Zizek Revolution

Why hasn’t the Left been able to counter the rise of right-wing populism these last few years? Slavoj Zizek makes an excellent start at answering that question (video clip below, h/t to my friend, Balazs Zsido). I would only quibble a bit, as I believe he may tend to overstate his case at times and leave a little something out at times.  When he says that every populist movement is caused by a failure of the Left, I think it would be more accurate to say that a failure of the Left is one of the things implicated in the rise of right-wing populism. There are probably multiple causes in each case, but in each case, one could also ask how the Left failed to put forth a viable alternative. I’m with him about 90% on that one, as historical analysis.

Turning from historical analysis to the current crossroads, I agree with him 100% that the Left is failing to produce a viable alternative today. The “old” Left of protecting universal health care and worker rights established post-WWII is a good thing but not enough to get us across the new horizons today. I agree with him there, although I might emphasize more than he does that the freedoms and socialized elements of Western democracies are the best thing going right now. Some of the rage against capitalism and the West needs to be thoughtfully reconsidered, as simply taking down the Western democracies revolution-style right now may well result in more oppressive structures — a turn for the worse. When I look at existing models of governance outside of the West – Russia or China, Iran and the Middle East, North and Central Africa – the freedoms of the West’s liberal democracies look relatively good. Simply knocking down the West would leave a vacuum for the other power brokers of the world, who do not seem to promise more enlightened governance. Even within the West, the “identity politics” branch of the Left (at least in the U.S.) seems all too eager to replace the West with their own oppressive and demographically determined structures. Be careful what you wish for. Things could actually be a lot worse than they are.

Am I then an “apologist for capitalism,” as some of my leftist friends might say? Not at all. Capitalism is approaching its limit. The age wherein human fulfillment is defined by how many resources you can hoard, wherein the primary relationship between people and resources is one of private ownership – this age will end, whether dystopically or utopically. The writing is on the wall in the form of ecological collapse and worldwide economic disparities that are increasingly visible with globalization. But beware the negative possibility. Just knocking down the West and leaving the field to, shall we say, less liberal and less democratic forms, may not yield the answer young Western radicals seek.

Like Zizek, I don’t have a specific answer for today’s Western leftists, but I do have a framework for answers. My framework is simply this: We need to think of the next stage not as a revolution against the West but as a revolution within the West.  We do need to move into the (post-materialist, post-capitalist) 21st century, but capitalism and liberal democracy are the matrix from which new forms will spring. Every age begins as a new birth but carries the seeds of its own destruction in the form of its own contradictions. When those contradictions reach a critical mass, the shell starts to crack. As the shell of capitalism starts to crack in the face of ecological and economic imperatives, the idea is not to crush everything but to bring forth the hidden seed that has been nurtured and throw away the husk. In particular, we need to keep the freedoms of liberal democracy intact while pushing hard and mindfully on the transformation into a post-capitalist economy that leaves no group stranded.

So yes, we need to move into a post-capitalist, post-materialist 21st century, where for example green technologies can be deployed based on what is possible, not on what is profitable. Following Zizek, I might say that we need a new Left to articulate a transformational vision for our age. Something may come of the Alt-Left, if its presently amorphous and contradictory energies coagulate around the best it has to offer. Then again, I’m not sure this radical vision will come from the Left at all. It may be that the last true radicals were in the 1960s.  Since then, Left and Right may both have become too damaged, too entrenched, to make the next turn. So be it. If the new radical vision comes from outside of today’s Left-Right spectrum, that is fine with me.

Zizek video clip

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Russell Brand and Me

Dear Russell,

I meant what I said in my recent kudo review of Revolution. If you’ll permit a near-certain misuse of a UK idiom, balls up to your social vision, politics, and witty delivery. I agree with you that late capitalism is nearing its end, as the exponential growth of consumption upon which it depends is now hitting its ecological limits. I’d like to play devil’s advocate though, if only to diversity our intellectual resources for the coming paradigm shift. I’ll start with your pet peeve, voting. I hate to bring up the voting thing, since it really is a small part of your overall vision, and the media has magnified it as if it were your core point and not just a corollary, but I can’t help it. It’s an interesting nugget. I understand your rationale for not voting – Establishment “democracies,” which serve only their corporate masters, are rapidly destroying social and ecological equilibrium, and voting only gives them the mass “buy-in” they need to extend their program of annihilating planetary resources to serve the 1%. Good point, but I can think of three pressures pushing me the opposite way, toward voting.

  • Long-term/short-term goals. In my favorite slave autobiography, that of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah’s first move after gaining his freedom is to go into a plantation venture with one of his former masters, on the condition that he be assigned the task of picking slaves from the slave ships. Although his long-term goal was abolition, his short-term goal was to guarantee that some of these unfortunates – and especially his own countrymen – would be treated well. Perhaps I too would not want my long-term vision, remarkably like yours, to scuttle my short-term goals. I’m not as confident as you that the past six years under Obama are no different than they would have been under another George W. Bush. I think that lives are being affected presently and that something is to be gained short term. And I’m not willing to sacrifice that for a still far-from-certain mirage of revolution. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condemn your position. I think you should hold to your position and I to mine. We have to acknowledge – even celebrate – our differences openly, knowing that in the big picture we’re all on this ride together.
  • Maybe I’m just older than you, which makes me (for better or for worse) more patient. You note that the revolution must begin subjectively, as a revolution in human sensibility. I agree and am perhaps even more concerned than you that if the objective forces of revolution get ahead of the subjective changes, we are in danger of a hijacking by less than idealistic factions (something The Beatles and The Who sang of during our archival hippie revolution). I believe it is this fear – that the objective forces of revolution outstrip the inner revolution – that caused Gandhi to go on a fast and call off the non-cooperation movement when his own supporters responded to violence with violence in the Chauri Chaura incident.
  • Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, argues that if we opt out, the big corporations and lobbyists will not, which means their influence will be even more unfettered, creating damage that even the Russell Revolution might not be able to reverse. I’m torn because I see your point, Russell, but Robert Reich’s position does give me pause before I forego voting.

I suppose I should be forthright and lay my vision of what may come past the next horizon line against yours for comparison/contrast. OK, since you asked, I will do so in a forthcoming piece. Like your vision, mine combines Age of Aquarius thinking with a little extra anarchy, so watch for the manifesto on this exciting and newly minted socio-political order, Aquarianarchy.

Your post-nationalist countryman,


Russell Brand, Punk Rock Ram Dass

(I posted a version on of this entry as an amazon review of Russell Brand’s Revolution.)

A Poli Sci dissertation by a Punk Rock Ram Dass, a mash-up of anarchy and idealism, Revolution is the perfect book for the next generation of hippie waifs. Russell Brand, self-identified “professional weirdo” (169), touches on all the key points. Late capitalism and the culture of consumption are dying. The top dogs are as “lost” as the rest of us (232). “Ecological imperatives” (207) spell radical change coming, but whether that change is utopic or dystopic is up to us. Either we have a revolution that reinforces human values for all, or we have “something more draconian than we have ever dared to consider” (224). To seize the utopic track, we must initiate the revolution not in the objective arena of politics but in the subjective arena of human sensibility. Internalize the non-violent way, change our inner values, and then we can more surely change the political superstructure with less risk of someone hijacking the revolution.

And best to be ready, ‘cause when it comes it will come quickly. For one thing, those ecological imperatives come with a time limit. As it approaches, we can use new communication technologies to harness rapid change without the need for a centralized power structure.  Or we can use them to escalate the death spiral of “jittery materialism” (106). Russell, bless his heart, is ready to give up his Dior boots and lead the charge.

The book has its imperfections – Russell is occasionally too earnest too long and scores best when he scores with hilarity, I wish there were more arc and less repetition as the chapters go by, and there’s a persistent low-level tone of belligerence that gives me pause before nominating Russell as cult leader of the commune. Actually, Russell grants me that last one when he opens a modern equivalent of Haight-Ashbury’s “free store” and his tyrannical interference leads him to conclude, with typical comic aplomb, that “the only thing the experiment proved is that I should never be allowed to run a shop” (203). But that very flaw leads him to think seriously about the principles that must take precedence over personalities if this is going to work (and if it doesn’t work, we will fairly quickly burn through the world’s remaining resources, so it won’t matter anyway). Yes, I said “to think seriously.” This book quite seriously thinks over our options for the planet. I can’t agree with every local strategy and assessment, but anyone who dismisses Russell Brand as a lightweight on issues of the social order is either making a mistake or buying into the idea that the only proper way to speak of such things is the Establishment way. Skinny yes, lightweight no.  Everyone needs a vision, or multiple visions, of where to go from here (and we have to go somewhere – those “ecological imperatives,” you know), and this is a good big-vision, page-turner book delivered with the quirky, English, Monty Python wit of Russell Brand.

See also Russell Brand and Me.

Professionalism and Alienation

I recently heard (or perhaps instigated) someone at work talking about how proper attire promotes professionalism. My faithful readers will recall that I, as a fashion anarchist, have commented on Jeffrey Tucker’s suggestion that people should dress properly at work (Bourbon for Breakfast, Chapter 37).

Now to tackle the tangent idea that a dress code promotes professionalism. First, if professionalism is meant in the narrow sense of an individual’s competence to complete the tasks at hand with rigor, efficiency, and integrity, the fashion anarchist wins this one easily. Obviously, my engineering or accounting or design skills are not affected every time I change clothes.

If professionalism is meant in the general sense – the sense that it is generally easier to maintain professional relations where people are dressed professionally – this is a little trickier. On this level, I say good riddance to professionalism, which has been a scourge on human contact for some 300 hundred years.

The Age of Bourgeois Capitalism, which began in roughly the 18th century, could also be called the Age of Professionalism.  In the previous age, the frame of reference for human relations was the landed hierarchy of commoners, gentry, aristocracy and various subsets. Doctors and lawyers and such were generally commoners, subject to much mirth and ridicule in the literatures of the day. Even where respected, their professions (or one might call them “occupations” in that pre-professional age) conferred no class status. As bourgeois capitalism replaced landed hierarchies as the defining scaffold of power, the “professions” came to confer the kind of class status we see today, with grandmas encouraging grandkids to grow up to be doctors or lawyers (and not, on good authority of Waylon and Willie, cowboys, those residual personae of the land). The old frame of reference for human relations in the landed order – things like de facto respect for those above you in the hierarchy and generosity towards those below you in the hierarchy – was replaced by the public sphere paradigm to “behave professionally.”

“Professional behavior” presupposes human connections that are less vertical and more horizontal/democratic, and that may well be a step forward toward the ideal of a human community of mutual fulfillment, but it comes at a cost. The cost is alienation. Human relations becomes the “business of human relations.” When Karl Marx says that under capitalism “human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things” (Capital, Vol. 1), this can be applied on the social as well as the economic level.  Human relations become a little bit icier. The other person is objectified, which enables us to treat him or her as an object in some market-driven game and not as a concrete human being. One scene in The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, screenplay Coppola and Mario Puzo) nicely encapsulates human relations in the Age of Professionalism. Tessio has betrayed Michael and now realizes that Michael has discovered the deed and set him up to be killed. Tessio, knowing the end is near, tells Tom: “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.” Tom replies with some pathos, “He understands that,” and then goes forward with the hit. Lift the veil on professionalism’s polite exterior, and this is the model of human relations you have underneath. It brings everyone one step closer to the version of human identity manifested in the “officials” of Kafka’s novels, who epitomize ad absurdum the sloughing off of all human responsibility in the execution of the office.

The alienation that takes place in the Age of Professionalism indeed gives us another reason to look to the Luddite/technophobe point of view. In particular, the technophobe distrust of mechanization may raise valid points about the impact of technology not just on labor markets but on human relations generally. If professionalism takes a subjective toll on the fullness of human relations, new technologies, without moral steerage, can give a kind of exoskeleton to the process of alienation, abstracting us from the human warmth and human consequences of our actions. The person who pushes a button in Nevada to launch a drone strike on a Pakistani village and then stops by Walmart on the way home probably does not see his actions the same way as one who had to stand toe to toe and push the steel blade into his opponent’s belly.

Now for the optimistic conclusion: In our collective reach for higher ideals, professionalism has served its purpose, weaning us away from hierarchies that were antithetical to the fullest form of human relations and giving us a basis for something more democratic and fully reciprocal. But we have paid a cost in terms of the objectification of, and alienation from, our fellows. It’s time take the next turn, put professionalism to bed, and reinvest full humanness into our relationships, even into our relationships in the workplace and with remote clients and customers. And one way to start that slow tectonic shift is to gently undermine the professionalism paradigm by bringing, so far as we can manage it, a little fashion anarchy into the workplace.  It might look funny, but it beats becoming characters in a Kafka novel.

Luddites & Technophobes

“Luddite”: The very word conjures up images of knuckle-dragging curmudgeons. When the wheels of the Industrial Revolution started turning in late eighteenth-century England, the cult of “improvement” was already long entrenched (indeed it had been satirized by Jonathan Swift and his motley “projectors” nearly a century earlier). Resisting the “improvements” of industrialization at the turn into the nineteenth century were the Luddites. As weavers and artisans lost their jobs to new labor-saving machinery that required fewer and less skilled workers, the Luddites of 1811-1817 fought back by smashing new factory machines in the dark of night. The dominant ideology has ever since scoffed at the Luddites’ economic naivete and lumped the Luddites themselves in with the flat earth society.

I beg to differ. I propose that the reason the Luddites were and continue to be subject to such ridicule in the dominant ideology is that they are dangerously correct, that they lift the veil on an unhappy truth about how labor markets work under capitalism. The captains of industry have always drawn upon the “improvement” philosophy to argue that increased automation would be good for everyone, enabling workers to generate the same productivity in much shorter time, leading to a utopia in which people would work a couple of hours a day and have expanded time for personal growth in whatever physical, intellectual, and cultural arenas interested them. Luddites argued that they would lose their jobs and worsen their lot while the factory owners amassed greater and greater profits. The Luddite argument shows a better grasp of the structural incentives of capitalism. The owners’ argument rests upon the hidden premise that workers themselves will profit from their increased productivity. But capitalist incentives work the other way: the company incentive is to lay off superfluous workers while remaining workers make twice as many widgets per day at the same old wages. After all, the remaining workers are now “lucky” to have a job and it is a “buyer’s market” for the employer.

Of course it is not a zero-sum game. Luddites were right in that working class conditions in Victorian England were famously appalling. (Engels’s Condition of the Working Classes in England is perhaps the best contemporary account.) But the government would intervene with labor laws, and the economy itself would adjust to fill the vacuum with new veins of employment. No one would argue that workers today, at least in the West, are not better off than they were in the nineteenth century. But the point is that the increase in productivity due to mechanization did not proportionately increase leisure opportunities for personal fulfillment. Workers were still expected to work full time. The curve change was not in the amount of labor time input but in the amount of productivity output. More aggregate wealth was generated with no increase in aggregate leisure (except perhaps for the investing classes).

Today’s tech revolution is subject to the same utopian mythmaking by the “improvement” industry and to the same grim truths of the labor market. We are told that computerized automation will exponentially increase per capita productivity, freeing people up for personal fulfillment. But the truth is that more often it results in layoffs, fewer jobs for humans, at least in the short run, and more productivity expected per salary. And think about Facebook’s recent (February 2014) acquisition of WhatsApp, a company with 55 employees, for $19 billion dollars. Where so much of GDP is funneled through 55 employees, what does that mean for workers in the aggregate? Does this make it easier for them to find employment or empower them to increase their leisure time? Not likely.

Moreover, those who are “freed up for personal fulfillment” by virtue of being unemployed or underemployed are charged with laziness. No matter how much productivity increases per capita, working and middle class people are expected to work their 40 hours or be damned as parasites. (I lump together working and middle classes, because the investing elite class is not subject to the same labor dynamics as those who live paycheck to paycheck.) Witness the recent CBO (Congressional Budget Office) report on Obamacare (February 2014), which said that once health care in the U.S. is universal and affordable, some people may be freed up to work fewer hours or to have one parent stay at home. This inspired much gnashing of teeth within one of our two national parties. So what if technological advances enable the same GDP with fewer hours worked, or enable affordable health care for all? How dare working class and middle class people take any extra hours for personal fulfillment!

This doesn’t mean all is lost. Although I believe the Luddites and their protege technophobes still need a fair hearing for what they reveal about technological impacts on labor within a capitalist system, I don’t believe that technological innovation is intrinsically antagonistic to workers’ long-term interests. I am not ready to completely dismiss the utopian dream of the apostles of improvement. Technology can be a force for good. But it needs to be framed by a different economy of values.  The capitalist world view of infinite market expansion incentivizes the full exploitation of a labor force, not with any eye on the human fulfillment of the workers (which is outside the scope of capitalism and its forces), but with an eye only on increased productivity and profit. This presupposition, this capitalist sensibility, is inconsistent with the utopian possibilities of technology. We need a new sensibility, a new subjective frame of reference for values like “work” and “technology” and “success.” And there are some signs that a new paradigm for self-actualization is emerging on the horizon line of capitalism. There is an increased consciousness that good stewardship of limited world resources is inconsistent with the world view whose metric of fulfillment is in magnitudes of consumption. The young techie entrepreneurs of today seem often motivated by an idealism that is beyond the scope of classical capitalism and its industrial giants. Or at least it is an idealism that is fluid or heterogeneous enough to accommodate post-capitalist ideals commingled with the residual values of productivity and profit.

The change in sensibility we need, in this case a change in the moral attitude about work, was captured as well as anyone by Buckminster Fuller at a time when the hippie revolution was coming to a head, its fate not yet decided (New York Magazine, 30 March 1970).

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Related internal blog entry: Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius
Recommended external blog entry: Global Therapy (Paul Adkin)

1960s vs Post-1980s Liberals

In a previous blog, I mentioned how 1930s liberals and 1960s liberals were strange bedfellows, despite some shared principles. The same could be said of post-1960s liberals and post-1980s liberals. The continuity comes with shared progressive goals on social, economic, and environmental fronts, as well as in foreign policy. The fault line runs along the general concept of political correctness and the specific idea of policing offensive speech. (And even in this area, we share a long-term vision of a society less hamstrung by hate and prejudice, although we differ on how best to get there.)

The 1960s hippie liberalism was more wide open in what forms of expression were to be tolerated. The conservative “Establishment” culture of war, money, and machines was held in place by conventional restraints on what to say, what to think, what to wear, how to live and with whom. The hippie idea was to break down all conventional restraints and open up free expression, whether in clothing, thought, speech, or lifestyle and communal forms of organization. Let everyone express themselves freely at the communal table, without fear of reprisal, and even offensive speech will be recontextualized and find its natural level.

1980s liberalism in some ways took a 180-degree turn. The 1980s paradigm shift in liberalism was largely academia-driven, as opposed to the grass-roots, street-level, lifestyle-based paradigm of the hippies. 1980s liberalism introduced the idea of speech codes and of standing ready with a stifling challenge should anyone say anything offensive, especially on topics of race and gender.

Although I share the progressive goals of my 1980s liberal colleagues, and I sympathize with the idea of foreclosing particularly hateful speech before it becomes toxic, I think a cost-benefit analysis favors the 60s approach. The risk of the 60s approach is that hateful speech, if tolerated, can become toxic. The benefit of the 60s approach is that everything is aired unfiltered, ideological fault lines on issues like race and gender are exposed, not hidden, and are more likely to be dealt with in a swift and communal manner. The benefit of the 80s approach is that there is less toleration of prejudicial ideas and therefore a lesser risk of those ideas going toxic. I see two risks to the 80s approach. The first is that the prejudicial attitudes go underground, where they might coagulate and do more harm. Were this the only risk, I’d say the benefit of the 80s approach outweighs the risk. Better to marginalize hate groups than to tolerate them too easily in the mainstream.

The second risk, more problematic in my mind, involves a kind of self-censorship that affects the whole community and not just the hateful minority. With very smart people parsing every speech act for implications that might be hurtful to this or that demographic group, regardless of intent, discourse in general becomes a little icier, less open.

Consider two periods of my own life. In my days as a blues-joint bartender in Austin, I had a motley circle of friends who would go out frequently in random combinations of black, white, Hispanic, male, female, gay, straight, working class rowdies, and scholarly grad students. This involved many late nights of deep conversation and frequent banter of a wildly “politically incorrect” stamp. Then, in the very late 80s, as a graduate student and then faculty member, my circle was composed largely of academic (English and related departments) liberals. Although I benefited greatly from the intellectual milieu, the halls of academia fostered a tendency to pause and filter before every utterance, lest someone catch you in an utterance that inadvertently validated the dreaded dominant paradigm. Although I share to this day the political goals of “academic liberalism,” the “lifestyle liberalism” of my unfiltered, anarchistic days in Austin produced warmer, deeper, heart-to-heart connections across demographic lines, albeit with some topsy-turvy moments along the way. As a capsule community, the Austin group was probably closer to the long-term progressive ideal of a society that is open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact.

Still, the differences between post-60s and post-80s liberalism are not absolute. Although my center of gravity is post-60s, I don’t say that anything goes. Harassment (e.g., writing hateful speech on someone’s dorm door) or using racial or gender slurs in the presence of one’s employees should be codified violations subject to swift and severe punishment. I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court that some speech warrants only limited protection and some none at all. But in the vast mess of rough-and-tumble discourse that is not subject to legal scrutiny, the lines of what is tolerable get blurry, and must be negotiated not only by 60s and 80s liberals but by and with our conservative friends as well.

As to where to go from here, I’d like to think we can back off a little on the gotcha readings of speech acts by others. Post-structural theory has taught us that we can always extract varied and contradictory meanings, including offensive ones, from every speech act. But that doesn’t mean we should do it. Especially where there is no offensive intent, where someone perhaps less politically or academically up-to-date than us implies something that current academic practice has deemed unfit, public attack or humiliation is probably not the best fix. Why alienate a potential ally over an unintended faux pas? Better to give a gentle nudge or a good-natured counterpoint. Even where the intent is malicious, or favors older paradigms that are clearly inequitable, all out attack or humiliation may not be warranted (although it may be, on a case-by-case basis).

Mandela and Gandhi are great examples of political activists who always stood up to bigotry but never wrote off the bigot. When Mandela entered the prison on Robben Island, his white guards were predictably brutal, and yet he never gave up on them, he engaged them, believing that “our occupation of the moral high ground could make it possible for us to turn some of the warders round,” and as years passed he won many of them over into “appreciating our cause” (Anthony Simpson’s biography, 214, 275, Part II passim). And how, Gandhi asked, could he be angry with his enemies when “I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right” (Autobiography, 166). Gandhi’s bottom line is that “it is quite proper to resist and attack a system” but one should never “attack its author” (242). My concern is that perhaps too much of our current critical practice has veered into that ad hominem zone, making it more difficult to see that, like it or not, we are all on this journey into the future together.

So when it comes to sensitive subjects, we never need to countenance overt bigotry, but we can err in favor of behaving generously to each other rather than humiliating each other for wrong-headed ideas or statements. When it comes to our own behavior, I’d rather speak unfiltered, make my mistakes, and make my adjustments, than interact with others in a partially shut-down mode to avoid some unintentional offense.

And now I welcome any feedback from my post-80s liberal colleagues, whose point of view I value but to which I am not entirely privy, having formed my own political core values largely in the 1970s.

Regifting and Post-Tech Ethics

Roiled in the recent holiday spirit, my friend, Brit, asked if I could do a regifting manifesto in the vein of my fashion anarchy manifesto. I thought I’d over-comply and build an entire ethical system around regifting. Thus the following.

I think of ethics as having a constant layer and a layer of culturally-specific variables. The constant layer – the golden rule – is fairly simple, and is constant even as expressed differently by Kant, Jesus, Plato, Confucius, et al. As the Dalai Lama puts it: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

On the variable layer, ethical conundrums arise with each age and within each culture. As the Mayan calendar ends and we move into the post-technological age, I see a few practical strategies for ethical behavior that might navigate us from late capitalism to the Age of Aquarius.

First, we have to restructure our ethical vision to meet changes in the natural environment. Technology has reached a point where it can (a) rapidly strip-mine all remaining resources off the face of the earth in pursuit of quick profits, or (b) distribute resources as needed to all parts of the world. The Corporate State wants to bind people to the consumerist ethic that keeps technology on track (a). One person alone can’t stop that consumerist mentality, with its concomitant greed and political structures, all designed to maximize how much stuff can be hoarded. But there are things individuals can do. And through the old-fashioned ripple-effect of friends of friends of friends, and the newfangled speed of social media, we can change the cultural sensibility more rapidly now than in the past.

Thrift store shopping (kudos to Macklemore). Simple. Why burn through Mother Nature’s resources more quickly than you need just to satisfy the “new stuff” fetish that has been cynically implanted into our brains by the Corporate State?

Regifting. If you have something you know a friend would like, why not give them something that has a little bit of your own life imprinted on it, something with real traces of sentiment, something that shows you’ve sacrificed a little bit of yourself for them to keep forever or until such time as they regift it and pass along the chain of accumulated sentiment? Things made with your own hands would fall into this category too, at least so long as those things are given in the spirit that the receiver is welcome to pass along the object, which is now a locus of emotional history and not just an anonymous commodity, to someone else that he or she would like to bring into the chain.

Regifting will not get traction as quickly as thrift store shopping, because the Corporate State has buried this taboo into its subjects more deeply. After all, since regifting completely detaches the idea of “the purchase” from the idea of “meaningful gift,” the Corporate State rightly sees it as an even bigger threat. All the more reason for us to get a movement going to make regifting cool. And here we must rely on a new generation of teens and twenty somethings, as the stigma will be too much for most older people to overcome on their own.

So practice regifting, practice thrift store shopping. And practice fashion anarchy, too, as it will maximize creative leeway for every individual and at the same time liberate our most basic self-presentation from the commodified versions of self being sold to us for cold cash at retail outlets and big box stores every day. It will also dispel, and perhaps transform, the motivation of some of consumer culture’s most dogged enforcers (those who act as fashion police). If individuals do these things and promote these ideas mindfully, we will already be moving toward a culture where self-actualization and human achievement is no longer measured in terms of purchasing power.

But don’t underestimate the resistance we will encounter. On the economic level, these apparently small lifestyle choices shift the priority from ever-growing economies to sustainable economies, which is a very dangerous idea to the status quo of profiteering giants who are currently managing the global economy. On the other hand, don’t overestimate the power of those giants. As the earth’s resources are depleted, the age of consumerism will die. The writing is on the wall. The ice sheets are melting. What little rainforest remains (now about 6% of the land surface) could be consumed in about 40 years at present rates. The Age of Aquarius is coming. The only question is whether it will happen via a utopian or dystopian pathway. In the utopian model, human ideals are transformed and we come to find fulfillment in creatively sustaining the resources around us. In the dystopian model, our appetite continues to grow until there are not enough resources left to sustain growth, and the species begins to implode as resources dry up while humans still define themselves by how many resources they can personally control. Now make your choice.