|trees reflected in a winter pool|
There is nothing more destructive to capitalism than the satisfied customer.
I thought I'd make use of this blog to try to flesh out my thinking on the topic, so bear with me . . .
Depending on your priorities, market capitalism can be an efficient way to organize your economic affairs. Those who possess wealth set up enterprises, and those who don't have wealth must exchange hours of work for a wage. The desire for a good wage motivates the have-nots to be diligent and ambitious workers and the desire for profits motivates the haves to create goods for their customers in a cost-effective way. When government is strong enough and democratic enough to set ground rules and make sure the common good is protected to some degree, it's not a terrible system.
For millennia the grunt-work of civilization was done with human and animal bodies, supplemented with the power of falling water and bustling wind, but now coal, oil and gas do the work and ask for no wage other than the effort it takes to get them out of the ground.
It's probably more accurate to call our current system "consumer capitalism," because the energy subsidy from fossil fuels enables a new variant, in which wage earners don't just occupy themselves with subsistence - the reproduction of the workforce - but they secure enough wealth to become key customers in their own right. And they become a necessary and vital market for the goods being produced.
By the time we got a ways into the 20th century, there was actually enough wealth being produced to ensure material security for everyone, arguably even to a degree of comfort and luxury that would have satisfied an upper middle class burgher from a few generations past. Leisure and time - freedom from labor and drudgery - had been the privilege of the few, but was now within the grasp of the many.
I ponder what might have happened if we had developed "enoughness" as a core cultural value- if our system had been oriented toward ensuring that people found satisfaction and self-actualization in a materially modest, cozy existence where there was less work and more leisure, more fellowship and edification and less competitive consumption.
But that is clearly not where we've ended up. Today, instead of free time we have workers putting in 60-hour weeks to pay the rent or rise up the ladder, and mothers dropping their 3-week old babies at daycare.
We have millions of young people medicated and self-medicating to endure a ruthless culture of striving, in which the ability to stay focussed on working and spending are the parameters of life's success.
Our time away from work is no longer "free", but instead an effort of consumerist leisure - whether passively consuming media products or actively - and expensively - constructing our identities as golfers or runners, backpackers or Caribbean vacationers, video gamers or stadium tailgaters.
We work long hours for our wages and forget how to do a thousand things our great grandparents could do for themselves. We've had our crafts and callings taken from us and replaced with things and services that we can buy from our direct-deposit paychecks.
We bring the global poor into our orbit as factory drones, but with the promise that they can soon join us under the bright lights of our consumerism.
Along a different trajectory, within a culture of enoughness, we might have been the beneficiaries of a golden age of prosperity and civilization - or at least achieved some sort of sustainable global existence. Is it so hard to imagine?
Next week, I'll continue my effort to sketch out this predicament - and the ways that our unhappy system is enforced and evaded . . .