Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Ruins Of Consumerism

I saw an evocative phrase in a book I was reading about the Roman Republic, a society that, like our own, was chronically plagued by extreme inequality: The fields of the poor. The fields of the poor. That’s a very picturesque way of referring to something that, in reality, was unbearably grim and awful. I don’t think it could be done today. Modern poverty defies any such sweet-sounding descriptions: The rent is late, the overdue bills are stained with soda, and your rusty Corolla leaks radiator fluid. Judge Judy is on TV. The kids are heating up frozen macaroni and cheese for dinner, and you’re praying for a call back from the manager at Target. This is home:

Try to capture that with a poetic phrase. It’s a difficult thing to do. Trailer parks of discontent? And how could you describe the broader American landscape in which this dismal scenario transpires, the one that exists outside the confines of the trailer court? Soulless parking lots of despair? Strip malls of worn-out consumerism? The specific character of American poverty reflects the specific character, in a greatly exaggerated form, of the larger American culture that produced it. The trashier the culture, the trashier the slum.

There is a unique emptiness to the wreckage we’re leaving behind. Most of it won’t have any intrinsic beauty that posterity will be able to appreciate, as, for example, we can still appreciate a Byzantine mosaic or an Etruscan vase. It will just be a mass of cheap, disposable trash. Future archaeologists will sift through layers of sheet metal, plastic, automobile parts and broken DVDs, meticulously searching for some indication that American civilization — at least in its latter stages — had any sense of value. What were they really about, future scholars will wonder, until, at their wit’s end, they’ll be forced to bow to the truth and conclude that America, in it’s final decades, wasn’t about anything at all.

They invented plastic and never looked back!

They started out strong, producing such marvels as the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, and the Hoover Dam. But somewhere in the latter half of the twentieth century they inexplicably wore down. Their creativity petered out and their vigour drained away. They lost their purpose, turned inward, and proceeded to devour their own guts.

They bought and sold gadgets at a manic pace because they couldn’t think of anything better to do. Some of these gadgets were miraculous, and others were extremely useful. Most of them, however, were merely frivolous, and a few were downright dangerous. But that didn’t matter. The most important thing was that these gadgets were contantly being bought, sold and consumed; bought, sold and consumed; bought, sold and consumed in a briskly moving cycle that couldn’t be impeded in any serious way or the whole system might come crashing down. It was done for the sake of a deity called Growth.

The process itself was of paramount importance, everything else was secondary. To the people who controlled it, there weren’t any other considerations at all. It was the only thing. It was a God whose rules could never be questioned and whose belly could never be satisfactorily filled. If anyone got in the way of this divinely ordained system, criticized it, or otherwise prevented it from operating smoothly, they were run over or pushed aside. When they could no longer actively participate in it, they were thrown away as casually as burnt-out spark plugs or empty aluminum cans.

Buying, selling, consuming; buying, selling, consuming. On and on, world without end. There was no other glue that bound Americans together, nothing else they could think of to aspire to. It was, for all intents and purposes, their religion. It was so sacred to them, in fact, that in their zeal to keep it going they readily abandoned their one truly great contribution to the world: their political constitution.

When entropy set in and the system broke down, the people couldn’t figure out what to do. Signs of impending collapse proliferated like weeds, but the people ignored them. They hunkered down and continued to buy, sell and consume as compulsively as ever. Their leaders, who were as intractably corrupt as they were stupidly short-sighted, actively encouraged this behavior. They were unable to change due to a failure of will and imagination, and they gradually perished; a slow, inglorious death.

Put simply, they were stubborn fat people who ran out of money.


Grung_e_Gene said...

a deity called Growth.

This is an excellent post. I term the US deity, American Capitalism. It's not a new idea about consumerism and our disposable throw away culture but you capture it and relate it in an excellent way here.

I think the slide is a result of the Counter-Reactionary push of the Rich as they saw America striving towards a more equal society they pushed the parts of the Constitution which were written with them in mind; consolidation of property, political power in the hands of the elites.

The Cadre of Businessmen, Generals, Politicos and professional politicians who ensure wealth is transferred to them and the society is kept at bay.

writenow said...

What a great post. And you're right about no one noticing. Americans seem to think that life is a movie. They're passive players. Good to see OWS happening. But I've been waiting for the country to wake up for about 50 years. Hasn't happened and it ain't lookin' good.

Thank goodness we can write. At least it's a positive outlet.

writenow said...
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writenow said...

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