To experience Western culture is to submerge oneself in the concept of alienation, and to be driven into the arms of consumerism by that force. Consumerism thrives upon the entrapment of individuals in nets of instant gratification and the use of products to help oneself feel fulfilled. The word alienation itself “suggests separation and distance; it contains within it the word alien.” (Berger 50) Once someone feels so alone or isolated from any other individual, they become desperate for help or another form of gratification to give their life meaning. This can come in the form of material possessions, buying food, finding relationships; they all are consumerist methods to help mask the feeling of isolation. Since Marxist theory exists to critique the capitalist system that depends upon exploitation of the consumer, it only makes sense that the term ‘alienation’ be coined to exhibit one of the glaring flaws in most Western economic practices.
The basis of consumerism is based in competition, that is, when two companies release contrasting marketing campaigns to try and pull as much profit as possible. Therefore, they each project a set of ideologies that represent their product, like showing a commercial with a woman who has clear skin to sell an acne product. The company is telling the consumer that having acne is a detrimental trait, that it makes you the opposite of attractive in society. This is the first step of alienating the consumer, as stated by Berger in Marxist Analysis, as “they suffer from a false consciousness–a consciousness that takes the form of the ideology that dominates their thinking” (Berger 50-51).
Once the company plants the seeds of their ideology within a consumer, it is simple for the producer to keep finding products that will appeal to the new false consciousness they engineered themselves. The theory of alienation also has precedence within the theories of the public and private spheres, as each one influences society in their own way. Within a capitalist society, it is extremely difficult to establish a strongly independent public opinion, since false consciousness and ideology inundate society at every level. The private sphere, or the people holding power and influence in society, “creates ideology and their own set of beliefs” (Habermas, 76), which they then release into society via mainstream media. This way, it influences citizens on a level agreeable to the government without many even realizing it, and it is successful largely through advertisements and subliminal imagery. This relates to the theory of hegemony as proposed by Antonio Gramsci, as the government seeks to “subjugate and liquidate” any social group it views as “antagonistic” (Gramsci, 75). If the government and corporations in power hold significant influence over society as a whole, their ideology can influence what consumers buy and even focus on in their daily lives.
The only way to resist and defy the hegemonic expectations of the dominant groups and alienation is to establish independent and unwavering public opinion, free from the ideologies the public sphere has become inundated with. However, the first step to establishing resistance in a hyper-consumerist society is to recognize an individual’s sense of alienation, and realize it is due to the ideologies spread by corporations. It is impossible in a consumerist system to completely extricate oneself from the machinations of the corporations, but it is entirely possible to consume media and products critically. By recognizing the ideology presented alongside a product, a consumer can practice making decisions based on their own consciousness and desires, as opposed to the instilled ideals of false consciousness and commodity fetishism. “Commodity fetishism is the perception of the social relationships involved in production not as relationships among people, but as economic relationships among the money and commodities exchanged in market trade.” (Marx, 61) Through this theory, it is explained that consumerist societies generally value the product more than the human life and labor put into manufacturing it. This inherently magnifies the effects of alienation, as the workers putting time into creating and perfecting a product do not even feel the satisfaction for completing it, because their labor is being sold as the commodity. The disconnect between a worker and their own labor is enough to make an individual turn to the idea of false consciousness for instant gratification, to continue being a slave to the system they are employed by, as their own alienation drives them back into the arms of the corporations.
In the end, a hyper-consumerist society cannot thrive or push forth profitable advertisements without the assistance of alienation. Since it is a driving force behind consumption and the economic choice of the consumer, companies are always creating new ideologies to new and broader target demographics.In an attempt to cast a wider net, corporations are hoping to institute more dependencies on false consciousness and the desires put forth within it. It is dependent upon the consumer to deduce if the desire they are feeling for a specific product is as the result of false consciousness, or if it is truly something that meets their tastes and needs. Public opinion must be established so that citizens and consumers can critically consume products given to them by corporations, but through a lens that allows them to identify the ideas of ideology and social hegemony behind their marketing strategies. The observations of the consumers is what consumerism seeks to abolish, and it is up to the public sphere to resist corporate interest, and instead focus on what gives them fulfillment and economic peace of mind.