Rousseau-so: An anti-anti-consumerism manifesto… of sorts.

Some blogger/writer  came up with what he calls the “100 Thing Challenge” an effort to combat “consumerism and live a life of simplicity, characterized by joyfulness and thoughtfulness”.  The writer, Dave Bruno, claims that people have become “stuck in stuff” and must “reduce, refuse, rejigger” in order to release themselves of the oppressive confines of consumerism. The emphasis of his blog, and subsequent book, is on the reduction aspect of his theory. He challenges his readers to go through their personal belongings and throw out (or give away) their possessions until they have only 100 “things” hence the name “The 100 Thing Challenge”. In order to stay beneath 100 things, you must refuse any additional goods unless, I suppose, you are prepared to toss one of your 100 things onto the trash heap. The overall goal of this exercise is to help “rejigger” your priorities which the author feels will allow the adherent to “spend the rest of your life creating a more valuable life, instead of wasting your money and time on stuff”. Sounds noble doesn’t it?

But there are a few obvious shortcomings.

First, the “100 Thing Challenge” can be circumvented by a gaping hole in the rules. While a participant is strictly limited to one-hundred of their own possessions, they are permitted an unlimited number of “common” or family use items. That $130,000 Mercedes in your drive way? The whole family uses it so it doesn’t count. Your 50 inch flat screen television, surround sound system with subwoofers, theater seating, and a library of blu rays? That doesn’t count as one of your “100” items. You see where I’m going…

Second, the act of excising yourself of your material possessions until you are down to just one-hundred items is assumed to be exceedingly difficult if not painful, like running a marathon or attempting the master cleanse diet. This may be true of middle or upper class Westerns, but it shows an audacious ignorance of the poor who would relish the fortune of possessing 100 items, not to mention enough in excess to throw away. The question is if poverty is relevant, than doesn’t the “sacrifice” of having only 100 items betray the very same decadence the “100 Thing Challenge” seeks to combat?

There are deeper criticisms to consider as well. The deeper goal of the  “100 Thing Challenge” seems to be the desire to, as the author puts it “live a life of simplicity”, an essentially ascetic lifestyle. But does asceticism lead to greater happiness and fulfillment? Would asceticism lead to a greater moral outlook?

The first place we could look would be among the poor.  Are they individually or as a whole deeper thinkers than the rest of Western society? Do they live a more joyous existence? Those who romanticize them (few in number since Dickens!) might say they lead a more noble existence, but any objective observer would note that their existence is far from ideal.

To be fair, you could counter-argue that the poor can’t focus on substantial issues or live more complete lives because they are preoccupied with putting food on the table and paying rent rather than philosophic pursuits. Survival, not consumerism dominates their lives. This might explain why the  “100 Thing Challenge” seems to have been written for those living at or above the average Western standard of living – those who would be “free” if not for the “slavery” of consumerism. If we let the “100 Thing Challenge” write the rules we can ignore the underlying message that only those of a certain class will enjoy the fruits of this project and simply continue with our characterization of it as being patronizing.

But it is more than patronizing.

The author of the “100 Thing Challenge”, Dave, is not the first to rail against the ills of consumerism. Playwriter Edward Albee, novelist  Herman Hesse, and theorist Karl Marx (who warned of how capitalism fetishizes consumption) all touched on this theme. HD Thoreau recorded a journal of his “Spartan-like” existence in Walden (he may have sought reprieve from “civilization” but he lived on the edge of Concord which he visited every other day) promoting the intrinsic value of a pre-modern lifestyle. However, the grandfather of Thoreau, Hesse and to a much lesser extent (if at all), Marx was Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In his “Discourse on Inequality”, Rousseau argued that man was naturally good, yet he was corrupted by man-made institutions.  He argued against the products of modernity, land-ownership, science, the arts, stating that they were the sources of slavery. Accordingly, Rousseau lived by his maxims, adopting a simple life, purging himself of unessential items as the “100 Thing Challenge” would prescribe. The implications of this understanding are clear. If man is naturally good when living in conditions that would approximate a “state of nature” than surely the key to preserving this “goodness” would be, as Bertrand Russell writes in his critical analysis of Rousseau, to “abandon civilization”, asking rhetorically “for how can chains be imposed on those who go naked”?

Rousseau, and by extension the “100 Thing Challenge” would, if taken to their natural conclusion, have us reach back to our nomadic days (nothing “simpler” than living like a caveman, right?), aspiring for nothing greater than peace and restful contemplation in an ascetic paradise. Though would there be peace in such a world? I think back to the 1999 movie Fight Club.  Beyond the blood and grime, Fight Club presents a romantic depiction of anti-consumerism – if you happen to only watch the first half of the movie. The second-half of the movie rails against what is in fact its primary target: asceticism, more specifically the organizations that grow out of it. The movie is not simply a criticism of unchecked consumerism. It’s also a criticism of militant anti-consumerism. What Fight Club rightly points out is that there is a clear path (not perfectly straight) from Rousseau’s, and by extension the “100 Thing Challenge”, rejection of modernity to fascism (and to a lesser extent Buddhism) – you just need to add a dash of Nietzsche to the recipe and voila!

Anyone can understand and even sympathize with anti-consumerism, but the idea is more important than its physical representation (ie. the purging of goods). The act itself seems symbolic at best, a vanity project, something to wear as a badge of honor rather than alter your life in an appreciable way.

The goal should be about reducing, if not ending our preoccupation with consumer goods – and I don’t see how the serial self-flagellation represented by this exercise, this hyper consumer guilt, ends this preoccupation. One could argue that life would become equally if not more defined by the goods we own if the “100 Thing Challenge” is followed with precision. Orthodox followers would simply be guilt-ridden accountants.

(Vanity and self-hatred area a dangerous combination, hence the warning above.)

Finally, the key understanding is that we need to realize that the accumulation of goods is symptomatic of a larger evil that exists at a higher level – the culture that permits such thinking. Forgive the cliche, but the failure to see the forest for the trees is the overriding weakness of the “100 Thing Challenge”.  Mitigating the affects of consumerism starts with a conscious decision to reject the ideas that make a materialist existence desirable, not by symbolic gestures. Keep your hundred things.

God Lord this is longer than I wanted!!

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