Winds of Change

A lot of time has passed since last I wrote anything here, maybe 6 months.  In the mean time I’ve made some peace with capitalism in the modern world.  Let’s try to summarize that change.

There are many problems with the traditional American path, by which I mean the process of working towards owning a house paid for by making progress on a career path.  This life is geared towards raising a family in a way which is not so different than the way you yourself were raised.

One problem which bothered me is the morality of such a life.  I want to point out that this might have been a naive problem to have.  My wrestling with morality is rooted in a western, formerly Christian, world-view.  There are those who claim that the concept of Christian morality itself has done a great deal of harm to humanity (e.g.,  Beyond good and evil) by celebrating meekness and comforting the downtrodden thus keeping the masses from raising themselves out of a mediocre life.  The fact that  Nietzsche came along around the same time period as Darwin doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me.  When one starts to see the goal of nature as merely propagation and competition as the source of progress it seems natural to apply those concepts to human activity.  From this perspective modern capitalism and its free market ideals also seem like a natural offspring of the idea that competition for survival is the primary driving force in nature.  From this perspective it’s a bit ironic that in America these days the political groups which are most in favor of free markets tend to also corner the market on fundamental “Christian values”.  Anyhow, I don’t know that I’m ready to embrace the laws of the jungle.  My particular brain has been wired to celebrate the meek, dislike the materialistic, and respect the stories/feelings of most people I encounter.  I have little desire to profit from the misfortunes of others.  That is the core of my personal concept of morality.  So from that perspective I can easily ask if an American suburban home and life is one which is actively causing others misfortune.  There is no shortage of claims out there that the consumer lifestyle is causing environmental turbulence.  There are also claims that the standard American’s requirement of raw materials is a root cause of a great deal of political and military injustice in the world.  It really might be that my culture can only exist on the backs of cheap labor, totalitarian puppet regimes, and inequitable commodity trading.  The people who would make such a claim are often anti-capitalistic, pointing the blame at greed inherit in the system.

This is where I can begin to get at my new perspective.  I want to claim that capitalism as a concept is probably not the root cause of such issues.  Rather I think that concepts of a dominant culture are the primary cause of issues and perhaps a source of hope.

First, an example.  Sara and I just moved back to North America this summer.  When we arrived it was clear that the major outlets were all selling more organic food, promoting green products, etc.  A retailer can’t sell things that people don’t want, as a significant portion of the population adapts its desires the corporations respond.  NFL football gear won’t sell very well in Germany.  It seems like common sense, hardly worth noting.  However, inside of this fact you can see the speed at which industry attempts to adapt to the ever changing desires of the market.  In this way I suspect that if a large proportion of the public decided to drop off the grid and start living in cabins growing their own food, then it wouldn’t be long before every Wal-Mart would be filled with simple and cheap insulation products, high quality mosquito nets, do it yourself solar kits, etc.  If we don’t buy it they won’t make it, and if we want it they’ll find a way to sell it to us.  Competition really does seem to benefit humanity on some level, up until the point when advertising and opinion control join the picture.

The act of creating public opinion and tastes is a way of controlling the dominant culture so as to excel in the competition for market share.  Now there are certainly some problems with the current implementation of free-markets.  Chomsky argues that free markets are just a fantasy, an idealistic vision which might be great if ever they did exist but calling the current set-up a free-market capitalism is silly.  I’m not knowledgeable enough to make a claim there, but for the moment let’s suppose that we have an approximation of a free market economy.  One issue which would still be an issue for me is the question of how scaling down such an economy might work.  My current model of our world is borrowed/adapted from Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” and goes a bit like this:

In a society which produces way more than it needs for basic subsistence there is a tiny percentage of the population which must be employed in the production of the basics.  The rest of the society whose labor is freed from survival get roped into the production and marketing of increasingly useless things.  This has an expansive effect, we employ more and more techniques and people to convince other people that they really need all of the crap the  society is producing.  This gives a pretty quick insight into a lot of kitchen table debates with my conservative family.  Too many benefits to humans just for being human means less incentive for people to work/produce, and some part of the population is needed to work even in a society with minimal consumption.  It’s difficult to separate the important work from the work of ‘the spectacle’.  Conservatives can argue that reducing incentives will toss out the baby with the bathwater and this is the logic by which they insist that each person should carve out their own way (which I see as leading directly back into a society of mindless mass consumption since each person has to find a way to get their own piece of the pie even if they do non-essential work).

So I’m a fan of free-markets setting prices for things that people really want.  That is, provided that people aren’t being turned into mindless consumers throughout their childhood and manipulated by a system into wanting what they are told to want.  Also I would like to require that such a system should have a graceful way of downsizing naturally with demand.  Currently the baby-boomers are retiring and becoming empty-nesters which means they will naturally be spending less and less.  Since they were so numerous the western world is facing general decreased demand, which causes the current system to cease up and all sorts of discomfort.  That worries me, since in my ideal world people would feel as little pressure to work as possible (creating more free time and less tension in homes, more time for proper parenting, introspection, artistry, etc.).  If one were to minimize the number of hours they spend working over the course of their life it would likely require a fairly minimal set of spending habits.  If the current system is struggling so badly with reduced demand then perhaps my vision is an immoral and selfish one.

Is the struggle of the current system a cultural mirage?  That is, is the pain of the economy only a pain because we expect to be able to consume to our limits and are disappointed that we can’t?  (e.g. More college graduates are moving back in with their parents after school to save, is this a negative or a culture builder?)  I would imagine that a world in which less of the useless is produced is a world with less ecological problems.  I also imagine that a world in which westerners embrace living on less is more resilient to international supply chain disruption.  I’m a fan of self-sufficiency, but one can’t deny that our modern productive capabilities can save a huge number of man hours, also they can’t be utilized without some number of people working in distinctly unpleasant factories, and finally we’ve failed politically to find some way of distributing those saved man-hours that doesn’t lead to some inequitable situation and/or mindless consumption at every turn.  Maybe this is best captured in the following excerpt from Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

Somehow this is a battle of minds and perspectives, not of economics or government controls.  To make a better place means adjusting long held cultural traditions, which is the work of great artists not economists or politicians or soldiers.   I’m starting to see capitalism as a tool whose output will reflect the culture of a society.  In a culture which assumes stress and a slave-style approach to life it will create a psychological mess.  One could imagine some idealistic farmer’s market on a commune with it’s own currency in which capitalism will do little more than make sure people pay a decent price for things they want and people aren’t growing things which no one wants.  Anyhow, that is a sort of peace I’ve arrived at.

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