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  • Writer's pictureAzrael Encarnacion


What is it to be ‘broke’ in a scarce resource economy? What role does consumerism play to ‘fix’ the break from capital?

Sometimes you’re broke only if you want to be rich. The more you desire the latter, the more you must be the former. After all, not having a thing is usually a primary reason for wanting it. To want to find love is to not have found it yet. To want the supposed greener grass of the other side, is to admit the current grass under your feet is faint and far from the viridian ideal. So in this sense, you’re broke if you want to be rich. Being rich is a way of not being broke. I’m being partly tongue-in-cheek but I’m not at full liberty to deny the greener desire of the non-rich (mainly in the capitalist-conditioned culture of the United States where I live), to become defined as rich.

Broke, as I’m using it, starts off meaning materially poor. The material is external property and assets that can be sold or traded for their economic value. To be broke is to have arrived at the conclusion of a material break. A rupture that disallows you to hold property together or sustain capital. Like a cup with a crack, the substance leaks away from the container’s possession. But from there, broke, as I’m discussing, also becomes a deeper immaterial measurement of self-worth, in connection to external materials—When your personal value is made to feel dependent on what you are able to own.

To ‘fix’ the ‘broke’ is to provide the solution. To mend or re-pair what has become separate. But we should also remember ‘fix’ in the case of addiction, where the resolution is a reunion between discomfort and temporary relief. To re-pair what’s broke, the fix may begin as a solution but if the immaterial rupture of personal value is not solved by material proprietorship, then those momentary solutions are repeatedly mined, over and over again, if only for a quick break from the otherwise unsubsiding void.

When the industrial revolution created mass production of manufactured consumer goods, the supply soon overtook the demand. Like having more substances than substance abusers. After all, once every home has an iron or radio, what are the iron and radio manufacturers going to sell them? Brands had to create consumer goods that weren’t meant to last, and advertisers had to create the narrative that you’re tragically missing out if your consumer goods weren’t the very best, up to date brands. Little by little, every area of life from opening cans to manually turning on a television set became a problem, fixed by a product meant to upgrade your lifestyle. Consumerism functions from the idea of defining what you lack and then offering a fix. It’s the basic storyline to most TV commercials to this day. Batteries that last longer than the rest…Soaps that feel like you’re washing yourself with a river from paradise…Drinking bottled water so remarkable that all other water brands are basically selling you mud or denying you vitamins.

Consumerism is here to fix your life. To shop for you, to cook for you, to deliver the food cooked for you. To entertain you, and while entertaining you, sell a slice of that space to advertisers, who sell you more krazy glue to fix what’s broke. And consumerism, generous as it is, has products for everyone to consume at any income bracket, so there’s no excuse for consuming less. No excuse to stay broke. It’s as easy as turning on the TV and watching commercials occasionally interrupted by the regularly scheduled program. One major fix of consumerism is ‘lifestyle as a product’ and the materialized strength of status symbols. Luxury brands of cars, watches, shoes, or purses are consumed to make loud statements on behalf of the consumer. These items boldly broadcast the wealth of the owner, in terms agreed upon by the current trend of the consumerist culture.

Ads, TV shows, films, music and other pop culture media play a role in creating a baseline image of material success. Within our social groups, whether at school, the office, our neighborhoods, or on social media these ideas are affirmed via our exchange with one another, our judgements and aspirations. And while it isn’t broke to have a goal and work toward becoming a version of yourself that can fit into your future, it is, however, a convenient mold for industry and consumption. Endless tools and kits for becoming that version of yourself are in no short supply. The danger comes from seeing these tools as the only way to fix every part of yourself.

The only people who hypothetically wouldn’t want to be rich in this sense, are the truly rich. That is, those unconcerned with being broke, it’s no longer a problem to fix—Other problems are still around, but money isn’t one of them. Same way I don’t want to sit if I’m already sitting, because the ‘wanting’ should go away. That isn’t to say the rich don’t like being rich, although some perhaps do actually experience this; I just mean, they no longer feel broke. Just like sitting doesn’t feel like standing. A nice playful and imperfect idea to keep in mind is, you’re rich if you’re unaffected by being broke. An imperfect idea, because there’s still an admission here, of ‘being broke’ but it’s a hollow definition. Broke here, breaks down into circumstances that are true (income, property, assets) but if those circumstances don’t matter, thereby are immaterial, then it’s like a cup with a crack, but a crack that doesn’t alter the cup’s full capacity for holding substance.

Because consumerism is here to fix us, being broke is the perfect starting point and the prospect of being rich is the perfect carrot to dangle over our heads. And if we climb the success ladder there’s plenty of moments to join Drake on his celebratory refrain on Started from the Bottom. In the process, money moves and an economy takes shape. Consumerism thrives on the idea that everyone could use improvement, and if you really want it enough, anyone willing to put in the effort, can fix being broke. But not really, because fixing is an on-going project and everyone could use a little more…Even the rich. If you’re broke only if you want to be rich, then you’re still broke, at that immaterial core, if you feel you aren’t rich enough. If expansion is the way you determine your present wealth, then there are new problems to fix; because if your future is ‘broke’ due to the lack of projected increase or sustainability in your property value and investments, then the carrot drops again, dangling, and suddenly the relief reveals itself as having been temporary.

Minimalism is interesting. Not that it’s an antidote to consumerism because minimalism is also a lifestyle aesthetic to be commodified for consumption, and your life is potentially open for countless minimal purchases that prove or improve your minimalism. But at its core, minimalism as a philosophy just means take things out and include only the essentials. The true success of minimalism is surrounding yourself with what matters to you to a degree that you become rich by not knowing you’re broke. Everything you’re surrounded by is valuable to you. Consumerism benefits from the opposite, when things aren’t valuable enough and you need to replace them or add on to them. When the hit no longer hits, you need stronger or more frequent hits. The picture is forever incomplete and instead of what’s there, your eyes are fixed on the gaping abyss of what’s missing.

The ability to perceive yourself as rich if you can’t tell you’re broke isn’t meant to be a compromise. A stoic or Christian acceptance of your misfortune. No, in order to not know you’re broke, you have to really feel fortunate. To find treasure in your life and moreover, to truly view it as treasure even if it’s of no value to any public market. So it isn’t necessarily about deals or getting more for your buck, stretching your dollar on the same consumption, albeit a modest budget, that claims to fix what’s broke via a dollar menu. It’s to create a life of abundance that has the same use for a billion dollars that a squirrel would in a park where food, shelter, and activity are all free. A billion dollars outside the context of human culture is mostly worthless. To a squirrel, the stack of bills would be as remarkable as a stack of dead leaves. Living a fortunate lifestyle, one of joy and appreciation for the value that not only surrounds you but also…is you, this is precisely what the broke expect to find, if they could transmute a pile of dead leaves into a billion dollars.

Obviously, we are not squirrels and we do not live rent/mortgage-free, with free food supplied by the earth and other resources distributed equally among all. I’m not that naive to say money is nothing, but it’s what you use that money for, that will determine how important accumulating an indefinite amount of material wealth will be to you.

I may have come across, thus far, as if being broke is an imaginary daydream we can choose to snap out of and become the equivalent of billionaires who live off the grid and thereby are unbothered by the crazy hands of material status and consumption. And yes, I believe it’s in part a matter of perspective. But also true, is my awareness that poverty is real. Political power and political vulnerability over the course of history will inform the landscape of our perspectives. To even get to that off-grid life requires finance and investment, whether earned or inherited. And there’s an obvious advantage on the side of those who have the inheritance versus those who don’t. But consumerism also has a general advantage in an economic system such as capitalism, when our immaterial self-worth is blurred in with our material economic value.

As such, one’s expanded political participation, one’s ability to unrestrictedly function within the economic grid is largely determined by economic success. The economy itself is immaterial tho, because an economy is just an imagined and agreed upon idea for how limited resources will be divided out: who gets what, why and how. But make no mistake, the effects of an economy are very substantial. To be broke, as the aforementioned cup, whose use is compromised, obtains less substance as a result of its damage. When things break, it often implies a decrease in utility. A decrease or de-value in its work. Labor is used this way too, to determine which jobs are esteemed, deserving of which lifestyles, and which aren’t. As is education, to determine which schools get you access to which resources, jobs, networks, etc.

In our economic system, influenced like a national anthem by consumerist culture, you’re made to feel that if you repair or fix the dysfunction you’ll be more useful. You’ll be rich, if you’re not broke. The true daydream is that one could ever become fixed under such a system. Fixed also means stationary, grounded and sustained, all enemy words to perpetuity and the ideal of progress which is a never ending project of improvement. And while I am for progress and improvement, there are snakes in that grass that warp our concepts of what will improve our lives and why. Giving us a never ending siren song that suggests you could afford a little more, or work harder to afford a little more…Or rethink your value to make room to deserve a little more…After all, why stop at being rich, when you could break from that space in order to be a little more rich?

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