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Looking Beyond a Society Based on Consumption or Why I Am Not A Randian or Objectivist

This post is inspired by, amongst many other things, this particular “piece of writing” that I saw on Google News Spotlight. It’s not very good but I am linking to anyway in hope of maybe getting some cross traffic or baiting some Randians to come argue with me.

I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged, so please don’t mistake this as some type of review or critique.

Imagine a world where, instead of the capital owning class going on strike, the lower and middle classes went on strike. They stopped buying durable goods, stopped eating out, stopped going on vacations, stopped investing in their 401Ks. What would happen to the economy and industry then? Granted, the working classes are generally unable to go on strike for prolonged periods. They are called the working class because they have to work. They don’t have nest eggs and investments from which they can draw an income. So they work. They aspire, they consume, and they keep the economy moving along because they have to: they have to feed and clothe and house themselves and their families.

But they don’t have to buy new TV’s and automobiles or overleveraged homes. These are cultural values, specifically consumer culture values. Partially they are the legacy of the “American Dream” that is itself rooted in the scientific revolutions of the Enlightenment and subsequently mankind’s gradual ascent from a Hobbesian existence towards the current level of comfort and physical security afforded to us today. Human beings are an aspirational animal. We are hardwired to accumulate material wealth because material wealth brings security. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. The only problem is that sometime thousands of years ago, mankind started to cultivate the land and form societies. These societies began to offer to human beings a way to escape the Darwinian struggle for survival, to a certain degree. Over time, it has brought us to a point today where natural selection is still in effect, although social processes have created an evolutionary environment in which it is not always the most adapted that survive and flourish. We have created a world of equal genetic opportunity, which is almost assuredly a great thing, but we still have these evolutionary impulses to conquer and acquire, to hoard what is scarce, and to have anxiety over our relative social position.

All of these impulses are putting us on a collision course towards collapse. I am not an expert on environmental science or population economics, but I believe it is fair to say that the scientific community, by and large, has seen the writing on the wall. The level of economic growth, as it is defined contemporarily by GDP growth, is unsustainable. The stock of natural resources on our planet is being diminished and the world’s population is continuing to grow, both at ever increasing rates. From the time of the Industrial Revolution to the end of the Second World War, the world’s population has grown from 1 billion to 3 billion people. Only a fraction of those people were lifted out of what we would consider poverty and into the ranks of the working consumer class. Today, the world’s population is near 7 billion and more than half of those people are currently playing “catch up” with the Western world in terms of industrialization and standards of living. Even though today’s industrial standards are more technologically sophisticated and efficient than what was used during the 19th and 20th centuries, the cost to the earth of giving 3 billion more people plasma screen displays and three bedroom houses will be tremendous.

The consumerist cultural values that are intrinsic to the operation of the current global capitalist system are unsustainable, and from an existential viewpoint, completely unnecessary in today’s world of abundant food and relative interregional security. Many recent studies have been done that conclude people do not gain any marginal happiness with income levels over a certain amount. I am not sure what that amount is, but the mere fact that it exists should tell us something about the end result of an aspirational consumerist society: it won’t end until the earth is dead or we change our values.

The middle classes can stop wanting to become the upper classes, and the lower classes can be assured of their own rights to be enfranchised as global citizens who are able to receive benefits from the technological and scientific progress that has been made over the last several centuries, we just have to want it and demand it, first as individuals, then as a society. We have to change our values.

Back to Atlas Shrugged: Atlas would be screwed without society at large. If the upper class really are the innovators, idea people, and heroes of society (which is a claim I am dubious of, but for the sake of argument I will let it stand), they still need a stock of workers to bring those ideas to life, and a marketplace full of consumers who are willing to purchase these ideas. Philosophically, the nobility of the capital owning classes lasts only as long as you give credence to consumption as an end in and of itself.

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Cool People: Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek is one of these guys that I really want to understand, but can’t. I am not sure if it is because I am not as smart as he is, or if he is full of shit.

He’s kind of an academic rockstar. He dates lingerie models and wears the free socks you get from flying on Lufthansa. He’s also a funny, cynical, old fuck, as is made evident by this interview (When asked, “What makes you depressed?”, Zizek answers: “Seeing stupid people happy.”) He is in high demand as a lecturer. When he speaks English, he has the worst kind of saliva-soaked Central-Eastern European accent, which he employs at a machine gun’s pace to effortlessly jump between his three favorite topics: Communism, Lacan, and Hegel… which wouldn’t be all that hard to follow, except he frequently stops at stations as varied as Kung-Fu Panda, the ecology of “shit”, and his own self-loathing between the terminals of his intellectual heroes.

Despite all of this, I came across this piece that Zizek wrote for Guernica, where I think he is trying to reinvent Communism, and I actually followed along with his prose for about 1000 words before it became obfuscated by Zizek’s… Zizekiness. Also, from the site where I found the article, came this reader comment:

“I’ve read before that Zizek is a pure Hegelian that is just trolling humanity with his silly defenses of communism. Something like the philosophical equivalent of Howard Stern… It’s very rare for me to find a socialist I don’t hate, but in this case I make an exception… because like I said I think he’s just screwing around.”

Interesting hypothesis. As I stated, I am really not sure whether I should take Zizek seriously or not. To me, it seems much of his writings have little appeal outside the circles of pseudo-intellectuals and nihilistic bourgeois continentals who claim Zizek as their own. Other times, I find myself wanting to believe that he is onto something important, but I am just unable to wrap my mind around it completely. In either case,  I am always hesitant to bring him up in serious conversation, because his ideas are polarizing at worst and confoundedly byzantine at best.

From what I have read and seen about the man, I believe him to be earnest in the presentation of his ideas, but skeptical and sarcastic about his audience’s ability to understand them (this is an attitude that I can relate to completely). He is approaching political economy from a psycho-philosophical perspective that doesn’t really mesh with my own model of emergent institutionalism, and it is probably the case that I just “don’t get it” because I haven’t been trained to (despite my love of philosophy, my studies in it have been entirely self-directed and incomprehensive), but in any case I find what Zizek has to say supremely fascinating. He is also an interesting personality. His normally cantankerous prose is punctuated by moments of lucidity: “I don’t see any continuity with old-style communism in my approach. So why do I then call it communism? As to its contents, though, the problem is always the same. It’s the enclosure of the commons. Marx was talking about land and property when he wrote about this, but today intellectual property is our commons, information is our commons. Something that Marx could not have predicted is taking place today: we are witnessing a strange regression to the same kind of enclosure of the commons, andpeople having to pay rent to people like Bill Gates for intellectual property.”


More on Zizek:

2010 Profile from the UK Guardian

2004 Interview w/ Believer Mag

Categories: Cool People, Pinko Commies