Twin Quotes for Late 2010

“It’s not just the fact that the elites have all the wealth in a society, but that they are disconnected from the problems. If the rich and powerful still live the good life as society is spinning downhill, they are not motivated to solve the problems.” (Jared Diamond)

marie antoinette

Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Ali Dibadj saw in the third quarter a “decoupling” of the luxury and prestige markets, also including LVMH and Elizabeth Arden, from the mass marketers. And the results extended beyond beauty, as Macy’s and Nordstrom showed increases in customer traffic year over year last quarter even as the U.S. Walmart division last week reported continued year-over-year declines in traffic for the quarter ended Oct. 31, albeit improvements from the prior quarter.

“The luxury consumer is shopping again, and we are seeing our strategy contribute to … prestige beauty growing faster than mass in many parts of world,” said Estee Lauder CEO Fabrizio Freda on a conference call with analysts last month. He pointed to U.S. beauty sales in department stores and Sephora growing 4% last quarter, according to NPD Group, while sales in mass channels grew only 1%.  (Advertising Age, “Prestige, Luxury Products Thrive as Mass Market Sputters,” November 22, 2010)

The Rock Touches the Hard Place

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!”