Caption: Why won't she let me sleep in peace?
Also see: Daisy the Curly Cat's extremely cool new kitty digs and John Scalzi's cats, who are currently tripping in outer space. (Yes, the first one's always free!)
Thoughtful article in The Nation, by Benjamin R. Barber, titled A Revolution in Spirit... has me thinking some deep thoughts.
Excerpts with commentary:
I work in consumerism, yet I am critical of consumerism. I realize, that's a contradiction, but it does mean that I think about it a lot.
But it is hard to discern any movement toward a wholesale rethinking of the dominant role of the market in our society. No one is questioning the impulse to rehabilitate the consumer market as the driver of American commerce. Or to keep commerce as the foundation of American public and private life, even at the cost of rendering other cherished American values--like pluralism, the life of the spirit and the pursuit of (nonmaterial) happiness--subordinate to it.
Economists and politicians across the spectrum continue to insist that the challenge lies in revving up inert demand. For in an economy that has become dependent on consumerism to the tune of 70 percent of GDP, shoppers who won't shop and consumers who don't consume spell disaster. Yet it is precisely in confronting the paradox of consumerism that the struggle for capitalism's soul needs to be waged.
Tomorrow, I am going to a social event sponsored by a business. At my (capitalist retail) workplace, we also sponsor various "special events"--even though they are usually "progressive" in nature. These capitalist-sponsored "events" have ever-so-slowly supplanted social events and parties sponsored by individuals, in real homes and recreational areas.
What does it mean that so much of our social life in this age is determined by commerce? The kids make their best friends in malls. Our social life is guided by work, more often (it seems to me) than leisure. Back in the day, social life was centered around neighborhood, church, family, free time. Those institutions have now taken a role subordinate to the marketplace.
In my workplace, there is a cafe, where people meet each other for lunch, coffee, dinner. (Certainly, it's the most common place I meet with my friends, also.) We go to people's homes, even our best friends, far less often than we once did.
And what does it mean that such cafes are now in retail spaces, such as grocery stores and bookstores? (Even Starbucks now makes the major money with drive-through windows and retail sales, rather than relying primarily on cafe revenue.)
How did this whole state of affairs come to be, and why? (Again, let me recommend Robert D. Putnam's excellent book, BOWLING ALONE, which also addresses some of these issues.) Barber writes:
Are these changes a matter of sheer 'political will' (i.e. doing what needs to be done) and/or a public consensus?
The crisis in global capitalism demands a revolution in spirit--fundamental change in attitudes and behavior. Reform cannot merely rush parents and kids back into the mall; it must encourage them to shop less, to save rather than spend. If there's to be a federal lottery, the Obama administration should use it as an incentive for saving, a free ticket, say, for every ten bucks banked. Penalize carbon use by taxing gas so that it's $4 a gallon regardless of market price, curbing gas guzzlers and promoting efficient public transportation. And how about policies that give producers incentives to target real needs, even where the needy are short of cash, rather than to manufacture faux needs for the wealthy just because they've got the cash?
Or better yet, take in earnest that insincere MasterCard ad, and consider all the things money can't buy (most things!). Change some habits and restore the balance between body and spirit. Refashion the cultural ethos by taking culture seriously. The arts play a large role in fostering the noncommercial aspects of society. It's time, finally, for a cabinet-level arts and humanities post to foster creative thinking within government as well as throughout the country. Time for serious federal arts education money to teach the young the joys and powers of imagination, creativity and culture, as doers and spectators rather than consumers.
Recreation and physical activity are also public goods not dependent on private purchase. They call for parks and biking paths rather than multiplexes and malls. Speaking of the multiplex, why has the new communications technology been left almost entirely to commerce? Its architecture is democratic, and its networking potential is deeply social. Yet for the most part, it has been put to private and commercial rather than educational and cultural uses. Its democratic and artistic possibilities need to be elaborated, even subsidized.
Could such changes happen 'organically'--naturally evolving, or will some sort of government action actually be necessary to prompt such change?
As regular readers know, I have some pesky libertarian, Ron Paulesque tendencies, and I am not sure a government-sponsored social life is superior to one guided by simple commerce. Public schools are a good (bad?) example of that already, aren't they?
It seems the same social (emotional) bankruptcy is at the root. If we don't go to some contrived commerce-driven "common area"--we simply don't know how to make friends anymore. We require something "in common" before we are able to talk to people--and that commonality is no longer our belief-system or neighborhood; the commonality we increasingly depend on is taste in product, the fake commercial-culture that has evolved around the marketplace.
I am not sure how to phrase these things. It's like discussing the air we breathe, circumstances simply taken for granted these days. (I think the kids DO take them for granted, so will the baby-boomers have to lead the discussion, because we can still remember a very different social atmosphere?)
Agree? Disagree? What do you think?
Of course, much of what is required cannot be leveraged by government policy alone, or by a stimulus package and new regulations over the securities and banking markets. A cultural ethos is at stake. For far too long our primary institutions--from education and advertising to politics and entertainment--have prized consumerism above everything else, even at the price of infantilizing society. If spirit is to have a chance, they must join the revolution.
The costs of such a transformation will undoubtedly be steep, since they are likely to prolong the recession. Capitalists may be required to take risks they prefer to socialize (i.e., make taxpayers shoulder them). They will be asked to create new markets rather than exploit and abuse old ones; to simultaneously jump-start investments and inventions that create jobs and help generate those new consumers who will buy the useful and necessary things capitalists make once they start addressing real needs (try purifying tainted water in the Third World rather than bottling tap water in the First!).
The good news is, people are already spending less, earning before buying (using those old-fashioned layaway plans) and feeling relieved at the shopping quasi-moratorium. Suddenly debit cards are the preferred plastic. Parental "gatekeepers" are rebelling against marketers who treat their 4-year-olds as consumers-to-be. Adults are questioning brand identities and the infantilization of their tastes. They are out in front of the politicians, who still seem addicted to credit as a cure-all for the economic crisis.
Even more than that, what to do? How can we encourage these changes?