We took a wrong turn, initially, quite a while back. You can argue about which was the first mistake. Herding cattle? Agriculture? Patriarchy? Monotheism? Urbanism? Christianity? Industrialism? Capitalism? Disco? Someplace back in this litany of buzzwords, some ideas arose and became prevalent that are not so succinctly categorized. At the turn of the twentieth century, two classic books, Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” and Thorstein Veblen‘s “Theory of the Leisure Class,” codified insights into Western society that remain true today.
Weber delineated how the spiritual/monastic urge in the human psyche, denied its traditional outlet by the Reformation, adapted itself to daily economic life by making the acquisition of wealth a holy task, and, complimentarily, a mark of divine favor. All the passion, discipline, and asceticism that once went into seeking union with God, he observed, now goes into the practice of business. In one remarkably prescient paragraph, he states
The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. (Page 181, 1953 Scribner’s edition.)
Well, the day when” the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt” is just a hundred years or so away, at the rate we are going, and we are already starting to see what happens to that “irresistible force” when it runs out of the fuel it needs to enforce our allegiance to it.
Thorstein Veblen looked at the other side of the same coin and wrote about what he termed “conspicuous consumption”–the use of wealth to show off one’s good fortune–i.e. God’s favor. I recently, out of some cross between curiosity and boredom, read a fashion and home decorating magazine, which featured in its center spread a model who was wearing clothing valued at about $5,000, which happens to be about a third of my annual income. The theme of this particular issue was “going green,” and it’s obvious the editors saw no irony in their fashion feature. Most of the magazine seemed predicated on the idea that if you have to ask how much something costs, you can’t afford it. You could call it a modern-day tract on the virtues of Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption.” Here’s a quite relevant quote from Veblen about clothing:
So also the servants, both of the chieftain and of the divinity, must appear in the presence clothed in garments of a special, ornate character. The characteristic economic feature of this apparel is a more than ordinarily accentuated conspicuous waste, together with the secondary feature…that this court dress must always be in some degree of an archaic fashion. Also the garments worn by the lay members of the community when they come into the presence, should be of a more expensive kind than their everyday apparel. …. there is (also) required a certain ceremonial “cleanness” of attire, the essential feature of which, in the economic respect, is that the garments worn on these occasions should carry as little suggestion as may be of any industrial occupation or of any habitual addiction to such employments as are of material use.
As a matter of fact, the $5,000 outfit was described as being “”for the Creative Professional.” QED?
What Weber and Veblen pointed out over a hundred years ago has just gotten more entrenched in the last century. Whether or not something “makes money” has become the major arbiter of its worthiness and value. Our culture’s non-conceptual religion, then–the ultimate measure of goodness–is making money.
And that’s why God made sub-prime mortgages. Bankers did not want to be bound by the limits of the material world in their efforts to “make money”–to bring financial liquidity into existence. So, instead of just loaning money and collecting loan payments, they started selling the loans, then selling bundles of loans, bundles of bundles of loans, and so on. They were more interested in making loans than whether the loans could be repaid, for they thought they had found a way to duck out of taking responsibility for bad loans. Did they understand that they were playing “hot potato,” that they had launched a pyramid scheme which was going to collapse sooner or later, and leave a lot of people, quite literally, out in the cold? Perhaps. They aren’t talking just yet, but sooner or later, the story will come out.
Meanwhile, we are slouching towards financial Armageddon. The world economic system is based on the U.S. dollar, which is increasingly worthless. The U.S. has material needs that it is increasingly unable to supply, caught between increasing competition for scarce resources and the falling value of our currency. Because our high-priest economists have not factored in either the depletion of the natural world or the rising costs of every kind of pollution from carbon dioxide to pharmaceuticals, we are faced with an environment that is increasingly poisonous and increasingly expensive to mend–and we don’t have the money to fix it.
We can’t do much about many of our early mistakes. Animal domestication and farming will, for better or for worse, continue to be part of the human repertoire. We may be able, in some ways, to advance beyond patriarchy to a more egalitarian social system, with a more mystical, pantheistic, personally experienced spirituality replacing the “because-He-says-so” dictats of mainstream conceptual religion. Disco, thankfully, has collapsed of its own dead weight, but if we are going to fix the brokenness induced by urbanism, industrialism, and capitalism, we are going to have to dethrone the implicit religion of economics and apply our mystical, personal experiences to a political agenda that recognizes that we are inseparable from the natural world, and can only be whole, happy, and healthy when that balance is maintained.
music: James McMurtry, We Can’t Make It Here Any More