From a Critique of Consumer Society to Forms of Global Psychotherapy or the Illusion of Life

by Oleg Maltsev

In this paper, the author conducts a praxiological and descriptive analysis of Chapter 4, “A Critique of Consumer Society,” of the book Remembering Baudrillard by researcher Serge Latouche. The purpose of this research is to identify the critical social and psychological reasons behind the ultimate paradigm of “consumer society,” which, in the 21st century, is the predominant and integral norm of life in present-day society. Metaphorically, the author refers to the lifestyle chosen by the individual favoring the consumer society paradigm as the environment of illusion. This paper offers an insight into the cognitive and other socio-psychological motivations triggers and an overview of the consequences for the life processes of the “consumer society” paradigm.

Jean Baudrillard is the first fundamental questioner of Consumer Society. While a definition of consumer society already existed before Baudrillard, it was the French philosopher who comprehensively studied this phenomenon and outlined its social, economic and anthropological role. The concept of “consumer society” was first used in the 1960s. Serge Latouche attributes this to the scholar Jean Marie Dominique. However, Jean Marie Dominique’s writings, particularly the definition of “consumer society,” were not popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Though, during this period, according to Serge Latouche’s research, Baudrillard, was at the age of 41 when he was directly assigned to investigate the phenomenon of “Consumer Society.” It is not particularized by whom, but it is regarded that the intent of this assignment was to create a ‘commissioned book on sociology.’

The consumer society represents a critique of consumerism and the myth of a society of abundance (or excess). Quoting Remembering Baudrillard, it is essential to focus on a specific saying “We face the first announcement of the diagnosis of globalization.” Therefore, in the course of his study, Baudrillard asks several questions (for the first time in scientific discourse), like “who is the consumer?“; “what is a consumer society?”, and this ultimately derives the following tendency—the society of plenty is arriving. The philosopher also described the consumption paradigm in a dynamic relationship with social changes of the XX century. What we see globally is the growth of a society of abundance. In our society, the very idea of excess is probably somewhat different, and not the one people once aspired to. Around 100-150 years ago an excess of resources would have meant increased supplies for survival (forage, ammunition, etc.,—everything one needs to fulfill his or her necessities, and have some extra for an unforeseen future), today a “surplus of resources or products” has a symbolic meaning rather.

In becoming a consumer society, however, a deadlock is created in that economic and technological growth does not produce goods simultaneously as humans need them. Consequently, there is a necessity (demand), and there are commodities. The growth of demand, and demand, is strongly inferior to the growth of commodities, and consequently, this creates a market oversaturation due to a commodity surplus. This oversaturation—imaginary and deliberate or artificially orchestrated—is presented as abundance because humanity has everything in abundance and even more goods. So the era of abundance has arrived, which is a direct reflection of well-being. According to S. Latouche: “Abundance exists only in the sight of spectacle…”

In other words, understanding the players’ roles in the market, the following has to be outlined: it is not the consumer who has become competent; it is not the consumer who regulates the product’s quality. The consumer does not regulate anything. The market is simply oversaturated with goods, justifying the notion that these are not natural processes but favorable ones, indicative of a high standard of living.

A whole field of entertainment, affluence, beautiful and healthy living is shown to human desire. Why is this being demonstrated? To breed even more desire. Latouche powerfully denotes that the consumer is deliberately shaped to envy an object, a commodity, and to possess and have it by demonstrating this fact to other consumers. However, all these goods will never satisfy an irrepressible desire for more. The drive to dominate and possess, to receive more and more products and attributes, symbolically confirming the status of the “self as a possessor” and thus a person who is strong, independent, different from the others, is inherent in the unconscious nature of every human being (the paradigm is researched and verified in detail by the Swiss scholar and fate analyst Lipot Szondi in his book “I-Analysis”)

Besides the possibility of easy access to all kinds of goods, the display and “exhibition of wealth” should take place as a celebration, as a show. Separately, the flip side of the coin of this processes outlined is also analyzed. It is not enough for the consumer to understand that they have access to every product they need. The consumer must be influenced by specific conditions (social inequality) in which one may not afford 100 percent of the time having what one strives for. Subsequently, according to human nature (the triggering of automatic mechanisms), if one individual cannot afford something (but he desires to have something or object), and as he watches someone already possesses that “desired thing”, the non-possessor feels lustful. That is called envy. Those who can afford to buy up everything are disappointed; however, admitting that one is jealous and disappointed usually is not essential for a person. He cannot admit that.  Moreover, there comes a denial of scarcity, as Latouche remarks: “Too much is offered for the contemplation of the crowd.”

A critical reflection on this statement by Serge Latouche (and especially the denial of the scarcity paradigm) applies to the elaboration of such phenomena as the “store” and then the “supermarket”. As a matter of fact, until the middle of the 19th century, supermarkets did not even exist. The idea had never even crossed anyone’s mind in those days. Memorizing the first trips back to Amsterdam in 80-90 of the XX century, there were already supermarkets there, three-storey, four-storey, but they were not yet, ‘the Walmart like’ in the USA. Moreover, it turns out that even then, entrepreneurs still were aiming for small shops.  For example, there was a fascinating shop in Germany on Rose Street. The shop was about two hundred years old, selling leather goods bags and other hand-made leather products. Moreover, it has been operated by the women of that family for generations. I remember the “grandmother” running the shop since I visited many times. That woman was a great saleswoman. Then she passed away, and the shop was sold. The relatives did not want to engage, that is, make money in the old business. There are new shop owners now, selling something else. Here is an example of how for 200 years, entrepreneurs preferred small boutiques over huge stores. Moreover, now the majority tends to act more passively. So, we now produce new hypermarkets, and associates demand to be lured there.

What happens next: the public should feel they are getting a better life, better conditions, that wages are raised and that welfare is improved. Any horrors of the factories’ workers, those terrible conditions, they begin to fade away. Suddenly trade and market exchange by its bounty seems like a gift now—a reward. Everything seems to be beautiful.

The next step: now, the new lifestyle should be represented; it has to be decorated. That is—the aesthetic design, the façade of “new life” has to be gorgeous. The façade has to be beautiful. Two fields of knowledge are emerging—design and advertising, and something that was not necessary before is now becoming essential. Further on, some clever people start coming up with big posters—posters include drawings. The first thing the consumer is taught to do is to consume images. The consumer, as Latouche has stated, becomes inclined to consume the image. They are no longer interested in satisfying basic needs. Consumption seeks to reflect perfectly the nature of reality. However, as Baudrillard points out, this all involves real subversion. Then in Remembering Baudrillard, it is said, “Signs of change replace work processes.” That is, design defines asceticism. We now also need to be informed about it. Thus, the following powerful vector emerges—the vector of media. How do people know that they are making progress—it is crucial to assure everyone that all changes are positive.

The primary vector to make everyone believe they might get what they require is a credit card. Right there, the credit card is precisely the bait for any fish in the society of consumption. Moreover, at the core of this feeding procedure is the requirement for psychotherapy. Studying the never satisfied irrepressible desire is the key of the paradigm of the ancestral unconscious and other unconscious processes of human nature according to Lipot Szondi’s scientific school of Fate psychology, this finding of the relevance of psychotherapy and discharge (liberation from the burden of life cycles) is logical and reliable.

That is to say, our drive (usually it is an unconscious drive) for psychotherapy is already “built within us” since birth. Any system that exists must have a function such as “offloading” (or discharge). If a car is dropping revolutions, and the engine cannot run on a constant voltage, this means it has to restart. Most importantly, the car does not go on forever. It rests for a while. Logically, the engines in an aircraft run for a certain amount of time. They have a limit. Take-off, then reset. The plane gets a horizontal position in space and slowly begins to take off like a fighter jet. However, it cannot climb nearly vertically; passengers cannot be carried in this way. Furthermore, when the revs are dropping at a certain speed, and the plane begins to climb upwards slowly, that is the motional-dynamic model of therapy.

When applying the above-mentioned motional-dynamic model to consumer society’s psychological background, it appears psychologically; consumption serves as a kind of global therapy. There is a strive to consume more and more, which creates short-termed relief and easement every time the person purchases or acquires something. How do these processes function? To start with, consider the natural types or methods of therapy processes. The first human psychotherapy method is sleeping. People work during the day (that brings pressure), and they sleep at night (that helps to release the pressure, a so-called “natural discharge process”). That is the primary standard of human psychotherapy, which is “set in human nature.” Moreover, this is a form of psychotherapy that assumes that consumption is a form of psychotherapy, an artificially created therapy type. One may use that therapy, but in fact, one cannot. If the pressure increases, natural forms of psychotherapy become insufficient. I will provide the most straightforward example to clarify that: let’s hypothetically think of a person who lives in the 17th century. The amount of information in the 17th century per capita is 400 times less than now. That is, he does not need to process 400 signals. One person may encounter 1200 and another 400 messages today. Count the number of messages we get on the internet in a day, and consider that one letter in the 17th century would take 2-3 months to arrive. In order to get one message, one waits for three months. Presume the strain on one’s mind in the 17th century as compared to the 21st. This should be taken for granted, and the above-mentioned is just an example. Nevertheless, it is possible to address hundreds of such examples, not two or three, i.e., the load on a person nowadays is many times higher than it was in the XVII century. Accordingly, those forms of natural psychotherapy that exist now are not enough, so the external form (buying more) is the person’s relief under pressure. A question, how many clothes did a person have in the 17th century? For example, three, or four suits. Today one walks around the city and sees thousands of suits or other garment variants. It was physically impossible to produce so many suits in the 17th century. So, the fact remains that there were no shops in such quantity and excess, as we see these days. One hundred years ago, there was no fashion in the form in which it exists today, and there was not a massive number of things required to be done as there is today. However, that is the tendency representing the role of the external form of psychotherapy.

The internal is embedded in a person; for example, one shares a basic data package of therapy steps, but someone increases the daily pressure. In new conditions, the previous therapy is no longer good enough. Then, someone starts offering to the consumers of ‘therapy’ some other forms to help—the additional psychotherapy forms.

In wartime, in contrast, when there was no psychotherapy. The only psychotherapy was a knife. If one kills somebody—then that is also one of the forms of psychotherapy. It may sound a bit scary; still, there is a perspective in the American psychiatry environment, claiming that people may go crazy if they do not kill since they are prohibited from carrying and using weapons today. David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, surveyed 5,000 people for his book, “The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill,” and found that 91% of men and 84% of women had thought about killing someone, often with particular hypothetical victims and methods in mind. Douglas Fields, neuroscientist and author of the book “Why We Snap,” says our brains have evolved to monitor danger and spark aggression in response to any perceived danger as a defence mechanism. “We all have the capacity for violence because, in certain situations, it is necessary for our survival,” he says. “You do not need to be taught defensive aggression because it is a life-saving behaviour that’s unfortunately sometimes required.”

What happens when a person feels the impulse of aggression as a natural reaction to an external stimulus (for example, in a situation where he has been unfairly treated), yet laws and social regulations do not allow him to “splash out” this aggression outwardly? Unlike in previous eras, today, a person does not have the right to judge himself, nor does he have the right to kill his kind (this is not democratic, not tolerant, and so forth). What happens in such a case? In that case, the individual himself becomes a victim of his aggression. Moreover, this impulse is no longer directed outside (at the source of the external irritation) but inside, at himself. Such impulses do not go away completely, causing considerable damage to the psyche, generating mental traumas, deviations, and even illnesses. Sigmund Freud verified this paradigm explicitly in his most famous book, Introduction to Psychoanalysis (or Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse). Freud outlines psychoanalysis’ critical paradigms, including the unconscious mind and the theory of neuroses and dreams. Overall, it might be assumed that psychotherapy arises as a necessity when a human is prohibited from using his weapons. The weapons are taken away, and the new therapy necessity arises.

The paper further suggests a praxeological reflection on the outlined processes and forms of therapy transformation in the context of historical discourse. Namely, after the 1830s, a crucial shift in social norms and regulations and the formation of a new global role for money appeared.

Studying history, we may recognize the enormous consequences of a “no-weapon” paradigm. Meanwhile, in 1830 money became a new weapon (instead of guns), matching a form of weapon that emerged in a new era. Money emerged as a substitute for weapons. So people gave up their knives and their guns and took up money instead—merely some paper banknotes. Thus it should be straightforwardly stated that money came into existence as a substitute for weapons. One is not allowed to kill; one can only purchase. Moreover, whoever kills will go to prison. Hence this is where the roots of law are from. In the form that we are now contemplating, not a set of rules, not regulations but precisely a law, which is governed by specific articles and sanctions: for example, for murder—one is sentenced to 10-20 years. Murder, as such, converts into a basic form of psychotherapy and a forbidden form of that. The Americans argued that a lack of killing is the main form and cause of mental illness. And the cause of visible and outward human behavior. That is, if a man knew that he would be killed for misconduct, he would not behave like that. The reasoning was that “we need to untie consumers’ hands and give them a key.” The money, as it is said, still smells of the sweat and blood of the worker. It is all disappearing—a symbol of capitalism fades away. Living in capitalism and using a credit card is now the norm. Now we not only have a bank card. But also a bank card advertisement. For example, here is the paradigm: buy now, pay later—what in the US has essentially become substitution methods. Everyone has suffered a lot because today, when companies start using financial banking methods, they forget that they do not have a reserve fund, i.e., insurance for some kind of case. For instance, as a result of this, Lufthansa almost went bankrupt.

As S. Latouche remarks, Baudrillard concludes that one can make the consumer believe other values emerge: social security, family benefits, pensions and even unemployment insurance; institutional altruism. You have been given everything, now consume. It is the same as imposing certain social stereotypes of possession. One has to possess a house, one has to possess a car and so forth. This tendency is particularly evident in the American way of life.

The welfare revolution replaces the old socialism.” (Remembering Baudrillard)

Serge Latouche notes that Baudrillard was very attentive to social networks. Even before the computerization of them, Jean Baudrillard foresaw it all, and this is partly why he is called a prophet. He made the prognosis of the new society of the millennium and the virtualization of the world. So, computerization emphasizes the virtualization of reality; i.e., Baudrillard pointed out that computers will create new possibilities, and everyone will use them. Secondly, he said that this growth would exceed consumption and overkill, and there will be a crisis as a result. The economy must reboot: a crisis is a reboot of the economy. This is where the following form comes in. If there is a consumer society, then there will be a consumer waste society. It becomes a consumer waste society. “…in this perspective, Baudrillard notes the attitude to consumption is equal to the attitude to production waste”—S. Latouche emphasizes. One gets the imaginary feeling that surplus is essential to them, and not current needs. This is another form of psychotherapy. When spending is already repeatedly preceded not only by earning opportunities in the here and now, but, also when one’s expectations are deceived. Hereabouts advertising plays a strategic role. Rationality is better replaced by abundance, and “this is what they call freedom.

One is free if one can afford everything, but at the same time, one is ‘placing’ himself in subjugation and so on and so on, and the worst part is that one will never pay for it in the future. Mortgages and everything else in America is vividly shown.

S. Latouche claims: “A society of excess seems to suppress puritanism and turns into a spectacle, in short, a society – into a show. The desire for evolution replaces the revolution of desire.” Why should a man be forbidden to do everything? On the contrary, it is better to allow him everything. To make a person manageable, on the contrary, everything is given to him in excess, in abundance. Such an approach works much more effectively.

“Next, the concept of individual needs disappears.” (Remembering Baudrillard)

There is no point in working to meet needs. Individual needs are no longer of any colossal interest. More significance is now credited to overabundances, to excesses. There is no point now in working only for the sake of satisfaction. Earlier, one used to work because one had to pay the rent; that is in an industrial society. Now freedom is valued; one can afford more. An apartment, a car—that comes immediately. So, everything can be purchased or acquired. At the same time, this structural paradigm generates an oversupply of goods. What happens next is overstocking, overcapacity moreover, and after that comes the crisis. The next phenomenon to get analyzed is the abstract need. In Remembering Baudrillard, it is questioned: “But what is the Benchmark of abstract needs? The natural needs that used to be. Anything above this threshold is called a waste.” It is like people taking out a loan in order to pay off a loan, practically. This is why we have the following definition – “Waste Consumers’ Society.” Further on, it seems that the nature of consumption is changing. Consumption is now a show, a surplus and everything else. Serge Latouche assumes, “Consumption is consumption apart from pleasure.” The system itself has remained the same, that is, goods in the form of commodities. If one takes something, one has to pay; you have to give, and so forth. People may think otherwise,however, the processes of overstocking lead to a crisis. It is great to recall that  the credit crunch originated in 2007-2008. This is the transition to no longer being a consumer. Then social phenomena such as stress, burnouts, bankruptcy, suicide and mass dissatisfaction became the realia of daily routine life. However, the system itself, the value, has remained the same, while the environment has not changed. Two parallels to psychotherapy arise here: personal internal psychotherapy (the usual human habits, like watching TV, jogging, etc.) and external economy therapy. External psychotherapy brings the same effect as a crisis does to the economy—it is a reset. Baudrillard compares illness to the economy, and he compares the phenomenon to disease. That is, as an allegory that is applied to explain what is occurring in the market.

In particular, the notion of ecology in economics is very often applied nowadays. The so-called “clean ecology approach.” Ecology in economics is fair competition, where competition becomes unfair if the parties involve some higher levels: moreover, such game minds have invisible reasons—that is, the source of competition is invisible. That is the whole point. Today it is a well-known fact; nobody wants to go to prison. This is why I have to describe some former USSR society realia, the changes of the nineties. The nineties were the year of banditry; banditry emerged, though many criminals went to jail. However, the rest became smarter after the 90s. Thus, they improved their brilliance, and in fact, today’s business is built on the bones and blood of people “wiped away” in the nineties. In Ukraine, for instance, there is no other business. Not here, not in America. Everything will be built on bones, sooner or later. Business people already have something to lose: power, money and other things, and consequently they develop more and more perverse covert methods of competition. Latouche applies this ecological dimension to his analysis of consumer society, while attempting to characterize consumer society’s production. The researcher follows Baudrillard’s picture, trash civilization and the processes it involves: advertising, deliberate consumption below its expiry date, accelerated wear and tear, single-use consumption, etc. Just as an example, it might be mentioned, while a car used to run for 60 years, then some old cars ran for 30 years, but a modern car is deliberately made to break down after two years. Latouche provides the reader with a metaphoric standpoint: “Deliberately accelerated obsolescence… of products and machines, destruction of old structures, etc.” Current marketing is hanging on to three things now: advertising, planned obsolescence and consumer credit. These are the components of makeup marketing. Moreover, that marketing is the driver of growth. Plus the media, communication is the vehicle for the dissemination of advertising. “Advertising plays a central role in building society.”— Serge Latouche concludes.

Baudrillard again emphasizes the insoluble nature of the effectiveness of advertising. The philosopher describes this phenomenon in Simulations and Simulacra along with the scale of this phenomenon. The following scale of advertising is propaganda, i.e., the next level of development of advertising in scale. Thus the resounding conclusion is drawn: that we have all been deceived. We live in a world of deception. Latouche remarks, “Essentially, advertising has succeeded in blurring the lines between show and production.” The more the supply of goods grows, the more we overstock the market, the more excellent the advertising has to be. Advertising in its various guises is what is required in a consumer society. Moreover, there is no model, but comparing shops and supermarkets to temples, then consumption or purchase can be taken as a ritual. Latouche: “…an abundance or abundance of spectacle is ineffective in any way eliminating scarcity or frustration.” That provides spectacular assumptions. On the one hand, the world provides what one needs, but on the other hand? Even if one earns all the money globally and buys everything, it is of no use and makes no sense. Latouche: “The division of people into social classes is inextricably linked to the ideology of growth and consumption.” Baudrillard says that all people are equal before objects in terms of some kind of use-value and not equal before objects in terms of difference, which is profoundly unromantic. How does this manifest itself? If one wants to be higher  up on the human status hierarchy, then one requires an iPhone (and so on). In fact, according to Baudrillard’s conclusions, growth is counter-productive. That is to say, behind a particular vapour, an effect is created which contradicts the goal altogether, i.e., the satisfaction of needs as such. So, the limit of saturation cannot be reached, i.e., human greed is infinite. It can only burst—burst, then crisis and then the crisis is a reset.

The most important thing that happens is that it is temporary and unsatisfying. An example is the simplest: anything might be considered ‘an excellent issue’ no longer than for a year. Until the next model of iPhone comes out, that is a specific time. The pleasure of being cool. Consequently, abundance is fictional 100%; any satisfaction is temporary. Progress and abundance go hand in hand with trouble, i.e., new products entail new costs.

To conclude, abundance is created for the “silent majority,” In return, the majority is extorted from what the “creators” need, such as votes in political elections. Abundance is produced for people at their own expense. People live for “today”; the masses have no “future” since they are not interested. They have everything today and get that “everything” automatically. Therefore, if all this is perfectly created for confirming a”solid today,” then one is eager to keep their “precious today.” The guaranteed today is the most important thing for the consumer from the masses, and for that, they need to vote for those who create the comfortable and cozy “picture of today.” Moreover, if anyone dares to change their comfortable “today,”—the silent majority’s representatives will have a particular reaction, which in psychological terms can be called neurosis.

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