I am currently reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and was extremely intrigued with Harar’s take on what he calls the ‘imagined order.’ Consumerism and modern settings are orders that are made to enable and enhance cooperation among humans by humans. People rarely question this order. Instead, they try hard to fit in and gather enough status and influence in the social chain to be able to modify the order (but never eliminate it).
“Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Our personal desires thereby become the imagined order’s most important defences.
For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries.
Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order. Let’s consider, for example, the popular desire to take a holiday abroad. There is nothing natural or obvious about this. A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighboring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummified, but none of them thought of going shopping in Babylon or taking a skiing holiday in Phoenicia. People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism.
Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music.
One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life.
“The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences. Paris is not a city, nor India a country — they are both experiences, the consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, fulfil our human potential, and make us happier. Consequently, when the relationship between a millionaire and his wife is going through a rocky patch, he takes her on an expensive trip to Paris. The trip is not a reflection of some independent desire, but rather of an ardent belief in the myths of romantic consumerism. A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis by taking his wife on holiday to Babylon. Instead, he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted.Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other.They may take the form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place.