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OP-ED: The trap of false needs

  • Published at 09:21 pm March 1st, 2021
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Is humanity being held back by its material desires?

Every one of us aims to achieve success in life. But how do we measure success? 

The indicators we conventionally use to assess success are levels of education, occupation, income, social capital, and other material or immaterial wealth. The desires and needs that are represented by the “measures of success” are historically produced. 

Many things that were pursued previously are not the goal of today’s enterprising segments. Technologically-advanced liberal democratic societies guided us to a distinct set of desires and needs. 

Today, in a capitalistic world, most of us are eyeing to sell ourselves as commodities, as people with certain skills and abilities to perform specific tasks. Our capacity to perform particular tasks becomes valuable once it can bring more value than the price we are given for completing the task. This is happening globally and has widespread effects.

On the one hand, we are ready to be quantified in terms of a common unit -- money. 

No one is outside the circuits of exchange, be it academicians, politicians, CEOs, managers, officers, industrial workers, workers of the informal sectors, or any other profession we can name. 

We all have turned into commodities having specific skills to be sold. On the other hand, we are not only sellers, but we are also buyers of other commodities -- skills or products. Hence, we may characterize contemporary social relations as dominantly a buyer-seller relation.

Apparently, there is no harm in this form of social relation until we realize that contemporary social relations are built upon “false needs.” Here, we may take a cue from Herbert Marcuse’s book One-Dimensional Man, where he claims that contemporary society is burdened by false needs -- that perpetuate misery, toil, and injustice among us. 

In today’s world of mass culture, we are indoctrinated to our core by widespread advertisements that promote a particular measure of a successful life -- the ability to gain material comfort and wealth. Hence, this continuously forces us to sell our skills, ie, work. We want to earn more and spend more on commodities -- starting a vicious circle of perpetual misery.

Our life is centred around earning. We study, work, earn, spend, and eventually perish. 

We do not have the time to cherish our lives, rather we are constantly trying to become successful -- in the measure that mass media portrays. Every advertisement we see today stands for a particular form of “good life” and success -- jobs we should do, social life we should lead, products we should consume, places we should visit, and many more. 

We do not realize, in search of our success, we have chosen a lifestyle which does not have the human qualities of sympathy and empathy. 

Our life is fraught by false needs and it becomes clearer as we try to answer: What does a successful life mean? Or, why do we work? 

From our childhood, we have learnt, “if we try, we can achieve anything,” and “success depends on our efforts.” This sort of growth mindset is beneficial for the capital holders because this diverts attention from the unequal socio-political-economic structure to individual efforts. 

We blame individuals who do not achieve the “measure” of success and we relate this with their lack of perseverance or ability. 

Overall, blaming the individual has a double repercussion. Firstly, we do not question the inherent inequality that the overarching system sustains, and secondly, we still remain content with false needs. 

To achieve success, we are continuously working. Ironically, the more we work the more we are exploited. Eventually, we arrive at a condition of helplessness and continue selling labour for cheap.

This unequal system is supported and idealized by the false needs. We enjoy a kind of satisfaction and sense of freedom while we spend and buy certain products. We think we are choosing to work, earn, and spend; we are exercising our freedom. But we hardly realize our psyche is controlled by the propaganda machines. 

We are continuously bombarded with new desires. New models of every product are nothing but artificially created desires. We strive to buy and use the latest in clothing, mobile phones, gadgets, furniture, and many more. 

There are many brands out of which we choose commodities to buy but these artificially created desires eventually become our needs and we cannot think of our “successful” lives without such products. 

Therefore, we must doubt every desire beyond our vital needs -- food, shelter, and clothes.

We have more clothes than we ever wear; we update mobile phones as soon a new model arrives; we plan to buy the “latest” of everything. In search of meeting the false needs we stop being humans and act like automatons.

To retreat from this trap, we must return to the human scale, stop wanting false needs, stop working for multinational companies, and earning/spending no more than to meet our vital needs. 

Once we can stop contributing to the capital owners’ benefit, we will also realize, life is basically simple. We do not need designer clothes, we do not need fancy degrees, we do not need the latest mobile phones or automobiles, or other such commodities for a happy life. Rather, the simple human connections will give contentment to our lives. 

If we could ensure that all of us have access to means for arranging our vital needs -- we could divert our energy to new areas that might change the structure of human existence. It is not an exaggeration to state that freedom from false needs will create new possibilities.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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