The serpent inside the consumer cycle


It’s been getting harder to organize our kids’ rooms so we decided to do a bit of deep cleaning. We rearranged beds, emptied out dressers and edited the books and toys they’d amassed.

Frankly, we were astonished by the sheer volume of expensive stuff that had piled up over a decade of Christmases. But somehow, I don’t think we’re alone in this, at least if Black Friday is any indication.

When it comes to shopping we Canadians are bad, but sometimes I just don’t understand Americans. Who would have thought a crowd of Black Friday shoppers would have a wrestling match over waffle makers? Or a woman would pepper spray 20 other shoppers to get a discounted X-Box? Or a man would get shot—in front of his family—in a California parking lot for his purchases? Or a grandfather would get knocked unconscious by police while still inside the store? It’s crazy.

This isn’t new, of course. Who could forget the creepy Tickle-Me Elmo, Beany Baby and Cabbage Patch Kids fights of seasons past?

Marketers dream about these happy collisions at the intersection of consumer culture and the crowd. But what makes us do it? Turns out that there’s not much scientific data about mass behaviour.

Psychologists theorize that there are three kinds of collective outbreaks: panics, crazes and riots. These directly correspond to the individual emotions of fear, joy and anger, so crowds behave like super-organisms that amplify our emotions.

Though there’s not a lot of data, there’s been a lot of social engineering around these phenomena. It began by recognizing the power of ‘conformity.’ Human beings, as social creatures, are hardwired to conform. Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, got it and went on to develop both propaganda and public relations—which led to the creation of modern marketing. Today it’s an industry that not only includes advertising, marketing psychology and strategy, but also advocacy, fundraising and political lobbying.

This means that the business of shaping behaviour is now as prevalent at the top of the decision-making pyramid as it is on the bottom. In other words, our government representatives and civic leaders are now as much targets of manipulation as are the rest of us.

But who’s driving all this? It’s pretty simple, those who have the most to gain: people running corporations with products and services to sell—which pretty much encompasses the entire economy. So everybody’s in on this mass mind-shaping game. Now we even manage to do it ourselves with “social media.” We’re now growing online networks to promote our own versions of reality to others around the world—the same way business leaders created think tanks to promote their world views.

Not that any of this is bad. It’s just the way society and economics have evolved. But the result is a tightly integrated cycle of consumerism. It reminds me of the ancient symbol of the snake eating its own tail: the Ourorboros.

Here’s what Carl Jung had to say. “The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow self. This feedback process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life again…”

So what is this “shadow self” that we’re assimilating in our mass consumer society? Or, what is this hidden thing we endlessly crave? To repeat Jung, in a word it’s “immortality.”

Immortality is the forbidden fruit of existence, and we’ll do anything to compensate for the lack of it. We divert ourselves with status-seeking and consumption, the accumulation of wealth and power, with creative activities and family, legacy projects to leave for “future generations,” pleasure-seeking diversions, with religion, and most of all with work.

Where we get hung up is when we occasionally realize the meaninglessness of all this false activity. And the market even has a solution for that, too: the search for meaning is now an industry in its own right.

Our calendars are filled with the endlessly looping cycle of consumer-focused validation of meaning. There’s Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, personal anniversaries and birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the granddaddy of all, Christmas, followed by the final spasm of consumption for the cycle, Boxing Week. And, in a kind of horror-show fashion, it begins all over again with the new year.

Meanwhile, we’re degrading our natural environment at an ever-accelerating pace. We’re not the Ouroboros infinitely feeding on itself; we’re a collective parasite destroying our host planet. And for what, closets-full of broken toys and out-of-date clothes?

Sure, we can join the Occupy movement and protest the greed and corruption at the top. But they are us, and we are them. We’re all in this together. The time has come to put away the credit cards and start focusing on what really matters.

But, unless we’ve recently cleaned out our closets, I’m not sure we can even recognize what that is any more.


  1. hi jer - missed reading this one til today - i concur entirely - rifled through the closets last year - recyled and reduced - gave more to charity and spent less on retail therapy - walk and walk and walk - lots of fresh air keeps the 'nothing' away [... ever see the neverending story?] - take care ... hic in bc

  2. I wish I were more successful at keeping the nothing away. One thing for sure, shopping doesn't help!


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