Friday, January 23, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging, musings about capitalism, etc

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:

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.
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.

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:

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.
Are these changes a matter of sheer 'political will' (i.e. doing what needs to be done) and/or a public consensus?

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?)


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.
Agree? Disagree? What do you think?

Even more than that, what to do? How can we encourage these changes?


John Powers said...

I don't think that markets are exclusive to capitalism. And if Klein's "Shock Doctrine" does anything it's to reinforce the skepticism about the virtue of radical change. Generally people do best when they wake up in the morning and what to do is very much like what we did the day before.

That said, lots needs changing!

I just love a 1992 essay by Elin Whitney-Smith The Vindication of Karl Marx--industrial relations. The essay isn't about Marxism but rather the potential for the Web. Here's words she puts into her fantasy Marx:

"There will be economic crisis. Where decisions are made by workers who know the product, know the customer, and see the benefit of the result in their pockets, business will survive. Where decisions are made by the top of the hierarchy for the benefit of capital accumulation, business will fail. Computers turn the hierarchy upside-down. Decision making is the last function of ownership."

The key thing is that what we produce must be produced in communication with what people want. Not just market research but an on-going conversation. And it's not only conversation between producers and consumers, but between producers and producers and consumers. The many to many media changes things.

So many details of the Inauguration made me smile. I especially liked Pete Seeger resurrecting Woody Gutherie's lyrics about the sign "Private Property" but ain't nothing on the back--that's ours.

The commons is essential not opposed to markets. On the Commons

Lots of people are loosing their jobs and more will soon. At root markets are structures that allow the exchange of information, goods and services. Markets can be a type of commons, and for the many of us out of work this sort of market is essential. Computers and the Internet are an important part of this structure. But just practically, moving goods and services tends towards locales and local markets.

We can't wait around for "them" to do it. We must use the tools to build structures that include everyone--or as many as are able--to exchange information, goods and services.

Daisy said...

I do not have anything really smart or insightful to say, except I love my new spaceship bed!

John Powers said...

Daisy, that truly is a great bed! I know my cat Barney would love it. Since right now I'm not in a consumer mood, he'll have to cope with a laundry basket with unfolded laundry in it.

Always I seem to use too many words that don't say enough. I do agree with Barber that there is a paradox in trying to rev up consumer spending. What I didn't say explicitly before that I think the real focus should shift to what we produce. I also think that trying to re-inflate the economic bubble is like trying to inflate an exploded balloon. My sense is lots of us are going to be out of work. What to do in response is to produce what we can in concert with what our communities need.

Marion said...

These are indeed deep thoughts, Daisy. And now, you've got me wondering about our attachment to consumerism. It seems the more I read and the more I watch on TV the more confused I get.

The messages...spend money to help the economy, don't go into debt, pay off debt, don't spend if you only desire something and don't really need it, help your fellow storekeeper by buying his products, but don't go into debt. If one loses his job, one must have eight months worth of salary saved up. In order to save up eight months salary, quite a few people could not spend a dime on a daily basis.

Very confusing thoughts, albeit deep ones, indeed.

DaisyDeadhead said...

John, very cool links, as always...I just got some invitation to Chuck E Cheese for a kid's birthday party, and I was thinking that even parties are now held in "businesses"--rather than private homes. I remember the first few times we started getting invited to anniversary and birthday and bon-voyage-type parties in restaurants, bars, clubs, skating rinks, bowling alleys, places like that...and I thought it was strange and even somewhat rude. Now, of course, it is the norm. (This fashion also developed because it's what the rich do, as in "Liza Minelli had her birthday party at Studio 54"--so there is that unfortunate precedent also.)

I agree that the internet has turned everything upside down! The "meet-ups" are a good example of how the net can GENERATE social interaction, but too often, people sit behind keyboards and don't get to know people personally.

Marion, they used to say "Have 6 months of salary saved up"! It's increased to 8 now? Good lord.

Sam Holloway said...

Damn good post, Daisy. Just today my daughter went to a birthday party at the vile consumerist pit that you named in your comment. Last year the little girl's mom invited us to join her for her daughter's birthday at Rainforest Cafe. (cringe) I went last year, but this year's choice was too much for me; my wife took our daughter without me.

Anyway, I don't necessarily believe that public expenditures on common space will necessarily dictate how those spaces must be used. Also, I don't think public schools are a good example. The main reason our public schools are such a dicey proposition is that the practical application of public education has been too heavily influenced by people who don't believe in public education. The bogeyman of the lib'rul do-gooder usually gets the lion's share of the blame, of course.

Actually, I think that formula has been inflicted on much of our commons ever since right-wingers got a bug up their collective arse over the New Deal. Their philosophy has gradually devolved into the Grover Norquist Principle, which dictates sabotaging the commons and then complaining about how lousy they are (thus clearing the way for shoving people into 'private' territory-- for a hefty fee, of course). Anyway, I'm rambling. If I have a point, that's the best I can do right now to flesh it out.

John Powers said...

It's true we often sit behind keyboards and don't get to know each other personally. I think that as we try to pick up the economic pieces that's going to change.

I imagine my friends as "like minded" people. I'm not sure what it says that most of them think I'm nuts. What it probably means is we're not as like minded as I think--or more obviously that I am nuts.

Thinking about my family, wow there's a range of thinking there. And yet the bonds of affection in families are strong. That's instructive about community. People can be very different and still find ways to relate kindly with one another.

One of my blogs is Hats for Health. The impetus for it was a way to fund raise for a clean water project. A total failure at that. But the secondary reason is that we need more parties. With all my nutty ideas there's something I believe is factual: paper party hats are magical. Hardly anything I know is more leveling of status and class than everyone wearing a silly paper hat.

Dave Dubya said...

There are paradoxes in economics that I may never understand. My simple view is we may see a reversal of globalization towards more localized economies.

I expect the public commons and community issues will get more attention. People may realize the need for more cooperative efforts in their towns and neighborhoods.

More localized interdependence may prove to be positive change eventually. Any way you look at it, things must evolve or decay.