July 08, 2008

Citizen's Arrest

Running down the daily blog roll, I found a particularly interesting comment on The Cunning Realist.

Not to mention a citizenry with very little interest in citizenship. It will take a great crisis to get things moving.
--Mary, July 8, 2008

This is a recurring theme in much of my recent reading (and viewing). Our culture has shifted so far toward capitalism, it is no longer a facet of life, but life itself. Citizenship, community, family and personal lives have all taken a back seat to our material aspirations.

From Bill Moyer's Journal:

Bill Moyers: Here we are, at the height of the holiday season. The malls and the shops are packed. Stuff is flying off the shelves. And like Grinch or Scrooge you stand up and say, "Capitalism's in trouble." Why?

Benjamin Barber: Because things are flying off the shelves that we don't want or need or even understand what they are, but we go on buying them. Because capitalism needs us to buy things way beyond the scope of our needs and wants to stay in business, Bill. That's the bottom line. Capitalism is no longer manufacturing goods to meet real needs and human wants. It's manufacturing needs to sell us all the goods it's got to produce.

I would encourage everyone to watch this interview in its entirety. Mr. Barber is on point regarding not only the American consumer, but also American capitalism. We work harder to produce and purchase more of what we do not need and corporations respond with an unwavering focus on developed markets. In an increasingly pluralistic and informed society, the focus is somehow progressively self-centered.

For example, global warming has become a hot-button issue and being "green" is very fashionable. Yet "green" equates to buying new light bulbs, new cars, new homes even. Two minutes on Google and our supposedly informed public can find that "the US consumes 25% of the world's energy (with a share of global productivity at 22% and a share of the world population at 5%)." (Wikipedia) The most effective and immediate way to be "green" is to reduce your consumption of energy and energy intensive products, not the other way around. It all seems fairly intuitive, but we are accustomed to the healing power of consumption and would hardly know how else to spend our time.

Similar concerns are voiced in an excellent Orion Magazine article:

Today "work and more work" is the accepted way of doing things. If anything, improvements to the labor-saving machinery since the 1920s have intensified the trend. Machines can save labor, but only if they go idle when we possess enough of what they can produce. In other words, the machinery offers us an opportunity to work less, an opportunity that as a society we have chosen not to take. Instead, we have allowed the owners of those machines to define their purpose: not reduction of labor, but “higher productivity”—and with it the imperative to consume virtually everything that the machinery can possibly produce...

Our modern predicament is a case in point. By 2005 per capita household spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) was twelve times what it had been in 1929, while per capita spending for durable goods—the big stuff such as cars and appliances—was thirty-two times higher. Meanwhile, by 2000 the average married couple with children was working almost five hundred hours a year more than in 1979. And according to reports by the Federal Reserve Bank in 2004 and 2005, over 40 percent of American families spend more than they earn. The average household carries $18,654 in debt, not including home-mortgage debt, and the ratio of household debt to income is at record levels, having roughly doubled over the last two decades. We are quite literally working ourselves into a frenzy just so we can consume all that our machines can produce.

This brings us back to Mary's comment about the lack of interest in citizenship. Our competitive marketplace is not just amongst companies, but also the consumers. For most, the daily struggle is to prove your material worth. Intellectual challenge, intimacy with family and friends, artistic ability, health and fitness, service and charity, religious commitment... these are all nice and occasionally fit into our schedule, but they are no longer priorities.

Consider life's true gifts and consume vivaciously. Embrace your family and friends, your pet and the great outdoors, a nap on Sunday afternoon or conversation with friends, good music and laughter. Consume the material excesses less often and let your life be filled with authentic pleasures.

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