Saturday, June 14, 2008

Living in bubbles

I was listening on Thursday to a call-in show on our local NPR station, KUOW, called The Conversation. On this particular occasion, the show was not, in fact, call-in; instead, it featured an on-air debate between progressive and environmental activist David Sirota and well-known conservative mover and shaker Grover Norquist. It was an interesting listen, but ultimately I thought that neither of them presented himself or his "team" very well. Sirota was rather hand-waving and outraged, like a Socialist protester at a state university, and Norquist came off as greasily slick, smug, and lawlerly.

I didn't choose the comparison for Sirota arbitrarily. As the argument progressed over the economy, the elections, and oil prices, his rhetoric became more and more scornful and, frankly, Marxist, resorting to assertions of class war and responding to some of Norquist's dodgy statements by saying they were "a joke... what a joke." I found this somewhat dismaying on multiple levels, since not only am I no Marxist personally (I find Marxist ideology to be insultingly simplistic and naïve, rather like Randian Objectivism or Libertarianism), but indeed Marx's arguments about class as a driving force of social upheaval and revolution have been refuted to a substantial degree by historical analysis. It was also, I might add, just bad form.

The more I listened, however, the more I came to realize that what I was hearing wasn't just a naïve ideologue attacking a smug social Darwinist; it was, in fact, two naïve ideologues, whose ideologies, while theoretically opposite, were not in point of fact all that different. The sole distinguishing point was that one vested complete faith in fairness through social oversight, while the other worshiped at the altar of the infallible and beneficent Market. Indeed, come to that, Norquist was the greater cultist, since he admitted to no compromise whatsoever with Sirota's moderate - if still unrealistic - statist socialism, while Sirota at least did not attempt to entirely demolish the very idea of a capitalist market.

What I saw was that Norquist, emblematic of the deep conservative tradition that Reagan and his ilk brought to the fore in this country, was, in fact, a sort of anarcho-Communist himself. He and his movement endorse complete deregulation of all industries and services and essentially the elimination of taxation; they prefer to believe that private enterprise will naturally assume all the roles that the government now fills. They go so far as to say that oversight is completely unnecessary, since corporations will avoid harming or exploiting consumers so as to avoid losing business. This is so patently contrafactual that it is difficult to believe anyone could make the statement with a straight face, but there you have it.

Ultimately, Norquist's laissez-faire capitalism relies completely on exactly the same flawed axioms as Marxism: that humans are rational, enlightened, and in their self-interest, and that they are fundamentally and reliable moral. Indeed, the central theoretical works of Keynesian economics state openly and apparently without self-consciousness that individuals are "rational actors" who will take the best possible actions to advance their needs and desires. If there is only one insight that modern social science and psychology have granted us, it is that humans are not rational actors in any but the simplest and most unrealistically isolated and abstract circumstances. To claim that a theory based on the rational action of individuals is sound or useful in a reality where obesity and smoking-related deaths are commonplace and people prefer the incredibly dangerous transportation option of individual passenger automobiles to safe, cheap, and responsible mass transit is so absurd as to be insulting; and that doesn't even take into account individual contributions to global problems as in the case of climate change.

Communism, schmommunism. When you get right down to it, laissez-faire capitalism "works in theory" too. Just like Communism, it also results in social stagnation, environmental degradation, and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few elites self-selected for amorality. Both systems suffer from the same failing of a fundamental lack of accountability of those at the top to the people who make up the system; and before you raise a fuss about the power of consumers to direct a capitalist society through purchasing choices, consider marketing. Marketing is the ability of those who control information networks - which have, not coincidentally, been privatized and deregulated - to manufacture both product and service demand, and public opinion, and the fact is that it works. Yes, even on you. You may consider yourself unusually immune to advertising, like many of us do; perhaps you only respond to one in a thousand ads, or you only buy something you saw advertised when it was something you wanted anyway? Well, one in a thousand seems insignificant... until you consider it on the scale of three hundred million Americans. And until you take into account studies that demonstrate that people are just as likely to be swayed by one opinion heard over and over again as they are by a very popular opinion. If you hear an ad for a product two or three times a day for months, chances are you'll start to think that everyone has one, and you need one too, and you won't even realize your mind has been changed.

There is a reason American citizens are always referred to by those in government and industry as "consumers" rather than "Americans" or "citizens" or "people."

In short, I suppose, the take-home message here is that the next time you say something derogatory about China or the Soviets, take a good, long look close to home, too. We had our own Cultural Revolution, and it's a damned wonder we don't all have little red books by Ronald Reagan. When you're going to vote or bitching about a tax hike, just remember that democracy and the free market, in spite of everything you've been told since 1980, are emphatically not the same thing. The American dream of self-improvement and a good life through fulfillment of all our needs has been stuck in a closet and buried under multiple strata of lava lamps, Walkmans, Betamax players, Power Rangers action figures, and more defunct automobiles than it's possible for the human brain to visualize: cheap consumer crap we didn't need that's now fallen out of fashion. That closet is getting full, and the first step we're going to have to take in the long-overdue spring cleaning is to stop piling more and more new junk on top of the mess we've already made. That, in turn, is going to require some reevaluation of a whole lot of people's assumptions about what it means to live in a free democracy. We deserve more than just the freedom to have our strings pulled by private interests who control our basic material needs and the flow of information to the public. We deserve, frankly, a new American dream.

Edit: I have changed the link to the voluntary simplicity page to a more general informational page on the concept, since it came to my attention that the site I originally linked to is, well, crap.

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