Not just for Americans anymore

Common Europeans act just like common Americans.

FREIBURG, Germany – Here I am living in Freiburg – a city where my beloved Green Party controls the mayorship – disappointed that I am not living in Ecotopia. Because I uphold Green political leanings and thus a rather averse opinion of materialistic people, I have come to find Europe and the United States painfully similar; so similar, in fact, that the notion of anti-Americanism in Europe is simply ludicrous.

From a Green point of view, mainstream Europeans and mainstream Americans ape each other with such starkness that remote political differences among superficial politicians seem irrelevant. Even in Germany – one of the most environmentally friendly nations in the world – average people are obsessed with shopping, fashion trends and other bizarre behavioral manifestations of a materialistic mindset. Simply put, common Europeans act just like common Americans – and the connection is a brainless fixation with meaningless materialism.

In his thesis “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the great German sociologist Max Weber attempts to explain the origins of the pointless materialism pervasive in both Europe and the United States. I happened to cross paths with a tour guide in Heidelberg, Germany – the very city where Max Weber founded the discipline of sociology. And inside the ancient university library in the middle of town, I discovered how meaningless materialism is – particularly the example of fashion trends.

After learning a bit about Heidelberg, I followed the tour guide into the impressive marble foyer of a library built before the United States existed. Inside the library, the tour guide pointed out a 500-year-old drawing of medieval court nobility – all decked out in their medieval court finery. Of course, during the Middle Ages, only the nobility could subject themselves to the fashionable attire of the times. The people in the drawings looked ridiculous.

Anyone observing a 500-year-old painting or drawing of trendy people undoubtedly thinks, “How could such ludicrous clothing be fashionable? Crazy frills, and collars with lace and buttons, and men wearing tights, and silly little shoes coming to a single point! Surely, I would not wear such silly things!” That is until the tour guide points out that silly, pointy little shoes are back in style.

Yes, Europeans wear pointy little shoes. Yes, fashion trends have existed since medieval times. Yes, people think it is important to keep up with the times. Yes, people still think the newest fad at any given time has never before existed. And finally, yes, most people live in a world of ignorance, or in self-denial of their own absurdity. So let us men break out the tights.

But if fashion trends didn’t exist, and people bought shoes for the purpose of walking, aggregate consumption would decline. Writ large, if consumption based on fashion trends declined, so would the economy. Do producers need consumers to accept meaningless pressure to conform to fashion trends for the sake of economic prosperity? I guess so.

So, capital accumulates for the sake of investment and the economy grows. With growth, wages increase and we can all buy pointy little shoes today and maybe square shoes tomorrow. Our utility increases and our lives are fulfilled. And the la-la land of fashion trends and self-denying absurdity reigns supreme.

Being a self-professed denier of self-denial, I cannot partake in this absurdity. I loathe the concept of ecological destruction for the sake of economic growth simply to escalate the absurd nature of consumerism. Yet, I’ll admit, because I live in the “developed” world, I have the luxury to say this. And perhaps this category, “developed,” explains the similarity between Europeans and their equally materialistic progeny in the United States: developed and free to consume obsolete ideas.

In Germany, they call antimaterialists “alternative” – and very few of these people exist. In France, I failed to see any people who did not conform to fashion trends. Yet somehow, Germany, and especially France, are supposed to be anti-American. And Europeans, like their American counterparts, demand suburban homes, large vehicles, economic growth and fashionable shoes.

When looking at everyday life, believing that Europeans differ from Americans to the point where anti-Americanism – or anti-Europeanism for that matter – can even exist in the objective world, is about as ridiculous as wearing pointy little shoes. European anti-Americanism – or the reverse – exists only in an absurd world where most people live in ignorance or self-denial. I guess that’s our world.

Douglas Voigt is studying abroad in Germany and welcomes comments at [email protected]