Cultural Wastelands

Tuesday, September 3, AD 2013

 

Most Toys

 

 

Daniel Greenfield at Sultan Knish nails what is wrong with our society by holding Japan up to us as  mirror:

 

The thing we have in common with Japan, China and Europe is that we have all moved into a post-modern future while leaving our values behind and our societies have suffered for it. It is a future in which stores have robots on display but couples are hardly getting married, where there are high speed trains and a sense of lingering depression as the people who ride them don’t know where they are going, and where the values of the past have been traded for a culture of uncertainty.

Marriage and children are more extinct in Japan than they are here. They are more extinct in Europe than they are here. And China is still struggling with a bigger social fallout headed its way.

Japanese modernism has made for a conservative society of the elderly. That is what Europe nearly had a few decades ago and it is what it would have had if it hadn’t overfilled its cities with a tide of immigrants. Japan survived the consequences of its social implosion only because of its dislike for immigration. If not for that, Japan really would have no future the way that the European countries which have taken in the most immigrants have traded their past and their future for the present.

That conservatism helped freeze Japan in time, that time being the cusp of the 90s when Japan was at its peak, and crippled its corporations and its culture, but also made the return of the right to power possible. It’s far from certain that a conservative revolution can save Japan, but so far it has a better shot at it than we do.

A society of the elderly may be slow to turn around, but it’s less likely to drive off a cliff without understanding the consequences than the youth-worshiping voting cultures of America and Europe. Japanese political culture may be lunatic, but even they wouldn’t have elected a Barack Obama. The prospect of an American Shinzō Abe backed by a right-wing coalition winning are poor. The last time Americans voted for a conservative message was 1980 and even Reagan’s message was leavened by liberal ideas. A genuinely conservative resurgence in which the type of politician who might have run for office in 1922 could become president on a similar platform is nearly inconceivable. 

Japan is a long way from fixing itself. As a country and a society, it’s still peering into the abyss.

The cultural eccentricities that Americans fixate on come from a society of young men unmoored from normal human connections, a decline of national values and an obsession with trivial consumerism– all commonplace elements in postmodern American and European life. The difference is that Japan got there first.

The loonier elements of American pop subcultures were predated by Japan. Indeed the latter are often influenced by the former. The same holds true with petty plastic surgeries, a truly epic plague among Asia’s newly rich, and some of the more ridiculous accessories for living a life with no meaning or human companionship, but we’re all going to the same place. Just not at the exact same speed.

The common problem is that our journey has no meaning. The postmodern world of robots, fast trains and handheld computers is shiny, but not meaningful. It’s less meaningful than the earlier technological achievements that saved lives and made ordinary prosperity possible.

We can go fast, but no matter how fast we go, we seem to keep slowing down. That’s what Japan found out. Its decline was social. And social decline translates into a technological decline, because technological innovation is powered by a society, not some soulless force of modernism. Innovation must have goals. And those goals must be more than mere technology. They must emerge from some deeper purpose.

American innovation hasn’t halted entirely because its tech culture had enough purpose to make the latest set of digital revolutions possible. But each revolution has slowed down, becoming another shopping mall with microprocessors, replicating the Japanese problem. And at some point we’ll run out of revolutions and be left with the skeleton of a digital shopping mall that is no longer anything but a place to buy more things.

A healthy culture transmits values. When it stops doing that, it dies. When the values no longer seem to be applicable, than the culture hunts around for new values, it undergoes a period of confusion while its forward motion slows down. That is where Japan is now. It’s where America has arrived.

The values of the left, that are present in both Japan and America, are a cultural suicide pact.The left pretends to add a spiritual dimension to modernism. It has been peddling that lie for two centuries and it has yet to deliver. In countries where it wielded full control, there was neither modernism nor values. Russia destroyed the economic, technological and spiritual potential of generations of its people. China is trying to use Communist values to avoid turning into another Japan, not realizing that those are little better than the collective obligations with which Japan rushed into the future.

As America gazes at the ruins of Detroit and the insanity spewed forth by a digital frontier that increasingly looks every bit as eccentric and toxic as anything coming out of Japan, it is all too clear that we are Japan. There is no unique insanity in East, only a common disintegration of values in the East and the West.

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8 Responses to Cultural Wastelands

  • The man’s commentary is in need of amendment and correction.

    1. European cities are not ‘filled with immigrants’. Non-indigenous muslims make up about 5% of Europe’s population. A great deal of the immigration is intra-European movement. Also, Europe’s fertility problems are considerably less acute than Japan’s or those of the other countries of the affluent Orient. Europe in general has seen a mild recovery in fertility over the last 15 years and it is not inconceivable that they could return to replacement levels in a few decades. Germany remains in problematic condition, but France and Britain are near replacement levels.

    2. There is a reason politicians do not run on 1922 platforms. A 1922 platform would require the following

    – an 85% reduction in military expenditure
    – elimination of civilian espionage services and overseas aid programs (bar episodic war relief).
    – tearing up all of our trade agreements and jacking up tariffs
    – elimination of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment compensation.
    – elimination of actuarial pools for the banking system (i.e. the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation).
    -elimination of the whole portfolio of means-tested welfare expenditures absent some alternative.

    -releasing about 85% of those currently incarcerated in federal prisons

    The institutions of the central government are incapable of even passing a coherent expenditure plan and the mix of poor institutional design and confused public attitudes has not given us a central government with an unqualifiedly coherent direction in nearly fifty years. No such program could ever be enacted by anything but a Pinochet-style military regime and even then it would likely have to be phased in over time.

    That aside, politicians, crummy though they are, actually have to make policy, listen to congressional testimony and lobbies, and listen to disgruntled citizens. A 1922 program might be attractive to some hack with a column at The American Conservative and no concern for or conception of ends, means, and effects, but all that person is doing is striking attitudes.

  • I wonder what the prophet Amos would say had he lived in this day and age. Oh, I forgot – chapter 6 (this is an old, old story that humanity repeats over and over again like an insane alcoholic who thinks that just this one more time he can drink with impunity):

    1 Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
    and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
    the notables of the first of the nations,
    to whom the house of Israel resorts!
    2 Cross over to Calneh, and see;
    from there go to Hamath the great;
    then go down to Gath of the Philistines.
    Are you better than these kingdoms?
    Or is your territory greater than their territory,
    3 O you that put far away the evil day,
    and bring near a reign of violence?
    4 Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
    and lounge on their couches,
    and eat lambs from the flock,
    and calves from the stall;
    5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
    and like David improvise on instruments of music;
    6 who drink wine from bowls,
    and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
    but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
    7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
    and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

    8 The Lord God has sworn by himself
    (says the Lord, the God of hosts):
    I abhor the pride of Jacob
    and hate his strongholds;
    and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.

    9 If ten people remain in one house, they shall die. 10 And if a relative, one who burns the dead, shall take up the body to bring it out of the house, and shall say to someone in the innermost parts of the house, “Is anyone else with you?” the answer will come, “No.” Then the relative shall say, “Hush! We must not mention the name of the Lord.”

    11 See, the Lord commands,
    and the great house shall be shattered to bits,
    and the little house to pieces.
    12 Do horses run on rocks?
    Does one plow the sea with oxen?
    But you have turned justice into poison
    and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood—
    13 you who rejoice in Lo-debar,
    who say, “Have we not by our own strength
    taken Karnaim for ourselves?”
    14 Indeed, I am raising up against you a nation,
    O house of Israel, says the Lord, the God of hosts,
    and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath
    to the Wadi Arabah.

  • Well Mr McClarey the man’s essay was missing his own point, until you added in our own words, about the words of Christ.
    Values, left or right, can be just secular values: and the loss or gain of them, leftist values or rightist values, would be as meaningless as the man-construed values themselves.
    I think he is talking about the fact that shared cultural values must be in place for a culture to work well. True– but-just be any values? He doesn’t talk about the way Western civi has done so well- based on the values of our shared revealed religion. Trying to impose state or secular values won’t work, for Goodness’s sake 🙂

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  • The consequence of an ageing population, like Japan’s was pointed out by Spengler at Asia Times, “it will spend less and save more for retirement. That is, demand will shift from present goods to future goods, that is, securities. The price level of present goods falls. The price of future goods rises, that is, the compensation for waiting for the future declines, and the rate of interest falls. The ageing population trades surplus present goods for future goods, that is, exports goods and purchases securities with the proceeds, shifting the current account balance to surplus. The exchange rate will rise…”

  • Cultural wastelands – it’s even more serious than what commenters have described above.

    Japan and now increasingly the West doesn’t have access to low cost, safe, non-polluting energy. The one form thereof which would meet criteria for cost-effectiveness and environmental safety is nuclear, but using that requires an attention to detail, a level of integrity, procedural adherence, devotion to duty and continuous self-assessment that is discouraged by and absent in today’s hedonistic, licentious society. Natural gas, coal, oil, etc., all pollute, and their apparent cost-competitiveness will be short lived as Japan’s and our nukes are shuttered (five recently in the USA – San Onofre 2 and 3, Crystal River, Kewanee and now Vermont Yankee). And wind and solar are a joke (if wind was so great, why don’t we use sailing ships for merchandise transport across the ocean, and if solar was so great, why don’t we bake bricks the way the ancient Sumerians did?). So we will be left with no access to cheap and safe energy. No technological civilization can last long that way. Everything we have – refrigerators, stoves, air conditioners, hot water heaters, cars, etc. – relies on low cost energy supply, and none of us are prepared to return to the 19th century way of doing things. This is a very serious problem, and I submit that its our licentious and hedonistic ways that have caused this. If we can’t keep our pants zipped and our legs closed, how can we manage the atom, which is the greatest, best, cheapest and safest form of energy, but one requiring all the integrity, procedural adherence and compliance with law that every godless liberal progressive Democrat regards as anathema?

    When the lights go out and the air conditioners and refrigerators stop, remember that I told you so. There’s enough uranium and thorium to fuel a civilization of 12 billion for the next 10 thousand years without polluting the environment.

    And PS, don’t get me started on Fukushima which killed only 6 people outright, and those from industrial accidents. The new designs of passive safety (GE’s ESBWR, Westinghouse’s AP1000) completely obviate that scenario, and besides, Japan never adopted the safety upgrades that US BWRs implemented post-TMI. If they had, the event at Fukushima might very well not have happened. Japan’s culture rejected continuous self-assessment (which is the cornerstone of nuclear QA), attention to detail and procedural adherence. Now look at the result.

    Liberal – “I don’t need to assess myself because it’s all relative!” Godless horse crap!

  • I’m a fan of anime, which isn’t the same thing as being an expert about Japan, but it does provide some insight.

    Culture can err, in general, in two different directions with regard to sexuality: 1) disrespect for women, and 2) if it feels good, do it. The first is more of a problem among traditional cultures while the second is more modern (but not exclusively modern). It’s difficult to have both faults, but Japan has managed it. There’s a weird fascination with schoolgirls and not-particularly-consensual acts. There’s also “compensated dating”, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, but isn’t good either. And kinks are treated with the respect that any good modern culture would grant them since the days of Freud.

    The US and Europe are definitely under the sway of problem #2, although the hip-hop world is guilty of #1 as well. I don’t know where I’m going with this, and I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg between culture and sexuality, but I do think that Japan is uniquely messed up. I don’t think there’s anything in Asia that has a strong tradition of respect for women. I suspect that this is one of those things that historians will be able to see clearly, that the virtuous middle is a rarity.

  • Look at the state of so-called traditional areas of the country: McDonald’s on every corner, Wal-Marts in every town, Starbucks on every street. We have become such a bland, un-inspiring, superficial culture. We have long rejected both beauty and productivity. Especially in conservative regions, it seems like nothing is valued anymore. IN North Carolina, they bull-dozed countless acres of valuable farmland in my area. (Piedmont Triad)

    In Republican regions of Pennsylvania and Virginia, historic American battlefields have constantly been threatened by short-sighted developers. (The Wilderness Wal-Mart and the Gettysburg Casino). I thought only liberals attacked America’s heritage.

    So, when will conservatives CEASE being their own worse enemies? What wise people willingly destroy valuable resources?

Outsourcing Maternity

Monday, October 12, AD 2009

If you thought the modern world couldn’t get any more messed-up in its understanding of reproduction and the family, you need turn no further than the WSJ weekend section, and a feature article on people hiring surrogate mothers from India to bring their children to term.

According to Hrishikesh Pai, a Mumbai-based in-vitro fertilization specialist and vice-president of the Indian Society for Assisted Reproduction, India now has about 350 facilities that offer surrogacy as a part of a broader array of infertility-treatment services, triple the number in 2005. Last year, Dr. Pai says, about 1,000 pregnancy attempts using surrogates were made at these clinics. This year, he estimates the figure will jump to 1,500, with about a third of those made on behalf of parents from outside India who hired surrogates.

Rudy Rupak, president of PlanetHospital, a California-based medical-tourism company, says that in the first eight months of this year he sent 600 couples or single parents overseas for surrogacy, nearly three times the number in 2008 and up from just 33 in 2007. All of the clients this year went to India except seven who chose Panama. Most were from the U.S.; the rest came from Europe, the Middle East and Asia, mostly Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan.

Mr. Rupak says that because of growing demand from his clients for eggs from Caucasian women, he’s started to fly donors to India from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where he has connections with clinics. The first woman arrived last month. A PlanetHospital package that includes an Indian egg donor costs $32,500, excluding transportation and hotel expenses for the intended parent or parents to travel to India. A package with eggs from a Georgian donor costs an extra $5,000.

For the Indian surrogates themselves, it’s an experience often fraught with emotional conflict. In most cases, the egg comes either from the woman who wants to become a mother but can’t carry a child, or from an egg donor. The egg is then fertilized with sperm from the intended father, or a sperm donor, and implanted in the womb of a surrogate who bears the child. Sometimes, no money changes hands, particularly when a friend or relative acts as the surrogate. Alternatively, it’s a commercial transaction, which is almost always the case in India for would-be parents from overseas.

Still, it’s a way to raise money in sometimes desperate circumstances. Take Sudha, a 25-year-old mother of two who now works as a maid in Chennai earning $20 a month. She owes moneylenders about $2,700, borrowed to pay bribes to secure a government job as a streetsweeper, which never materialized. A neighbor told her she could earn about $2,000 at a local clinic by bearing a child for an infertile couple. She gave birth in July 2008 — and is haunted by the memory. “Whenever I have free time and I lie down, I think about the child. I pray that the child is safe and happy and is taken care of well.”

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3 Responses to Outsourcing Maternity

  • Indeed. And pity the “egg donor” mothers, who in addition to losing all contact with their children may pay with subsequent infertility and broken health.

  • Why do people seek these services?

    Judging from the radio show I was listening to yesterday– about IVF and multiple births– it’s because they don’t see the children as real, or people.

    This guy– the normal announcer, not the woman being interviewed– calmly announced that he and his wife had been going to have triplets, and were going to “selectively reduce” them. For the good of the surviving children, of course. Later added that they were only going to have twins, now, apparently without “selective reduction.”

    Made me sick to my heart.

"Taken" Some Life Lessons

Saturday, July 18, AD 2009

I saw the movie with Liam Neeson entitled “Taken”, the other night. It is the ultimate ‘Dads protecting daughters’ fantasy. It plays on a whole lot of primal emotions- particularly the temptation to give oneself over to extreme violence to protect the lives and sanctity of one’s children. Every father wants to imagine himself capable of defending his beloved children from any and all threats- and the father in “Taken” was that ultimate fatherly force. He represented more of a divine Angelic father who slays spiritually evil forces, than a realistic earthly dad- and as such I was able to excuse the incredible violence as something of a parable of ultimate accountability for those humans who perpetrate the evils of human trafficking and slavery.

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3 Responses to "Taken" Some Life Lessons

  • I think you make a key point here about how deeply pornography is connected with the breakdown of the family and the exploitation of women in our society.

  • Can you tell me what definition of “consumerism” you’re applying to the sex-slavery industry which is thousands of years old?

    It seems a stretch to me, but I’m interested to hear.

  • ADDRESS OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
    TO THE MEMBERS OF THE
    “CENTESIMUS ANNUS – PRO PONTIFICE” FOUNDATION

    Clementine Hall
    Saturday, 13 June 2009

    “Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood,
    Distinguished and Dear Friends,

    Thank you for your visit which fits into the context of your annual meeting. I greet you all with affection and am grateful to you for all that you do, with proven generosity, at the service of the Church. I greet and thank your President, Count Lorenzo Rossi di Montelera, who has expressed your sentiments with fine sensitivity, giving an overview of the Foundation’s work. I also thank those who, in various languages, have wished to express your common devotion. Our meeting today acquires special meaning and value in the light of the situation that humanity as a whole is experiencing at this time.

    Indeed, the financial and economic crisis which has hit the industrialized, the emerging and the developing countries, shows clearly that certain economic and financial paradigms which prevailed in recent years must be rethought. Therefore, at the international congress which took place yesterday your Foundation did well to address the topic of the search for, and identification of, the values and rules which the economic world should abide by in order to evolve a new model of development that is more attentive to the requirements of solidarity and more respectful of human dignity.

    I am pleased to learn that you examined in particular the interdependence between institutions, society and the market, in accordance with my venerable Predecessor John Paul II’s Encyclical, Centesimus annus. The Encyclical states that the market economy, understood as: “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector” (n. 42), may be recognized as a path to economic and civil progress only if it is oriented to the common good (cf. n. 43). However, this vision must also be accompanied by another reflection which says that freedom in the economic sector must be circumscribed “by a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality”, a responsible freedom, “the core of which is ethical and religious” (n. 42). The above-mentioned Encyclical appropriately states: “just as the person fully realizes himself in the free gift of self, so too ownership morally justifies itself in the creation, at the proper time and in the proper way, of opportunities for work and human growth for all” (n. 43).

    I hope that by drawing inspiration from the eternal principles of the Gospel it will be possible, with the research inherent in your work, to elaborate a vision of the modern economy that is respectful of the needs and rights of the weak. My Encyclical dedicated to the vast topic of the economy and work is, as you know, due to be published shortly. It will highlight what for Christians are the objectives to pursue and the values to promote and to defend tirelessly, if we are to achieve a truly free and supportive human coexistence.”

    Consumerism, as I use it, is not the positive business economy that is supported by Catholic social doctrine, but the destructive misuse of business models that overemphasize the commerce angle at the expense of the human beings who are on the giving and receiving end of some business transaction. It is the inadequate juridical framework that allows for such things as pornography and adult entertainment businesses to flourish under a false idealism associated with “Free Speech” and corporations being legally defined as “persons” with rights we normally associate with actual human beings. These modern-day abuses of what true freedom is really all about, help foster the modern situation of sex-slavery/human trafficking. The legal pornography helps to fuel the destructive fires of lust in boys and men of all ages, the freedom of advertisers to use sexual appeals to the lowest common denominator in human- particularly male human nature- also makes the pursuit of sex seem to be an overriding concern in everyday life. The rise of female entrepreneurs in the adult video industry and prostitution lends to the notion that women are getting good money for lending their bodies to men for illicit sexual purposes- so there is no victim in the process, when in actuality everyone involved and women in general and humanity at-large is harmed by the social sins associated with the weakening of public morals, and the encouragement of promiscuity with all the physical and spiritual damage that that entails.

    One could say that “consumerism” is that approach to economics and business that tries to separate the Christian Humanism of which the Pope speaks, with the freedom of individuals to pursue many kinds of “businesses” which contribute to the market demand for young girls and boys to be available for sexual exploitation- which is what drives the sex-slavery “market”. I found this to be the case when I attended local city council meetings where the topic was responding to the demands of adult entertainment business owners to have certain areas of town zoned for adult entertainment lest they take the city to the higher courts, where the findings have been in favor of the adult businesses via the “free speech” rationalization. The small cities must come up with ample sites for adult entertainment or else they risk heavy legal fees to challenge something that right now favors the purveyors of porn in the higher courts. Even though the numbers of speakers from the community who were outraged and against such businesses was very substantial- the juridical framework isn’t developed to address the morality questions in these areas. If we have the human person as our primary consideration in determining how to regulate businesses and their affairs, then this would be something more or less easy to fix. But our system is not set up with the common good/natural law as the guiding light for legal renderings- which is what is lacking in the juridical frameworks so often called for by the Magisterium.

The Culture of Death and Consumerism

Monday, May 18, AD 2009

Contributor Joe Hargrave posted a link to an interesting new essay of his today on the topic of the Culture of Death and its connections to consumerism. It’s an interesting essay, and I encourage people to read it. I do not pretend to similar length or erudition in this piece, but in formulating some thought about Joe’s essay I realized that it would be very long for a comment, so I’m writing it up as a post here instead.

There are a lot of things I found interesting and wanted to discuss (or dispute) in your essay — perhaps in part because I get the impression that our areas of historical knowledge are somewhat non-overlapping (I know most about 3000 BC to 400 AD, you seem to be most expert on the last two centuries), and the person who imagines himself an expert in anything invariably has all sorts of quibbles with what the “outsider” writes. However, I’m going to try to stick to what I think is my most central critique.

Joe finds at the root of the culture of death the materialistic and individualistic phenomenon of modern consumerism, and about consumerism he says the following, beginning with a quote from Pope John Paul II:

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7 Responses to The Culture of Death and Consumerism

  • Darwin,

    Thanks for taking an interest in my article. I appreciate the time you took to respond to it. Here I will address some statements regarding my positions.

    You write,

    Joe seems to see the evil of consumerism as being that of reducing the human person to its exchangeable value.

    It would be more correct to say that I see that as one of the evils. The very passage you quoted before making this observation shows what I think is perhaps more crucial; consumerism consistently appeals to our ‘lower nature’, to what is base and selfish within us, whether in the form of commercials, entertainment, eating, public events, etc. Our lower natures are easy to ensnare and enslave to addiction, ensuring repeat business. Our higher natures take years of patient guidance to cultivate properly.

    After describing some rather mundane pettiness in modern society, you go on to to say,

    Yet this is not, I think, merely a product of a cash economy or a capitalist society. Rather, it is a sinful tendency which is much deeper in our fallen natures.

    My response is that I would not try to isolate one cause, but to show which cause exerts the most influence at a given time. Our sinful, fallen nature is a constant throughout history. On this you and I will agree. The question is, how will it express itself? Humans have always had selfish tendencies, but in previous forms of society, and in non-Western forms of society, these tendencies have consequences that people want to avoid. Part of the problem of consumerism is that it not only removes consequences for selfishness, but encourages it. That makes a pretty big difference, I’d say.

    The next point I would address is this:

    For instance, modern capitalist society is much less violent, on a daily basis, than many previous societies. Not that wrath itself is necessarily less, but that wrath is less often expressed in physical violence.

    I suppose, in times of relative peace, this is generally true within such societies – though I don’t recall any previous society where school children took a sword to school one day and started slaughtering classmates in a fit of existential angst.

    That said, modern capitalist society is most certainly sustained through violence – in other parts of the world. We’ve been down this road before; cheap third world labor is brutally exploited to make modern capitalist society a reality. Workers are denied their rights to organize, to political protest, to form unions and parties that will advance their interests. Repression means cheap labor which the West has not only taken advantage of but sought to preserve through policy.

    The sanitized world many of us inhabit is an illusion propped up by blood and dirt and violence of every sort. So I do reject this notion of a more peaceful society.

    This is perhaps the more important point to address:

    I don’t necessarily see that people working for a collectively owned firm would be less inclined to treat others as objects than those working for a publicly traded corporation — just as I don’t necessarily see that those who belong to a credit union would be less likely to use their money to buy porn than those who use for-profit banks.

    I don’t think cooperative economics is going to necessarily cause people to stop looking at others as objects. That is more of an end goal to be reached after generations of living and thinking differently. What I do believe, however, is that we have to start somewhere. What cooperative enterprises do is take the individual, isolated atoms and links them together, at first only materially. For it to succeed, everyone must be concerned with everyone else’s performance and well-being. One person’s problem quickly becomes everyone’s problem.

    Over time, these enterprises must cooperate with one another as the people within each one cooperate amongst themselves. And then, these enterprises cooperate with all of the other institutions in the community. A material sub-structure of cooperation is created, and our daily habits have undergone a transformation. A corresponding transformation of thinking and perceiving develops. Combined with a Catholic moral philosophy, ever-present in the life of the community, a new respect for others is developed.

    My main point is that consumerism is as much a complex of unconscious social programming as it is conscious reflection and activity. Our daily routines take on an ideological life of their own and influence the way we think about everything. Our Christian values can serve as a strong buffer against evil influences but values can only go so far. A rearrangement of the daily routine is also required so that our physical brains are in sync with what the mind and heart want.

    I probably should have said all that in the essay. If I decide to include it, I will credit you for it!

  • Original sin.

  • Joe,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and irenic response to my response. As I was writing, and as usual finding myself to run long, I was hoping that I wouldn’t come off as brash or aggressive. I hope I didn’t — but if I did I’m thankful that you took it in your stride.

    Hoping to continue in this vein:

    consumerism consistently appeals to our ‘lower nature’, to what is base and selfish within us, whether in the form of commercials, entertainment, eating, public events, etc. Our lower natures are easy to ensnare and enslave to addiction, ensuring repeat business.

    I agree that in the modern world the satisfaction of our baser instincts becomes a major temptation — specifically that emphasis on consuming which provides the illusion which we can satisfy our deeper human needs by owning or consuming some material thing.

    However, I’m not clear that this is the result of a capitalist economy so much as the natural reaction of our fallen nature to a wealthy society. Throughout history, we see those in a given society who are wealthy acting in much this way. The lure of consumption seems to be a constant in any society with enough material wealth to consume, regardless of its economic system. In this sense, I’m not sure that anything other than becoming significantly more poor would “solve” the problem, and then only via lack of opportunity.

    By this I don’t mean to ignore those teachings which have to do with moral behavior in the business realm, but rather to argue that this doesn’t represent a “move to his economic model and this will fix everying” prescription but rather an attempt by our popes in the last 140 years to provide us with a moving target idea of how to treat our brothers and sisters with the human dignity they deserve in whatever economic conditions we happen to find ourselves in at this time.

    Humans have always had selfish tendencies, but in previous forms of society, and in non-Western forms of society, these tendencies have consequences that people want to avoid. Part of the problem of consumerism is that it not only removes consequences for selfishness, but encourages it. That makes a pretty big difference, I’d say.

    Here I would disagree with you on two points:

    1) I don’t think it’s accurate to characterize previous and non-Western societies as having provided greater negative consequences to prevent selfishness than our modern society — except to the extent that these societies were poorer and lacked welfare and charitable institutions such that one had a greater incentive not to offend those in one’s community enough that they wouldn’t help you in need. However, even just looking at the Bible (parable of Dives and Lazarus, parable of the talents, parable of the treasure in the field, etc.) it seems to me pretty clear that people exercised selfishness to the maximum that they believed they could get away with.

    2) The characterization of our modern economy as encouraging selfishness strikes me as taking a somewhat self-defining view of what free exchange is. One can say that the principle of free exchange means that everyone will be best off if everyone has the maximum of selfishness, but one can just as well (and I would actually argue more accurately) describe the principle of free exchange as meaning that one many not expect to take any benefit from another person without providing that person with a benefit of equal value. In that it’s called “mutually beneficial” exchange, one might as well characterize it as consisting of making sure you always give as much as you get, as making sure that you get as much as you give.

    That said, modern capitalist society is most certainly sustained through violence – in other parts of the world. We’ve been down this road before; cheap third world labor is brutally exploited to make modern capitalist society a reality. Workers are denied their rights to organize, to political protest, to form unions and parties that will advance their interests. Repression means cheap labor which the West has not only taken advantage of but sought to preserve through policy.

    To the extent that this is true (I tend to think that you over-emphasize this element a bit, taking the worst excesses of developing world abuse and extrapolating them as if this was the universal experience of the deloping world), is that necessarily different from other societies. Within the medieval European world that I know a fair amount about, there was a long history of incredibly bloody peasant revolts. And even during “normal” times, the social order was maintained through what we would see as very repressive laws.

    For all that developing world industrial workers are kept from unionizing, feudal serfs could be flogged or worse simply for the offense of trying to leave their land and seek a better living somewhere else. (And never mind the slaves who formed the analogous workforce in much of the ancient world.) And for all that pay is often low in the developing world, serfs often lived on landed estates where not only was the amount of food left for them after the lord to his share small, but if they dared to “steal” the wild fish and game that could be caught on the land, the punishment was anywhere from flogging to hanging.

    Indeed, it seems to me that the primary exit from this kind of societal violence and repression is when a society becomes sufficiently developed that there is plenty of material wealth to go around.

    What cooperative enterprises do is take the individual, isolated atoms and links them together, at first only materially. For it to succeed, everyone must be concerned with everyone else’s performance and well-being. One person’s problem quickly becomes everyone’s problem.

    Over time, these enterprises must cooperate with one another as the people within each one cooperate amongst themselves. And then, these enterprises cooperate with all of the other institutions in the community. A material sub-structure of cooperation is created, and our daily habits have undergone a transformation.

    I know this is something we’ve bumped up against a number of times in the past, but I remain skeptical of this development path because my experience of the business world is that it already requires this kind of cooperation — and while I would certainly say it is possible to follow a path towards holiness in the modern capitalist economy, it doesn’t do the work of guiding us there for us. But I certainly cannot succeed in the absence of my coworkers and those who work for me doing so. Nor can a company succeed without helping those other companies it works with to prosper. It’s good, and pleasant, and that interconnectedness is one of the things that I enjoy about the business world, but I certainly don’t see it as necessarily guiding people towards a personal transformation away from consumerism.

    It strikes me as harder and easier than that — more work for us personally as we seek holiness and right-orderedness, yet less work in that these things do not require a re-ordering of economic institutions from the ground up.

    Not that I object to the employee owned enterprises that you admire (though I do suspect that they must end up running more top down than you imagine on a daily basis — or else they would have to be based on very non-complex business models) it’s just that I don’t necessarily see them as solving the problem that we’re discussing.

  • Darwin,

    Thanks again for responding.

    You write,

    However, I’m not clear that this is the result of a capitalist economy so much as the natural reaction of our fallen nature to a wealthy society.

    I think we should dispose of the phrase ‘capitalist economy’. I don’t think I once used the word ‘capitalism’ in my entire essay, or in my response to you. To me the major conflict in economics is between democracy and oligarchy. Democratic, cooperative firms based upon private property and marketplace competition would by most definitions be called ‘capitalist’.

    Next,

    this doesn’t represent a “move to his economic model and this will fix everying” prescription but rather an attempt by our popes in the last 140 years to provide us with a moving target idea of how to treat our brothers and sisters with the human dignity they deserve in whatever economic conditions we happen to find ourselves in at this time.

    I must say, neither of these are correct. No one is suggesting that ‘everything will be fixed’ – it is not a fair representation of what I believe.

    More importantly, however, the Popes have passed clear moral judgments on both economic liberalism and communism, and more recently on consumerism. Catholic social teaching is not, and cannot be made into, a guide for individuals to cope with unjust social structures. It is a guide for Catholics who do, or seek to, play a role in shaping society in various ways. I truly mean no offense, but I honestly cannot see how one can read a social encyclical or the Compendium and interpret them in the way that you do. Pius XI did not say, ‘when you find yourself in a society gone mad with individualism do a b and c, and when you find yourself in a communist dictatorship, do x, y, z” – he sharply condemned both ideologies, declared that they were unacceptable for Catholics, that they were in error, immoral, out of control.

    Regarding the dispute over past and present societies, it is clear to me that consumerism is a new breed of selfishness. Without disputing the basic idea that people have always been selfish, the point here is that they are now expected and encouraged to be. We are not expected to marry, bear children, participate in civic life, or any number of things that were expected of a person before. These things are now simply one among many choices at the great buffet of life. And now we see with fertility treatments, genetic manipulation, and transhumanism, attempts to reduce every aspect of the reproductive process itself to a consumer act. A nearly 70 year old woman even 100 years ago could not indulge a selfish desire to bear a child, but today she can – it is suicidal madness and a gross injustice if a being can even be born to a woman so old, but they will try because the technology is here.

    As you say people will push the limits, and the deal is that the limits have been pushed, further and further. Technology has made it possible remove natural restrictions on selfishness.

    We will agree to disagree I suppose on the amount of violence it takes to sustain the ‘American way of life’. 1.5 million dead babies a year through abortion is violence enough.

    As for the work situation, I don’t know exactly what kind of work you do, but I do know that the typical American business is not a ‘community of solidarity’ in any meaningful sense of the term. Workers are often interchangible parts in a money-making machine. Unless you are particularly skilled, you are expendable. 80% of Americans work for a wage.

    It should be clear that what I am talking about goes far beyond what passes for cooperation in America today. The culture of death finds a powerful impetus in social atomization – in the belief that one is essentially to be left alone to deal with one’s problems. In yet another contrast with the pre-modern world, this is something new. With the breakdown of family even that refuge is gone. JP II recognizes all of this in Evangelium Vitae – it is not only a tragedy but a moral indictment of this entire civilization.

    We do not see ourselves as our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We see them most of the time as competition. Maybe this has, again, always been true – but never before has it been a cherished and widely accepted dogma, promoted by official propaganda.

    So what the cooperative does is link our fates and fortunes together in a way that necessitates closer cooperation, the Christian ideal of civic friendship. It is not a quick solution to all problems, it is only intended to be the first step in breaking the cycle of consumerism, atomization, demoralization, and mass murder.

  • Joe,

    I must say, neither of these are correct. No one is suggesting that ‘everything will be fixed’ – it is not a fair representation of what I believe.

    More importantly, however, the Popes have passed clear moral judgments on both economic liberalism and communism, and more recently on consumerism. Catholic social teaching is not, and cannot be made into, a guide for individuals to cope with unjust social structures. It is a guide for Catholics who do, or seek to, play a role in shaping society in various ways. I truly mean no offense, but I honestly cannot see how one can read a social encyclical or the Compendium and interpret them in the way that you do.

    Well, I’ll be honest: I’ve never read Quadragesimo Anno. I read Rerum Novarum some years back, and I’ve read a number of John Paul II’s encyclicals as well as Benedict XVI’s two thus far, but that’s about it.

    I have read a number of sections of the Compendium of Social Doctrine, and to be honest (braces for possible condemnations from all sides) it really annoys me as a document. I can see what is being attempted, but when one dives into the footnotes it quickly becomes clear that a lot of observations and comments being made by the pope (mostly John Paul II, of course, his output having been so high) in various addresses, greetings and travels. However, these are served up in a format that strikes me as purposefully similar to the Catechism, thus often giving the impression that observations or judgements regarding a particular time and place (and not necessarily beyond question or with long track records in Christian doctrine) are given the impression of being absolute doctrines of the Church. This strikes me as symptomatic of a particular modern form of political ultramontanism which will pick out a papal statement on a given topic, however passing or predicated on assumptions which may or may not be correct, and pass that statement off as “the Church’s teaching on X”.

    Thus, I’ve been told at various points that, “The Church teaches that global warming is one of the greatest threats in our modern age.” Or “The Church teaches that greed is the primary cause of the financial crisis.”

    But I digress…

    How’s this for a good faith offer: I’ll commit to reading and systematically blogging through Quadragesimo Anno this summer — though because of existing writing commitments it may not be till around July — and blogging through it as I go. If you’d be interested and have time, we could even do it as a series of co-written posts. If nothing else, I’m sure that I’ll learn something.

    We will agree to disagree I suppose on the amount of violence it takes to sustain the ‘American way of life’. 1.5 million dead babies a year through abortion is violence enough.

    As a toss out thought: I would very much question whether a complete elimination of abortion (and the resulting million plus extra births each year) would actually decrease the US standard of living at all. Indeed, in the long run it might well increase it.

    As for the work situation, I don’t know exactly what kind of work you do, but I do know that the typical American business is not a ‘community of solidarity’ in any meaningful sense of the term. Workers are often interchangible parts in a money-making machine. Unless you are particularly skilled, you are expendable. 80% of Americans work for a wage.

    I certainly wouldn’t consider the massive corporation I work for right now as being a “community of solidarity”, but then, I’m not sure that any organization of much more than a dozen people can have tight solidarity — and by the time you’re in the hundreds it seems quite impossible. And I do work for a wage, though not an hourly one. (Like many skilled US workers, I’m classified as “exempt” which means that so long as I get my allotted work done my employer is not legally able to fuss to much about whether I do it in 45 of 55 hours, and pays me the same regardless.)

    I would, however, describe my team as having a strong sense of solidarity. The one I’ve been on for the last two years consists of ten people. We work together on a daily basis, help each other as needed, know each other personally, and cover for each other when we’re out. Our manager is very open with us in all decision making, and has an open policy that he doesn’t keep track of vacation and sick time so long as we give him a couple days notice and don’t abuse the privilage. (So for instance, two members of the team who have had significant health problems over the last year were both simply covered for rather than having to go on disability.)

    I would see this as being pretty much how things ought to work. And although I recognize that most people are not so lucky in their current situations as I, in many ways I don’t think it’s at all unattainable in our existing economy.

    I do, however, want to see small enterprise grow much larger. Currently there are 20 million small businesses in the US that have no payroll — which means they are one or two person enterprises where all the income goes straight to the owners. They accounted for $970 Billion in sales in 2006, an average of 46k per company. There are another 5 million companies with twenty employees or less, employing 21 million Americans. There’s certainly been a major growth in this small business over the last few decades, but seeing more would of course be better.

  • Ok, quick reply:

    1) On the Church’s social teaching – having read most if not all of the encyclicals that the Compendium references, I think it is a faithful representation of a consistent line of thought, developed in each new historical era by the popes. What some guy tells you is one thing; what the teaching actually says is another. Usually, I don’t reference the Compendium, or if I do, only once – the rest of the time, I go to the source.

    2) Your proposal: I like it – I would only suggest that we then read Mater et Magistra and Laborem Exercens. It can be an ongoing study, however long it takes.

    3) It doesn’t matter. That abortion is an essential requisite for the social mobility of women is an article of faith among feminists and most leftists in America, not to mention the millions of women who get the abortions and the men who also participate. You know you can’t even win the statistic wars when it comes to currently existing phenomenon – forget about it when it comes to projections into the future.

    On the rest: I’ll save it for Laborem Exercens.

  • Even quicker:

    On the Church’s social teaching – having read most if not all of the encyclicals that the Compendium references, I think it is a faithful representation of a consistent line of thought, developed in each new historical era by the popes.

    I’m sure it is accurate on the encyclicals. My beef with it (and maybe this was the particular sections which I read, which as I recall involved living wage, unemployment benefits, welfare and environmental restrictions) was that the footnotes for the concrete policies which I had criticisms of all sourced minor talks and addresses, not encyclicals. I didn’t like that these fairly minor venues were being used to back up very definite policy prescriptions as if they were required by Catholic doctrine. I’d certainly agree they’re compatible with Catholic doctrine, but I don’t think they’re the only policy prescriptions which Catholics can support.