Thursday, September 17, 2015

Lifestyles for sale vs passionate values

I've been trying to figure out why the word “lifestyle” has been annoying me. First of all, the word has been invented by marketers in order to sell products, following the increase in production of goods brought about by industrialization. You don't just sell a product, but a “lifestyle” that gets associated with the product. The term is used in both the psychological characterization of individuals and their overt consumer behavior (marketing lifestyle.) This is useful for marketers, but it is a problem for people who choose to live a certain way because of values other than market values, or for people who live a certain way out of necessity.

To understand why it is a problem, we need to understand how values motivate people and how some of these values might be different from market values. What are market values?
  1. There is efficiency which translates to price and sometimes less labor or environmental impact.
  2. There is individual choice in consumption, which makes all choices equal before the market The hate mongering skinhead lifestyle is just as valid as the creative and loving Christian monk lifestyle as far as the market is concerned., as long as both can be used to sell products. The environmentally destructive lifestyle is just as valid as the environmentally responsible lifestyle. This market value is a combination of individual freedom and equality (the first two values of the french revolution), but note only as far as consumption is concerned.
  3. There is appealing to basic drives for status, power, security and sex, which translates to projecting an image unto people and having them project an image through their consumption choices. These values are easier to use for selling purposes, compared to critical thinking, sharing resources, community level production, loving interactions, or ego-transcendence for example.

Most people who try to live according to deeply held beliefs that they have spent a lifetime thinking about and trying to imploement, share the first two values and sometimes even the third to some extent but they have other values that they value more strongly than these three. For example, amish people value community, simplicity and edifying work more. They're not anti-tractor because they are against efficiency, but because they see that the tractor destroys community and edifying work and they are willing to trade off some efficiency for these two values. Certain back-to-the-landers value life and ecology more. I value personal loving interaction, nature connection, intellectual freedom and craft-based production more. What matters with values is how they fit in a hierarchy, which ones are more or less important and which ones can be traded off for others. I don't hate efficiency, just don't value it as much as the other values I mentioned.

The global market though tries to impose its own values hierarchy (the 3 above are most important) and discount all other values relative to these 3. Any other values are just instrumental in figuring out what and how to sell to consumers. After analyzing consumer choices and psychological states, it projects images of “lifestyles”  in advertising. It pretends to care about ecology by selling certain products that are supposed to be more “eco-friendly”, but it really just cares first about selling those products, and only second about the ecology part. It is very insidious in this way, coopting any other values and putting them to the service of market values.

For those who have sacrificed comfort, wealth, status and other values for the values they are passionate about, equality with trivial choices such as what color is your house, what clothes or other consumer goods you buy is disrespectful. No, not every choice is equal to every other choice, just because it is equal as far as the market is concerned. Value choices have consequences that go beyond the market. One choice can lead to depth, community, nature connection and edifying work, whereas another can lead to shallowness, alienation from people and nature and ridiculous work that is a waste of human potential.

Herbert Marcuse noticed long ago that capitalism, like all other systems/games complex enough to try to maintain themselves, attempts to coopt any other system/game and resigned himself to this with a "resistance is futile" attitude. George Soros complains about how market values have taken over all other human values, but suggested no remedy. What would happen if a few of us just stopped (gradually, in order to make it practical) playing the game of buying things from the global economy, and instead created an anti-global-market, pro-local-market religion (the technological infrastructure would need to be created for this, see previous posts:massive online collaboration game and luddite manhattan project) where people would vow to only trade with people they know personally, not with institutions or impersonal markets? How would global capitalism respond to coopt that?

Besides marketers, young people also have an interest in lifestyle. Many young people try to join an existing lifestyle (that was mostly created or coopted by marketers) as a way to gain an identity and belonging. Some of them (I have personal experience of this) think that their parents love them or not based on this consumer-philosophy-based choice. But parental bonds are stronger than market values. Also, though most of the time nowadays both parents and children adhere to the same market values, some parents hope that their children can be loving, deep and thoughtful, transcending market values, though they usually do not base their love on the fullfilment of this hope.

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