“Looking thus into your eyes and seeing how each of you is a creature which has never in all time existed before and which shall never in all time exist again and which is not quite like any other and which has the grand stature and natural warmth of every other whose existence is all measured upon a still mad and incurable time; how am I to speak of you? As ‘tenant’, ‘farmers’, as ‘representatives of your class’, as social integers in a criminal economy? Or as individuals, fathers, wives, sons, daughters, and as my friends and as I know you?” — James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
In Ayn Rand’s overrated fantasy Atlas Shrugged, our crabby Olga-frahm-ze-old-co’ntry envisions a land called “Galt’s Gulch:” a country club Hogwarts where horrific character traits like affection, selflessness, and giving are reviled by the book’s “heroic” entrepreneurial protagonists, who — in a way the book does not explain — also build everything in Galt’s Gulch absent the burden of any employees they have to pay. While classic stories on film and on the page normally contain memorable lines that are witty, humorous, biting, full of gumption, or simply sweet (The Aeneid’s “Fortune favors the brave” or Casablanca’s “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”), the main character of Rand’s novel, Dagny Taggart, recites a community credo as bleak and cold as her god-creator’s Russian winter: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.
The entire plot and premise of Atlas Shrugged, of course, yields more than a satisfactory glimpse of Ayn Rand’s overall sophomoric philosophy: the world is divided into “creators” and “parasites” (her words). All people who are poor (read “parasites”) deserve to be poor, all people who are rich (read “creators”) deserve to be rich. Ego is good, altruism is evil. But above all, the “virtue” of greed and the accruement of personal wealth will — somehow — usher in a world where all societal ills are alleviated (and thus one where the parasitic poor, I assume, are invisible). Environmental issues, complex trade agreements between nations, corporate influence on government and politics, predatory lending, and widespread decades-long wage stagnation seemingly do not exist in the fictional world of Atlas Shrugged or in the equally-fictional world in which Ayn Rand’s philosophy of “objectivism” operates; or if these things do exist, they don’t have any significant impact on the causes of poverty and inequality.
Consequently then, if I had to think of a book possibly worse than Ulysses, Atlas Shrugged would definitely be it. As fiction, the characters are one-dimensional and there isn’t enough sex or explosions or sex with explosions in the background. As political philosophy, well… I’ve just gone over that.
Yet there are plenty of people who would say that my observations of the book and its writer are completely off-base. That Ayn Rand really was onto something when she envisioned Galt’s Gulch, and formulated her ideas of what the world is and what it should be like. This should demonstrate that while the pursuit of utopia is a fault often attributed solely to the political left, right-libertarianism is capable of being just as deluded. In the eyes of this political faction, a free market society is one where competition is guaranteed, monopolies never form, jobs never move overseas, and corporations in this unregulated environment never — in their wildest dreams — attempt to influence legislators to pass laws that favor them exclusively.
In 2018, American labor unions have hit their all-time low. The minimum wage — long portrayed by free marketeers as being a millstone hanging around the necks of business owners — has not risen at the national level since 2009 while corporate profits, on average, have risen to over $1 trillion, making up 11% of the American economy. In fact, the tipped minimum wage hasn’t risen since 1991, and the wages of the American middle class in general have not risen with inflation since 1964. 51% of American workers make less than $30,000 a year while the average cost of living in the United States is $48,700. Furthermore, apps and web services have thrown the transportation industry, hospitality industry, music industry, manufacturing industry, and even public libraries into crisis.
If ever there was an opportunity for a free market paradise to emerge, this would be it. Organized labor has been virtually vanquished, wages for workers have hit rock bottom with excess profits being hoarded at the top, and the need for those underpaid workers is gradually being undermined by emerging technology. But to anyone with their full mental faculties intact, a Randian utopia is taking its time getting here. Galt’s Gulch remains elusive.
To be clear, Ayn Rand wasn’t the originator of free market ideology, nor is this article really about her or her terrible books. But I think it’s safe to say that had it not been for Rand’s work in the mid-20th century, discourse about capitalism would be very different today with the banking crisis of the 1980s, the recession of the early-1990s, and the financial crisis of 2008 in our rearview mirror.
I also should say that I don’t think right-libertarians are terrible people. One doesn’t have to be terrible to have terrible ideas. In fact, in the interest of fairness, I should add that right-libertarians aren’t the only political group who view markets as a nation’s way to salvation. Conservatives and neoliberal Democrats routinely proclaim their belief in a “market-based economy” that’s only very lightly regulated.
The philosophy of our nation’s financial system, then, is clear: the “Invisible Hand of the Market” is a second god to be worshipped whenever a majority of Americans are not worshipping their primary god. Its cathedrals are the malls, shopping centers, and online retailers; its hymns are the sounds of neighbors stampeding over one another for “deals” on items not even in their consciousness a day before; and the sacrifices the Great God of Capitalism requires are merely the swiping of one plastic card after another, which are guaranteed to keep being swiped by the consumerist religion’s built-in mechanism of planned obsolescence. An air of mysticism surrounds the utterance of the phrase “free enterprise,” and many institutes and foundations of apologetics are devoted to defending the concept.
For this reason, I wish to list four objections: the first, against the very idea that an economy can exist without regulation; the second, that attempting to deregulate the economy on a massive scale because of an ideological devotion to “free markets” sets the United States on a path to disaster; the third, how companies exercise an extreme degree of control over the personal lives of their employees to an extent the actual government could never dream of when it comes to its citizens; and finally, fourth, why “consumer society” is an oxymoron.
My aim in raising these four objections is twofold: 1) There are plenty of allies in the “anti-postmodern/SJW” fight who claim a love for liberty and free society whilst simultaneously backing an economic philosophy that is, in fact, incredibly anti-democratic and harmful to the cause of social freedom. This leads to 2) A general feeling, sensed if not spoken, that unless one is a “classical liberal”, one cannot truly be an effective voice against postmodernism or the excesses of social justice activism. Classical liberalism, to the best of my understanding, is the belief in the coexistence of civil liberties and “laissez faire” capitalism. My four points, I hope, will show why this political position is at best unrealistic and at worst contradictory, and that if one desires freedom in the personal sphere (e.g. speech, sexuality, religion, association), then one must consistently support an economic vision that empowers individuals to truly enjoy those freedoms without risk of being impoverished due to corporate coercion and influence.
- A Free Market Can’t Actually Exist
“Give me some examples of economic regulations” I usually ask when debating libertarians or conservatives at work or online, and the answers I normally get in return are: “price controls,” “the minimum wage,” “insurance mandates,” and “environmental legislation.” In no debate that I have had — not one — have I ever heard as an answer to my request for regulation examples: “child labor bans,” “slavery abolition,” or “the outlawing of selling votes and government offices.” This is because we take economic regulations like the last three for granted. In fact, we don’t really even think of them as regulations at all. The moral arc in Western societies has bent to such an extent that our decency prevents us from seeing these antiquated evils in those terms.
In a book I highly recommend, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, University of Cambridge economics professor Ha-Joon Chang writes:
“A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them… Like many people, as a child I was fascinated by all those gravity-defying kungfu masters in Hong Kong movies. Like many kids, I suspect, I was bitterly disappointed when I learned that those masters were actually hanging on piano wires. The free market is a bit like that. We accept the legitimacy of certain regulations so totally that we don’t see them. More carefully examined, markets are revealed to be propped up by rules — and many of them.”
Advocates of “free markets,” for example, would be appalled if they were to fall through a time warp and find themselves in the Dickensian world of two centuries ago, where small children swept chimneys and roadside “cure-alls” were sold by charlatans to gullible buyers in poor health. When they argue for a complete absence of regulation, then, they do so completely ignorant of the fact that ending child labor and enforcing strict licensing standards in medicine — while humanitarian achievements first and foremost — were also economic regulations.
“But hold on,” you may interject, “All this means is that free markets shouldn’t exist morally speaking, not that it’s impossible for them to exist.” Well, so far yes, but I haven’t finished. Aside from an economy without regulation opening the door to all sorts of repugnant unethical practices and norms, an economy without regulation would consume itself almost as soon as it began.
On the very basic matter of separating government and markets completely, how is this separation to be ensured? Established laws preventing businesses from lobbying legislators for special favors or preventing relatives of powerful businessmen from entering politics due to conflict-of-interest, or preventing businesses from contributing large sums of money to political campaigns in order to sway voting outcomes, would be economic regulations themselves.
And how about the issue of monopolies? Even assuming that businesses begin on a level playing field from which to compete (“equality of opportunity”), there is no reason whatsoever to believe that they would stay that way, and in fact that’s the point of free market capitalism: dog-eat-dog. But what happens when all the dogs have been eaten and there’s only one dog left? What happens when that only dog becomes so large and powerful that no up-and-coming pup who wishes to challenge it stands a chance? It seems, then, that competition in the marketplace is merely a temporary state. Then what? Would a government see the danger monopolies present to national and economic stability, and break up those monopolies so as to allow for competition again? If they did this, the inevitable conclusion would be that competition in markets could only be made possible by an authority establishing rules to the game and frequently refereeing. In a word, regulation.
My argument that any attempt at creating a “free market” results only in an economy that eats itself has a strong basis in American history. In 1904, President “Teddy” Roosevelt broke up the Northern Securities Company rail monopoly, which had been comprised of a conglomerate of smaller companies like Great Northern Railway (GN), Northern Pacific Railway (NP), and the Chicago, Quincy, & Burlington Railroad company (CBQ). The way the Northern Securities railroad monopoly came to be, was when a rich guy named James Hill — owner of Northern Pacific and Great Northern — bought Chicago, Quincy, & Burlington. This infuriated another rich guy named Edward Harriman, who owned Union Pacific Railroad and Southern Pacific Railroad, and who also had wanted to purchase Chicago, Quincy, & Burlington.
The two rich men were not fighting by themselves. Behind Hill was the financial backer J.P. Morgan, and behind Harriman was William Rockefeller and Jacob Schiff. Thus, a battle between gods was afoot. Harriman began buying large amounts of shares in Hill’s company Northern Pacific, so that he could gain access to Chicago, Quincy, & Burlington in a roundabout way; and in turn, Hill began buying up large shares of stock in Northern Pacific (his own company) to keep Harriman from gaining any influence. As a result, shares in Northern Pacific spiked and the New York Stock Exchange was on the brink of crashing. To avert this imminent catastrophe, Hill and Harriman and both of their respective financial backers called a truce of sorts by forming the Northern Securities Company. Under this arrangement, Hill maintained control of his company while Harriman was able to appoint directors to look after the substantial number of shares he had already bought in Hill’s company. What this whole fiasco achieved, essentially, was monopoly-by-stalemate. And a situation, also, where train ticket prices could then be set as high as the bosses wanted, and railroad placements in certain locations could be determined by political favors that were offered rather than locations for railroads being based on market demand. Predictably, public opinion turned against Northern Securities Company, and hence the reason why “Teddy” Roosevelt broke it up in 1904.
A more nuanced argument advocates of capitalism would be better off making, in light of this history, is that there’s a spectrum of “economic freedom” deserving of study and experimentation, as opposed to any concrete ideological predeterminations to which the “freedom-minded” must commit. Unfortunately, I have never heard such an argument. Never at libertarian conferences, paleoconservative forums, or “classical liberal” Facebook groups. What instead is espoused in such places is the ahistorical certainty that it is not only possible, but best, that economies operate without any “government intervention” (i.e. regulation) whatsoever. This is a proposition that is wholly unfounded and absurd.
- “Leaving Problems to The Market” Is Generally Not a Good Idea
In the case of some free market-advocates, the argument against any-and-all economic regulation comes from noble intent rather than glorified selfishness. Advocates in such a category will point out that many regulations exist which are designed to create unfair advantage rather than create atmospheres of equal opportunity (what is often referred to as “crony capitalism”), and thus the way to end such favoritism is to end the act of regulating itself.
But while these rare bleeding heart-capitalists are completely right about certain regulations existing which unfairly benefit certain industries or corporations over others, their conclusion that — because crony-regulation exists — that all regulation is bad and must be stopped, is completely upside down. The reason why crony-regulation exists is not because legislators wake up one morning and decide they like one company over another and will therefore do everything in their power to make sure their favorite brand, whimsically chosen, gets ahead; it is because companies, in an environment of “market freedom,” use that so-called freedom to rig the system by bribing legislators. Simply put, economic regulation does not give birth to crony-regulation, prior lack of regulation does.
Moreover, even sensible regulation meant to address today’s issues isn’t sufficient for establishing long-term societal stability. For this, economies also require a certain amount of planning. Few words strike fear into the hearts of bowtie-wearing Milton Friedman disciples like “planning” does, but there are two reasons why markets without planning fail.
The first is that markets are only concerned with the priorities of today, not the needs of the future, because the needs of the future can’t buy things today. A clear example of this is climate change. Scientists and informed citizens know that if nothing is done about man-caused climate change, we can kiss New York, Boston, Houston, South Florida, and the Bay Area goodbye (along with locations abroad like Bangladesh, London, the Netherlands, and Shanghai). To keep this from happening, a “green economy” would have to be planned, because markets only mindful of profits made today are not going to be concerned about a New York, Boston, Houston, South Florida, and Bay Area still above ground. An economy that is as fair as it is efficient (which I believe most of us would desire) must take into account not only the demands of today, but the demands of tomorrow.
In his book The Predator State, the economist James K. Galbraith provides an example from recent history on how one of the worst natural disasters in American history brought more devastation than it had to, because there was no economic planning for future concerns:
“On August 29th, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina tore through the levees that had protected New Orleans, it exposed exactly what markets cannot do: it focused attention, albeit too briefly, on the most massive failing of American government in the twenty-first century, which is its incapacity to plan effectively in advance of great dangers or in response to them. The catastrophe that hit the population of New Orleans, southern Louisiana, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast on the days that followed stemmed from the willful neglect, decline, and disintegration of coherent public forethought, carried out deliberately by a political class that has used the metaphor and myth of markets to abandon the responsibility to plan.
About 500,000 people lived in New Orleans on August 29th, 2005. It was well known, to those who had responsibility for them, that a hurricane level three or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale would, if it came ashore below New Orleans, destroy the system of levees that kept the city from complete destruction in a flood. It was known that sooner or later, this disaster would happen…
Given those facts, the public obligation was clear: either the levees should have been reinforced until they could cope with an event substantially less probable than a Force Three hurricane, or the low-lying areas of the city should have been abandoned and the levees rebuilt around the areas that could be protected. As a conceptual matter, plans actually existed… but the will, the ability, and the compulsory authority — in one word, the public power — to carry out the plan did not exist.”
The second reason that markets without planning fail, is because whenever markets do cause significant problems, legislators and other government officials are left with only piecemeal solutions to fix those problems; often the economic equivalent of putting a band aid over a bleeding artery. Take, for example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s $20 million proposal to fund statewide job training to fight unemployment in manufacturing. Does job training create new jobs? Not last time I checked. Or take President Trump’s frequent conflation of “economic growth” with job growth, as if they’re both the same thing. Does economic growth necessarily entail the creation of new jobs? Not in this day and age. An increasing reality which transcends any hopeful image of “economic growth” is the expansion of production without the expansion of personnel. In plain English, technology is replacing workers. We today would call this “job automation,” but as far back as 1930 John Maynard Keynes was using a far less bullshitty term for what he saw coming over the horizon: technological unemployment.
“We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come — namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economizing the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”
While Keynes also thought this would merely be “a temporary phase of maladjustment,” and that a hundred years later quality of life would be “four to eight times higher,” technological unemployment has only gotten worse 88 years since. In fact, according to a study conducted by Oxford University in 2013, nearly 50% of all existing American jobs will be automated in the next two decades. Given the imminence of this economic and social catastrophe, how will we prevent technology from causing massive unemployment? You guessed it: planning.
I am reminded of the story about a meeting which took place in 1953 between Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, and one of Henry Ford II’s most trusted managers. The manager was walking the labor leader through a new automobile factory, and as the machines were assembling vehicles, he proudly boasted “You won’t get many union members from those machines!” To which Reuther shot back, “And you won’t sell them many Fords either.”
The lesson couldn’t have been clearer: runaway capitalism has a way of producing the rope with which it ultimately hangs itself. It pits workers and bosses against each other in a way that keeps economies in constant states of crisis. Fundamentally, bosses keep trying to make more profit by attacking worker salaries (often by laying off workers themselves), and in turn worker salaries eventually become so meager that the working class isn’t able to buy what companies are selling. (This is why defenders of “free markets” always point to the amount and variety of products produced under capitalism, whilst ignoring whether or not many people are in financial situations to be able to buy said products, or whether they’re able to do so without going into debt.)
To be clear, I am not an advocate of the state attempting to plan the entire economy. Such a task would be impossible even for the most efficient of governments, and markets do play an important role in the economic wellbeing of a civilization. Clearly when the state attempts to plan everything — as the Soviet Union tried to do — it doesn’t end well. But acknowledging that planning has limits doesn’t prevent us from, say, replacing CEOs with workers councils who are elected by workers themselves, or at the very least, capping CEO salaries while mandating a raise in salary for the lower and middle classes. Nor does acknowledging that planning has limits mean that unmarketable goods, like healthcare or energy, cannot be cordoned off from the market and nationalized. Most importantly, acknowledging that markets play an important role when it comes to economic wellbeing does not mean we can’t begin planning for an automation crisis we know is coming, and frankly it is reckless not to.
I part with this second objection with one final observation: how technological unemployment perverts what we most desire when it comes to how we spend the limited time we have in this world. In his essay The Revolt Of The Salaried Bourgeoisie, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes the following:
“A consequence of the rise in productivity brought about by the exponentially growing impact of collective knowledge is a change in the role of unemployment. It is the very success of capitalism (greater efficiency, raised productivity, etc.) which produces unemployment, rendering more and more workers useless: what should be a blessing — less hard labour needed — becomes a curse. Or, to put it differently, the chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege.”
It was Goethe who once remarked that “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free,” but I disagree. None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who know they are enslaved and long to remain so for fear of freedom. That technological unemployment presents us — for the very first time in human history — with the possibility of freedom from work, is spoiled by the fact that as a society we have formulated no alternative to getting by without it. As a result, the day-to-day soul-crushing grind that has come to define so many workplaces becomes an environment we long for, not out of any genuine sense of desire, but of anxiety. In this sense, automation — and lack of economic planning for it — not only presents us with an economic and social crisis, but also a fundamentally existential one.
- Corporations, The Managerial Class, & Quasi-Feudalism
It was September 9th, 2004 when Lynne Gobbell — an employee at an insulation factory in Moulton, Alabama — was called into the office of her boss Phil Geddes. When Geddes looked up to see Lynne standing in his doorway, the order he gave was as shocking as it was straightforward: “Remove the sticker from your vehicle outside or you’re fired.”
The sticker to which he was referring was a Kerry/Edwards ’04 election sticker, and Geddes — who weeks before had passed out fliers to his employees explaining why they should vote for Bush — did not wish to employ a vocal liberal at his company. Lynne, at first defiant, replied to her boss “You can’t tell me who to vote for.” To which her boss, in turn, affirmed that he could do precisely that because he “owned the place”. The implicit message of course being that if one owns a workplace, then one can own the people inside of it; not just in the sense that the employer has authority over the employee in matters related to the job itself, mind you, but in all matters including those completely unrelated to the job one performs.
Lest you believe that employers are only content to exercise this dominion over their employees in matters of political expression, you should know that company control over workers’ activities also extends to more basic areas of daily life.
At poultry processing plants around the country, for instance, line workers wear diapers because managers make clear that bathroom breaks are “a privilege not a right.” On hot summer days, the temperature inside an Amazon warehouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania reaches 100°, yet keeps its doors and windows shut for fear that employees will steal products. But take comfort. The company compassionately arranges for ambulances to wait outside the warehouse, ready to treat workers who pass out from the heat.
Adding insult to injury, a 2014 study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute found that wage theft amounts to approximately $50 billion annually, while corporate offices and firms mull over the possibility of penalizing their employees who have unhealthy diets, or who fail to attend sponsored “wellness programs,” by driving up their health insurance premiums.
Generally speaking, “at-will employment” contracts dictate online and offline speech, manner of dress, diet, and when (or if) we can empty our own fucking bowels. The workplace has become a small-scale tyranny, and this reveals a flaw in our Great American Experiment: rights and liberties are things we hypothetically enjoy as citizens, but which corporate power, glorification of the entrepreneur, and market worship prevent us from actually enjoying as people who need to work to eat.
This, in turn, also creates a disparity when it comes to what we perceive to be “public discourse” and “popular opinion,” Because if only the well-off feel secure enough to voice their opinions on important issues, while those who struggle to make ends meet feel forced to stay silent on those same issues for fear of losing their jobs, how can we accurately ascertain the mood, wishes, values, and very state of our union and the common people within it? How can we delude ourselves for even a moment thinking that our once democratic republic hasn’t been replaced by quasi-feudalism?
The counterargument to everything I have just said in this third objection, is that if employees feel their employers have too much control over their lives, they can always quit their jobs and look for a new one. But this argument, as moral philosopher Elizabeth Anderson puts it, “is like saying Mussolini wasn’t a dictator because Italians could immigrate,” Putting aside for a moment that there is no magical job tree which people can just pluck a jobbie from whenever they need one, taking the position that the answer to corporate overreach into our private lives is to just “look for other jobs” ignores the fact that a majority of workplaces require the signing of at-will employment statements, and that nearly all employers dictate one aspect or other of their employees’ private behavior.
The irony in this, of course, is that conservatives and right-libertarians constantly worry about the death of our democratic republic due to outside causes such as immigration, foreign adversaries, and being out-competed economically by other countries, but fail to realize that the massive amount of power possessed by “job creators” — for which they so passionately advocate — entails the de facto death of the republic, because it is the death of personal liberty by a thousand privately-owned cuts. We are, in this sense, as I like to joke on good days, the “McRomans” collapsing from within.
I should also like to add that those who place more weight on corporate rights over individual ones do more to advance the cause of political correctness than any overzealous group of college kids could ever dream; and often the employees who suffer the most under the thumb of employers with too much power, are ones whom we would be inclined to defend in magazines such as Areo and others for contravening that correctness.
For instance, the Google employee who didn’t believe that gender differences were a social construct of “the patriarchy,” and was fired for writing an internal memo laying out alternative explanations for why there weren’t as many women in STEM. Or the flight attendants who were having a conversation in the airport about transgender issues, and got reported to their employer by Lena Dunham who overheard them and was so #upset that their conversation didn’t conclude the way she wanted it to.
It doesn’t take a very keen observer of popular culture to see that businesses, advertisers, and sponsors routinely cave to the demands of the perpetually outraged. This is why I remain amused whenever a “classical liberal” argues for a free market model of employment in the same breath as he or she decries the rise of Social Justice Warriorism; because the latter, in a lot of ways, takes advantage of the former. Hence the reason why dirty rotten “Bernie Bros” (like yours truly) shout from the rooftops about how identity politics is a deliberate distraction from class struggle.
- Consumerism vs. Community & Self-Knowledge
Free market ideology as the death of social liberty, and ultimately as the death of the democratic republic, provides a natural segue into my fourth and final objection: free market ideology as the death of community and knowledge of self.
This means that whereas in prior objections I dealt mostly with the results of free market ideology upon our politics and system of government (monopolization, lack of future planning, worker intimidation), in this final point I am taking on the central ethos of the ideology instead: the fetishization of choice (i.e. the notion that the more material choices you have, the more “free” you are). In a nutshell, I contend that consumer culture — spurred by our belief in the omniscience of markets — carries implications beyond the economic, and that we can see these implications all around us.
To begin with, advertisers overload children’s senses from the time they’re toddlers with promotions for cereal, toys, cartoons, clothes, music, franchise movies, junk food, and games, to the point where children begin to have an implicit belief that they have a right to be free from boredom and want; and parents who voice concern about the predatory norm of advertising — or voice concern regarding the behavior these norms seem to be creating in their children — are frequently ridiculed for wanting to “shelter” their kids, or for wanting to “place them at a social disadvantage,” or for just being plain weird.
Social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat await pre-teens and teenagers after a decade of this corporate bombardment, rewarding these kids’ learned narcissistic behaviors to the best of their ability (e.g. the provision of endless photo-filter options to help adolescents become comfortable with the projection — and projecting — of false realities). Meanwhile, for those youth who possess the rare attribute of being semi-aware, the mob-politics and lazy bandwagon-activism of Twitter’s hashtag-system will pacify their desire to do good by giving the impression that change requires no actual learning or sacrifice, just the click of a mouse.
Of course, it isn’t just children and teenagers who are up shit creek without a paddle because of the relentless onslaught of consumerism; the free market ethos has also affected modern adults in harmful ways. If you’re having relationship problems, you can ditch your partner and pick another one from an app like Tinder, as if partners are things you can just select like items from a store. If you don’t like the way you look naturally, you can buy hair growth treatments, new breasts, bigger lips, or a new face entirely. If your news source, radio program, or favorite website puts out information that conflicts with your biases and worldview, you can find hundreds of others that don’t, and even a few which cater specifically to your bias and worldview.
The result of a lifetime of this, of course, is a diminished desire to have meaningful interactions with neighbors and loved ones, along with a general cluelessness about what one genuinely likes and dislikes and what one genuinely believes and doesn’t believe. Suspense and risk are stripped away entirely during the process of building relationships (familial, friendly, and romantic), because we are told that any situation which results in individual discomfort during relationship-building is “toxic.” Which is to say that the customer satisfaction mentality has taken root in our minds — not only in the sense that we have been trained since we were knee-high to implicitly believe that we have a right to freedom from boredom and want — but in the sense that we are also learning to commodify the people around us.
I believe, then, with all of my heart and fearfully so, that consumerism is bringing about the end of genuine self-exploration and self-knowledge in favor of the numbing of the self; the numbing of the self to the self and the numbing of the self toward others. This brings to mind a statement the psychologist and sociologist Erich Fromm made in his 1956 book The Art Of Loving:
“Contemporary society preaches this ideal of unindividualized equality because it needs human atoms, each one the same, to make them function in a mass aggregation, smoothly, without friction; all obeying the same commands, yet everybody being convinced that he is following his own desires. Just as modern mass production requires the standardization of commodities, so the social process requires standardization of man…”
This leads us to the subject of community. For how can a community flourish in an economic environment which discourages and distracts a vast majority of people from becoming self-actualized and connecting meaningfully with others? More importantly, how can a community have an agreed-upon foundation of facts or a shared perception of reality, if targeted ad campaigns, alternative news sources, and social media algorithms put each one of us in our own “bubble reality?”
Upon hearing this last question, you might wonder if I’ve somehow confused the ill-effects of consumerism with postmodernism. I haven’t. The reason you might recognize postmodernism, when I talk about how consumerism destroys community and cultural identity with entitlement, fact/narrative-choosing, and replacing self-discovery with self-as-construct, is because consumerism encourages postmodernism. Postmodernism is merely the academic protege of the free market ideal which lies at the heart of our culture. This is why new university students take to postmodern philosophy so easily. It follows the choose-your-own-reality template they’ve been exposed to by market forces their whole lives.
Hence the reason the left-wing political theorist Frederic Jameson wrote in the New Left Review back in 1984 that postmodernism was “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” Because market ideology and consumerism have encouraged our social slide into the “post-truth era” by feeding our hyper-individualistic need for constant amusement, and amusement through entertainment and social mediums which promote unthinking rather than active thinking.
The funny thing is, none of this is an accident of free market philosophy. If you notice, the distraction and dissatisfaction forced upon us from our cradles to our graves is very much about social sleep. This is because, to the surprise of no one, an economic system that culminates in wealth being concentrated at the top has its mechanisms for ensuring it stays there; and for all of the lip service paid to “citizen engagement,” the last thing that is wanted by the upper class and elites in any society — including supposedly democratic ones — is for citizens to be informed about what’s really going on in their world. The fetishization of choice, which is the central ethos of free market belief, serves as a sedative that makes the creation or continuation of community impossible.
Rereading everything I have written, I understand that my tone and approach seem radical. But frankly speaking, they seem radical because they are radical. I confess that it’s hard not to be radical when today’s “normal” appears to be so radical in the opposite direction. What to think, when the wealth gap continues to widen, American jobs are being shipped to countries where worker protections are nonexistent, and future economic crisis due to the automating of the remaining jobs within the country is so clearly written on the wall? What to do, when widespread political apathy, avoidance of contrary views, and a large appetite for a pop-culture largely devoid of meaning comes to be the defining characteristics of your generation? What to conclude, when all around the country, public lands and parks are being privatized to make way for corporate offices, shopping centers, and highways?
This is why I feel the need to state that while the excesses of social justice movements is an issue (on college campuses and in leftwing discourse), it is not the only issue or even the biggest issue we face. Conversations around democratic socialism, labor organizing, social safety nets, the erosion of community, and even around related subjects like climate change and alternative energy need to be happening a lot more frequently and in a lot more places than they currently are. Too much hangs in the balance for us to be caught up in inadequate political ideas like “classical liberalism,” conservatism, neoliberalism, and even that deservedly-despised strand of leftism which gets so caught up in the minutiae of identity politics that it misses the big picture on issues that affect everyone. We need a politics of informed populism. A national vision of progress for the many, not the few. That is… if it’s not too late.
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