Monday, November 21, 2011

Freedom to Consume?

I have been reading Tim Parks’ New York Review account of Ingo Schulze’s novel Adam and Evelyn.  This is basically a comic novel, much of whose plot depends on the division of Germany into East and West,  The “Adam” is a skilled Taylor in East Germany, who has, by Eastern standards, made a comfortable life for himself.  Nevertheless, he follows his girlfriend into the West after Hungary opens its border with Austria.  Adam’s life changes, but not for the better.  A tailor cannot make a living in a culture where people have no end of choices of clothes they can buy off the rack, even if those clothes do not fit very well.  What struck me was how Schultze (at least in the English translation by John E. Woods) was able to encapsulate Adam’s plight in a single sentence:

Too much, too many, an inflation of stuff that buries everything else, the essential things, the real things.

I do not take this as nostalgia for either the ideals of Marxism or the reality of Communism.  However, in the wake of Woodrow Wilson’s ideal vision of an America that would make the world safe for democracy, it seems as if our country has succumbed to a distorting conflation of democracy with consumerism.  Freedom of choice has less to do with selecting those who govern and more to do with choosing Coke over Pepsi (or, in the case of a recent Harry’s Law episode, choosing to ban the presence of foreign cars within the limits of one’s city).

In the past I have written about losing touch with the real as it pertains to people so absorbed in their personal mobile devices that they are oblivious to the real world around them (such as traffic).  However, reality has also been buried (to use Schulze’s metaphor) under mounds of ideology that have, once again, crippled our government to the point of failure (or so it seems in the wake of the deadlocked “super-committee” on spending cuts).  This is the sort of thing that makes the 138 members of “Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength" look pretty good in their petition to have their taxes increased;  but here, too, we need a reality check.  These millionaires may appreciate the value of a “public good;”  but that does not mean that they recognize the differences between corporate management and governance.  Perhaps the more dire consequence of Max Weber’s “loss of meaning” is that, through our addiction to consumerism, we have become a culture that can no longer accommodate reality in our shared life-world (let alone the proposition that the life-world must, out of the necessities of social theory, be shared).  From a Darwinian perspective, I would think that this will make our chances for survival pretty low.  Then again, most fundamentalists, regardless of their specific faith, always seem to have a pretty low opinion of Darwin!

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