Jul 11, 2017

Free Market Fight Club

I am Jack’s being-for-itself.

I consider myself a free market existentialist. As an existentialist, I believe in individual freedom and responsibility. I believe that we get to define ourselves, if we’re willing to make the effort. As Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, “We are defined by the choices we make.” There is much that I love about Fight Club’s emphasis on choosing freely and being authentic. In fact, I published an article about it titled “Fight Club, Self-Definition, and the Fragility of Authenticity.”

Fight Club’s rejection of consumerism resonates with my existentialism, which calls for us to define ourselves as individuals and to resist being defined by external forces. Tyler and Jack share a similar background (there’s a reason for that): they followed the advice of their absentee dad to go to college and then get a job. They’re members of “an entire generation pumping gas and waiting tables, or … slaves with white collars.”

Tyler has broken away from the corporate world to become an entrepreneur who steals human fat from liposuction clinics and upcycles it into soap that wholesales for twenty dollars a bar. (He also has side jobs splicing porn into family films and peeing in fancy people’s soup.) Jack’s corporate job has him flying around the country and determining whether to either recall unsafe cars or make out of court settlements. To decide he coldly applies a utilitarian formula: “Take the number of vehicles in the field, (A), and multiply it by the probable rate of failure, (B), then multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement, (C).  A times B times C equals X…”

Jack’s job pays well enough for him to hide from his inner emptiness and become Ikea boy. As he explains, “I would flip through catalogs and wonder, ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?’” After his condo blows up, Jack mourns the loss of his stuff, saying, “I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was me!” Whose fault was it that Jack became Ikea boy? Jack’s. No one forced him, and it would be inauthentic to blame Ikea or anyone else.

Tyler Durden sets Jack straight, teaching him to “Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.” In fact, as it turns out, Tyler is the one who blew up Jack’s condo, and thus it is true of Jack that “The liberator who destroyed my property has re-aligned my paradigm of perception.” In their meeting at Lou’s Tavern before moving in together, Tyler explains to Jack what a duvet is: “It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?” Jack answers, “Consumers?” Tyler responds, “Right. We are consumers. We’re the bi-products of a lifestyle obsession.”

Consumerism is the problem; it is the drive and desire for the newest and latest goods and services for the sake of deriving self-worth and signaling one’s worth to others. But characterizing people as the bi-products of consumerism fails to recognize our individual freedom and responsibility. Still, we may wonder, are we responsible for our desires? The answer is yes, to the extent that we can manage them. Desires may arise outside our voluntary control but we can work to manage them once they arise. And if we do that, they will arise less frequently. Yes, environment is largely beyond our control, but how we react to our reactions is potentially within our control. We are not victims of our environment. Living in a consumer culture does not doom us to being mindless consumers filled with envy and resentment for those who have more than we do. The answer to the problem of satisfying desire is not destroying corporations but reducing desires.

One way to reduce desires and counteract consumerism is to practice voluntary simplicity. Rather than indulge in consumption for the sake of keeping up with the Joneses, we can simplify our preferences and possessions. Tyler teaches “the ability to let that which does not matter truly slide,” embracing an extreme minimalism, “living in in a dilapidated house in the toxic waste part of town.” His message to the men of fight club is: “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.” So far, so good. I wouldn’t want to live in that ramshackle house, but Jack says that “by the end of the first month, I didn’t care about TV. I didn’t mind the warm, stale refrigerator.” Indeed, Jack comes to utterly reject his former lifestyle, commenting that he “felt sorry for all the guys packing into gyms, trying to look like what Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger said they should.”

Tyler is right to warn us that, at least potentially, “the things you own, they end up owning you.” Certainly this is what happened to Jack. And Tyler is right to say of the men of his generation that “Advertisements have them chasing cars and clothes, working jobs they hate so they can buy shit they don’t need.”

Advertising is powerful. Just consider that Pepsi, Starbucks, and Krispy Kreme (among others) paid for product placement in Fight Club. They were willing to bet that having their products on movie screens would boost sales. And they were probably right, even though the message of the film was anti-consumerist and their own products played the role of the villain. Jack muses that “When deep space exploration ramps up, it will be corporations that name everything. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Philip Morris Galaxy. Planet Starbucks.” If stadiums and bowl games are naming opportunities, then why not planets and galaxies?

What is to be done? Destroy the corporations that sell us their crap and leave us in debt. That’s the answer of Project Mayhem. It’s part of a great story, and so I’m reluctant to criticize it. Jean-Paul Sartre, the Tyler Durden of Existentialist Club, might well agree. As a Marxist and supporter of Stalin and Mao, Sartre saw violence as sometimes necessary, and he would agree with Tyler’s observation that if you want to make an omelet you’ve got to break some eggs.

As the bombs are about to explode, Tyler tells Jack that “Out these windows, we will view the economic collapse. One step closer to global equilibrium.” Tyler paints a vivid picture of a primitive, anarchic future: “In the world I see—you’re stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You will wear leather clothes that last you the rest of your life. You will climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. You will see tiny figures pounding corn and laying-strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of the ruins of a superhighway.”

I have to admit that Tyler’s anarchism and neo-primitive vision appeals to me, but only because while watching the movie I identify with the Übermenschian musclemen. In reality, I wouldn’t succeed in stalking elk. More importantly, this is an adolescent, unthinking response. It lashes out at “the man” instead of taking individual responsibility. And frankly, I prefer the world that the free market provides, where I don’t have to hunt because meat is available inexpensively at the grocery store.

We need a better alternative to blowing up buildings and destroying corporations. Rejecting Marxist existentialism, my free market existentialism internalizes responsibility. The self-defining existentialist can find consumer culture crass without necessarily rejecting the free market that makes it possible. Fear of free markets is just fear that people can’t be trusted to think and act for themselves. Dealing with consumer culture may be difficult, but it is just the kind of challenge the free market existentialist relishes for the opportunity to exercise responsibility and to grow through challenge. Indeed, capitalism provides a large array of choices and opportunities conducive to self-definition.

The free market also provides the opportunity to make meaningful work. Entrepreneurial activity need not be crass and cynical like selling women back their fat as soap; it can be noble and inspiring. There should be a natural alliance among existentialists, artists, and entrepreneurs because they all take risks in their creative production. The entrepreneur is often seen as crass for the pursuit of profit, whereas the artist is seen as noble in creating art for art’s sake. But neither stereotype is accurate. For the existentialist, the purpose or meaning of life is itself created and can be manifested in art or commerce.

Corporations have their own interests and they are not always well aligned with the interests of individuals, but so what? We don’t need to destroy them. Because consumer culture may be in tension with one’s ideals and long-term goals, it is up to the individual to recognize this and take control of his or her own desires and spending. Don’t buy that expensive soap made from human fat. Tear up that credit card application you received in the mail. If you can’t afford something, don’t buy it. Resist consumerism. The existentialist remains free to opt out of consumerist society, to be in it but not of it. As Sartre says, “there is freedom only in a situation” and “there is no situation in which [a person] would be more free than in others.”

“The first rule of Project Mayhem is you do not ask questions.” This is the root of the problem. When Tyler Durden morphs from the founder of Fight Club to the leader of Project Mayhem, he stops urging the men to think for themselves and starts telling them to follow (his) orders. He may have the greater good in mind, but no individual, not even a counsel of wise leaders, can determine what is best for all. Rather, individuals acting on their own give rise to a spontaneous order that is superior to anything that could have been designed.

While viewers see that Project Mayhem is extreme, we may still be tempted to think that government regulation of the economy is called for. It is not. We don’t need to curtail the free market; we simply need to become more discerning users of the free market, not buying every bauble it makes available but instead demanding quality products that meet genuine needs. The free market is the solution, not the problem.

By advocating the free market I am not advocating greed. Greed is not good. We should not feel obliged to consume inordinately. To the extent that we can restrain ourselves, it is better not to spend on what is not needed, thereby encouraging producers to make what is needed at a lower price and higher quality than the competition. We should, in particular, avoid the trap of conspicuous consumption. Keeping up with the Joneses for the sake of letting the Joneses know we are keeping up serves no good. It may seem to benefit the producers we patronize and the larger economy, but such benefits lack real fecundity. They do not encourage producers to make better quality, more affordable products, but rather more expensive, more desirable, less necessary products. In the long run, this serves no one well.

In the end we need to recognize that yes, the free market produces a lot of cultural junk, but it also produces great art like Fight Club.

This article includes excerpts from The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism and “How Existentialism Can Shield Us from the Free Market’s Dark Side”.