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New Year’s Day is traditionally a slow news day for the national press and broadcast media, but within hours of Big Ben's chimes a tragedy has been reported around the globe from China.

In Shanghai, dozens of people appear to have been killed in a stampede caused by someone throwing dollar bills from a window during a New Year’s Eve celebration. Whilst it must be almost impossible to understand the depth of shock and grief that the victims’ loved ones must be feeling, the actual causes of the tragedy are all too easy to understand.

China, Britain and nearly every other country in the world share a common, globalised culture of consumption that periodically reveals itself as pure madness, but the rest of the time simply exists in our shared subconscious as feelings of discontent. Before Christmas, Britain was treated to its first ever 'Black Friday', a tradition imported from America, where the public consents to debase itself in a desperate scrabble for discounted electricals and clothes. A few weeks later, in another retail-invented tradition, 'Panic Saturday', shoppers spent billions in one last blow-out before Christmas Day. There is of course, nothing wrong with shopping, spending and gift buying; in our society based on wealth, ownership and commercial values, often gift buying is the only language we have left to articulate our love and affection for one another. However, there seems to be little evidence that endless shopping, spending and consuming makes any of us much happier in the long run, the annual statistics for hospital admissions due to alcohol poisoning, family break-ups and calls to the Samaritans at Christmas time bear this out.

In 1955 the psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm wrote his book The Sane Society, based on his observations of American life at the most prosperous moment in the country's history. He observed that America was very effective in providing for the material needs of its citizens, feeding, clothing, housing, transporting and entertaining millions of people, but at the same time the numbers of suicides, drug addictions and violent crimes also increased. Fromm argued that consumerism could provide for material needs but not for the deeper and more intrinsic human and spiritual needs that all individuals crave. His ideas are still relevant sixty years later, but sadly have never been more overlooked. The ritual that is our modern consumerist Christmas offers very little that can address what most human beings desire. A sense of genuine authentic connection with other people, an ability to drop the pretences and acts that society requires us to adopt and be real and therefore vulnerable, and an ability to reject the mass stupefecation that consumerism entails - these are real human values.

We as a culture are not so unlike the victims of the Shanghai tragedy, our fixation on the material has forced us to abandon the more difficult and challenging (but far more important) process of internal exploration and connection. Christmas simply becomes another device, much as drinking, gambling, drug use or sex have become, for keeping that which is real at arm’s length.

Once the party is over, however, reality inevitably intrudes and for some an opportunity to break with endless cycles of bingeing and purging emerge. For some 2015 can be something more than a periodic stampede charge for flat screen televisions and a time to address real human needs.

 

 

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