Just received some news from a colleague at Washington State University about his research on the history of corporate capitalism’s reductionist “consumer” vocabulary.
As part of the exchange, I put this down about the NERA’s almost-forgotten “production-for-use” program:
During the mid-New Deal years, there was a very short launch of “production for use” programs, in which the government hired unemployed workers to manufacture basic goods, such as women’s dresses. This was by far the most heavily business-attacked of all New Deal programs, and was quickly shut down by the FDR authorities. There’s a short book on it by Nancy E. Rose, called Put to Work. There might be some interesting history of the “consumption” terminology in that lost facet of reality. Even if not, the fact that they called it “production for use” tells you about the connections between economic power and basic economic categories. When industry is public, you get “users.” When it’s private, the users get shrunken down to “consumers.”
[Photo: Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood, Oregon, built not-for-profit in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration]
Last week, the great Jared Diamond, whose Pulitzer-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, is the greatest thing since Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, published an op-ed in The New York Times. Titled “What’s Your Consumption Factor?”, the piece hits one of two very big political nails right on the head:
[W]hether we get there willingly or not, we [residents of the USA] shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.
Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.
This is all very true, as far as it goes. But it only goes half-way.
What Diamond is basically saying is that, if we were to use our democracy to end the criminally insane and egregiously outdated reign of the automobile over transportation (and life in general) in the US, we could have a higher quality of life and also finally get serious about genuinely helping the world’s other people live better.
The big problem, however, is the fact that our extremely well-entrenched economic overclass is quite literally and intractably addicted to perpetuating autos-ueber-alles in America. Without the auto-industrial complex’s trillion-plus-dollars-a-year “stimulation” of a huge array of business opportunities, corporate capitalism would quickly implode into an intractable economic depression.
Meanwhile, as Diamond argues, replacing our cars with world-class railroads and towns reconstructed around rails, bikes, and human feet is not only possible and desirable. Thanks to Peak Oil, it is, as Diamond almost says directly, simply the only imaginable way forward to a decent future.
And here’s exactly where Diamond’s rock meets the still-unmentionable hard place: Both because it is certain to be managed as an urgent, profits-NOT-first public project, and because it would put an end to the vast, self-renewing flows of capitalist-friendly economic waste (and investor profit) that inhere in our existing cars-first arrangement, ending autos-ueber-alles is simply verboten as a subject of public consideration. Modern railroads and cities that favor human-muscle-powered locomotion, you see, are exactly as bad for long-term profit-making as they are healthy and vital for the welfare of ordinary Earthlings.
Hence, until we commoners learn to see the light and put our collective foot down, our economic and political overlords will continue to shove the issue of decent survival raised by Diamond down the “un-American” hole. The reason is simple and classic:
“Après moi, le déluge!” [“After me, the flood!”] is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society. To outcries about physical and mental degradation, premature death, the torture of overwork, it answers: “Ought these to trouble us, since they increase our profits?”
Hence, if we are to do what Jared Diamond rightly says we must, we will have to conduct one hell of a fight just to get the human future onto the public agenda. History’s richest (and, thanks to the “market” structure of capitalism itself, most deniable) ruling class, armed as it is with history’s greatest mass-sedative (TV), is simply not going to permit the choice Diamond highlights to reach the public mind.
It will only do so through our own conscious and militant insistence upon it. Of necessity, a big part of this consciousness will have to be (hold onto your hats!) class consciousness. If we don’t begin to acknowledge, emphasize, publicize, and combat corporate capitalism’s addiction to selling cars, the jaws of historic defeat will finish snapping closed.
This coming struggle is not just a fight for the world’s children and grandchildren, it is, as Diamond says, a literally necessary one. Hence, as somebody on a crashing airplane once famously said, “Let’s roll!”
Capitalism does a few things well. Cheapening and distributing portable camera technology is one such thing. Using my camera phone, I snapped this one at a Target store this weekend:
This “limitless choices” claim, of course, is U.S. corporate capitalism’s version of the cruel slogans the Nazis hung over the gates of their domestic death-camps. The only difference is that our underlying population believes the slogans.
This is tragic, since one thing that is distinctly untrue about corporate capitalism in the United States is that it is a system that provides “limitless choices.” On the contrary, it is utterly dependent upon the careful policing of the realm of collective, political, macro-level choices. From transportation to education to war to the ability to launch public enterprises, the general population is VERBOTEN from meaningful participation in setting priorities and policies.
And, even at the vaunted micro level of personal shopping choices, big business marketing is a trillion-plus-dollars-a-year juggernaut, the sole purpose of which is to manipulate and addle “consumer behavior” in favor of corporate requirements.
In America, you can choose from a huge array of blue jeans, but, barring a revolution, you cannot hope to alter the murderous and suicidal path of your own nation’s normal development.