse. We need greed so jobs can exist. So innovation can occur. Buy now, go into debt, pay later, and on and on.

I’m not caught up in the debt cycle, fortunately, but still feel this strong urge to spend. I drive past the day laborers every day on my way to work – who are likely illegal immigrants from Mexico waiting around for a job. Loitering. They are free not to do this (the main difference between America and Dubai here) but still… when people are hungry, when their families are hungry, they need the work. So they wait. I drive past the hordes of men who look to my car waiting to see if I will stop with a job. I head off to my cushy office and middle class-paying job where I’ll never work as hard as they would between dawn and dusk. I accept my greed, feel uncomfortable spending time with people lacking this greed (my boyfriend) and those who are extremely greedy and superficial (those who just want to make money to buy the world).

I am afraid that the horrors of Dubai and the greed that built the city are within my cultural DNA. I’ll save and I’ll spend, and I’ll use the resources of the world to get ahead. And I wonder if that is so terrible – when so many people out there do this without stopping to think that this whole equation might be wrong.

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