Guest Post: Narcissism, Consumerism And The End Of Growth

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

Narcissism, Consumerism And The End Of Growth

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism now include narcissistic consumerism and definancialization.

Today I'm going to tie together the major themes I have been discussing in the context of Japan being the bellwether of economic stagnation and social recession. The basic idea is that Japan offers a limited but still insightful experiment in what happens to advanced consumer-driven economies as definancialization hollows out the economy.

What happens is that economic malaise leads to profound social recession that affects society, workplaces, families, individuals that then feeds back into the economic stagnation.

Definancialization is the process in which excessive speculation, debt, leverage reverse, crushing the economy with malinvestment and legacy debt while the crony-capitalist Central State attempts to stem the resulting deflation with massive, sustained Keynesian stimulus (fiscal deficits).

What we're seeing in Japan is the confluence of three dynamics: definancialization, the demise of growth-positive demographics and the devolution of the consumerist model of endless "demand" and "growth."

Japan is the leading-edge of the crumbling model of advanced neoliberal capitalism: that consumerist excess creates wealth, prosperity and happiness.

What consumerist excess actually creates is alienation, social atomization, narcissism, and a profound contradiction at the heart of the consumerist-dependent model of "growth": the narcissism that powers consumerist lust and identity is at odds with the demands of the workplace that generates the income needed to consume.

One theme that weaves together this week's essays on Japan is the cultural/economic shift that is eroding the traditional Japanese corporate workplace.

Japan and the Exhaustion of Consumerism
The Hidden Cost of the "New Economy": New-Type Depression
The Future of America Is Japan: Stagnation
The Future of America Is Japan: Runaway Deficits, Runaway Debts

The younger generation of workers raised in a consumerist "paradise" are facing an economic stagnation that reduces opportunities to earn the high income needed to fulfill the consumerist demands for status symbols. Given the hopelessness of earning enough to afford the consumerist lifestyle, they have abandoned traditional status symbols such as luxury autos and taken up fashion and media as expressions of consumerism.

But the narcissism bred by consumerism has nurtured a kind of emotional isolation and immaturity, what might be called permanent adolescence, which leaves many young people without the tools needed to handle criticism, collaboration and the pressures of the workplace.

Narcissism is the result of the consumerist society's relentless focus on the essential project of consumerism, which is "the only self that is real is the self that is purchased and projected."

Christopher Lasch (1932 – 1994) wrote The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations in 1979. The book's subtitle captured the angst of the 1970s; though rampant financialization and the Internet reinvigorated the U.S. economy in the 1980s and 90s, the subtitle accurately expresses the New Normal.

While his analysis cannot be easily summarized, he zeroed in on the ontological essence of narcissism: a fear of the emptiness that lies at the very core of consumerism.

Sociologist Daniel Bell's 1988 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism brilliantly laid out the contradiction at the heart of all consumer-dependent cultures:

This classic analysis of Western liberal capitalist society contends that capitalism-- and the culture it creates--harbors the seeds of its own downfall by creating a need among successful people for personal gratification--a need that corrodes the work ethic that led to their success in the first place.

In the modern iteration of the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, the narcissism that results from the focus on personal gratification via consumption cripples the person in the workplace. Ironically, the flattening of corporate management and the demands for higher interpersonal skillsets has eroded the security provided by the strict hierarchy of previous eras.

Instead of working less and doing easier work--the implicit promise of "endless growth"-- the work is becoming more challenging and insecure even as compensation declines.

If there is any personality that is unsuited for the "New Normal" workplace, it is the narcissistic consumer--the very type of person that our consumption-dependent economy creates, nurtures and demands. That is the new Cultural Contradiction of Capitalism.

"Personal gratification" is the driver of narcissism and consumerism, which are two sides of the same coin. Consumerist marketing glorifies the "projected self" as the "true self," encouraging self-absorption even as it erodes authentic identity, self-esteem and the resilience which enables emotional growth--the essential characteristic of adulthood.

Personal gratification is of a piece with self-absorption, fragile self-esteem and an identity that is overly dependent on consumerist signifiers and the approval of others.

No wonder Japan's "lost generations" are lost: not only are expectations of secure, high-income jobs diminished, the work is more demanding and the security and pay are too low to support the consumerist lifestyle that society has implicitly promised everyone who goes to college and works hard as a birthright.

Jesse recently wrote a brilliant, insightful essay, Empire of the Exceptional: The Age of Narcissism As he observes, narcissism has been on the rise for 30 years in advanced neoliberal economies.

In my analysis, this is the direct consequence of the supremacy of a consumerism that is dependent on financialization: an economy dependent on debt-fueled consumption to power its "endless growth" is one that will necessarily implode from its internal contradictions: debt and leverage eventually exceed the carrying capacity of the collateral and the national income, and the narcissism of consumerism leads to social recession, a crippling state of "suspended animation" adolescence and great personal frustration and unhappiness.

The ultimate contradiction in this debt-consumption version of capitalism is this: how can an economy have "endless expansion and growth" when pay and opportunities for secure, high-paying jobs are both relentlessly declining? It cannot. Financialization, consumerist narcissism and the end of growth are inextricably linked.

As I wrote yesterday, this leads to a dispiriting "no exit": It's as if there is a split in the road and no third way: some young people make it onto the traditional corporate or government career path, and everyone else is left in part-time suspended animation with few options for adult expression or development.

We need a third way that offers people work, resilience and authentic meaning. In my view, that cannot come from the Central State or the global corporate workplace: it can only come from a relocalized economy in revitalized communities.

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RSloane's picture

I don't care how bad things get, I refuse to walk around in an orange wig.

Terminus C's picture


The article hits pretty close to the mark. People buy useless junk and adorn themselves in flashy and eye catching ways because they feel the moral and personal emptiness of modern life. People no longer have to have conversations with other people. Electronic goods either mediate or, increasingly, replace human interaction.

Precious's picture

The madness of crowds chants "iPhone" "iPhone" ... 

Manthong's picture

Look at the positive side..

Now we can recede into a godless, unprincipled world of hedonism and circuses as the banks and government destroy the stored value of labor and enterprise along with of the last vestiges of family tradition, self-reliance and responsibility.

john39's picture

that is exactly the point... humanity is being reduce to this empty existence because if too many learn the truth of who and what they really are, the elite control system would be destroyed in short order...  they must hide the truth at all cost.... and substitute mindless and trivial bread and circuses to fill our days.

Precious's picture

Hey Charles.  Why don't you and Tyler give it up on the Japan bashing.  There's a fucking Wikipedia article with over 200 citations on football hooliganism - unless that's too close to your own heart.

In other words, if you want to discuss narcissism and consumerism, start in your own fucking backyard, you self-important dick.

I think you're just frustrated the Japanese guys are getting all that pussy, and you're not.

lasvegaspersona's picture


the date 1450 is 5 years after the meeting in Genoa that estabilished the gold standard for international trade...great story as re-told by fofoa through Jacques Rueff

from FOFOA:

Jacques Rueff told the story of two different monetary conferences, two "committees of experts" that both met in Genoa, and changed the course of monetary history. The first committee gathered in October, 1445, and the second one began in April, 1922, so Rueff's lecture had ten years on this second conference. The two committees gathered under similar circumstances, to respond to monetary disorder in the aftermath of a protracted war, yet they came to opposite conclusions.

Stackers's picture

Whose bashing anything here Precious ? I dont see it.

If the truth hurts maybe its time to turn CNN back on and go back to sleep.

Japan gets "picked on" as you put it, because it just happens to be first in the line we are all standing in.

Precious's picture

Then maybe you'll be next.

By the way, I would never say anything as timid as "picked on". 

Renewable Life's picture

Jesus Christ clown, you just validated the fucking article in one response, your a true testament to your culture!!! Instead of looking deeper into the reality you face, your narrasistic ass, deflects the attention away, criticizes someone else's culture, then you drop some teen age boy psychology, with the reference to "who's getting more pussy"!!!

Your stupid ass picture needs to be below the one of the girls in their orange hair! Oh that must be the pussy, you were referring too!

Cathartes Aura's picture

one of those "girls" is not.  a girl, that is. . . spot the difference.

I realise most here won't see beyond the picture used as a token "girly consumer" meme, but the look they've adopted actually mocks consumer-ism, particularly the kind that consumes manga of the air-brushed female genitalia variety. 

the exaggerated "Hello Kitty" look has origins decades ago in post-punk genres, and while some of these girls work the lucrative desire for very young girls in porn, many are just pointing to the easily exploited sexual desires of men, also a man-ufactured commodity nowadays.

"Used underwear that has supposedly been previously worn by schoolgirls is being offered for sale in vending machines in Japan."

again, some exploit, some profit, some mock the same - who knows which from a simple picture. . .

Precious's picture

Hey, Japanese peeples. Have some derision. Courtesy, I. M. Whitey-san. Your welcome. By the way. Our prison population in Alameda County outnumbers your birthrate. We also have more backyard swimming pools in Berkeley than the whole county of Japan. Take that, you funky Tokyo consumerists. Have a nice day Japanese peeples!

Cathartes Aura's picture

oh gee thanks, that's more info than I needed about the author, heh.

Claire's Great Adventure

I have a particular aversion to middle-aged men writing fictional teenage girl tales. . .

and again, so do many Japanese females.

Precious's picture

"The lure was successful, if completely unintended as they find out later - and they end up captured and in a compromising situation on the high seas in the clutches of a pack of Asian Ruffians instructed from afar by an Alpha female pirate. In an inspired moment, they use their panties as an escape artist's tool."  - An Amazon Reviewer

Cathartes Aura's picture

lmao, thanks for proving my point - I didn't dare hit the reviews! 

but yes, you've also made your point as well. . . the framing of certain types via story-telling.   history is full of it.  literally. 

all puns intentional.

Hindsight2020's picture

Japan deserves to get bashed, just ask Kyle Bass.  And lay off Charles and Tyler, I don't see anyone subscribing to your RSS feed.  Any you know why?




One day I hope the comment system is changed to promote real dialogue on the topic and not this kind of BS.

Hindsight2020's picture

You are unbelievably short-sighted if you believe past performance is any indicator of future returns.  If you looked at Bear Sterns or Morgan Stanley's stock price buying a single digit put would have looked like a sure way to give away your money and instead could have made you returns that people only dream about.  Please go learn something about what happens after a financial panic when debts are transferred to the public balance sheet.  Then do some analysis and realize what you have presented is unsustainable because Japanese rates cannot go lower, I mean unless they go all kamikaze and with negative interest rates which will really make me want to hold Yen!

Precious's picture

Thank you, Louis Rukeyser.  You should be so lucky.

20-20 Hindsight's picture

Please find your own handle... it's not like there are not a million other alternatives!  

LikeClockwork's picture

From yesterday:


 it is a phenomenon of extended adolescence, a state of "suspended animation" of young adults facing truncated opportunities for adulthood--secure careers, marriage, family, homeownership--who are stuck in a seemingly permanent adolescence.

It's as if there is a split in the road and no third way: some young people make it onto the traditional corporate or government career path, and everyone else is left in part-time suspended animation with few options for adult expression or development.

They are escaping from their glib futures, by playing dress-ups on Sunday. Harmless. Their parents fucked up the country and now they're picking through the refuse - sound familiar? Or less hysterically it's just a projection of the boom-bust cycle.


Have to laugh at the kids today comments - lazy (think)ing.

centerline's picture

"The burden of knowing"...

Something else CHS contributed a couple years back before he was writing here at ZH.

Not so easy to be put back into the matrix.  Is why many of us are here.

AlaricBalth's picture

Through the techniques perfected by Edward Bernays and his disciples the American people have been programmed to believe that there is empowerment through consumption. When in fact the only ones being empowered are the corporations. The use of vanity, fear, greed and paranoia, which are base human emotions, has allowed the sellers of useless consumer products to manipulate the masses into believing that it is their choice to purchase that which is truly not needed. Most people don't realize that the choice was made for them.

The constant onslaught of propaganda is turning most people into mindless Pavlovian dogs who react when the bell is rung. As I have said before, to begin combating manipulation you must first realize it exists.

Miffed Microbiologist's picture

Very well put. I recently tried to get a casino addicted acquaintance to understand the underlying research applied to maximize casino profits. Primarily done in the 1950s where they studied how they could induce rats to push a button through various stimuli including colors,flashing lights, sounds and random food rewards. This research transfered easily to humans, sadly. I was hoping she would reach some kind of epiphany... I'm being manipulated like a rat! Hell no! Instead I got : I don't know what you mean... I just like going to the casino, it's fun. People just are not interested in self examination and discovery today and thus become so ever more alienated from themselves and others.


RichardP's picture

People just are not interested in self examination and discovery today ...

Why is that a problem?

A great many "inventions" were made by accidental discovery, including radium and vulcanized rubber.  Examination and discovery cannot happen in the absence of education.  The reason radium and rubber were "discovered" in the midst of an "oops" is because the observer was trained and recognized what they saw.  An untrained observer could have witnessed the same "oops" and seen nothing.  So it is with self examination and self discovery.

For the great majority of human history, humans have not been trained in the art of self-examination and self-discovery.  No one was trained how to look, and would not have known how to correctly interpret what they "saw" if they did look.

Ignorance of the deeper meanings behind personal motivations and behavior has been the natural state for humans throughout history.  Yet they seem to have been pretty successful at being born, working, and dying.  Are humans supposed to do more than that?  If you answer yes, sez who?

Miffed Microbiologist's picture


I agree you have called me out in the implication humans should do more than eat, work die. Perhaps my general desire for like minded people who are also on a journey of self discovery caused some judgement on my part to leak out. Ultimately I believe we are on are own path and must follow our own desires be it Gucci bags or enlightenment. Buddha did say best to travel alone than have a fool for company.

On the other hand, I do disagree about the necessity of education as a requirement for examination and discovery. Perhaps you don't mean this as modern education which I just consider indoctrination but classical education. What is needed is inquisitiveness, a willing to explore and push boundaries and acute observation. Education doesn't neccesarily fosters this. Einstein didn't excel in formal education but formulated his theories while working in a patent office. Penicillin was discovered by chance but I have worked with the fungus Penicillium for almost 30 years and have never isolated it in the manner that it was described that led to the discovery of Penicillin. So perhaps there is some amount of luck, random chance at work as well. Facinating topic, thanks for the mental work out.

Miffed :-)

RichardP's picture

I try not to let my schooling interfere with my education.  Attributed to Mark Twain and Grant Allen

I meant education as the acquisition of knowledge, not schooling.  If you re-read my post with that definition in mind, perhaps it will say something different to you?  One cannot see anything without having been "educated" toward the seeing of it.

My comments were not meant to call anyone out so much as to stimulate discussion.  What does it mean to be human vs. merely animal?  Surely the lowly sloth eats, works, and dies.  Are we not something more than the sloth?  Is there not nobility in calling humans to be something more than just eaters, workers, and diers?  The philosophers say yes, but where does that activity turn from noble effort to call humans to be all they can be into crass marketing for the simple purpose of encouraging consumption (of food or knowledge)?  How do we defend against that turning?

Miffed Microbiologist's picture

Richard, I can now appreciate and savor your points. This type of conversation is a lot easier for me in a coffeehouse with a good cup of coffee rather than a blog. It's too easy to misinterpret people in this format.

Yes I believe as the philosophers do. There is an inescapable underlying need for humanity to grow. Everyone has a right to flower, to reveal his or her own full potential as a human being, to fulfill his or her mission in the world. Everyone has this right. This is the meaning of human rights. Life is an everlasting struggle with ourselves. A tug of war between moving forward and backward, between happiness and misery. We all at some point in our lives succumb to the crassness of marketing and consumerism. When I was younger I was seduced by the shiny baubles or the promise this pill would make me skinny and therefore attractive. I escaped it by intense self examination. Who am I? What do I truly want in my life? What do I really need to do to discover my true potential as a human? But this is my defense, application to humanity as a whole? I don't have an answer. Thanks for the response thought I wish we could do this over coffee!

Miffed :-)

RichardP's picture

This type of conversation is a lot easier for me in a coffeehouse ...


Miffed Microbiologist's picture

What we need is a format like Marc Sautet's Cafe Philosophique where people can gather and discuss a variety of social issues. But I guess that was so 90s. Now I just all we got is Twitter, Facebook or blogs. Certainly a forum of sorts but quite impersonal. Anonymity does allow certain freedoms I suppose that would be lost in such a social format. Sorry so long between posts. I've been out wine tasting all day with friends while I tried to post. Frankly I'm amazed I'm still coherent!


Matt's picture

People are stupid, because stupidity is successful:

Also note the large number of geniuses that made great contributions to society, but did not reproduce.

LooseLee's picture

Sadly, most humans are not interested in the 'art' of looking---especially inwardly. Americans are the most adverse. Chalk it up to 'Consumerism', for starters...

Birdmandaddy's picture

Couldn't agree with you more... What really irks me is the fact that corporations try to sell you mass-produced goods via appealing to your need to express yourself as an individual (i.e. a LV purse made in a sweathsop by Chinamen and being sold at a 100000% markup is supposed to satisfy your need for expressing your wealth to others). 


Harbanger's picture

Blaming Corporations may in itself be narcissiitic as it takes the onus off the individuals choice.  Too much blame and not enough personal responsibility is our problem.  Narcissism has been around since biblical times.  The first character test for narcissism ever recorded was Solomon threatening to cut a living baby in two in order to discover who the true mother was.

RichardP's picture

Thirty-five million women buying the same handbag - to express their individuality.

Harbanger's picture

That's what narcissistic people tell themselves, in fact they want to be accepted by the crowd.

Cathartes Aura's picture

X-number men all wearing the same embroidered baseball caps to show their team spirit club member-ship. . .

Harbanger's picture

Hipster dudes get tattoos, beards, piercings all as expressions of individuality yet they all look the same.  At the heart of it, people just have a need to belong to a "group".  All just sheeple really.

Cathartes Aura's picture

yes, I agree, the need to belong to a branded socially re-cognised grouping is a sheeple trait exploited by those with things to sell, profits to be made.


Harbanger's picture

Tattoo r-ists profit from hipsters, they weren't forced to get them. Why is everyone a victim.  Maybe it just feels better to blame.

Cathartes Aura's picture

oh dear, no need to let your glitter-thong ride up yer ass - no one suggested any force involved in herding sheep towards their freely chosen pens, I merely pointed out the obvious that there was profit in identifying the desired costumer-y.

Parrotile's picture

And there's far, far more profit to be gained in removing said tattoos (once they fall out of fashion!).

Modern Society - the Society of "You've gotta LOOK good!!"

Seems nowadays the packaging's far more important than the contents (or has it always been so?)

Blankenstein's picture

Nope.  That LV bag isn't made in China like 99% of handbags.  It is hard to find a purse that doesn't cost a fortune made outside of China.  The LV bag is made in Italy.  Very sad that if one wants a handbag not made in a sweatshop, one has to pay a month's rent for it.   

Jack Burton's picture

Agree totally "AlaricBalth". It is sad to see the degree that marketing manipulation can drive human impluses. I see it all around me. People riot to get into stores for X-Mass sales, stand in line all night to get an i-phone 10 minutes ahead of their friends. Go into debt for 30 years to buy a huge overpriced, ugly McMansion in a tasteless area of other similar homes.

I have a family member whose only dream is to get into marketing and branding for a retail corporation. It is so sad to hear her speak of her education. Science and math are turned into tools of human manipulation. SHe can graduate from college and never have read a good piece of literature. And they call it "An Education"! NO! It is a "Trade School" for manipulatiors.

Kayman's picture

Funny thing that. Those that are desperately trying to pump up the resumption of the "animal spirits' of consumerism are the very people that killed the jobs and incomes of the middle class, AKA the consumer.

AlaricBalth's picture

I would posit that a thriving American middle class is not as essential to multinational corporate earnings as it once was. The share of non-farm income attributed to labor began to decline in the early 1980's and dropped precipitously beginning in 2000. The rise of a consumer class in China, the fall of the Iron Curtain, NAFTA and rising incomes in Brazil and India have, over time, created markets for companies that prior to the 80's were non existent.

In order for Americans to maintain the standard of living they were programmed to expect, debt became paramount to replace lost income and to combat eroding purchasing power.

Like a jilted mate, the American middle class has been left behind for a more attractive, younger lover on the other side of town, and is left with nothing but memories and yearnings for times gone by.

geekgrrl's picture

I think a better metaphor might be that the middle class has been imprisoned in debt. There was never any love, it was all exploitation.