Gian Piero de Bellis
Polyarchy : a Paradigm
(2002 - 2013)
From senseless consumption to sensible care
In the past : necessary consumption (^)
Social analyses and historical surveys of the time of the Industrial Revolution present the image of workers reduced to subsistence wages that provided only for the maintenance of the bodily strength to work. It was a necessary level of consumption, below which not enough energy would have been available to the individual to function as a producer.
As for the industrial capitalists (the owners of the industrial capital, that is of the means of industrial production), they were portrayed as penny-wise parsimonious individuals who were investing most of their profits in new machines and productive devices. For this reason, the level and nature of their consumption was not at all excessive or extravagant, in tune with the austere Victorian morality.
If we accept the truthfulness of these historical portraits, we come to the conclusion that a style of life of imposed poverty and accepted frugality characterized both, the worker and the master.
Assuming this to be the reality in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the continuous phenomenal increase in the production of food, clothes and other basic goods, was bound to change the living conditions of everybody, almost beyond recognition.
The wealthy élite : conspicuous consumption (^)
The growing availability of goods could not help affecting, first of all, the masters and the image of them that prevailed up to then. The portrait of the ascetic and abstemious capitalist was replaced by the caricature of a fat flabby individual intent on accumulating money to spend in ever more luxurious extravagance.
The time had arrived for the emergence of conspicuous and ostentatious consumption of the wealthy élites, where both the level and the nature of it were a show of power and a declaration of distinction.
This pathological spending frenzy was especially characteristic of the roaring twenties in the U.S.A., a period of easy money and cheap illusions (both courtesy of the state), when many dreamt of a sudden jump from rags to riches.
In that euphoric climate even the masses could start envisaging sharing in the ever growing amount of money and goods. They were told by their leaders that wealth was just around the corner. Unfortunately, around the corner, they found only the wreckage of a state-manufactured and finally state-busted boom.
The interlude : in between the wars (^)
The ensuing depression, more than an economic phenomenon, was a psychological one, a mental state of total disillusionment that fuelled mistrust, destroyed hope and drained energy for years to come.
It was at that point that three personages appeared on the scene to restart the race to consumption, interrupted before it had time to reach the masses of workers.
The first to come to the fore was Adolf Hitler, the new German chancellor, with his bold economic plans of state intervention via state promoted infrastructural works (especially road building).
The second was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the new president of the USA, with his designs of mending the economic engine and healing the social tissue broken by the depression through the intervention of a powerful central state.
The third personage, acting as a theoretical link between the former two, was John Maynard Keynes, the English economist who took inspiration from the working of some economic practices of the new German government, gave them a veneer of conceptual respectability and made them appealing to the point that they became the economic creed of the USA federal government from the "New Deal" onwards.
Then the war came, giving even more justification and impulse to the recommendations of state intervention that is the fulcrum of the Keynesian ideology.
Whatever truth there was in the "laissez-faire" advice of the classical economists, it got obliterated. In its place, state-paid economists and the state-employed bureaucrats substituted and launched the "laissez-nous faire" appeal that was to became the new economic doctrine.
In the "laissez-faire" model everybody looking after his/her own interest (in the long period) is led to satisfy the needs of somebody else.
In the "laissez-nous-faire" appeal, somebody claiming to look after somebody/everybody else's interest is actually attending to his/her own needs; besides taking almost everybody for a ride, leading almost everybody, sooner or later, to a state of irresponsibility and insecurity.
In actual fact there was nothing new but the re-discovery and re-implementation of a conceptual armoury, at least 200 years old, called mercantilism.
It replaced the "invisible hand" of competition/emulation harmonizing many interacting entities and interests with the "intrusive fingers" of the monopolistic state, grabbing slices from every possible pie, even the smallest ones, totally absorbed in the safeguard of its own interests.
The neo-mercantilism or "laissez-nous faire" doctrine is based on the state superintending the whole of the economy, owning many large industries (often presented as natural monopolies) and printing money as deemed necessary to implement the agenda of the political bosses.
It is especially this last point that has made it possible to restart the process of widespread consumption, with a growing involvement of the working masses.
The working masses : continuous consumption (^)
The period following the second world war witnessed an unlocking of energies, after the oppressive regimentation of the previous decades.
In the economic field, this resulted in a continuous, generalized increase of production that permitted a continuous generalized growth of consumption affecting all groups of the population.
The tutelage and control of the state were discreet but only if compared with the preceding period. The state, having put aside messianic messages of social regeneration (e.g. fascism, communism) was more interested in taking advantage of the new situation. The enlarged production was seen by the state as a pie of which several slices could be appropriated and allocated amongst different social groups in order to ensure their electoral support. The larger the group subsidized, the wider the support expected.
All the post-war states (i.e. the state's élites) where full universal suffrage had been achieved changed their image about and attitude towards people. Instead of marching soldiers, the state politicians saw them as voting subjects whose favour was to be courted. For this reason, to grant employment and to increase the level of consumption of the masses became the proclaimed aims of all political parties within the state (socialist and non socialist alike).
This policy was certainly an improvement with respect to the past and something not to be dismissive of, considering that the level of unsatisfied needs was high and the material infrastructure was poor or, in some places, non existent following the destruction of the war.
The improvement in organization and in working practices, the introduction of better machines and more powerful tools, the existence of individuals wanting to satisfy more and more of their needs and desires, all this pushed and sustained a continuous growth of production.
It was only 15-20 years after the war (i.e. during the '60s), when the basic needs were satisfied and the infrastructure repaired and renovated, that the new problem appeared, namely how to equalise the continuous increase of production with an incessant enlargement of consumption. To this end something had to be done, first of all, on the commercialization side, matching the improvements in the production side.
In order to increase consumption, goods had to have:
- continuous visibility: publicity, in all forms (banners, leaflets, posters, etc.) and media support (press, radio, tv, etc.)
- continuous accessibility: supermarkets (with goods on display, to be handled directly by the consumers), shopping precincts (open for longer hours), vending machines (constantly refilled), etc.
These became the big and small reference points (trademarks, landmarks) of the early consumeristic period.
But all this would not have worked as it did, so smoothly and so effectively, without a specific "providential" intervention by the state.
In the present : senseless consumption (^)
The state, after having taken the role of guarantor of employment and promoter of consumption, has kept performing this role with determination even when the situation has totally changed.
In the era of robots and automatic devices, of productive powers capable of overfilling any shelf with astronomical quantities of goods, of basic needs satisfied or easily satisfiable (except for extraordinary events), the state still sees employment as a 7-8 hours working day and material consumption as still the supreme yardstick of welfare.
Based on this ideology, confident of its mission as provider of the welfare of the nation, reassured by the conceptual elaboration of Lord Keynes, the state (almost any state), had no hesitation in printing money and accumulating debts, whenever the level of employment declined or the growth of production-consumption relented.
To sustain occupation, the simplest thing for the state to do was to extend the bureaucratic morass and multiply useless paper work, so that shuffling paper from one desk to the other was the modern equivalent of alternately digging and filling holes, in order to have people employed.
Nevertheless, there remained the problem of absorbing growing production and to this end not even a large non-productive array of consumer-prone bureaucrats could represent a satisfactory answer.
To really promote consumption, something bolder had to be found. The linked roles of producer and consumer, both proper of every human being, had to be dissociated and a large sector of able-bodied and mentally-capable people had to play exclusively the essential role of consumers. The workers army shrinks (thanks to technology) and the lost positions are taken by the consumers army. Consumption becomes a new occupation; for some (i.e. welfare recipients) the only occupation.
From that moment onwards the magic words of occupation and consumption assume a new meaning: the mind and the body are fully occupied in a foolish consumption of torpor inducing and fat producing substances.
Living is consuming. The more the consumption (real or potential), the more the appreciation and self-consideration. The general attitude can be resumed by sayings like 'the more, the better' or 'the more we have, the merrier we are.'
Mental alienation and physical obesity are the almost inevitable outcome of the process of inflated consumption activated by the state through a growing pyramid of money printing and debt making.
This is the central point. What is questionable is not lavish consumption or even extravagant consumption by a few or by the many when this is within the economic possibilities and in accord with the individual preferences. This is part and parcel of the freedom to use personal income as deemed appropriate and it is not for us to poke our nose on personal choices affecting only the person who makes them.
What is questionable is the fact that (a very large) part of this consumption has been financed by debts incurred by the state governments to gain electoral favours. For instance, the state debt in Italy has reached, in September 2002, the astronomical figure of 1386 billion euro. These debts will be paid by future generations and by the present generation in the years to come when, perhaps, pension income will be drastically curtailed and pension age will be imperatively postponed.
The cracks in the system have been appearing for quite a while and this means that we are approaching the end of the road. From the necessary consumption of the industrial age, through the continuous consumption of the late industrial phase, we have got to the present senseless consumption.
This senseless consumption is also the result of excessive or useless production. They both are, in themselves, nothing other than waste.
Nevertheless, it would be silly to dismiss waste as something that better methods of recycling will take care of because waste, that is not just the trash left behind by production and consumption, plays a very important role in the state dominated phase, the one we still live in. It is then necessary to examine, however briefly, the various ways, functions and effects of waste.
The ways of waste (^)
The production of waste concerns:
- Natural resources
The waste of natural resources takes place through:
- over-production, that reduces or extinguishes the future stock of some natural resource.
- over-consumption, based especially on throw-away objects that pollute the environment transforming it into a dustbin.
Nature then becomes a wasteland and a repository of waste, being first sapped of resources and then soiled with a mountain of residues, discharged directly into the environment.
- Human beings
The waste in human beings takes place through the process of:
- useless production, that means people employed in meaningless work, with no real utility or, worst, with high disutility not only to themselves but to others (e.g. workers producing weapons in an arms factory, bureaucrats shuffling paper in a state office, etc.).
- useless consumption, that means consumption of unhealthy products, or in excess of need, sometimes just to fill the lack of any satisfying activity and to placate the emptiness and boredom of personal life.
- Material goods
The waste in material goods takes place through:
- shoddy production, that means production of ephemeral goods, having a short life span for reason of fashion or, plainly, for poor or non-existent quality in view of their quick replacement (e.g. in-built technical obsolescence).
- shoddy consumption, that originates from a buyer having too much money at his disposal to act as a discerning customer; this leads to the buying of shoddy goods that soon go into the waste pile, or to the excessive buying of goods, some of which will left unused, to accumulate dust before being thrown away.
The functions of waste (^)
Waste as senseless consumption of useless production, has become a necessary factor of people's life in the late period of state-run, state-dominated society.
This is because waste performs three main functions:
People not satisfied with their life (their job, family, city or themselves, etc.) have to invent outlets where to vent their frustrations. And the act of buying goods seems a good way to affirm that they are in control of their existence.
As for the poor, the excluded, the non-integrated, for them also, to succeed means to be capable of buying the same goods as most of the others. The ability to appropriate material goods, well beyond the satisfaction of basic needs, becomes the measure of their progress in life.
So consumption, even useless or especially useless, is a strong psychological drive for those unable or unwilling, for whatever reason, to look for deeper and subtler ways of fulfilment.
Wasting resources (natural, human, material) has a positive embellishing effect on the figures put forward by the state to present the situation of the national economy. For instance, the utilization of employment data, irrespective of the task performed, and especially the use of the GNP (gross national product) as a totemic index of achievement, transform any waste into a resounding economic success.
Production, useless production, destructive production, all contribute to promote employment and so they are to be welcomed. In actual fact, the best of all is parasitically performed production, that is bureaucratically managed, in which ten people hardly achieve what one could very well do on his/her own. Similarly, the useless requirement of implementing idiotic practices, aims at fulfilling the same economic function of producing employment. Clearly, to call that an economic function is a misnomer, possible only under statism.
Useless consumption is also the engine of an economy dominated by the state, where whatever gets used up and destroyed is counted as a plus and added to the GNP. Because of this, the more we consume and destroy, the more reasons there are to celebrate the national economy and the power of its master steerer, the state.
These economic aspects (employment, national accounting) are all mixed with psychological attitudes (e.g. the plus figures produce the feel good factor) and have at their basis a strong political motivation.
Useless production and excessive consumption, that is the wasting and squandering of resources, are indispensable for the survival of parasitic strata, mainly state originated, protected and nurtured strata.
The income to support these strata comes, more and more, from the so-called indirect taxes, that is taxes on consumption (e.g. V.A.T.). Consequently, a drop in consumption equates, for the state, to a drop in revenues while a large increase in consumer spending, represents for the state a god-given respite, always necessary to plug financial holes. For this reason state and consumerism are the two inextricable faces of the same coin. As a matter of fact, while a firm has a limited (to its area of business) and specific (to its brand of products) interest in consumption, the state is concerned and affected by it across the board. That is why the appeal to consume can be heard in many languages and has been voiced by politicians under different labels, from the republican George W. Bush senior in the USA at the beginning of the '90s (with the famous shopping trip at Macy's to buy a pair of socks to give a good example to his fellows American) to the socialist Martine Aubry in France at the end of the same decade (proclaiming on TV that "il faut relancer la consommation"). Because of huge revenues as result of people's purchases, the state has a total overwhelming stake in keeping consumption going and growing; and its task is facilitated if most of consumption is or quickly ends as waste, so that the cycle could continue on an eternally enlarged basis.
A political (but not less important)
by-product of this consumeristic frenzy sponsored by the state
is the waste of human beings and their human qualities. Humanity was lost
then when people were tied to machines, forced to work for too many hours;
humanity is lost now when people are continuously bombarded by advertisements,
pressurized into consuming too much of everything. In both cases, power
is satisfied because the more people have their bodies and minds occupied
by silly things, the less they can apply them to explore and experiment
with novel ideas.
The effects of waste (^)
Waste is generating effects that are more and more visible as the scars become wider and deeper. They will affect future generations for years to come. The main effects relate to:
- Destruction of nature
Insanity in production and consumption has resulted in treating nature as a hunting reserve for overkill and as a dustbin to overfill. The inevitable outcome is the destruction of nature on a scale and intensity never attained before. And this has been possible because of the pathological promotion of an ever increasing level of consumption by the states through their money printing - debt making - resource squandering practices. The over-expansion of money directly translates into an over-exploitation of nature. The debt of the state and the death of the environment are two causally strictly interlinked aspects.
- Deterioration of humanity
A dying natural habitat is the symptom of a dying social environment, in which the human being is losing the basic qualities and achievements of the civilization process, that is humanity's well-being characterized by:
- wisdom: appropriate understanding and assessment of reality
- wealth: freedom, richness and meaningfulness of choices
- health: biosocial and psychophysical soundness.
The physical and moral fibre of individuals are both becoming flaccid. Obesity and obtuseness have become mass phenomena. Wealth is equated to money and this is one of the most striking examples of the lack of wisdom and clear thinking.
The presence of air pollution and food poisoning, the many cases of cancer, the acts of gratuitous madness arising from deep-seated rage, mental stress and moral confusion: all these are signals of the void of many existences lacking inner purpose and self direction and signs of the sickness and deterioration of too many individuals.
- Depletion of resources
The obese/obtuse human being is squandering resources at an incredible rate, leaving behind a desert and a void that future generations will have difficulty in restoring and, perhaps, no hope of refilling.
This is all in accordance with the ideology of statism reciting that, "in the long term we are all dead." To this saying, the state ideologues have implicitly added that, "in the long run we don't give a damn."
The depletion of resources has been encouraged by states who are afraid of a drop in consumption, a deceleration of growth, lest they loose tax revenues. To support this consumeristic view, the state rulers even invoke the general national interest. Under statism, consumerism has become a national duty, a patriotic activity, encouraged by the political leaders, as a service to the country.
What this reveals is that some functions of waste have become so
intrinsically necessary for the survival of the nation state that
the preservation and continuation of waste have become a matter of
national interest. When this happens, the organization that has generated
this necessity of waste (i.e. the nation state) is itself condemned to end
up in the wastebin of history.
The preservation of the state demands the extinction of nature. Being this the reality, it is through the extinction of the state that we can operate for the preservation of nature.
In the future : sensible care (^)
Given the fact that the present ideology, based on growth of consumption and on short-term binge, is preparing, in the medium-long term, dearth and disaster for future generations, a new paradigm and a new practice should urgently become the common attitude of the humankind.
In this new paradigm, short-termism is not viewed as realism but as irresponsibility and irrationality that will likely destroy any future reality.
In actual fact, not what is real is rational but only what is rational (i.e. having sense, soundness and sanity) is and will remain real.
Rationality is behaviour conducive to a long-lasting reality, that is to permanence; only what is permanent (not ephemeral) is real (in the sense of worth and worth preserving), be it an artifact, a concept, a sonnet or a mathematical formula.
Permanence requires maintenance. To promote permanence, we need to move from senseless consumption to sensible care. With reference to the total environment (i.e. human beings, animal beings and natural resources), this means that production and consumption should be:
- left free to spread and be shared equitably and rationally (i.e. according to a fair ratio) amongst individuals and communities instead of being artificially kept concentrated by state restrictions in pockets of over-work and over-affluence on one side and inactivity and indigence on the other;
- using mainly or preferably renewable resources at a rate compatible with their regeneration (input-output equilibration);
- using substitutes for non-renewable resources or, when this is not possible or practicable, the use of non-renewable resources should be balanced by the effort to find suitable ready-made substitutes for future generations to rely on (e.g. cheap, efficient, ubiquitous solar panels);
- balancing the emission of pollutants in the environment with the capacity of absorption by the environment.
- satisfying healthy needs
- at healthy/appropriate levels
- through healthy goods and services
- that promote natural, personal, common well-being.
In any case, the usage of (scarce) resources should be:
- adequate: aiming at satisfying needs and not greed;
- moderate: aiming at economizing and saving;
- appropriate: aiming at length-in-use (also through reusing, restoring, recycling).
If a new Girolamo Savonarola (the Dominican priest who preached against tyranny and corruption in the late XV century Florence) came to life amid the filth and noise of some modern metropolis, his cry might resound high and loud for all to hear and might be expressed with the words: Consume, consume, the end will come soon!
If we want to avoid a man-made end, we should move very soon and very fast away from the senseless consumption, induced and fomented by state power, towards the sensible use of resources, from waste to wisdom.
In other words, from curse to cure and care.