Last Updated 30 Mar 2021

Materialism and Alienation

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A considerable number of scholars agree that the domination of capital, which prevails not only on the socio-economic order but also on the production of ideas and ideologies, is responsible for the fragmentation of cultures ensuing from the destruction of human relationships and interaction. The latter arises from the permeation of capitalism into the value systems, and, as suggested by Buber, ultimately creating the ‘I-It’ relationship, in which individuals identify increasingly with material goods, or derive their sense of fulfillment from consuming goods and the symbols attached to these, rather than the ‘I-thou’ relationship or the cultivation of meaningful relationships with their fellow individuals.

As individuals seek their sense of being from consumption, they are alienated more and more from society, which scholars such as Kasser (2003) suggests would lead into the loss of meaning in one’s life and the frustration that goes with it. This frustration is reinforced by societal standards that put premium over the accumulation of material wealth over non-material fulfillment.

The Pursuit of Money, Depression, and Alienation

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This is illustrated in the life story of C.P. Ellis, a man driven to join the Klu Klux Klan by his frustration over their family’s impoverishment and his own insecurity over being a low-income, white American, and his transformation into a contented labor union organizer despite. Born into a poor family, Ellis’ depression over his and his family’s financial status started from being perceived by others as ‘poor and impoverished’ in his childhood, as reflected by the way he felt people treated him and his father: “somebody looking at him and making fun of him and making fun of me.”

His father’s unhappiness mirror the same unhappiness that characterized Ellis’ life as he struggled to make ends meet for his own family later on, to “work, never a day without work, worked all the overtime I could get.” Ellis’ predicament, according to Kasser (2003), is typical of “people who strongly value the pursuit of wealth and possessions.” Kasser notes that these people “report lower psychological well-being than those who are less concerned with such aims.” Not surprisingly, Ellis’ earlier experiences wherein his concern and frustration over ‘financial freedom’ is marked by the absence of a social life and of meaningful interactions with people as his life is taken over by the need to his above his socio-economic status.

This makes him unable to see people beyond the labels and the propaganda, and also illustrate the attraction of the Ku Klux Klan to white, low-income individuals. Thus, Ellis’ motivation for joining the Ku Klux Klan, is his resentment and bitterness to his inability to move up the rungs of the economic and social ladder.

Racist Organizations and the Reinforcement of Social Isolation

The Ku Klux Klan, as a group that presents itself as the “savior of the white race,” also contains within itself the racist symbols of being superior, a superiority complex that is based on the skin color of being white. The Ku Klux Klan therefore presents an opportunity to feel power in another way, by vowing to “uphold the purity of the white race, fight communism, and protect white womanhood.” .For C.P. Ellis, the moment of ‘empowerment’ is his being ‘exalted Cyclops’ of the Klan but it is merely an extension of his yearning for a higher social status:  “Here’s a guy who’s worked all his life and struggled all his life to be something, and here’s the moment to be something.”

However, the Klu Klux Klan does not give its members a sense of fulfillment that is based on being able to cultivate a meaningful relationship between its members, but reinforces the isolation of another marginalized sector of society—the black people. Moreover, the Klan’s power is based not on the empowerment of the sector it represents; On the contrary, it blurs its members’ ability to recognize the real problems of social inequality by curiously turning to the blacks as a channel for the dissipation of its anger. While Ellis is interested in the Klan for its sense of belonging, he was more drawn to the aspect of being in control—something that, while he clearly could not achieve by being poor, he could at least exercise on people deemed to be inferior by society.

Ellis, however, was not intent on deriving meaning from the sort associated with “spirituality and religion… home life, relationships, and family…having fun and excitement...and contributing to the community” (Kasser 2003). He was merely looking for a scapegoat to focus his resentment on, from which he thought he could attain the “large number of possible goals people might have, such as desires to feel safe and secure, to help the world be a better place, to have a great sex life, and to have good relationships with other.” (Kasser 2003) In this phase of his life, Ellis therefore retains the ‘I-it’ relationship in his life suggested by Buber through his remaining fixation with material wealth and the social status that comes with it.

Transformation, Empowerment, and Redemption

Ironically, C.P. Ellis’ genuine empowerment would come not from material success but from disillusionment with the false power of the Klu Klux Klan and subsequent transformation into a man who recognized that people were more than their skin color. This would come from his reluctant involvement with the efforts to minimize racial discrimination in which he was forced to work with Ann Atwater—a black civil rights advocate—to pursue a better school system for their children. Ellis’ transformation would not be easy, however, and it would only come with the realization that those who had economic and political power were using the rift between the blacks and the whites to further their own agendas: “As long as they kept low-income whites and low income blacks fighting, they’re gonna maintain control.”

This realization would preclude his transformation as he knew more about the relationship between economic status and political power, and as he realized the importance of solidarity with his fellow poor: “The whole world was opening up , and I was learning new truths that I had never learned before. I was beginning to look at a black person, shake hands with him, and see him as a human being.” The attainment of wealth would grow less and less for C. P. Ellis as he discovered that although material things were important to people, individuals should not let it rule their lives.

Consequently, Ellis’ concern on  the goals of the labor union with which he would be involved in later, would give him more happiness and fulfillment, his sense of self mirroring “the state attained by people motivated by growth, meaning, and aesthetics, rather than by insecurity and the attempt to fit in with what other people expect” (Kasser, 2003). Ellis’ life and general direction is now a stark contrast to the sense of “low well-being, high distress, and difficulty adjusting to life” (Kasser, 2003) that he experienced earlier in his life when his sense of self was anchored on material possessions.

C.P. Ellis’ life and experience therefore reflects the dangers of material wealth as a central figure in one’s life. It provides a concrete example of one man’s transcendence over the alienation that people in a highly consumerist and materialist society experiences, and illustrates the importance of establishing an “I-Thou” basis of our identity and sense of self rather than anchoring our lives to the pursuit of financial gains. More importantly, it shows how having control on one’s life will not be achieved solely by having financial control, but by being able to appease our conscience, and striving for the higher ideals of humanity.




Materialism and Alienation essay

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