Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough – Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Allen & Unwin, 2005, 9781741146714 (Aus, US/Kindle)

Three years ago Clive Hamilton half-jokingly referred to the possibility of the five-blade razor. It comes as no surprise that his prediction has come true, and emphasises why Affluenza continues to be an extremely relevant book. Gillette’s razor with five blades and not one, but two, lubricating strips is designed for the closest shave possible. But really, it’s to turn consumer attention away from Schick’s four-bladed ‘Quattro’, which must of course be an inferior razor, not due to the amount of blades, but due to the ‘spacing of the blades’ as their campaigns advertise. One asks – how many blades do we really need?

‘While some choice is beneficial, too much can actually cause a decline in wellbeing. In an experiment in which subjects had to pick a chocolate from a selection of 30, the sense of regret and uncertainty about whether they had chosen the “most delicious” chocolate was greater than that experienced by a group who chose from a selection of only six different types of chocolate.’

The market-based society just does not really know when to stop. Surely Schick will one-up them in a few years with a six-blade, or do a complete marketing turnaround and offer a ‘Renaissance’ blade or some such thing that goes back to ‘classic’ shaving. All the market spin and bull is just designed to suck you into a whirl of mindless, meaninglessness consumption.

Affluenza explores Australian society today – a collection of individuals striving for material gratification. We work more hours than any other developed nation and thus spend less time with family. This is motivated by a pure drive to accumulate more ‘stuff’. Many Australians look to their retirement as the golden years when all the benefits of their success will be reaped. Hamilton calls this ‘deferred happiness syndrome.’ In the meantime any significance or wholesomeness in their life is being pulled like a carpet from under them. And many will not even make their retirement with increasing rates of stress-related diseases and rising levels of depression and suicide caused not only by overwork but the alienating effects and emptiness promoted by a shallow, wasteful cycle of life.

Statistics given by Hamilton and Denniss show that 62% of Australians don’t believe they can buy what they really need, and a high percentage of these come from the richest 20% of households. What this really shows is the permeation of the myth of the Aussie battler, and the disintegration of the ability to determine between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’.

‘Rising the threshold of desire in this way creates an endless cycle of self-deception: like the horizon, our desires always seem to stay ahead of where we are. This cycle of hope and disappointment lies at the heart of consumer capitalism’.

Like the razors, credit cards (in an age where debt is natural) have gone from Gold to Platininum to Black – and even recently, Titanium. The flashing of such a symbol is supposed to produce respect and envy at the owner’s status. Many products and brands are marketed to produce status, but what will become of a culture that looks up to shallow figures who have achieved nothing but wealth? The examples are too obvious to even warrant naming, but the SBS TV Show Decadence emphasised how society and the media in general downplay the achievements of scientists, thinkers, and writers and instead pedestalises pretty faces. Actresses and fashionistas are the new role models, and not for their skills and abilities but for their clothes, vacuous looks, and ability to be perpetually thinner than others. We are given an ideal self to emulate then marketed the goods that will help us achieve this. Even subversity and nihilism are marketed to youth, one example being the ‘Emily the Strange’ clothing range. Every market is researched and captured, everything is commodified.

But of course we are not all passive consumers, dumb and duped by advertising, but what can be emphasised is its inescapability. As the authors argue, it is certainly not money or even ‘affluence’ that is the problem, it is our attachment to it – this is the sickness of affluenza. The capitalist society has evolved into one that is centrally market-based, even through politics and the media (being 70% owned by a right-wing billionaire). A relevant point Hamilton brings up is the marketisation of illness. Society creates ills (eg. obesity) but the ‘cures’ are individualised (‘you’ have to do something about it) and companies profit from the creation of weight loss programs and drugs.

The biggest problem is of course the way that children are socialised within this framework. They are taught brand-love from their earliest years. Parents commodify their own children with label-clothing, often sexualising them too early. Adult ads are targeted at kids to increase the ‘nag factor’. Parents listen to their child’s ideas about what is considered ‘cool’. The toys available today are shocking, with even baby versions having heavy eye make up and pouting red lips. Some parents feel they have no choice in buying them because they don’t want their children to miss out. What kind of a skewed version of reality will young girls grow up with? That the only way to succeed in life, and most importantly, the only way to be happy is to be ‘sexy’?

‘We’re led to believe that money gives us choice, status, and increasingly, an identity. But there’s something hollow about all this. Whose meaning or identity is it? Am I really defined by where I live, what I wear, eat, or drive? Or am I just another willing victim of our sophisticated market?’ (from the SBS show Decadence)

Hamilton and Denniss explore how advertising plays to our weaknesses and vulnerabilities and how the culture contributes to the disposability of relationships. They also look at societally produced waste, obsolescence due to constantly updated technologies, and the damaging effects of youth’s early access to pornography.

While this may all sound incredibly depressing, Affluenza does look at options on how we can ‘downshift’ our lives without dropping out of society. It is not an attack but rather an acknowledgement that something fundamental has to change. It stresses the importance of getting back to involvement with community, giving something back but also to enable yourself to have those essential, rewarding human connections. It looks at people who have really done it and would never look back. It suggests maintaining an awareness of our own consumption patterns. We can regain the control over ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ and feel more fulfilled and enjoy a quality of life without the burden of maintaining a media- or marketing-constructed status-quo.

The SBS show Decadence believes that as a whole we have lost some intangible spirituality which is not necessarily connected to religion. It is the ability to stop and absorb the beauty of the land, the ability to feel transcendence through music, art or love. Not to fulfill a fast and shallow impulse. This basic liberal humanism is opposed to the neo-liberalism that has evolved in a West that forgets about ‘meaning’ unless constructed or manufactured and it will only be achieved through awareness, knowledge, education and even wisdom.

See more:

The Australia Institute website.

Related books:

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy.

Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman.

Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel.

Late Capitalism by Ernest Mandel.

Reification, or the Anxiety of Late Capitalism by Timothy Bewes.

No Logo by Naomi Klein.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton.

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz.

Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess by Robert H. Frank.

The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser.

The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza by Oliver James.

Consuming Innocence by Karen Brooks. 

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