By Lucy Dodge
Within today’s Western world, the multidimensional structures of the capitalist system continue to reign supreme. The thriving of such a system has provided fertile ground for consumer addiction to develop – a phenomenon which sees particular features of the capitalist framework enticing individuals as consumers, who then find themselves caught up within the system itself. Individuals have become hooked upon product purchasing and fast-food, in the same way that drug addicts are dependent on their next fix. Perhaps most worryingly, many consumers will be unaware of their literal addiction to the vast array of marketed goods and services on which they rely. Yet such addictions are not just damaging for individual well-being. The relentless consumption occurring within the Western world also reveals the remarkable lack of freedom that exists within the very societies which pride themselves on their citizens’ liberty.
A symbol of this growing trend in consumer addiction is the desire of individuals to engage in an incessant form of commodity purchasing. This is seen in the social hysteria that surrounds popular brands, merchandise release dates and department store sales. Those living within capitalist societies are submersed within a culture of commercialism and advertising, which saturates their everyday lives. This style of advertising does not simply promote a particular product; it sells the idea that consumerism is vital to enhancing our own status and self-worth. Indeed, research within neuroscience has shown that the desire to engage in commodity acquisition finds its basis in the chemical reactions of the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which fuels our desire to seek out pleasure, lighting up the brain when we partake in activities which are expected to produce satisfying outcomes.
However, in societies where there is a continual stream of new commodities flooding the market, consumers become trapped within a ‘dopamine loop’. The reward circuits of the brain become overloaded. As a result, individuals experience an unremitting desire to buy the latest products. The glowing faces and bright eyes of those who have just got their hands on Apple’s most recent iPhone are classic indicators of a dopamine rush – we get high from buying ‘status-enhancing’ goods. And just as the drug addict injects to achieve instant gratification, consumers seek measures which will speed up the process by which they can obtain desired commodities. This is evidenced by the fact that the marketplace is now inundated with mechanisms such as immediate delivery or ‘buy now pay later’.
Yet such an addiction to commodity purchasing is harmful to individual well-being. Basing one’s self-worth or happiness on the acquisition of commodities constructs a vicious circle, as feelings of fulfilment will be transitory. As soon as a newer product enters the market, older purchases lose their value as status symbols, impelling the consumer to buy the latest merchandise. The phenomenon of consumer addiction thus traps individuals within an ongoing cycle, which ultimately can never provide genuine, long-lasting contentment.
It is not just our brains that are stimulated by the addictive features of capitalist structures however, but our gustatory systems as well. Over recent decades, fast-food chains have infiltrated Western society at an unprecedented rate. Acting as one of the ‘poster-boys’ of the capitalist world, fast-food restaurants now feed more than 50 million Americans each day, with the industry generating approximately $198.9 billion in the USA in 2014. Fast-food corporations are focused on maximising profit, rather than the nutritional value of their foodstuffs. Indeed, this industry is geared towards finding an edible ‘bliss point’ – creating foods which entice our evolutionary cravings for fat, salt and sugar.
Whilst such an addiction to fast-food might be lining the pockets of industry chiefs, it is having devastating effects on the physical health of Western societies. Nearly 70% of Americans are either overweight or obese, with such rates having doubled in adults and tripled in children during the past 35 years. Furthermore, 29 million Americans currently have type 2 diabetes, with rates having tripled in the past 30 years. Consumer addiction is therefore not simply a matter of isolated cases; it is having tangible and detrimental effects on vast swathes of Western populations.
It is clear that consumer addiction is having destructive consequences for personal well-being, as well as society as a whole. On an individual level, addictions to commodity purchasing and fast-food products are damaging, both mentally and physically. On a collective level, the insatiable appetites and unchecked consumption patterns of Western societies not only foster social malaise, but also mean that individuals living within these societies are actually remarkably unfree. As addiction to the various outputs of the capitalist system becomes increasingly prevalent, a dark irony can be found in the fact that the very societies which glorify the values of freedom and liberty, are simultaneously plagued by this insidious phenomenon.