The condition known as “affluenza” has consumed America and much of the world. Social critics have pointed out its symptoms and spread for years, and even popular culture has brought the disease to us on our television screens, even if not called by that name. One such piece of culture is the film “Fight Club”, focusing on an underground club where men fight each other. This film has a deeper message about society, culture and the way we act as consumers.
In the book “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic”, the authors define “affluenza” as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” More simply put, affluenza is a condition where more is never enough, there’s always something else we can buy and want to buy. If this condition itself is not bad enough, it also leads to overworking in order to pay for these goods and the general feeling of unhappiness. While we may not realize the source of the unhappiness, it can be summed up as wasting our lives slaving away when we could be enjoying the little things.
There is much talk about affluenza in “Fight Club”, although the word “affluenza” is never spoken. Early on, a doorman says to Jack, the narrator, “Lots of young people try to impress the world and buy too many things.” This foreshadows the idea of the fight club, an escape from this all-consuming consumerism.
Jack, whose background is firmly in materialist America, has a conversation with his alter-ego, Tyler Durden. Jack says, “You buy furniture. You tell yourself: this is the last sofa I’ll ever need. No matter what else happens, I’ve got the sofa issue handled. Then, the right set of dishes. The right dinette.” Tyler responds more bluntly. “This is how we fill up our lives,” he says. “This time maybe get a widescreen TV. You’ll be occupied for weeks… The things you own, they end up owning you.”
When Tyler addresses the fight club, he lets his anti-consumerism show. “Advertisements have them chasing cars and clothes, working jobs they hate so they can buy shit they don’t need,” he says, referring to middle class Americans. He sees the problem not only in advertising, but in the general lack of purpose in life people have. He refers to prior generations who had grand wars to fight, and now we are left with the wealth but no purpose. So we fill our lives with things, hoping to find that purpose, while only creating a bigger hole in our lives.
Tyler Durden has a very complex vision of society, with many views mixing together promoting this anti-consumerism. He also feels that technology is generally bad, and thinks the the average male has lost his traditional masculinity. Unlike the affluenza in the book, Durden does not see it as a problem in itself so much as a symptom of a sick society as a whole.
The book offers a very simple solution, focusing largely on cutting out unnecessary spending and leading a simpler life. This is something everyone can probably do. The authors also suggest a religious solution, though I am unsure how well that applies to everyone.
The solution in the film is a bit more violent and direct. According to Jack, the plan “is to blow up these credit card headquarters and the TRW building.” TRW Incorporated, which is not explained in the movie, was an American corporation involved in defense, automotive, aerospace and credit reporting businesses. This was to be the big goal of Project Mayhem, which had the fight club members covertly destroying businesses and really doing everything in their power to grind civilization as we know it to a halt.
Tragically, the events in the movie are a dark precursor to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Whatever the exact motives of the hijackers were, their primary target was not far removed from the plan Tyler Durden had concocted. The World Trade Center was a looming symbol of finance and the American way of life, with wealth accumulation and commerce being a large part of that. Some of the biggest giants of the financial world, including Morgan Stanley, were housed in the towers. Interestingly, the terrorist attacks had a great many results, but none of them was the collapse of Western civilization or the end of commerce in America. If this real-world instance is any indication, Durden would ultimately have failed and consumerism and affluenza would likely continue its spread.
What does this say about American values? I could think of many things this might say about our values as a culture. Maybe it says we’re selfish or want to fill our lives with “stuff”. The terrorist attacks of September 11 did not bring commerce to a halt. In fact, the American thing to do in the face of tragedy was to embrace our collective affluenza. New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, on September 12, 2001, told the world, “Show your confidence. Show you’re not afraid. Go to restaurants. Go shopping.” Shortly after this, President Bush encouraged people to go on living normal lives and go to Disney World. Patriotic Americans shop. I do not know that I would call myself patriotic, but I am able to accept that this is what the culture offers.
The affluenza of the book and the affluenza of the film are similar in their symptoms, but different in their cures. We can hope that should the affluenza epidemic become a pandemic that the more extreme methods of Tyler Durden are not utilized. People can be responsible for their own actions, they can control their urges, and enough people making small changes in their own lives can make a big change in all of our lives. The only question to ask, and it is one I have to ask myself, is are we ready for the cure or would we rather remain ill?