“Our economy has turned into a circus of possession rather than existence”

Published on: 20 October 2023

The latest iPhone. A bigger flat screen, with an even sharper picture. “Ultra-fast-fashion” with 52 collections in a year, made to be worn for a very short time. As a consumer, it is sometimes hard to resist temptation. And eager buying is good for the economy. But we are also increasingly running up against the limits of our consumerism. Where are those limits? And what does all that consuming yield? In this series we get people to look at this from their specific point of view.

Episode 4: the perspective of activist, researcher & developer Kees Klomp.


Kees Klomp had been working as a strategist in advertising for years when, in 2006, he found himself in what he calls an “existential crisis” (see box). That crisis provided him with an insight: the state of the world today is very similar to what he experienced firsthand at that time. According to him, the way out of the crises we are facing - climate change, growing inequality, political polarization - is the same as the way out of his own crisis: acceptance of the fact that suffering is part of life and saying goodbye to the illusion that you can take away that suffering with short-term surrogate solutions. This insight inspires him to think about an alternative way of looking at our economy: “the economy of meaning”.    


What does that mean: economy of meaning?

“The main thing is the recognition that we humans have an existential awareness. That awareness provides some basic existential drives, such as the non-biological need to be meaningful in life. However, life is also about life and death, physically, socially and spiritually. That creates unsafe, unpleasant feelings. We have become increasingly unresponsive to that deep drive for meaning. To deal with those existential fears, we have created a material surrogate. And that surrogate, in fact, is driving our economy.”


Can you explain that?

“Economics says: if you consume or own all kinds of things, you derive many happy, comfortable and enjoyable feelings from them, and then you don’t have to experience this existential pain. Success, social status - it can all be achieved, if you make sure you’re wearing the right clothes, or make a lot of money. To a large extent, that is what we are doing to each other all day long. And that material surrogate solution always works just enough to make you feel for a moment that it really is a solution. If you bought new shoes and get compliments on them, it produces feelings of happiness. And those are real feelings. It’s just not lasting happiness; it’s external, hedonistic happiness, which wears off after a few weeks. And then there’s another new brand of shoes that makes you feel like you belong.”  


How does the economy of meaning relate to that insight?

“Our beliefs were always - and until 2006, that included mine - that the economy must grow, that prosperity is a good thing and progress is the normal state of affairs. Individualism, liberalism and capitalism were all part of our collective set of beliefs. We view the world from the perspective of those norms and that is how we create our identity and self-image. With those beliefs, however, we are now hitting a rock-hard wall. Thus, we are crossing the boundaries of the planet and economies are constantly growing while poverty is not decreasing. And because we no longer understand anything at all about this outer world, we no longer understand our inner world either. We are supposed to be happy with economic growth and consumption, aren’t we? The economy of meaning is about that gap between our collective beliefs and our inner world. And I’m borrowing from anthropology, sociology and psychology for that.”


Can you give some examples of that?

“The homo economicus is central to our society. This view of humanity assumes that we are driven by self-interest and engage in utility maximization through the market - every man for himself and rationally calculating. Many economics books rank this satisfaction of one’s own needs using Maslow’s pyramid. At the base, first you have the material need: a roof over your head, clothing, security, and so on. Next comes the emotional need, then the social need, and in the penthouse is the spiritual need: self-development. And if you look around you also see: people living in poverty do not have time to improve the world, they are mainly busy surviving. Working for a better world thus becomes a kind of privilege reserved for certain people.”


And sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists look at this differently?

“Yes, they say: if you examine what actually makes people deeply happy, based on an existential view of humanity, our spiritual and social needs are much greater than our material needs. So, we are not homo economicus, but homo florens. And that ‘flourishing human being’ is in search of meaning. It may start with material needs, but those are satisfied relatively quickly. Relatively many people can provide food, a roof over their heads and a car. It only goes wrong when that house has to be bigger than the neighbor’s and when it has to be two cars instead of one. We make the material massively important, and see the penthouse as a kind of luxury pleasure package. But we are conditioned to look at ourselves that way. If you can create the space to look at yourself with a different view of humanity, your relationship with the material will change.”


How do you do that?

“In the economy of meaning, sufficiency is a hugely important theme: ‘enoughness’. Society cultivates ‘non-sufficiency’. It can always be more and better, and you yourself are never complete, are you? And this existential emptiness is exploited by making you believe that you need something material. But you can only experience that ‘enoughness’ if you find it in yourself. If you can accept that suffering, if you can just ‘be’ with that existential pain, you can have a different, healthier relationship with material things. That doesn’t mean that you no longer need a house, a car, or clothes, but that you see that they are just things and not social affirmation.

For example, when it comes to the existential need to belong, clothing plays a very dominant role. When children say they must have certain clothes or a specific phone to belong, it is a real feeling. And at the same time, it is an illusion. And you can deal with that feeling of rejection or exclusion better if you can say: they may exclude me, but I don’t feel excluded. Because clothing is not there to make me belong, clothing is there to protect me, it has to be comfortable, or whatever.”


Won’t that damage our economy?

“The Dutch economy is three times bigger now than it was in the 1960s, while research shows that our level of well-being and welfare has not grown since then. So what is the point of economic growth? We can easily shrink the economy by 30 percent without sacrificing our well-being. But then we have to set up the system fundamentally differently than it is now. You would have to work much more with ‘commons’, where people share in the production of food or energy, rather than just consuming it.

The economy used to be about creating the basics; what you need to exist. Bread, milk, eggs, things like that. Meanwhile, it has degenerated into a circus of possession rather than existence, while the existential feelings do not disappear with it. The chances of going through life without suffering are zero. Accepting that and learning to deal with it, I think, is the missing link in the economy.”

From crisis to enlightenment

“In the advertising world, all I was doing was helping companies that were making ridiculous amounts of money to make even more money. I didn’t realize that my morality was being gnawed away piece by piece and that I had actually been resisting the work for ages. From the outside things were going very well for Kees, but on the inside not at all. In 2005 that reached its peak. I took an important lesson from that personal crisis, which is also essential for the crisis in which we now find ourselves collectively: you cannot beat a crisis and it requires some form of grace to yourself to get out of it. Once I surrendered to that realization, I literally saw the light again. Then I also regained energy and ideas, but in a different direction.

I came to the conclusion that we had to get rid of the life that accompanied that hedonistic success story. Where we lived was all about the outside, success and status. By now I had become really disgusted with that. As a family, we said: let’s burn all the bridges behind us and start all over again. We then emigrated, as we call it, into our own country and went to live in a small village in Drenthe. That new environment also made it easier to reinvent myself.

In 2007, I started working on my first book, Verlichting in business (Enlightenment in Business), in which I introduced the term ‘economy of meaning’. And now, sixteen years later, I am a lecturer in Economy of Meaning at the Hogeschool Rotterdam (Rotterdam University) and get to spend three days a week doing research on economic system change, based on my own theory. So, I also try to get students and teachers to look at economics in a fundamentally different way.”


In addition to his professorship at the Hogeschool Rotterdam, Kees Klomp is founding partner of THRIVE Institute, a think and do tank for the economy of meaning.