Liquid Modernity and Consumerism: Why We Buy

September 30, 2019
Many people buy things more out of boredom or impulse than actual need. But why exactly does this happen?

Everything nowadays is constantly changing: politics, values, ways of thinking and interacting, education, the work world… Right now, we’re living in a globalized society characterized by rampant consumerism and the disappearance of past structures. This has led to feelings of uncertainty, aimlessness, and emptiness.

Polish philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman noticed this. In his work, he frequently talked about the painful reality of modern life. In this “liquid modernity”, our bonds are fragile, inequality is on the rise, and many people feel disconnected. It’s a confusing time, one that demands speed, selfishness, and individuality.

Bauman said that our “liquid” society is based on everything being temporary, unstable, insubstantial, and ephemeral. Everything has an expiration date. Social networks play a role in this as well. Although they connect us in some ways, they’ve also led to a widespread feeling of disconnection.

“What has been cut apart cannot be glued back together. Abandon all hope of totality, future as well as past, you who enter the world of fluid modernity.”

-Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity

A woman with no body holding a cloud-balloon in front of her.

The eternal emptiness of consumerism in liquid modernity

The “liquid” citizen doesn’t want obligations, responsibilities, or attachments. They seek out only new experiences and new risks. They don’t want to settle down. These citizens don’t finish what they start. Everything in their life is fleeting and superficial.

This leads to a constant sense of emptiness that they don’t know how to fill. That is, if they even notice it. This is why “liquid” people drown themselves in a constant state of newness. Consumerism and buying new things takes on a major role in their lives because it helps them fill the void inside them.

The problem is that you can’t fill a void with material goods. No matter how many things you have, they won’t put your dissatisfaction to rest. Try as you might, it’ll just trap you in a cycle of insubstantial things.

Unmet desires end up leading to more and more desires. These things are really just hiding needs and absences, though, because the focus is outward instead of inward. Nothing can escape the liquid nature of modern society. As a result, our individuality becomes meaningless. This can lead to identity crises, panic attacks, and depression.

There are other ways of finding satisfaction, recipes for human happiness, enjoyment, and a dignified and meaningful, gratifying life, than increased consumption that increases production.”

Responsible consumption

What can you do in the face of such chaos and emptiness? How can you fulfill yourself? Learning to flow like water is one possible answer. What this means is learning to mold yourself to fit the circumstances like water does in any container.

Cultivating patience and self-observation is fundamental. Doing so will help you figure out your real needs and stop being so afraid of change.

It’s also good to start honing a critical attitude that will have you questioning certain behavior patterns and habits. Thus, it’ll be easier for you to stop any consumerist behavior, the kind that leads you into endless loops of meaninglessness.

On top of that, you need to start focusing more on your inner world. This will help you connect with yourself better and remove all the patches that cover up the empty parts of you. From there, you can truly start to build a solid foundation for your well-being.

We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

– Edward Norton, Fight Club

A woman sitting on her couch, thinking.

How to be a responsible consumer

  • Make a list of the things you truly need. You should also establish a maximum budget of how much you can spend.
  • Focus on what you already have.
  • Re-use old things before you buy new ones.
  • Find alternatives to buying things. Many people shop purely out of boredom. Instead, control your impulses to buy things in an irresponsible, unnecessary way.
  • Simplifying your life can bring you more satisfaction.
  • Focus on self-love. It’s important to do things you like in order to feel happy and good about yourself.
  • Buy things one or a few at a time to keep your anxiety in control. You need to be on the lookout for negative emotions when you’re buying things. If necessary, you should see a therapist that can help you work through those emotions.
  • Read up on marketing. You can never know too much about the ways companies and brands “trick” you into buying products you don’t need.
  • Unsubscribe from unnecessary email promotions. This way, you’ll stop receiving constant emails that invite you to buy things you don’t need.
  • Buy experiences. Don’t forget that experiences live on forever in your heart, whereas objects don’t tend to last all that long.

As you can see, your ultimate goal should be to cultivate your inner world and reflect that with a thoughtful, patient, and enriching attitude. Stop for a second to close your eyes and enjoy the silence. Take a second to enjoy this moment where your mind is calm and your impulses are in check.

  • Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernidade líquida. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2001.
  • Bauman, Zygmunt. Vida líquida. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2007.