Friday, January 30, 2015

The Shrinking Cage of Late Capitalism

It’s easy to focus on what we’re losing as the American Empire falls and the fossil fuels that support our lifestyle run down. That may be why the British TV show Downton Abbey is so popular in the US right now. It dramatizes the effects of the decline of the British Empire on the nobility. Just as they were dispossessed of their estates and castles, the American middle class is being stripped of our cushy jobs and comfortable homes in the ‘burbs. We may be looking to them for coping techniques.

But this week I’d like to talk about what we have to gain as Industrial Civilization goes the way of the dodo. The civil religion of Progress would have us believe that our society provides for us better than any previous civilization provided for its denizens. Even though our physical desires are being satisfied to a degree unheard of in the historical record, our social needs (and even many physical needs) have been denied to meet the demands of the Capitalist economy.

The primary sociological property of Capitalism seems to be its corrosive effect on social relations. With the help of fossil fuels, it has made us much more individualistic than even the hermits of fairy tales or the mountain men of the Wild West. We can meet the minimum requirements of survival just by sitting alone at a computer all day, pressing buttons. In many ways, this is the ideal vocation for a Capitalist worker. It isolates the individual socially, economically and spiritually.

In this situation, our only apparent dependency is on an employer, and that is mediated by money and Capitalism. In return for labor, the employer compensates the employee in the form of a salary or wages, healthcare discounts, retirement account contributions and other financial benefits. The social component of the relationship is incidental to its economic essence. You don’t need to form a personal bond with your boss, co-workers or customers in order to get or keep your job.

All other dependencies, physical and social, can also be paid for with money. We can buy food at the grocery store or at a restaurant. Even a personal connection with a server is expressed financially through tipping. We pay utility companies for heat, light, water, air-conditioning, phone service, internet access, etc. These relationships are almost completely impersonal, conducted by mail or the internet. If we require socialization, we generally find it at work or through activities with an economic rationale, such as volunteering, i.e., providing free labor, or taking a class, i.e., providing employment to a marginalized professional, usually an artist. 

By subordinating social relations to economic arrangements, Capitalism seeks to “free” us from social debts: personal services that don’t involve financial or material compensation. Money is supposed to buy us social, moral and emotional independence. This is the goal of many Americans today, to be “free and clear” of all debts and obligations, be they economic or social. We don’t have to worry about the sweatshop worker who made our socks, because we paid a fair market price for her product. The Free Market has determined fair compensation for the worker. If the worker is poor, it is her own fault for failing to exploit the Free Market to her advantage. The same dubious morality can be applied to all our relationships, even that with our parents.

We aspired to this freedom, because we came to see familial relationships, friendships and other social obligations as more trouble than they’re worth. Their psychological and economic costs seemed to outweigh their benefits. They came with the strings of tradition attached, and we were no longer willing to submit to those restrictions. In effect, we traded traditional communities for feminism, free love and liberation from our family’s expectation that we will find a steady job, get married and have kids. Many communities have been built around this kind of freedom, but they remain few and far between in the U.S.A. 

Into this gap strides Capitalism, which is only too happy to oblige. It wants to banish social debts economically in order to dissolve the personal relationships that grow from them. Once the relationships have been severed, the “free” individual is only dependent on one thing: the economy, i.e., Capitalism. Each person becomes a single economic unit, a consumer who must meet all his needs and desires on his own. This maximizes consumption, because people are no longer able to pool their resources. Once we have been reduced to solitary consumers, we no longer have any social responsibilities.

But this “freedom" is an illusion. We are always dependent on Humanity and Nature for our continued existence, whether we know it or not. There are always debts we can’t repay financially to those who have supported us, are supporting us now or will support us in the future. Have you heard the one about the parents who billed their children for the cost of raising them? The point of the joke is those services can’t be quantified in money or any other material compensation. That’s social, emotional and spiritual work that can only be repaid in kind. Even if your children repaid their debt to you in money, no matter the amount, you would surely be poorer for it.

The decay of social relations has bred distrust of our neighbors, because we don’t know them anymore. It’s also easier for us to abandon our friends, family or neighbors, because we think Society, in the form of other people or Science or Technology or the Economy or the Government, will pick up the slack. When you get right down to it, we don’t really think we need each other. But our sense of self-reliance has been inflated by fossil fuels. The irony is we’re much less self-reliant than our ancestors. Without the infrastructure of modern life, the vast majority of us would be dead in a few weeks.

The social convulsions driven by Capitalist industrialization have repeatedly shaken our society to its core, like a tree being rattled by a machine for its fruit. Much of our humanity, as manifested in empathy, solidarity and charity, has been lost in the process. Ironically, Capitalism has gone a long way toward achieving Marx’s dream of casting aside the traditional institutions of our society: family, church, state, etc. These have all been warped and weakened by the demands of Capitalism, forced to conform to its ethic. 

We may love our kids, but we sacrifice them to a dysfunctional school system so we may be “free” to pursue our individual goals. We may be concerned citizens, but we treat politics as a spectator sport, waiting for political programs and candidates to be chosen for us and, at best only directly participating once a year. We may go to a Christian church for an hour a week to pay lip service to Jesus’ message of charity and love, but we spend the rest of the week in service of self, mostly gratifying our material and physical desires.

I shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve sought refuge in Capitalism. Frankly, I’ve found companies to be more supportive than most of my friends. My employers have certainly been more reliable. It’s no wonder I’ve put so much faith in them. They do tend to come through for me more often. They often ask more of me than I’m prepared to give, and my friends have been much less demanding. But at least the institutions are usually there when I need them, even if they exact a pound of flesh (or soul) for the privilege. I’m much more emotionally devoted to my friends, and what they can give me is much more valuable than what the institutions can. But my friends’ unreliability makes me question the sincerity of their commitment to me. At least with institutions, I know where I stand. 

It took the entire Industrial Era for social relations to reach their current state of decrepitude, just in time for the rug to be pulled out from under us. We no longer have communities strong enough to escape the shrinking cage of Late Capitalism. It has fed on our growing dependence to become stronger, more invasive, more demanding, more controlling and less generous. We now find ourselves at its mercy as its jaws close on us.

We’ll have to rebuild our social networks to survive the collapse of Capitalism and Industrialism. Our ancestors were only able to survive the rise of these forces through the support of tightly-knit families, neighborhoods and grassroots organizations. They would not consider the exchange of our comforts for revitalized communities a great sacrifice. Nor should we.

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