Voltaire once wrote that if God didn’t exist, He would have to be invented. Apparently the same can be said for bureaucracy — and for the rent-seekers who manipulate its levers. You need only loosen up your conception of bureaucracy. The “take a number and we’ll be right with you, but first make sure you have completed the following forms” model of bureaucracy? That’s so “old economy.” In the world to come, bureaucracy, like everything else under the sun, will be miniaturized and digitized, so you can take it with you wherever you go. Now that’s convenience.
State parks, national monuments, public libraries — these spaces ask nothing of us save that we enjoy them in a respectful, sensible manner (sadly, universities are already lost). The keepers of them do not try to pry into our psyches and hearts to discern how to better manipulate our covetousness. The spaces themselves do not beckon us to consume for consumption’s sake, to sicken and impoverish ourselves in an attempt to satisfy desires that do not originate in our hearts and minds but from the innumerable screens and billboards that surround us at any given moment.
You work to buy the perfect gift, but you don’t get the satisfaction of knowing your work made another human being happy. Unless you were given direction as to what to buy, which would have made your work infinitely easier, more likely than not the receiver of the gift is not going to like it. The very surplus of goods we enjoy has allowed each one of us to develop needs so idiosyncratic that only certain brands, and the stories they tell, can satisfy any lack we might happen to feel. We are as finicky as house cats, turning up our noses as everything that doesn’t fit the idea we have of ourselves, an idea made as superficially complex and arcane as a volley of text messages.
There’s something undeniably appealing about American conservatism, like a sweater that, though comfortable and cozy, doesn’t really look all that flattering. I’m sure it’s great, the urge socially and culturally to circle the wagons and gather the brood around the kitchen table to dispense lessons on young earth and the divine origins of the second amendment. It offers certainty in spades, something altogether in short supply in these days of global financial upheaval.
Consumerism can make you happy. It has rectified the age-old problem of the self’s division from the world. For in consumerism’s simulated world, in the constant stream of advertisements whose narratives have become as familiar and comforting as bedtime stories, the gap between life and essence is closed. This gives some of us a peace of mind that hasn’t been enjoyed since antiquity when, as theorist Georg Lukács writes, “the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature of the stars.” The world created by consumerism is a world where meaning is once again immanent, and the devoted consumer need never wonder how in purchasing a certain item she can make reality conform to her desires and her desires conform to that reality.
Exceptionalism tends to be a way station on the path to full-blown paranoia, as the poem of the United States of America gets rewritten as The Road to Serfdom. There must be a better way than this to imagine a utopia.
Whether run along a conveyor or embedded in a network, a human serves the same end: the resplendent valorization formerly reserved for objects. Only when human beings become sympathetic objects will objects become sympathetic. Only then will guillotines be embraced as readily as fond relatives or long-absent lovers.
The mix tape left room for the accidental, for the clumsy-fingered pauses, the crackle of worn vinyl, the skipping of a needle, the crimping of metal ribbon, the intrusion of a voice once loved. Accidents that resist replication on a mass scale, but that exist side-by-side with the products of mass reproduction.
Unless China becomes more willing to outsource its ideology building to the West, and accept our expertise in fomenting the proper disregard for pragmatism and dismantling Confucianist anti-individualism, the global imbalances seem likely to persist, no matter how many shells are exploded in the currency war. The U.S. will continue to overconsume for the benefit of the world, until the world chooses to see that arrangement as less than beneficial in maintaining social control. At that point, exporting consumerism may no longer be an option for the West, and we’ll be forced to import authoritarianism instead.
When someone utters words like “sustainability” and “sustainable,” I hear “intended to technologically progress no further.” Think about it: An orchestra cannot at the same time sustain one chord and strike another. The one sustained chord thus signals the entirety of the musical piece, its beginning and its end. So, if someone presents you with a piece of sustainable technology, you can be certain that you grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren will be using the same kind of device in the same kind of form.