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Society of Addiction: Capitalism, Dopamine and the Consumer Junkie

Are we capitalism junkies?

Consumerism reflected. (Photo: Zohar Manor-Abel / Flickr)

I waited three months to eat a Krispy Kreme. I mean I waited. Every week or so, I take the train to Penn Station, quickly zigzagging through crowds. And every time I have the same internal monologue — Don’t stop at the Krispy Kreme. Don’t give yourself diabetes. Seriously, you might as well inject Elmer’s glue straight into your heart. But then I saw the store, bright and beautiful and smelling good. It’s very hard to walk past Krispy Kreme. It’s like those dreams where my legs move but I don’t go forward.

And then I begin the junkie’s debate — C’mon it’s been three months! Besides, one can’t hurt. And didn’t I help that homeless lady get her shit to the shelter last night. That was an Oprah thing to do. And doesn’t Oprah eat donuts? I was drooling before I even turned. Everyone on line had the same wild look. I feared for the servers. If they didn’t get us the donuts quickly we might have smashed the glass. When I got mine and bit into it, sugar and preservatives and trans-fat flooded my body and I lit up like a Christmas tree. It felt like Jesus descended from Heaven and kissed my brain.

Afterwards I felt dirty, guilty. At home, I googled Krispy Kreme and found a YouTube clip of comedian Chris Rock prowling the stage. “Krispy Kreme donuts are so good,” he said, “if I told you it had crack in it you’d go, ‘I knew something was up … got me knocking on the donut window at two in the morning. C’mon man open up, give me one more donut, I’ll do anything. I’ll suck your dick.'”

Rock chuckled maniacally as the audience roared. I paused the clip and let it sink in. How much of what we eat is not really food but a drug designed to addict us with a rush of sugar, salt or fat? McDonald’s, Checkers and the other fried fast-food places line the streets in Bed-Stuy. Neighbors have that addict’s scratch-the-neck gesture at bodegas where they buy sugary drinks or candy. But it wasn’t just food. How many times do I check my cell phone? I get itchy if I don’t send or get a text. How many people do I see on the street, heads down, typing away, swerving around the traffic as if by radar?

In New York, we bounce like billiard balls between ads showing actors posing with a titanium watch and rappers with liquor bottles and sand-caked, teen bodies next to perfume vials. All the time, I see people waddling out of stores with bulging shopping bags, faces bright with the joy of a new purchase. Flush faces are the tell-tale sign of a dopamine rush. We get high from buying commodities that enhance our status. In this light, we can look at corporate stores and see them as consumer crack houses. If it’s true that billions of people around the world are being addicted to our evolutionary Achille’s heel of salt, sugar, fat and status, then it’s time to ask the question. Are we capitalism junkies?

The Commodity

A commodity in classical political economy is any object that can be bought or sold in the marketplace. The market is any institution or place where we can engage in trade, be it Wall Street or the farmer’s stall at Union Square. From the market’s beginning 12,000 years ago with the Neolithic Revolution, when we first cultivated land, grew crops, and created surplus and trade to the post-industrial digital stock exchange, it has grown to dominate human life.

Today everything around us — clothing, apartments, food and technology — is a commodity. We wear commodities. We live inside commodities. We use and eat commodities. All that we need to live is filtered through the market. And if the store shelves are packed with bright colorful things, we feel safe because we have the freedom to choose.

The commodity has for centuries been the site of critique. In political economy it was an article of trade that satisfies a human need. Later it was reinterpreted by Karl Marx in Das Kapital as a fetish object concealing the exploitative relations of production. More than a century later, post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard redefined it as a sign in a larger social code.

Today, a view emerging from neuroscience understands capitalism as an immersive form of market totalitarianism. We see that advertising and commodities are designed to get us to a “bliss point,” to stoke a chemical blaze in our brains that incrementally robs us of the ability to choose. And this is the paradox; American culture is based on the ideal of freedom — freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to choose — but its economy is increasingly based on targeting the unconscious and addicting our bodies. Corporations use science to ensnare deep evolutionary impulses. We are left with a tragic contradiction; the very act of consumption that we are taught is our freedom is also what most enslaves us.

Behold the iPhone

My cell phone was old. No touch screen. No internet. My friends would whip out smartphones and get precise, Googlemapped directions to the next bar. I took mine out, pretended to type an address and confidently offered random bullshit names like The Thirsty Wolf or Chug.

“Wait why can’t I see those?” one friend asked me. I quickly put my phone away, “Oh damn, battery just ran out. Sorry. So what did you find?” But I was content with my Flintstone-era cell phone until one day it broke. After one hour without a text or the ability to send one, I began to shake and sweat. I sprinted to the Virgin Mobile store, where the staff calmed me down, gave me water, patted my back.

In seconds, I was holding my future phone. But I saw it four different ways. The first was a symbol of the American Dream, a set of ideals that put prosperity and upward mobility at the center of our lives. Smartphone commercials make it into a tool of consumer empowerment. No one and nothing is out of reach.

Through a Marxist lens, I saw the swollen-eyed, arthritic Chinese workers at Foxconn, which if it didn’t make Virgin Mobile smartphones, made them for Apple and made them in the millions. In the Marxist tradition this human labor is eclipsed by the object’s transformation into a commodity through market exchange. We see its price tag or advertisement but not the people who made it or the fact that so many killed themselves by jumping off the roof of Foxconn that the company hung up nets.

Seen through Baurdrillard’s theory, my smartphone was a sign in a larger social code that recreated my identity. It was not simply a way to talk to friends. It was a smartphone. I now had instant access to information and was re-booted as a modern man. No asking directions or standing in line for a ticket at a cinema. Now I could do it all before I got there. Smartphone ads play on the theme of being up to date. One showed a trio of guys at a sports game: the ones with the 4G smartphones knew it was going to rain while the one with the 3G did not; he was doused when thunder broke. Today, commodities come with a story line and are the material anchors for the social roles we play.

Turning my new phone over and over in my hand, I remembered that itchy feeling when my phone ran out of energy or when it was broken. Turning it on, I googled addiction, smartphones and lo and behold, I found a painfully in-your-face article titled “Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google.” It spelled out why I slept with my phone at night like a teddy bear. Written by Dr. Susan Weinschenk and based on research by Terrence Robinson and Kent Berridge, the article said our brains squirt dopamine not to make us feel pleasure (a concept still used but debated) but to make us seek it out.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter; it carries signals from neurons through synapses to other neurons or cells. Like Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, it “makes me feel good.” It lights up the brain. It gets us moving toward satisfying goals. Weinschenk writes, “Dopamine causes you to want, desire and search … From an evolutionary standpoint this is critical. Dopamine keeps you motivated to move through your world, learn and survive. It’s not just about physical needs such as food or sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas.”

In the scholarly article “Addiction,” Berridge and Robinson state that there are two systems in the brain, one that involves dopamine based on wanting and the other based on liking, the opioid system, which gives us pleasure. The former says, “Go!” The latter says, “Stop and enjoy.” But with social media, we now live in a culture where the “Go!” light is always green. In seconds we can text, Facebook, Google or call and get rewarded, which incites us to seek again, which rewards us again, causing us to seek again and be trapped in a dopamine loop.

The saddest image of the article was of dying rats. Scientists destroyed the dopamine neurons in rats and they died of starvation, even when food was right in front of them. They lost “the will to live” or the chemical base of “will power,” aka dopamine. In another test, scientists electrically stimulated the brains of lab animals to produce dopamine. Rats furiously, feverishly pressed the lever to tingle themselves more and more, faster and faster, because the dopamine system doesn’t have an off switch.

After reading this I walked around Union Square and studied the consumers flowing in and out of the stores. “Go on you rats,” I thought, “Get your cheese!” And this is what capitalism has made of us. We’re a herd of slightly evolved primates gobbling salt, sugar, fat and status. We buy objects that light up our brains with dopamine even if we throw those same things away or incur debt. Using my new Chinese-made smartphone, I punched up Jay-Z’s song “Big Pimpin” and bobbed my head, his nasal voice the soundtrack to thousands of New Yorkers shopping. “Big pimpin,” he rapped, “Spending cheese.”

The Cheeto in the Crack Pipe

Going home on the B52 bus, I saw a father feeding his infant daughter bright, yellow, puffy Cheetos. I wanted to smack it out of his hand and yell, “This is crack! Why don’t you just put the Cheetos in a pipe and have her smoke it?” But I closed my mouth and rolled my eyes instead.

The baby grabbed the Cheetos and I imagined the Yellow 6 dye that makes it day-glow food entering her blood. In laboratory tests, it caused kidney tumors and contained carcinogens. Good job, Dad! She licked her lips because the hydrogenated oil makes the Cheetos so tasty. If she grows up eating snacks like these, her heart will eventually become a wheezing accordion.

My stop came and I stepped off the bus, seeing as if for the first time the many fast-food places and bodegas lining Nostrand Avenue. They are the two major institutions in working-class urban neighborhoods. Over 200,000 fast food restaurants open their doors each morning in America. Sometimes it seems all of them are in Bed-Stuy.

Each institution has a goal and the fast food industry is designed not to nourish bodies but to make profits. What was a $6 billion industry in 1970 raked in $160 billion last year. It did this by playing on our evolutionary buttons. Salt, sugar, fat — over the course of millions of years our bodies evolved to crave these tastes because it signaled the presence of much-needed nutrients.

We are physiologically adapted to survive famine. Our primeval ancestors roaming the high grass of the ancient savannah often had to endure hunger. Some hunters did not always have the best aim with the spear. Feast and famine marked us. We inherited a craving for fat, salt or sugar, and when any of them hits our tongues, our brain’s opioid system goes off like fireworks and the dopamine begins to flow. It is our gastronomical weak spot, one that the modern food industry has targeted. Our bodies are garbage cans to dump junk into as long as it makes profit.

This February, the New York Times ran an article with a disturbing scene. Entitled “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Food,” it opened with a meeting of the 11 heads of America’s major food corporations. The vice president of Kraft told attendees that the industry had gone too far in producing foods that excite hunger and overwhelm the body’s controls on overeating. He cited statistics showing more than half of Americans were overweight and nearly one-quarter were obese. The head of General Mills, Stephen Sanger, got up and said, “Don’t talk to me about nutrition. Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.” The meeting took place in 1999. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35.7 percent of Americans are overweight, along with one third of our children.

Walking home, I often see obese women like giant water balloons, out of breath just from walking. Children, faces swollen with fat, throw candy on the counter at the local bodega. Every day, thousands of people in my neighborhood get breakfast, lunch and dinner from fast-food places or bodegas. Eating well takes time and money. And when you have neither, you get what you can. And here food is fast. It’s cheap. It’s addictive. And it’s deadly. Not long ago, I saw an ambulance outside the adjacent building; my neighbor said his friend had died. He shook his head and said, “She was 50, only 50, and caught a heart attack.”

The Nag Factor

Capitalism — the private ownership over the means of production. It is the world of labor behind every smartphone, every Cheeto, every commodity. It is the factory and the workers inside. It is the bosses, regional managers and owners rising above the masses of workers in a vast pyramid of power.

Defenders of the system say that it raises incomes and life-spans and serves the needs of consumers. But in a dialectical reversal, we can point at clear evidence that capitalism does not serve our needs but creates consumers to serve its need of making profit. It’s a global conveyor belt where raw material is transformed into commodities, shipped to markets to be sold. But consumers are not born but made.

While waiting for my laundry to dry, I heard a kid screaming at his mother for Lucky Charms. I mean this kid was hollering like an N.F.L. coach. His veins bulged at his neck. “Ma, get me the Charms,” he shouted, “The Charms! The Lucky Charms!” She looked haggard and took him outside and when they came back he was scooping the cereal into his mouth.

The nagging scene struck a memory. Once home, I looked up a documentary called The Corporation; in it, Lucy Hughes, Vice President of Initiative Media and co-creator of the report “The Nag Factor,” said, “We asked parents to keep a diary and to record every time a child nagged them for a product. Anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of purchases would not have occurred unless the child nagged their parents.”

She had the smug smile of someone paid well enough to not care. Later Professor Susan Linn of Baker’s Children Center said the study was done by corporations to get children to nag for their products. Linn was sad eyed. It was like she stared at the face of a juggernaut of money and power that she could analyze but not stop. She said, “Children are not little adults. Marketers are playing into their development vulnerabilities. The advertising that children are exposed to today is honed by psychologists and enhanced by media technology.”

Later Hughes reappeared, “You can manipulate consumers into wanting and buying your products. It’s a game.” Again that smug smile, she concluded, “They are tomorrow’s adult consumer, so start talking with them now…and you got them as an adult. Someone asked me, ‘Lucy is that ethical? You’re essentially manipulating children.’ Is it ethical, I don’t know but our mission at Initiative is to move product.”

To move product — into the bodies of children even at risk to their health and by targeting their soft minds. How can one talk of freedom of choice when corporations target us before we have the ability to choose at all? The advertising bullseye hovers on us through our lives. As adults, it is our unconscious minds that are hit. Brand names are stitched on clothes, products are placed in movies. Images are slipped under our consciousness and descend into our psychic depths were they grow into decisions that we mistake for our own free will.

Capitalism — this system of private ownership of the means of production rose from the collapse of feudalism, under which armored nobility in castles and cloaked monks in monasteries ruled over ragged peasants. It spread in the artisan towns and city states of the late Middle Ages, it spread with the enclosure of land as serfs, hungry and desperate, moved to factory work in the cities, it spread overseas in the New World conquest, the slave trade and colonization, it spread around the earth in violent racist colonialism. And now it dominates human civilization and has spread into our childhoods, our dreams and seeks to determine the destiny of our species.

The Body versus Capitalism

One of the most famous scenes in recent film history was from The Matrix, when the protagonist Neo is offered a red pill by a terrorist named Morpheus. He takes it and after plunging down a surreal dream wakes up hooked to cables in a gooey pod. He looks around and sees billions of pods with people sleeping inside.

It resonated because we experience Capitalism as turning our bodies against us. It is a parasitical system that feeds on us. It takes our tongues and blinds us with taste. It floods our unconscious with logos. It takes our desire and puts a price tag on it. And dizzy with sensation and directed by commercials, we work ourselves numb to become landfills for commodities.

Is this the destiny of our species? Is this the highest we can imagine, the enslavement of millions to work making products and enslaving millions more to buy them? It seems the tragedy of our civilization is that by being walled in with commodities, we lose sight of how rare and precious we truly are.

Our ability to create, to be conscious, to imagine is a spark of beauty in the void. Humanity is the result of a series of near improbable accidents. It is a sheer accident that we exist at all, that billions of years ago, hot rock formed a planet at this distance from the sun, that ice-loaded meteors hit earth and gave it water, that in the sea microbes ignited into life and plants swept over land.

When visiting the Museum of Natural History, I imagine the T-Rex skeleton chomping up one or two visitors in a swift bite. It’s easy to feel how lucky we got with that comet impact 66 million years ago. And that’s what I mean. It’s an accident we’re here at all.

And yet here we are. The universe may teem with life but most likely it is microbes on rocks or germs in seas. Sentient life that looks up and questions is infinitely rare. Our ability to look far into space and deep into the atom, to follow the trail of elements to the origin of reality and to know its end, is incredibly precious. We, so far as we know, are the only species that is the living memory of the universe.

The human body — lulled into commodity addiction, brainwashed by advertising is itself evidence of the grand-narrative of evolution that surpasses capitalism. Over millions of years, natural selection sculpted us to fit the environment until we began to adapt the environment to fit our needs. Now we are trapped in an economic system that does not serve us but ensnares us to serve it. But the history of revolutions and art and crime show us a truth about ourselves. Our power to imagine is greater than our need to obey.


Freedom: 1. The absence of constraint on choice or action. 2. The liberation from slavery or from the power of another.

This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Hey, buddy, it’s a free country, right? In cliché sayings, we’re reminded that freedom is our social ideal. In the iconic scenes of U.S. history we learn that our nation’s flag was planted on the moon by an astronaut, our armies can strike anywhere, anytime, and even a black man can become president of a country that once had slavery.

But the daily evidence of that freedom is on the stacked store shelves and in the advertisements that teach us about the capitalist Good Life. But what if on either side of the commodity existed millions of people who were not free at all?

What if we saw that behind the label is a world of misery? There, suicidal men and women grind their lives against a factory clock to make our low-cost clothing and technology. They see no exit but death and leap from the roof to the only freedom left to claim. There, undocumented workers pick tomatoes and staff the blood-soaked killing floors of meat factories to get us our cheap fast food.

And in front of the label is us — people whose unconscious is shaped by subliminal advertising, our need for intimacy and recognition commodified into market experiences of bought and sold emotional labor. Our bodies are given addictive products that make us crave self-destruction. We who live in a market-dominated world are not free, but are chemically enslaved by the very sophisticated science of corporate America.

A step we can take in freeing ourselves is critiquing capitalism differently. To the older frame of political economy focused on production, distribution and consumption of commodities we must add a new frame. One possibility is thinking in terms of a physiological economy, in which the body is transformed into a consuming machine and directed to the market where it’s a commodity dumping ground, regardless of the health effects on it. Putting the body at the center creates a goal of respecting human potential.

And what might help is the idea of neuro-justice as a New Millennial update on natural rights. We have as human beings a right to develop ourselves. We are inheritors of a cosmic accident that created the earth in the seething, plasma-hot, shooting gallery of space. We are inheritors of millions of years of evolution, and each of us belongs to a thing rare and precious in the universe, sentient life.

Behind our eyes, in our brains is a power greater than reality. It’s the power to imagine. A truly human civilization will move beyond capitalism, beyond addicting our consciousness to demanding space for it, play for it, love and recognition for it — it will demand justice for the imagination. In that world, we can walk home and see no corporate ads or stores with addictive foods or feel itchy for the newest technology or desperate for status. We can be free by simply being ourselves.

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