Throughout history different civilisations have used different stories to make sense of their place in the world. During medieval times it was the great chain of being: God at the top, below him the king, humans, animals, and so on. The great chain of being was a story that provided each person with their place in society and informed the way in which people understood themselves and their role in society.
The Copernican revolution changed all that. As scientific investigation took its course, religious dogma was called into question, and God lost his spot on top of things — that position now belonged to humans in general, and scientists in particular. Convinced that all life’s mysteries could be unravelled by scientific and rational reasoning, a new story emerged about our place in the grand scheme of things.
So basically I’m interested in the story we use about ourselves in 2011 South Africa — because I don’t think the one we have today is going to have a happy ending.
It’s a story much like many of the fairytales we’ve heard before. It tells us that we are all special individuals capable of achieving anything we can imagine if we just work hard enough. Yes, regardless of where you come from or what your background, you can have a happy ending — a Tuscan-like villa, flat-screen TVs, a flashy car, and lots of branded goodies. It’s a myth of the good life, of happiness and contentment that comes from being wealthy and having lots. In this story having a car is not just about freedom of movement, it’s about having the right car and how others see you when you roll down the street. Our value in the world is something to be displayed, and accumulation and consumption are the ideal ways of doing so. Decorating ourselves with labels, we try to mark ourselves as unique and valuable individuals. No, scratch that, not individuals: consumers. Our story is about consuming, and our entire way of life is about enabling more of it.
But as enticing as the fairytale may sound to some, I’m sure you can see why it isn’t going to have the signature happy ending we’d like. For starters it simply isn’t true that owning the flashy car and idyllic house are purely a matter of hard work. We know that unemployment and poverty are a reality for many South Africans, and this has very little to do with how hard — or much — they work. Making more money is a lot easier when you already have some of it.
However even if this wasn’t the case, it is impossible for all of us to live the mythical Good life as it is defined here. There just aren’t enough resources in the world for everyone to jet-set about the place and live like Madonna. As it is we are wrecking the planet — and that’s just with the tiniest fraction of people living their branded lives. Seven billion people cannot live the fairytale life — though believing they can, and working themselves to the bone in pursuit of the dream, certainly makes fairytale living more possible for the lucky few (and it keeps the system ticking over nicely as an added bonus).
What the story creates, then, is a set of false expectations that drive frustration and despair as people find the odds are stacked against them. It creates a nation of greedy consumers unable to consider the effect that their rampant and conspicuous consumption is having on the whole. Our short-sighted self-importance blinds us from the impact we inflict on the biosphere when we decide to take another flight, or buy another pair of shoes. And when we are confronted by problems like climate change, we think we can buy our way out, or change how we shop — but, heavens, the shopping will go on.
In some parts of the world this materialism seems to be losing its shine. Authors like Naomi Klein argue that increasingly people are realising how bankrupt this narrative is, and are finding alternative ways to live their lives. At first this idea was exciting, but then when I began looking for signs of this rejection there was very little to be found. I began to realise just how powerful the myth of the Good life is, and how powerfully it has infiltrated the hearts and minds of many South Africans. In post-apartheid South Africa we often talk about our new freedoms as though somehow they are synonymous with being able to consume more. As a prime example of how political rhetoric has been co-opted by consumerism, DStv recently ran a campaign calling on us to “rise up” and stake our claim to more television channels. No doubt it was done tongue-in-cheek, but the point is how easily the language of freedom was borrowed in order to sell us more.
Thanks to Cliff Court for sparking this blog — and whoever first gave the spark to him.