Crisis for the Rich, Via Crucis for the Poor

3-06-09, 10:50 am

Theories of evolution after Darwin assume a dynamic of divergences. Two species can derive from one in common; every now and then, these variations can disappear gradually or abruptly, but two species never end up flowing together into one. There is no mixing except within a given species. In the long view, a hen and a man are distant relatives, descendants of some reptile, and each one represents a successful response by life in its struggle for survival.

In other words, diversity is the form in which life expands and adapts to diverse environments and conditions. Diversity and life are synonymous for the biosphere. Vital processes tend toward diversity but at the same time they are the expression of a unity, the biosphere, Gaia, the exuberance of life in permanent struggle for the survival of its own miracle in hostile surroundings.

For the same reason, cultural diversity is a condition for the life of humanity. That is to say, and even though it might be motive enough in itself, diversity is not limited merely to avoiding the boredom of monotony but instead is, besides, part of our vital survival as humanity.

Nevertheless, we humans are the only species that has replaced the natural and discrete loss of species with an artificial and threatening extermination, with industrial depredation and with the pollution of consumerism. Those of us who insist on a possible though not inevitable “progress of history” based on knowledge and the exercise of equal-liberty, can see that humanity, so often placing itself in danger of extinction, has achieved some advances that have allowed it to survive and abide its growing muscular power. And even so, we have added nothing good to the rest of nature. In many respects, perhaps in that natural process of trial and error, we have regressed or our errors have become exponentially more dangerous.

Consumerism is one of those errors. That insatiable appetite has little or nothing to do with progress toward a possible and yet improbable post-scarcity, hunger-free era, and everything to do with the more primitive era of greed and gluttony. Let’s not say with an animal instinct, because not even lions monopolize the savanna or practice systematic extermination of their victims, and because even pigs are sated sometimes.

The culture of consumerism has erred in several ways. First, it has contradicted the aforementioned condition, passing over cultural diversities, substituting them for its universal trinkets or creating a pseudo-diversity where a Japanese laborer or German office worker can enjoy for two days a piece of traditional Peruvian craftwork made in China, or for five days the most beautiful Venetian curtains imported from Taiwan, before they fall apart from use. Second, because it also has threatened the ecological balance with its unlimited extractions and its returns in the form of immortal garbage.

We can observe concrete examples all around us. We might say that it is good fortune that a worker could enjoy commodities that previously were reserved only for the upper classes, the unproductive classes, the consumer classes. Nonetheless, that consumption – induced by cultural and ideological pressure – often has been turned into the very purpose of the worker and an instrument of the economy. Which logically means that the individual-as-tool has been turned into a means of the economy as individual-as-consumer.

In almost all of the developed countries, or those following that “model of development,” the furniture that invades the markets is intended to last only a few years. Or a few months. The furniture items are pretty, they look good just like almost everything in the culture of consumption, but if we look closely they are scratched, missing a screw or our out of square. That preoccupation of my family of carpenters with improving the design of a chair so that it might last a hundred years turns out to be exotic now. But the new disposable furniture does not worry us too much because we know that it costs little and that, in two or three years we are going to buy some more new stuff, which happens to provide more interest and variation in the decoration of our homes and offices and above all stimulates the world economy. According to the current theory, what we throw away here aids the industrial development of some poor country. Thus we are good, because we are consumers.

And yet, those furniture items, even the cheapest ones, have consumed trees and burned up fuel in their long journey from China or from Malaysia. The logic of “dispose of it after use,” which is most reasonable for a plastic syringe, becomes a necessary law for stimulating the economy and maintaining the perpetual growth of GDP, with its respective crises and phobias whenever its fall provokes a recession of two percent. In order to escape the recession one must increase the dosage of the drug. The United States alone, for example, dedicates billions of dollars so that its residents might continue to consume, to spend, in order to escape the madness of the recession and thus allow the world to continue to turn, consuming and discarding.

But those discards, as cheap as they may be – consumerism is based on cheap, disposable merchandise that makes the recycling of durable products almost inaccessible – possess bits of wood, plastic, batteries, steel pipe, screws, glass and more plastic. In the United States all of that and more goes into the garbage – even in this time of what is called “great crisis” for the wrong reasons – and in the poor countries, the poor go out looking for that garbage. Over the long term, the one who ends up consuming all the garbage is nature, while humanity continues to suspend its changes of habit in order to get out of the recession first and in order to sustain the growth of the economy later.

But what is the meaning of “growth of the economy,” that two or three per cent with which the whole world is obsessed, from North to South and East to West?

The world is convinced that it finds itself in a terrible crisis. But the world was already in crisis. Now the crisis is defined as worldwide because 1) it proceeds from and affects the economy of the wealthiest; 2) the simplified paradigm of development has radiated its hysteria out to the rest of the world, undermining its legitimacy. But in the United States people are still flooding the stores and restaurants and their cut backs never involve hunger, even in the gravest cases of the millions of workers without jobs. In our peripheral countries a crisis means children begging in the streets. In the United States it tends to mean consumers consuming a little less while they await the next government check.

In order to get out of that “crisis,” the experts squeeze their brains and the solution is always the same: increase consumption. Ironically, increasing consumption by lending regular people their own money through the big private banks that receive rescue aid from the government. It’s not only a matter of saving a few banks, but, above all, of saving an ideology and culture that cannot survive on their own without frequent ad hoc injections: financial stimulus, wars that promote industry and control popular participation, drugs and entertainment that stimulate, tranquilize and anaesthetize in the name of the common good.

Will we have really emerged from the crisis when the world returns to a five percent growth rate through the stimulation of consumption in the wealthy countries? Will we not be laying the ground for the next crisis, a real – human and ecological – crisis and not an artificial crisis like the one we have now? Will we truly realize that this one is not truly a crisis but just a warning, which is to say, an opportunity for changing our habits?

Every day is a crisis because every day we choose a road. But there are crises that are a long via crucis and others that are critical because, for oppressed and oppressors alike, it means a double possibility: the confirmation of a system or its annihilation. So far it has been the first because of a lack of alternatives to the second. But one must never underestimate history. Nobody could have ever foreseen an alternative to medieval feudalism or to the system of slavery. Or almost nobody. The history of the most recent millennia demonstrates that utopians usually foresee the future with an exaggerated precision. But like today, the utopians have always had a bad reputation. Because mockery and disrepute are the form that every dominant system has always used to avoid the proliferation of people with too much imagination.

--Jorge Majfud teaches at Lincoln University. Translated by Dr. Bruce Campbell.