[W]e no longer have movements; we have thousands of people each clamouring to have their own vision adopted. We might come to together for occasional rallies and marches, but as soon as we start discussing alternatives, solidarity is shattered by possessive individualism. Consumerism has changed all of us. Our challenge is to fight a system we have internalized.
Monboit’s observation explains a lot. In a society of possessive individualism, the only unifying force is greed, which explains why the Right has maintain its unity and force while the Left is in total disarray with any semblance of solidarity relegated to a footnote in a history book that is never opened. Consumerism has, indeed, “changed all of us.” Yet, consumerism is a word that is bandied about without any sort of understanding of its sordid history.
There was a time when we were a frugal people. The ruling mantra of the day was, “Use it up; wear it out. Make do or do without.” It was a frugality born of necessity. In the absence of an industrial plant, there wasn’t much stuff to go around. If tools and utensils had to be hand crafted by the local blacksmith, people made them last. Clothing was a product of the spinning wheel and hand loom, so people patched rather than replace. (Is there anyone still living who could darn a sock?)
All of this changed towards the end of the nineteenth century as the country’s industrial plant swung into gear. Now goods could be manufactured quickly and cheaply. But capitalism had a problem. It had to cure the public of its frugality. Thus, we saw the birth of the advertising and public relations industry, and the concurrent creation of wants in place of needs. People were encouraged to buy because they wanted, not because they needed.
Our industrialists and marketers made another discovery. Community and family put a damper on consumption. If I “want” a $300 shaving set, complete with a chrome-plated razor, brush and elegant stand to hold both, I am not going to tell my wife because her scornful anger would discourage me from purchasing it. But, if I say nothing, it’s mine.
So it was that we saw the gradual erosion of the family as consumerism replaced community, a process that was speeded up with the introduction of television. Soon, this fragmentation will be carried to a new level as television programs are streamed over people’s smart phones. Now, a family no longer has to gather around a single screen. Each can wander their empty house immersed in the tiny screens they can hold in one hand.
Consumerism built a head of steam during the twenties, only to make a crash landing when the Great Depression hit. Yet, that event was preparing the ground for the advent of consumerism's resurrection in the fifties and its transformation into the feral consumerism that has plunged us into our present economic meltdown.
Poverty is stressful. Never knowing if you’ll have food on the table or a roof over your head is a strain. Worry is your constant companion, a worry goaded by anger and resentment.
With the advent of World War II and the full employment created by the war industries, people once again had money in their pockets and a terrible burden was lifted from their shoulders. People naturally began to assume that money brought happiness, when all it really brought was a release from the stress of poverty, which is not the same thing as happiness. From that assumption came the belief that the more money one had, the happier one would be.
It was this assumption that drove the fifties and sixties. At the end of World War II, America was in the catbird seat. We were the only country in the world whose industrial plant hadn’t been blasted into oblivion. Coupled with that was a public whose savings had been gorged by wartime rationing and in whom memories of the poverty of the Great Depression were fresh.
It was in the sixties that the country started to realize that money doesn’t buy happiness. This was a factor that played into the youth rebellion that sought an alternative to materialism and consumption. Ironically, their mantra of “Do your own thing” was a marketers dream. Consumerism was off to the races.
As our prosperity began to fade in the seventies, consumption became an emotional prop as people tried to conceal their slowly sinking standard of living by plunging into debt to buy the trappings of prosperity to fill the vacuum left by its absence. A series of asset bubbles coupled with low interest rates facilitated this plunge.
Now all we are left with is a hangover, one we suffer in isolation because there isn’t a social movement in sight that we could join to seek redress for our grievances.
History is never stagnant. Out of the rubble of a dying system a new one emerges. This makes the unity of the Right frightening. We saw what happened as Germany plunged into the Great Depression. They turned to Hitler as their savior and the rest is history. Now, instead of Brownshirts, we have tea bags and Bibles.
The left is going to have to lose its ideological fragmentation if it wishes to be any sort of a counterforce to the Right. Right now it is too fragmented as individuals occupy their private ideological castles and refuse to leave them. You can neither organize nor fund-raise from a computer.
We will only cure this fragmentation if we are willing to leave our castles and engage in a political process that has been described as a process of compromise and conciliation between conflicting groups in a pluralistic society. And I’m not talking about compromise and conciliation with the Right; I’m talking about it within the left. Without it, we shall remain fragmented and impotent.