Fight Club, Material Goods and Freedom

In the film Fight Club, Tyler Durden, a character who is a representation of the rejection of feminized mass consumer corporate culture, says that “the things you own end up owning you.” At first glance this line seems perplexing as it seems to suggest that freedom and owning a vast set of material possessions are in conflict. While, I don’t think that this comment is true in all circumstances it seems to be true in a particular sense within the context of societies in which nearly all of the residents are expected to have jobs and work for a living. Let us call these jobholding societies. Within this entry I will show in what sense Tyler Durden`s statement is true and furthermore, I wlll argue that the lack of freedom of the accumulator of material goods within jobholding societies is characterized by the problematic marginalization of leisure and a life which cycles between work and amusement.

Within a jobholding society if one has a set of material possessions one must then put labour into the upkeep of those possessions in order so that they retain their value. Furthermore, the more possessions that one has the more time one has to put into their upkeep as a whole. Of course one could merely buy the things and then refrain from putting any time into their upkeep, but this seems irrational as the point of buying something is so that one can capitalize on the value that it provides. For example, if one has a sparsely furnished single bedroom condominium one will have to spend far less time on the upkeep of this set of possessions than a large home that is ostentatiously furnished. Consequently, it seems that the more things one owns the more one will be required to spend one`s time maintaining those goods. Thus, there seems to be an insight to Tyler Durden`s comment as the person who owns many things within a jobholding society must now become devoted to maintaining those things. This is something that is dictated by the very logic of the purchase of commodities itself.

It should be noted that the possessions that an aristocrat owns would not have a negative impact on his or her freedom, because they have servants, or possibly slaves to deal with the maintenance of these objects, and that is why I say that Durden`s line is not true under all circumstances. There are other circumstances under which Durden`s statement would also cease to be true, but for the sake of brevity I will not consider those situations.

Furthermore, within jobholding societies there are ways out of this dilemma for the owner of a large set of material goods and that is to hire others to maintain one`s goods for you, but this option is only effectively open to those with exorbitant wealth. Even if those within the middle classes can hire someone to clean their home once every two weeks, they are still left with a large degree of upkeep on their home and other possessions. So for those who are not extremely wealthy the accumulation of possessions is a mixed blessing. We are at once are drawn to the accumulation of material goods in order to make our lives more comfortable, but these material possessions end up taking our time away as we struggle to maintain the value of the possessions that we have purchased.

Similarly, the danger that the ownership of a large extent of material possessions is not some minor threat to our freedom, as it encourages us to live within a problematic cycle of work and amusement or entertainment. Due to the fact that we spend a large part of our lives working at our jobs, and working to maintain our material possessions, when we are not working we tend to slide into activities that we enjoy merely as a visceral source of entertainment that allows us to momentarily unwind. What this cycle leaves out is leisure. Leisure is not rest, but rather time that one has where one is free to do what one finds valuable. When we engage in an activity under conditions of leisure we do so because we find that activity valuable, not because we have to engage in the activity to pursue some other end. Furthermore, leisure is distinct from entertainment or amusement, as we amuse ourselves so that we are able to reenergize so that we can return to work, whereas leisure has no aim beyond itself. Leisure is significant because if flourishing is to mean anything more than pursuing instrumental goods (work), or merely being entertained (amusement), then leisure will have to be central to flourishing. And surely there is more to the value of human life than work or amusement. This is evident as subsuming the value of friendship, romantic love, the life of the mind, musical composition and athletic achievement under the category of something that is merely instrumentally valuable, or something that is merely entertaining denigrates these goods. These are all goods which can only be fully realized under the conditions of leisure, because if they are pursued as instrumental goods, or as mere sources of entertainment their value is inadequately recognized and appreciated. Consequently, the ownership of a large set of material possessions with a jobholding society damages the freedom and life of the possessor by encouraging them to fall into life which cycles between work and amusement, rather than a life in which a space is given to leisure and all of the goods associated with it.

Therefore, Tyler Durden`s statement reveals a deep problem with jobholding societies in that while these societies may seem to allow individuals to be free to accumulate the goods that make themselves most comfortable, the cost of this practise of accumulation is the marginalization of leisure and all of the good associated with it from the lives of those who accumulate large sets of material goods. Thus, while it may seem paradoxical that the jobholder with a large set of material possessions is less free in one sense than the jobholder with fewer possessions, there seems to be a very real sense in which the preceding is true.

Another important element that we can draw from the preceding is that the danger to human freedom that capitalist holds occurs both on the side of production and consumption.. We are well aware of how we are unfree within a capitalist society in that we have to either work or starve, and we are exploited by the extraction of surplus value, but sometimes we are not aware of enough of the ways in which our very activities of consumption and accumulation make our lives less free. Here it should be pointed out that jobholding society is a distinct concept from capitalist society. All capitalist societies are jobholding societies, but socialist societies are also jobholding societies.

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4 thoughts on “Fight Club, Material Goods and Freedom

  1. Excellent essay. You make an important point in distinguishing leisure and unwinding — after working all day I am often too mentally fatigued to do what I value most, reading and writing on philosophical topics (though I do play guitar — it doesn’t require the same mental fortitude). I normally feel guilty for this, as if it is a defect that I don’t do what I most value, some sort of practical irrationality. So I think you make a great point in that that kind of habit emerges from the cycle of work-recover-work-recover. Thanks for making that point by putting it into perspective with the macro-level structures of the polity.

    • Thanks for the comment and the compliment.

      I often run into the same difficulty in that often when I come home from work I am too exhausted to focus on either writing music, reading philosophy or writing.

  2. Awesome writing here, but for curiosities sake what did you think of the film? Also – have you read the book by Chuck Palahniuk? The book in my opinion makes more of an impact as a reader of Tyler’s views on the consumerist society – through the film is a pretty accurate representation. Really enjoyed this post 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting.

      The film is one of my favourites, and when I first saw it 8 years ago it encouraged me to pursue the study of philosophy. So it had a quite deep impact on me. All that said I have not read the book by Palahniuk. Although it is certainly on my list of books to read.

      But to go a little bit further. I think most of Tyler’s criticisms of consumerism are valid, but yet he represents a mere negation of consumer society. Tyler in essence is a pure rejection of all elements of consumerism. On the other hand the perspective that I am arguing for recognizes the validity of Tyler’s critique,but moves beyond the mere rejection of consumer society towards a positive understanding that integrates the valuable insights from Tyler’s perspective with other valuable insights.

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