A LOVE SUPREME

I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

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Monday, May 11, 2009

You are your dollars

“For decades, Americans have been known as epic consumers, but it would be more accurate to call us epic upgraders….It is so neatly woven into the double helix of our DNA that we hardly notice it…..

Forget the upgrade. The game now is avoiding the downgrade. This is grim and troubling, in part, because so much of our consumer culture is built around the enticements of the Better....

Entire corporate strategies target the bottomless American appetite for the upgrade.

In the United States, upgrade-mania has bred a sense of entitlement, which has only stoked upgrade demands.

But there has long been an on-again, off-again war in the American soul between the forces of consumerism and the countervailing force of austerity. The consumers have had the upper hand for decades, but we might have little choice now but to find comfort in the words of the philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, ‘Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.’”

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/weekinreview/26segal.html

In my first economics post, I discussed the economics of the American system. I grant you, there were oversimplifications, but I think the point is clear: the American economic system is based on an obsession with expansion. Corporations must turn profit, the economy must grow. I asked the question, What happens if we are over-extended?

In the next posts, I want to explore how this over-extension affects the self. More than that, I think we lose the self in the system. The self disappears. I find, my friends, that there are many reasons why we must say, “Fuck the system. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” The first way in which we lose the self is through discontent and dissatisfaction.

The American economy is based on sowing discontent and dissatisfaction. It is based on desiring the desire of the other. Others have it, customers have given it rave reviews on Amazon.com, a celebrity looks good in it, my friends love it, the neighbors just got a new one. In the American marketing matrix, we cannot be content. We cannot afford to be content. If our economy is in recession (i.e., it is contracting, not expanding), then people lose jobs. Politicians talk about our dire need for them to fix the economy and help Joe the Plummer. Why do we need to help Joe the Plummer, exactly? Truly. I wonder. Is it just so he can afford to get more stuff he doesn’t need? There is a real sense in which we screw those in the lower economic classes by doing our damnedest to help them acquire more stuff that they don’t really need.

Remember, the economy must expand, which means we have to dispose of old stuff and be continually buying new stuff. We have to define ourselves as consumers, always buying more.

When this happens, we lose most of our capacity to make decisions based on what is healthy or life-giving. Or, more to the point, we lose our capacity to make decisions based on what is healthy or life-giving for us. We measure our health and wellness based on our information about what everyone else is doing. But who controls this information, in most cases? It’s either the government or Corporations, which are one and the same, both working together to keep us discontented enough to keep buying more and to grow the American economy.

If our motivation is always for the next purchase, then we are only temporarily satisfied. The thrill of a new purchase, the feeling of newness, the tingling of being reborn, it passes. We find that the stuff gets old and less exciting. “When goods increase, so do those who consume them, so what is the advantage of the owner, but to look at them?” (Ecclesiastes 5:11) But there is always something else to buy. And here’s the thing: it is not a devastating cycle. It’s a cycle, but it can be a very pleasant one. We don’t notice that the self has receded deep into the background. We don’t notice the loss. Truly.

And, unfortunately, many contemporary churches don’t help. They preach/teach, of course, that we should be satisfied with what we have, but a quick scan of the church parking lots or the annual budget often tells a different story. For example, I have a question: why does every church bulletin I’ve ever seen always show that the church isn’t quite at its annual goal? Even our churches over-extend themselves financially.

Many churches have very important reasons why they cannot preach/teach the importance of the simple life. With budgets that are fully extended, churches quite literally cannot afford to alienate the affluent. So, rather than preach/teach about the spiritual significance of simplifying and severely downgrading, churches teach/preach that the “love” of money is the problem—it’s okay to have it.

So, then when we preach/teach on giving, we tell people that they need to give more. Maintaining the same over-extended, American standard of living and adding more ministry/church giving means that the church-goer must keep putting the hours in at work in order to pay for the Lord’s work. This is all contributing to sowing discontent among the religious. The result is a loss of self.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Even the “giving” of many church goers winds up going to support church buildings, church administrative expenses, or teen mission’s trips—in other words, all the “giving” comes back to benefit the givers, even if only indirectly.

Jesus talks about identifying our “treasure,” because what we invest in is where our heart is. But talking about the location of our “hearts” is really just another word for talking about the “self.” It’s about identity. It is as simple as saying we are our economic choices. Our “self,” our identity, is found in what we invest in. In a culture dominated by the corporate marketing of discontent, our identity is our dollars.

And what I mean to say is that even those of us who are insightful enough to write clever blog posts about the loss of the self are in the same boat. Anyone who participates is on the same ship.

You are your dollars. There is no escape.

20 comments:

The Jesting Fool said...

Interesting stuff to think about. It's hard to be content when our economic system tells us not to be.

Scathing comments about the church. But true, of course. Seems to me like whenever Christianity has enjoyed tolerance and government protection in the past it has always wound up becoming an established and accepted social structure, thus gaining the right to put up its feet and relax.

And when the church can do this, it quickly loses the power to help individuals realize the value of their 'selves', because it is so focused on being whatever the hell it wants to be--in the case of American Christianity, a consumer whore. And the heart gets crushed by all the treasure.

Jonathan Erdman said...

It is hard to be content in our society....I really think it is more or less an impossibility, especially with the more stuff we have.

Am I being overly pessimistic?

Surely there is some way to be content.......what might that look like....

Jonathan Erdman said...

One of the reasons that I am pessimistic is because of my philosophical view of human beings. Philosophically, I do not believe that we are first and foremost brains/souls/bodies moving through a world and that our "inner" world (the mind/soul/heart/etc.) is strictly distinct from the "outer" or external world.

I think many rely on the inner/outer distinction, so the consequence is that we think that our "inner" self can be detached and content, even if we are surrounded by materialism, discontent, and a system of American corporate marketing whose primary purpose is to sow discontentedness. As human beings, I believe that our most basic posture toward the world is to be connected with it. So, there really isn't an inner/outer dichotomy. There is just me-being-in-the-world (to use a Heidegger term).

To say that "I" (my "inner") can be content while at the same time I am embedded in this American disposable society (the "outer" or "external world") is, I think, a misunderstanding of the fact that we are first and foremost contextual beings: at the most basic level, we are our environment.

The Jesting Fool said...

I'm inclined to share your pessimism to some degree. But I think there must be a way to be truly content, even in our society, even as 'contextual' beings.

You've already brought up the first step. You have to say Fuck the system. Ignore the lies coming from the marketing industry and also from the religious industry.

Just recognizing what is going on, realizing that our society breeds discontent for every person, regardless of income level, is, I think, enough to get us on the right track.

amy said...

So the question is this: what do we do with this manufactured discontent?

Do we attempt to eliminate it? If we are slaves to it, then how? Do we somehow use it to someone's advantage? Again, how? And whose? Do we simply give in? If not, how do we resist?

???

Jonathan Erdman said...

Amy,

I think there are many many responses, and I'm hoping to get to those as these posts continue.

But addressing the specific issue of living in a society where we are born and bred to not be content.....I think one has to start by disconnecting with the products and services of the Corporate culture. That is, living as simplistically (as non-Corporate) as possible The first result of this is economic: if enough of us aren't buying the shit that Corporations make, then they won't have the profit potential and they shut down. (I think it is ironic--and a bit hypocritical, perhaps--for people to complain about and berate CEO's and their salaries, while continuing to sink money into those same Corporations.)

If we live more simply, and less connected to Corporate products, then I think this gives us the time and energy to pursue interests that might re-connect us with ourselves, each other, and the natural world. That is, rediscovering a way of being human that doesn't depend on being discontent and unsatisfied. I don't know that we can truly do this until we both stop working crazy hours for the Corporations and begin to clear the clutter of Corporate products and services from our lives.

There is a certain economic anarchy that I'm going for here.

amy said...

That sounds positively marvelous.

Melody said...

So, if living more simply gives one a better sense of self..,giving money to the poor is actually robbing them of their self and therefore detrimental. Yes?

I should keep all that nasty money so it doesn't hurt them!

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody,

There's something to that.

Your comment reminded me of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

LifeLudwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on 26 April 1889, to Karl and Leopoldine Wittgenstein. He was the youngest of eight children, born into one of the most prominent and wealthy families in the Austro-Hungarian empire....Ludwig's father, Karl Wittgenstein, became an industrialist and went on to make his fortune in iron and steel. By the late 1880s, Karl controlled an effective monopoly on steel and iron resources within the empire, and was one of the richest men in the world.

The "lost years" after the Tractatus....By then Wittgenstein was a profoundly changed man. He had embraced the Christianity that he had previously opposed, faced harrowing combat in World War I, and crystallized his intellectual and emotional upheavals with the exhausting composition of the Tractatus. It was a work which transfigured all of his past work on logic into a radically new framework that he believed offered a definitive solution to all the problems of philosophy. These changes in Wittgenstein's inner and outer life left him both haunted and yet invigorated to follow a new, ascetic life. One of the most dramatic expressions of this change was his decision in 1919 to give away the portion of the family fortune he had inherited when his father died. The money was divided between his sisters Helene and Hermine and his brother Paul, and Wittgenstein insisted that they promise never to give it back. He felt that giving money to the poor could only corrupt them further, whereas the rich would not be harmed by it.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody,

I would say that living a simple life can be an aid to better understanding of self, others, and God.....obviously, there are other factors.

Perhaps more to the point is to discuss those who are surrounded with wealth or who live their lives to gain and maintain wealth. When the treasure of life is stuff/possessions, then this indicates where the heart/mind/soul is. Hence, Jesus asked the young rich ruler to go and sell everything he had first, before becoming a disciple.

amy said...

I also wonder what is the working definition of "poor" here. Are we using the typical American definition, which is life "below the poverty line," meaning that one cannot buy the things one wants and must instead live with "extreme" frugality by, say, shopping at thrift stores and growing food? Or are we using a more global definition: the inability to procure sufficient basic needs (nutritious food, clean water, clothing, shelter) because these things are, for whatever reason, unavailable?

I would say that there's quite a difference between providing opportunity to a "poor" family to, say, purchase name-brand processed "food" or snazzy electronics or shop at the mall (like "regular" people do) and making sacrifices to provide for the basic needs of the truly oppressed.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ah yes....good point, Amy.

Melody said...

Amy, I suppose I typically think of people who can't make the rent or electric bill.

I wouldn't give money to people who simply can't afford brand-name clothes or the basic cable package, maybe because I grew up that way and it didn't hurt me?

Well, you know, aside from my mild obsession with marketing and brand-name products.

Melody said...

Jon, I'm not sure I see the connection. Wittgenstein appears to have held the view that the rich were inherently noble and that the poor were rabble.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody,

Yes, I see what you are saying.....the Wikipedia quote is a bit misleading. Wittgenstein actually believed that money corrupts, so he thought that if the poor had less money, then there was less chance that they could get corrupted. (W gave his money away b/c he didn't want to be corrupted.) He believed that most of the rich were already corrupted! The only exception was his sister. I think the wikipedia thing is actually a bit misleading....or at least inconsistent with the Wittgenstein biography that I read.

Melody said...

Jon, ok, well I'll take your word for it. What made him come to that conclusion?

Just curious because plenty of other people (and this is the view that I've heard more often) believe that poverty drives people to lives of crime.

Of course plenty of suburbanites simply get bored and become criminals, so that theory doesn't go super far.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody,

That's all I know about Wittgenstein's decision. It is an interesting one.

On a related note, I've always been a bit uncomfortable with the idea that "charity" to the poor means writing them checks or throwing aid and money their way. It seems to me like an indirect way of the system still maintaining its power and control over them. It seems to produce dependency on the system to be a provider. It also seems like in many cases, it gives the white collar types a good feeling about their charitable work, all the while the irony is that they are just solidifying their own position of power and control within the system.

amy said...

Amen.

Melody said...

Well, this business about charity keep people controlled by "the system" seems a bit paranoid, but I agree that dependency on check-writers is a troubling aspect of charity. And of course the bureaucratic faceless-ness is...less than ideal.

tamie said...

I realize I'm joining in this conversation way late, and perhaps you have all already moved on...this is what a blog hiatus will do to a person!

Anyway....

I just wanted to chime into the poverty discussion and say that, for one thing, as long as we think of the poor people as "the poor people," then we are missing something fundamental. As long as they are a them, and not part of us, then we'll stay separate from them, and not try to participate in a conversation among equals in which we collectively trying to figure out how to change things so that there will no longer be such gross economic disparities.

However! I think that one of the reasons we don't do this (incorporate the poor--however we define the poor--into our subconscious understanding of who constitutes "us") is that we have a deep investment in keeping the system as it is. Because to be honest, we wealthy people are going to have to give up a lot, if the people of the world are actually going to live in harmony and anything resembling equality.

I saw this very clearly in South Africa. Funny how being in a foreign culture can make things so clear. Because you don't have anything invested in maintaining blindness.

What I saw clearly was how much the rich had invested in keeping the poor poor. There were millions and millions of poor people living in shacks made from cardboard or trash, eating wretched diets, and living with the kind of postcolonial ignorance that perpetuates disease and violence. Meanwhile, a minority of rich people lived in mansions that literally bordered the shack cities. Why? Historically, because of apartheid. Because white people wanted to get richer and wanted to control everything. Pretty much that simple.

And I'll bet you money that many of those rich people wrote checks to charities, to salve their consciences, or because it seemed to them that that was the best way to help. But at the same time, their way of life was being built on the backs of the same poor people, who worked as their maids, gardeners, cooks, etc.--and they could get away with paying them almost nothing, because it was the status quo to pay them almost nothing. By paying workers almost nothing, the world over, we can afford to have our massive disposable incomes. (I'm not saying that any of this is the fault of any particular family in South Africa, or even any particular group, anywhere in the world. We're all in this together, and it's complicated. But we rich/powerful people cannot hide our complicity just because it's complicated.)

Do we REALLY want equality? Do we really want friendship with the poor? What would it cost us, to make friends with the truly poor of the world, and then to feel compelled to live lives that honored that friendship?