My friend Dr. Patrick Mitchel wrote an editorial comment for the Irish Times today. There is “no point in resuscitating myths of consumer culture“. As many of you know, elders in the Presbyterian church are chosen based on a complicated drinking game. If you know any elders, you basically know they are drunk 24 hours a day, they are just very good at hiding it. With Patrick we made an exception and let him in because he can play golf really well and allegedly, according to some people in the know, he helped found Metallica.
Seriously though, it is a typically well reasoned and winsome piece from Dr. Mitchel. President McAleese was roundly mocked for claiming that Irish society was unbalanced in its attitude towards money and had been “consumed by consumerism”. The apparently uncontroversial statements became a cause for contention because our President dared to connect her faith to her politics and argue that Ireland was in no way contented ten years into the Tiger Economy. Her comments were taken as snobbish, pious and a throwback to a darker day in Ireland’s history. But then again, Ireland owes 3.1 billion on credit cards.
So Mitchel clarifies things. (Not that President McAleese needs anyone to clarify her comments!) Consumerism is a myth that is grounded on the idea that the market is an impersonal, universal force. The Newtonian faith in the market is what leads Ireland to be on the verge of a potential 80% loss in property values. Capitalism as we now have it is conceived on the idea that growth can always continue, that finite beings can grasp infinity in the market. We buy things to be happy, to live that little bit more comfortably, but our lifestyles warp out of whack with 60 hours in the office this week and no chance to turn the phone off at the weekend. We get to take three holidays a year but we have less time off than at any other time in history.
What incites the wrath against President McAleese is her insistence that individualism is a dead end. That economic growth need not but in Ireland has led to the atomization of society. And Dr. Mitchel nails this on the head. “The most damaging illusion of all, however, is the myth that our love affair with consumerism has no consequences and that our private consumer habits are entirely our own business… Western consumerism has become a monster, eating up the world’s resources at an alarming rate and it is the weak and poor who feel the effects of our avarice, not us.” Our economic recession is serious, but the essentials of life are still within reasonably easy reach for most every Irish person. The economic shitstorm will hit hardest in the majority world. Our individualism drives us to narrow the communities we live in until they are no bigger than our closest friends and family. It is an impoverished life.
The myth of modern capitalism lies “battered and naked”. And as we deal with the shocking greed of Irish bankers (and American bankers and Icelandic bankers…) the true evil of this is yet to come home. If nothing else, market capitalism must be considered unethical because when push comes to shove and hard times hit, the first and worst affected are those who can least afford it: the working classes. Unemployment will continue to rise and technicians in Dell and glass blowers in Waterford who contributed nothing to the market crash will take the fall. If Marx were around today, consumerism would be his opiate of the people. It is the consolation plan for workers who have lost their security and lost their authority. It is the compensation for how our leisure time has been turned into a duty. And it drains the soul not because making things or trading things or selling things is wrong but because it is drives us to find contentment in things when we are made to find it only in others.
Your Correspondent, not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping or real estate. What would I liked to have been? Everything you hate.