Tag Archives: money

Invisible Plastic Shovels

In Baudrillard’s Challenge: A Feminist Reading, Victoria Grace takes politics to the playground. Liberals and conservatives are like children fighting over broken toys in a wet sandbox—punching, slapping, and kicking each other where the sun don’t shine. Our wounds are real but these battles are nothing more than simulated political sideshows trending before they (never really) happen.

While some push for a wall to prevent illegals from stealing American jobs and receiving Social Security benefits, in 2015 the income levels of the top 1% reached a new high while the bottom 99% posted incremental gains.

Migrant workers have clearly rigged tax laws in their favor.

While some insist that Obama is coming for our guns, suicide rates in the United States surged to a 30-year high in 2014, with more than 50% of all cases involving firearms.

Guess Obama missed those homes.

While some label climate change a hoax, a recent study says we can expect the oceans to rise between 2.5 and 6.5 feet by 2100, enough to swamp cities across the east coast.

Millions of Americans drowning in debt will slowly drown in their easy chairs.

There’s a common enemy here. To paraphrase James Carville, the Ragin’ Cajun democratic strategist: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Long before economics became a science, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. In it Smith refers to the Invisible Hand that guides self-interested citizens in their relentless pursuit of objects, property and status. When hardworking entrepreneurs utilize laissez-faire economic policies to increase their bottom lines, society as a whole benefits. Free markets magically improve lives and deliver us from the evils of bloated government bureaucracies.

So much has changed since 1776. Smith knew nothing of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, junk bonds, adjustable rate mortgages, or tax-evading multinational corporations defined as people.

There’s a dark side to global capitalist expansion we can’t deny: greed, excess, a politics of exploitation and exclusion. A blatant disregard for non-human lives and the environment. Poverty, starvation and the spread of disease. Collective despair. Mass incarceration. Soaring anxiety. Obesity. So much obesity. War drones. Amazon drones. Trump Tower. The Clinton Foundation.

One week from the general election it’s a jungle gym out there. As our teachers, parents and legal guardians hang from the monkey bars, we the children fight over invisible plastic shovels in the quicksand that is perpetually now, hyper-connected, consumer capitalism.

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Mandatory Fun

“Free Time,” a 1977 essay by cultural critic Theodor Adorno, examines the relationship between work time and leisure time. We think we’re free when it comes to our free time, Adorno asserts, but leisure is simply an extension of the workday. Even at play, we labor to enjoy ourselves.

The compulsion to consume: we make money in order to spend it on crap we don’t need when we’re not on the clock. Entire industries are dedicated to filling up our leisure time, to satisfy our need for (temporary) freedom. The totality of this process escapes us. Adorno: “Hence the ease with which free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them” (191).

Threatened by the specter of boredom, people crave distractions. Adorno holds nothing back in his condemnation of our obsession with the cheap thrills popular culture provides:

People have been refused freedom, and its value belittled, for such a long time that now people no longer like it. They need shallow entertainment, by means of which cultural conservatism patronizes and humiliates them, in order to summon up the strength for work, which is required of them under the arrangement of society which cultural conservatism defends. (193)

The culture industry placates us, snuffs out the faintest flicker of rebellion in the heart of man. Capitalism finds support in a cultural conservatism that reinforces the compulsion to work and spend, work and spend. A “shocking” movie or provocative painting makes no significant political difference after we’ve consumed it. The status quo remains. Tomorrow’s shift awaits.

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Exclusive Company

Recently I wrote about Catherine Malabou’s research into brain plasticity and the devastating effects of traumatic experiences on a victim’s sense of self. Now we turn to Malabou’s 2008 book What Should We Do with Our Brain? and the relationship between the neuroscientific concept of flexible brain structures and the emphasis placed today on flexibility in the workplace.

Scientists in the first half of the twentieth century assumed the human brain functions in a top-down manner. Specific areas in the brain work on specific tasks and pass information to other parts of the brain, which operates like a central command center.

After World War Two, armed with more advanced research tools, scientists began viewing the brain as flexible. It turns out there isn’t a direct, top-down route for information-processing. Now it appears the brain “functions according to different, extremely complex, interpenetrating levels of regulation” (Malabou 43).

According to Malabou, Big Business employed this concept as justification for its corporate structure. Rather than taking direct orders from the Manager, employees today work in teams on projects spread across different departments. Workers must be self-starters, trained for a variety of tasks, and fluent in multiple interdepartmental “languages.” Malabou calls the collection of these skills employability:

“Employability” is synonymous with flexibility. We recall that flexibility, a management watchword since the seventies, means above all the possibility of instantly adapting productive apparatus and labor to the evolution of demand. It thus becomes, in a single stroke, a necessary quality of both managers and employees. (46)

But not everyone measures up: “In effect, anyone who is not flexible deserves to disappear” (46).

Depressed people, for example, maintain rigid thought patterns. Many don’t fit neatly into the box they’re supposed to think out of. When they don’t live up to the demands of workplace flexibility, the depressed get excluded. And when they’re shut out or made to feel incompetent, they withdraw further. The chronically depressed fail to make a life for themselves, and they fail to make a living: “Thus a depressive is a sick person who cannot stand this conception of a ‘careerist’ whose very existence is conceived as a business or a series of projects” (49).

Those on the outside of the flexibility model are dangerous. They must be contained at once: “How could we not think that depressive or disaffiliated individuals represent threats of turbulence, of breaks in transmission in the fluidity of the network?” (51).

I’ve know for many years that a career in corporate America is not for me. Does this make me dangerous? Searching for meaning beyond the confines of a cubicle won’t be easy, but I’ll get by. Wealth isn’t measured solely in dollars and cents.

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Did You Find Everything OK?

A man wants everything but has only wishes that never come true—that can’t come true—because Satisfaction is insatiable. He is never happy with himself. At his peak he yearns to extend the climb. Climax portends disappointment.

The Super Bowl MVP celebrating his victory declares he’ll return next year for another title. On the surface it appears he wants to improve, to secure fulfillment, to activate hidden potential. But this is a humanist viewpoint in need of a consumerist perspective.

Mankind has advanced to the point where artificial needs are introduced to us, enlarged to show texture. Manufactured desires, fabricated passions: with many of our basic needs met, we’re left with suggested servings and product reviews. Energies spent, our solution is to Spend.

There’s no transcending the marketplace. It’s no longer a matter of Good versus Evil, but excellent versus poor credit. Besides, Utopia would get boring quickly. There would be no drama, no free shipping, no need to clip Groupons.

Consumer-man is a fretting optimist. He has faith in a culture that assumes he’s never good enough. Discontent is built into the system. There’s a market for every deficiency and each cure restores his health in time for the nausea to settle in again.

The purchase fails to soothe me. At the point of sale I look to exchange my choice, guilty for the price I’ve paid. But I’ve misplaced my receipt. Out of line, back in line. Every day a step closer to checkout.

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Buy American

This week I received my copy of The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures by Jean Baudrillard via Amazon. It’s one of the firebrand postmodern cultural critic’s most important books, originally published in 1970. It comes from Baudrillard’s early period, before he abandoned his Marxist techniques.

I enjoy a good old-fashioned critique of materialism; it makes me feel superior to the herd, if only for a moment. But I like to accumulate STUFF too. If there’s a hole in my heart, why not fill it with STUFF?

Way back in my small-liberal-arts-college days, a history instructor asked us to describe American culture in one word. “Freedom,” many said. “Justice.” “Democracy.” “Equality,” someone whispered. I had to mix things up. Be a little less idealistic. “Consumerism,” I said with a smile.

It’s no secret that corporations entice us with STUFF to take our minds off of jobs that allow us to buy STUFF but make us miserable in the process. We’re kept endlessly entertained—distracted, really—so the system can chug along, chewing up our souls for fuel.

But I’m being too serious. I mean, who wouldn’t want an iPad Air for Christmas?

Baudrillard wrote somewhere that TV shows exist to enhance the commercials. I laugh and cry at such observations. I’m so frightened and amazed by consumerism that I bought a book about the dangers of buying STUFF on a site where people can’t stop buying STUFF.

There’s no escaping the almighty dollar. Besides, revolutions cost a fortune. And I’ve used up all my personal days.

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A Name For Myself

One thing I’ve learned from my inability to assimilate into the working world: To get by, to be successful, to be self-sufficient, you have to be a little dull. And by dull I mean unaware of things and people that don’t matter to you and your overall earning potential.

When I’m deeply depressed, I’m numb to reality. But I’m often depressed as a result of feeling too much anxiety, of being too focused on the bigger picture. What I need to break out of my funk, is less feeling and more doing—more doing that helps me get what I want out of life.

At its core, therapy has been about making me a better consumer. If I’m “healthy” enough to work, then I can earn my own money and go out and spend it on things I don’t really need. When I’m in the throes of mental illness, however, I’m not at all productive; my “inward numbness” pits me against the system.

But people who display what I’ve dubbed “outward numbness” contribute to the economy, all the while caring less about what others think of them, or how mundane their money-making lives are.

Rather than turning my anger inward, into depression, I now realize that I must direct my frustrations out onto the world, so that I might make a name for myself—and a little cash in the process.

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