Religion, and Other "Narcotizing" Cultural Forces
"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opiate of the people."
Sometimes translated "the opium of the people," this is Marx's famous characterization of religion's ability to cause poor workers to postpone indefinitely rebellion against a class system which enslaves them. Instead, religions often teach believers to reduce what they ask for from life, demanding less and being satisfied with whatever they get as divinely ordered. Such social institutions are called "narcotizing" because, like an anesthetic, they reduce pain and cause the sufferer to be content. Other narcotizing structures include, but are not limited to, professional sports fan ideology; all mass entertainment including radio, TV, movies, and literature that fails to be class conscious; shopping when pursued as an entertainment (i.e., "consumerism" or the ideology of consumption); etc.
Consumerism, and the pursuit of "the American Dream" of ever increasing wealth, are particularly dangerous to inhabitants of modern capitalist cultures. These ideologies of commodification and consumption depend upon our beliefs that they make us happier than alternative behaviors, like studying English literature, for instance (plug!). In fact, economic research since the 1990s strongly suggests that, after the basic needs of food, shelter, and productive work are met, an individual's overall happiness does not increase with increasing wealth or possessions. Worse still, consumerism's belief that buying things makes us happy actually masks a terrible and opposite effect, the "hedonistic treadmill." These research-based findings are not theory, but economic fact, and they lend an interesting edge to the study of Marxist analysis of literature.
Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.” Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher February, 1844. Available at the Marxists.org web site.