Supposedly, the ‘free market' is the greatest expression of freedom and individualism we have yet produced. Yet on the consumer side, if hypercapitalism were truly about the flowering of human potential, then more hypercapitalist consumers would choose goods which promote a wide range of human expression. But in fact the system is about serving only our most base desires, and so what have come to pass are fast foods and strip malls. Most people don't get fat on fine wines and steaks; they get fat on McDonald's. Wal-Mart, not main street. Big-screen TV, not the theater or cultural cinema.
We are consuming, in other words, out of fear and distraction, not out of love for life – the same fear that keeps us chattering away and distracted, the same loathing of silence that keeps our world noisy. We are consuming because we are afraid of disappearing. We are still cavemen and cavewomen, still apes; our fear is as essentially human as is our capacity for art, religion, or family. Economic fears are primal, and they are rigorously enforced by a system which has many moving parts, geared toward maximizing consumption, the balm of silly ads. We humans are scared egos, surrounded by threat. If we suppose that politics is distant from the concerns of the caveman, we are deluding ourselves.
The party of unfettered consumerism and greed caters to these fears by indulging them and dressing them up in fancy ideological terms. While, for its own political benefit, stoking them relentlessly. Obviously, the Bush administration has thrived on the fear created by 9/11 and its own color-coded security warnings and bomb-sniffing dogs at airports. People are literally spying on their neighbors, worrying that their neighborhood convenience store may be a target for terrorists. Likewise, the Right's constricted moral values are based on fear – fear that marriage is somehow in danger, or that the social norms which keep us pure are being eroded. The Right's constricted economic policies are based on fear, not so much of "big government" but of any limit on the right to overconsume, anything that might cause change or a shrinking of the ego. Our urge to "be somebody" keeps us quiet about economic injustice; our urge not to be killed by terrorists keeps us quiet about civil liberties. But at the fundamental level, the core value of conservative capitalism is the most primal fear of all: that of death. Before Osama, there was the fear that drives the SUVs, and fear is the essence of politics.
• The Politics of the Obese
American moral rhetoric is a deliberate displacement. The old Protestant Ethic married to hypercapitalism has created an American culture of defeat on macroeconomic issues, and of a displacement of value to ‘moral' zones which are politically disengaged: family bonds, ethical/religious character, and personal achievement. Increasingly, personal achievement in particular is defined in terms of comfort – even though comfort is precisely that with which we distract ourselves from what is most important. That which supposedly matters most actually matters least, if ‘mattering' is gauged by the suffering of others.
Based on a right-wing ideology that people are selfish, hyper-capitalism makes people more selfish. Our political system makes it easy to do nothing, and hard to do anything. The middle-class suburb dweller doesn't care about the pesticides on his lawn because of ignorance, because of a system which brainwashes him not to care, because the harm is diffuse and remote, because he doesn't believe he can really anything about it, and because what, really, can he do about it? If the only choice is a radical one – move, agitate, transform – my mother is right that it's a lot to ask. So the system itself engenders the fat, lazy inertia both positively (by sitting the overfed behind in a recliner in front of a TV) and negatively (by making it hard to get up and do anything effective). And it's not just the scared soccer moms; ask an inner city tenth grader what she believes the American dream, and see how often it is expressed in terms of possessions.
Now watch how the Right and Left dance through this displacement, to the Right's sole gain.
Moral values are that which do not really matter as much as economic ones, but which do all the rhetorical heavy lifting. For the Right, this is a bonanza, because it can preach traditional morality (no abortion, sodomy, or drug use) while subverting all kind of economic morality (fairness, justice, honesty), which no one notices at all. In other words, the Right's libertarianism is economic, while its "law and order" is moral. Conversely, the Left's "law and order" is economic, and its liberatarianism is moral.
This is a disaster for the Left. The real moral anarchy is a Bush administration that steals from the poor. But the rhetorical moral anarchy is John Kerry, who may support gay civil unions.
The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism
Sex and the Golem
How Jewish is Modigliani?
Steel and Glass
No Matter What, I Wish You Luck
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From previous issues:
One Ring Zero: As Smart as They Are
Faces of Death
Quality of Life