Selling the Elephant
Dabbling in Marcuse
The only reason a great many American families don't own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments.
In 1964 philosopher and sociologist Herbert Marcuse wrote:
“Our society distinguishes itself by conquering the centrifugal social forces with Technology rather than Terror, on the dual basis of an overwhelming efficiency and an increased standard of living.”
Marcuse argued that advanced industrial societies are propelled by the creation of false needs, absorbing and integrating individuals into the production process through cultural forces such as mass media, advertising and industrial management. According to Marcuse this creates a "one-dimensional universe" where critical thought and oppositional challenge withers on the vine. In short, we have been bought off by the “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” of post-industrial capitalism:
"The capabilities (intellectual and material) of contemporary society are immeasurably greater than ever before --which means that the scope of society's domination over the individual is greater than ever before."
Now, at the conclusion of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Marcuse’s analysis seems even more relevent than it did in 1964. Rapid technological advances over the last fifty years have seemingly created a glut of affluence and materialism. It’s hard to find a teenager without a technological attachment--the vast majority of homes have an Internet connection and the sale of such extraneous luxuries as widescreen plasma televisions, mobile phones, ipods and other sundry technological baubles is exponentially rising. Many households have two cars, at least two televisions, computers, radios, air conditioners, high-tech toasters, hair-straighteners, double-door refrigerators, coffee machines and electric grapefruit-juicers, with a corresponding rate of power consumption frighteningly out of whack with their actual needs.
Bondage to the Status Quo
The elephantine beast of consumerism continues to grow, trampling everything in its wake--including the natural environment. Increased prosperity has brought increased uniformity of thought. Even University campuses, once microcosms of independent thought and sometimes subversion, have become more and more part of the production process. Education has become business, students are “customers” and in the health and welfare sectors, families and patients have become “clients”. There is a sense we are no longer citizens of individual standing but collective economic units to be appraised and organized.
In Marcuse’s one-dimensional universe, its inhabitants fail to fully recognize the driving forces of the system--ie: coercion and the creation of false needs and desires--believing instead, that a plethora of materialistic baubles, a variety of lifestyles and a spectrum of career choices are of free choice instead of false constructions designed to re-inforce social norms and limit consciousness rather than expand it. As writer Stephen Amidon put it, in an article on Marcuse for the New Statesman:
“Instead of liberating the individual from toil and stupidity, technology has locked him into an endless pattern of drudgery and titillation. In this one-dimensional world, the status quo rules. Even seemingly renegade activities - alternative religion, political radicalism, drug use and pornography - quickly take on the aspects of consumerism…
The means of bondage to the status quo have never been more powerful or cost less.”
Alienation and Anome
Amidon’s remarks reflect something of the observations of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim and their respective work on ‘alienation’ and ‘anomie’. Both Marx and Durkheim were interested in the relationship of the individual to his social environment as well as their psychological state of mind. In his writings on ‘alienation’, Marx discussed the seperation of the workers labour to the act of production. Because the labourer’s work is imposed and not voluntary, Marx argued, it is not the satisfaction of a need, but only the means of satisfying others needs. Thus, through becoming part of the ‘machine’ of labour the worker becomes alienated from himself and ‘free conscious activity.’ “The more the worker expends himself in work the more powerful become the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life and the less he belongs to himself.”
Durkheim described anomie as a condition occuring when the regulatory restraints of society are insufficient and therefore unable to set limits on social want. According to Durkheim, anomie is prevalent because of the rapid growth of the market and big industry without a corresponding growth in the forces that could regulate it. This, together with “great inequality in the external conditions of the struggle” creates anomie and the “malady of infinite aspiration” where “each individual finds himself in a state of war with every other”. In the absence of any limiting authority, appetites become unfettered. “From top to bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused without knowing where to find foothold. Nothing can calm it, for it’s goal is far beyond all it can attain.”
The Indifference of Capitalism
Capitalism is indifferent to moral restraints and has a way of colonising everything, even children. Corporations spend billions of dollars to persuade minors to desire a host of consumerables, ranging from fast food to provocative underwear. For young teens and women, the suspect machinations of the beauty industry have been well documented---first create dissatisfaction then promote the product as wish-fullfillment.
Perhaps one of the best examples of manufactured desire can be seen the increasing popularity of bottled water. Even though Australia has good quality tap water, we consume 250 million litres of bottled water a year at a cost of $385 million dollars. Not to mention the 314,000 barrels of oil a year it costs to package, refrigerate and ship the product. In the United States production of bottled water uses up 17 million barrels of oil and that cost does not include transportation to the shop. Apart from the problem of waste disposal for the empty bottles, the rise of bottled water has also posed a potential threat to the quality of tap water a shift to bottled water could undermine funding for tap water protection. The bottled water industry is a salient example of the excesses of a consumerist society.
For those with disposable incomes or credit card holders living on borrowed funds, shopping has become a desirable leisure activity. The American-style mall is the new town common and entertainment centre rolled into one. On weekends, the sports field, Grandma’s house and the family picnic ground must now compete with dazzling stores and the ker-ching of the cash register. Never mind that consumerism is a pattern of behaviour that may be adversely affecting the public and natural environment, our personal health, financial status, individuals and human relationships and institutions. Consumerism is the elephant we are all attempting to swallow whole but will never manage to do because new desires and wants are just a slick jingle away. In the capitalist economy, desire must never be satiated, for this would mean destruction of the system.
Of course criticism of capitalism is easy to produce. Not so easy to conceive are realistic alternatives—and though he may have been right about the “one-dimensionality” of such a system, even Marcuse struggled to come up with convincing solutions to the problems of the post-industrial world. In spite of the gargantuan amount waste it produces, in social and political terms, capitalism appears to be more efficient than any other system. Command economies such as communism and socialism cannot anticipate and provide for the needs of the population beyond demand and supply. By contrast capitalism is capable of providing for quality control and scientific and technological development over a wide area in order to meet demand. However, because it is morally neutral and driven by profit, capitalism needs to be mitigated by regard for the community in areas such as health and education, as well as regard for the global population in regard to the consumption of resources and the distribution of wealth.
Rich and Richer...Poor and Poorer
The moral dilemma facing Western nations is that there is something amiss with a developed economic system that does not sustain adequately two thirds of the world's population. The largest capitalist society in the world, the USA, contains 3 percent of the world's population yet uses up 30 percent of all the world resources consumed annually. The obvious conclusion here is that on a global scale such a system would be unsustainable.
Globalization, deregulation and liberalisation have been touted by neo-liberals as the economic saviour of the world’s poorer countries. Yet under these free market policies global inequality continues to grow. More than 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where income differentials are widening. According to the International Forum on Globalization, 52 of the top 100 wealthiest economic entities are corporations as opposed to countries, with the key beneficiaries being a small number of shareholders. It appears that while a few are richer than ever before, globalization has done little to alleviate generalised poverty. In the grand scheme, the economic white elephant of free trade has thus far proved to be a failure.
Even within wealthy capitalist economies, there are vast inequalities in the distribution of wealth. Yet even many of those who benefit little financially from the production process continue to support the status quo--even in some cases voting against their own interests. The working class, who may be doing it tough, struggling hard to make ends meet and look after their families and who surely will lose out from inequitable tax cuts and welfare changes may still vote conservatively because they have dreams of one day working their way up the social ladder. Perhaps they reason they won't want to be paying hefty taxes when they do and prefer to dwell in the *what could be* than the *what is*. Aspirational promise is a big part of selling the elephant of capitalism. People prefer to identify upwards rather than downwards and the heavily promoted allure of the big car, big house and kids-at-private-school is very powerful political prod. In the USA, in a now-famous piece of research titled, "Homer Gets a Tax Cut," the Princeton political scientist Richard Bartels demonstrated that even the poor supported tax cuts for the rich because they hoped that they might possibly benefit, notwithstanding the reality that the vast majority of poor people will have more chance of finding an eight-legged camel than becoming wealthy.
Happiness and the Market Economy
Consumerism is a hard habit to shake and appears to be infectious. As Al Gore remarked during one of his lecture tours across America, "We're embedded in a culture that makes it so easy to just go with the flow and support a pattern that's horribly destructive.” Could it be that we have so persuasively convinced that material goods equate to personal happiness that we find ourselves unable to release ourselves from the grip of possession and consumption…? Our aspirations have been so long intimately linked with consumerism and manufactured need we may not easily recognize what our real needs are.
Karl Marx believed the capitalist mode of production was a transient system and not part of the necessary condition for human life and Marxist theorists ever since have predicted that capitalism's inevitable implosion would mean an advance to socialism or a decline into barbarism. Yet capitalism seems to be remarkably resilient and able to flex with changing conditions. An end or not to capitalism is of course impossible to predict but one of its greatest confrontational challenges can be seen through the ominious warnings of climate change scientists.
Potential changes in the planet’s climate will likely be large-scale, irreversible and disastrous--a situation which has serious implications for consumerism and the means of production. Increases in the privatization of the global commons by capital worsens the problem, while the spectre of the rapidly developing countries seeking the same higher standards of living that the developed world has enjoyed for decades, presents an ecological end-times scenario. The promise of renewable energies and technological developments may be too far from realisation to save us from climate-change catastrophe. This would necessitiate an urgent trade-off between maintaining the comforts of a consumer lifestyle and preserving the planet. If the global effects of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating and heading for crisis then the elephant may have to be returned to the store in exchange for a mouse.
It is thus possible that the inhabitants of Marcuse’s
”one-dimensional universe” can no longer afford the price of compliance. An emerging awareness of the great cost of consumerism has crept into the global consciousness and the pressing necessity for social and economic reform of a ravenous, profit driven engine may yet transform capitalism into a tamer, more controllable beast. In turn we may have to redefine our needs and wants in accordance with realities rather than the excessive fantasies of capitalisms’ consoling dream machine. Or else….?
Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional man, Ch. 1, p 9, Sphere, 1964
New Statesman, Stephen Amidon on Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, Published 27 November 2000 Lazlett and Runciman, Alienation and Anomie, p 137
Australasian Bottled Water Institute. Weblink, http://www.bottledwater.org.au/scripts/cgiip.exe/WService=ASP0003/ccms.r United Nations Human Development Report, Weblink, http://hdr.undp.org/en/
Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind, Weblink, http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/6/2/3/7/p62375_index.html