Archive for February, 2010

Capitalism: the new cool?

There was a schism appearing in the minds of youth when I was at University in the early 90’s; between the old socialist mindset and the blooming Capitalist mindset. I still had a foot in the socialist camp – believing in ideals, the possibility of a people-led movement, the hope for equality. On the other side was what seemed a bizarre phenomena at the time (though now is completely normal), capitalism was becoming the new cool. This is well covered by Thomas Frank in his meticulously researched book One Market Under God, in which Capitalism’s ability to become the new cool is described. I saw it happen first hand with board members of the student union bragging about money, material goods and discussing which big brand they should invite to advertise on the new tele-info system spread throughout the campus. It was anathema to us left-leaning types. They simply laughed at us when we brought up points like – ‘a university should be a place of learning free from commercial influence’ and ‘a student union should be about collective action, not profit’. Twenty years later I’m back at Uni and Capitalism is now the order of the day. The majority don’t do politics, and they are certainly not anti-capitalist. There are a few socialists hanging on and even the outline of a student union or two, but they are essentially toothless.

East Berlin Crossing Man

In 2002 I was in East Berlin, visiting, trying to imagine life under the Communists. There wasn’t much to suggest it except for different shaped men at crossing lights, a few depressing looking buildings, and groups of people, who did not seem imbued with the stressful countenance of the Capitalist citizen, sitting around drinking . Sitting in a cafe I met a girl from East Berlin and her Mother. The daughter was about my age and the mother in her 50’s or so. They had lived in East Berlin, seen the wall come down and watched the resulting transformations in German society. I asked them what it was like to live under communism. After all, this seems as exotic and foreign a life as any to a boy brought up on the fat of Capitalist success in Australia. The mother’s answer has always stayed with me. ‘It was like’ she said with flat, tired eyes, ‘there was nothing to look forward to’. She waved her arms as if to suggest she never wanted to experience it again.

Recently, I was reminded of this conversation while watching the upsetting documentary ‘When Borat came to Town‘, which describes Sacha Baron Cohen’s unethical exploitation of a Romanian village when filming Borat. The villagers made 3 Euros from their involvement. Lawyers promised them a windfall if they sued. Nothing happened. (The uninformed being exploited by entertainers and lawyers – is this not the perfect metaphor for the West?). The man who led the law suit was broken by the end of the documentary and claims, ‘I have given up on dreaming. Without money there is no point in having dreams’.

Borat: the face of exploitation

So here we have two characters, both recent citizens of Communism, that see Capitalism if not as a shining light, at least as an opportunity to build dreams and have something to look forward to in life. Yet in my own country of Australia, a bastion of Capitalism, I see a community becoming fractured by the pursuit of money. Neighbours who don’t talk to each other, drivers that abuse one another, a society increasingly stressed. I don’t see much happiness in my country. But I do see a lot of people moving fast, climbing over one another to be the best and becoming increasingly suspicious of their fellow citizens. In East Berlin people seemed to have a lot a time to sit around and talk with one another. In the documentary I mentioned, people were dancing in the street and again there was a lot of sitting around and talking. There was community.

It seems the drive for Capitalism is irresistible (all that lovely stuff!), and its destructive impact only apparent when it’s too late. It’s all terribly confusing! We want to suck the fruits of Capitalism; even anti-capitalists seem pretty content with the lifestyle on offer i.e. embracing technology cheaply disseminated by Capitalism, yet when we have obtained it we become miserable, suspicious, competitive. Can we create the perfect society? Is happiness possible? Or are humans, like the Buddhists concluded, destined to suffer because that is the nature of life?

More time for this please…

It’s a fine balance, I think, between the different ideals and approaches to life. If any one extreme dominates (as Capitalism presently does and Communism once did) things go awry. I would like to be able to spend more time with my fellow citizens with a non-competitive, non-suspicious countenance, drinking and discussing life. But I would also like to be working toward something that I desire (not what the capitalists or the state tells me I should desire). Perhaps anarchy could deliver this balance (a system that has little hope of succeeding), or perhaps a people-focused democracy (rather than economic focused) is the answer. More on that in next week’s blog!

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