Thursday, February 21, 2013

Modern Man Enslaved


We live in an era of unprecedented freedom ... of speech, of travel, of work, of intellectual and creative endeavor, of where we live, to name just a few.  And we live in a nation that has experienced great upward mobility over the past century.

And yet, whether rich or poor, professional or working class, we are enslaved.  To be more exact, the habit-energies of our minds are enslaved.  We have become little more than programmed unthinking robots that do what our masters ... the lords of capitalism ... want us to do.  And this affects virtually all areas of our lives.  (You may well find this proposition ludicrous, but please read on.)

The lords of capitalism (by this I mean all those who hold the reins of power in our capitalist system) have achieved their desired control over our lives by preying on the weaknesses of man ... on our intense desire or craving to be loved, to be desired, to be admired, to be part of a group.  Now, wanting to be loved or part of a group is not inherently either a weakness or something bad for us.  But because of the insecurity that affects most of us in this culture, those wants have morphed into cravings which rule our lives and cause us endless frustration and pain, leading us further from the feelings of peace and happiness that are our birthright.

Let me site this enslavement’s most prevailing form.  In our contemporary culture, status is confirmed almost exclusively by one thing ... money.   Because the more money one has the more, and more expensive, things one can acquire, and ones acquisitions ... what used to be called, derogatorily, conspicuous consumption ... is at the core of ones status.  

Whether rich or poor, what you are able to acquire ... whether it’s fancy Nike sneakers for a ghetto dweller or a 20,000 sq. ft. mansion for the top 1% ... gives you status among your peers.  It’s not talent, brains, or looks ... it’s how you’ve been able to parlay those attributes into money.  And so we find that individuals are making life decisions, to the extent they have  control, based primarily on the prospect of making more money rather than the factors that used to be of equal or greater importance.

The reader might say, “so what’s wrong with that?”  What’s wrong is that it traps one in a cycle of endless frustration, even if one is successful, because one always is left wanting MORE.  What’s wrong is that it distorts decisions that are important for the larger society ... like how many people choose to become teachers, or engineers, or primary care doctors rather than financial industry brokers or high paid medical specialists.  What’s wrong is that ethics and professionalism are routinely sacrificed on the altar of money.  Whether you look at almost any aspect of the recent financial debacle or in general at the actions of industry, including the health care industry, if making more money means disregarding ethics or cutting corners on professionalism the latter concerns are hardly given a second thought.

Mind you, I’m fully aware that the enslavement of man’s habit-energies is not something exclusive to the capitalist system.  In almost any system that has a power hierarchy, those in power will take measures to ensure that the masses do what they want them to do.  The most extreme examples were found in totalitarian societies, like Communist Russia or Nazi Germany.

But while the political propaganda in those cases was far more reprehensible and sinister, there is little practical difference between the marketing that we are subjected to on a constant basis and that political propaganda.  It all falls under the category of the big lie.  And the aim in both is the control of people.

“Oh, come on!” you may say.  But think about it.  The success of our capitalist consumer-based economy depends on making people believe they need something, regardless whether they really do.  The more successful marketing has become, the more addicted people have become to consuming, and the more money has become the essential means to obtain the desired end ... to the point that people will do almost anything to obtain money.  

There is no shortage of examples of this among rich or poor.  It is this craving that resulted in affluent people in the financial industry not caring what the impact of their reckless actions were on others in the recent mortgage securities debacle.  It is this craving that results in many of the poor turning to the world of crime (10% of black males in their 30s are in prison or jail on any given day.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one third of all black men can expect to be in prison at some point during their lifetime) or people with meager means agreeing to the removal of mountaintops for coal mining and hydro-fracking if they see money in it for themselves, regardless if the risk is high or virtually assured that it will ultimately despoil the environment and contaminate their very drinking water, the source of life.

“Ah,” you may say, “but people here have free will.  It’s their choice whether to buy something or not.  Whether to work in one industry or not.  Whether to be ethical or not.”  

But that’s just the point.  People don’t really have free will.  They have been programmed by our culture and its pervasive marketing and consumerist values to crave the acquisition of things and to acquire the money needed to satisfy that craving.   And when one craves something, when one becomes addicted to something, one has no free will.  That is how we have become enslaved.  And this includes those at the top who are exploiting the rest of us.  One has no real choice not to do what your addiction tells you to do ... barring of course becoming aware that one is an addict and going through a 12-step program to recover your peace and contentment.

A big lie central to the success of this marketing is the concept of progress.  Certainly since the industrial revolution, and perhaps before, progress has been touted as being the end all and be all for civilization.  And so we have come to accept and to crave everything that bespeaks of progress.  Acquiring such items, such as the iPhone, becomes the latest and most ephemeral of status symbols.

Should progress, however, be so uncritically regarded?  Without question, when it comes to material matters, we have progressed to an amazing degree, and the speed of that progress just increases with the advancement of technology.  

But has that progress brought us increased happiness or security?  No.  Has it brought us the increased leisure time that was much touted at the dawn of the technology age?  Hardly!  People are working longer hours and are more stressed, often being on the job almost 24/7 because of smart phones and the computer.  Has it brought us improved health?  No.   We live longer because of advances in medicine and improved hygiene, but we are not healthier.  In fact we are less healthy.  We are living longer despite our physical condition, not because of it.  Has it made our homes and schools and the world at large less violent?  No

Clearly there are many things that are better now then they were 50 or 100 years ago, but that is due primarily to a change in laws and attitudes.  Such things ... the status of women, people of color, and gays and lesbians, for example ... are social matters.  The things that are marketed as progress and which we purchase have not changed our interior, our spiritual, lives for the better.  Yes, women as well as men toil less arduously than they used to, but are their lives better now?  No.

The importance of marketing to make people want and purchase things they don’t really need extends from the highest luxury items down to the most plebian.  Let me give you several examples of the latter.  

Many years ago, because I was living someplace with no hot water, I started shaving using regular bar soap and cold water.  To my surprise, I discovered that I got a wonderful shave, even though I have a rough beard and shaving had always been difficult for me.  Some time later I happened to meet a dermatologist and told her about my experience, to which she replied that that made perfect sense as the cold water closes your skin pores, resulting in an easier shave.  I have not used shaving cream or hot water in more than 40 years!

More recently, we discovered a far less expensive form of clothes washing detergent than purchasing the commercial brands.  Just combine baking soda wash powder and borax powder with water and you have a very effective, inexpensive detergent that does just as good a job on washables (I can’t speak to delicate washables as I have none) as any commercial detergent.

These are but two small examples.  But if everyone followed my example, the manufacturers of these products would be out of business.  And this list could be expanded to much that we purchase.  Most of it just isn’t “necessary.”

The last example is not small.  We have a recognized and bemoaned epidemic of obesity in our nation, especially among our children and younger adults.  Why?  Because their diet habits have changed and their exercise habits have changed.  And why is that?  Because they have succumbed to the marketing wiles of McDonalds and makers of soft drinks and all the other unhealthy, fattening junk food that they eat.  They could easily have a healthier diet (note I didn’t say “healthy”) like kids used to.  And because their days are now spent in front of a variety of electronic gadgets ... TV, video games, and computers ... which they have been sold as being “cool.”  The exercise that children used to get outdoors is mostly a thing of the past.

The reader will in all likelihood now understandably say that what I’m advocating would cause the downfall of our economy and bring about much human misery.  Ah, but not if we turn from a consumer-driven economy to an infrastructure-driven economy as I suggested in an earlier post (“Strengthening America by Changing from a Consumer Economy to a Nation-Building Economy,” November 4, 2011).  In such an economy there would be ample work but money would be redirected and spent not on unnecessary fluff but on things that were critical to the ongoing health and strength of our country and indirectly our standard of living.

If we want to be truly free to do what is best for us ... not for corporate America, if we want to be strong and healthy, we must first recognize that we have become enslaved to the powers of corporate America and we must then demand a change in the status quo.  Just as Gandhi led the people of India to not cooperate with their British overlords, just as Martin Luther King led African-Americans to not cooperate in their own oppression by white America, so too Americans of all walks of life must gather and protest against the oppressive power that corporations have gained over all aspects of American life, including politics.

The future is ours to determine ... this is a democracy ... but only if we take our rights and our role seriously and demand change.