The system. Activism. Shopping.
It is impossible to escape the institutions that for us, in sum, become the preposterously insane thing that we intuitively call ‘the system’. The institutions that comprise it include those of the economy, kinship, culture and politics. We are all involved in every one of these and they are all completely interconnected. A shift in consciousness is what’s needed.
In The Trajectory of Change, Michael Albert gives three facts in regard to activism:
- A movement that can win change in international trade relations needs millions and even tens of millions, not merely thousands, of participants.
- People aren’t really movement participants unless they are doing things in a sustained and ongoing way within the movement.
- To grow sufficiently enough that we can win, our movement needs to offer things for people to do where they live and in accord with their dispositions and possibilities.
This will take generations of children learning that there are alternatives. Unfortunately we are raised on the notion that despite how bad things are, nothing better is possible. An example from Albert’s book: there are 3 million people in the US without homes to sleep in, though we have roughly 50,000 hotels that are generally only about half full and able to house 15 million people. So, 3 million homeless people and 7.5 million empty rooms that they could, but can’t, occupy. It takes quite a leap of imagination to realise that there are alternatives but then disillusion follows when you realise they simply cannot be implemented in our current system. The robbing of humanity that the system engenders is an integral part of it.
Change is a combination of a sequence of reforms or limited victories that string together in a coherent pattern. A shift in mass consciousness over generations will lead to ringing the changes. Either that or a major catastrophe will force systematic overhaul. Zeitgeist: Addendum recommends peaceful and strategic action in the wake of such a system failure. It urges us to stop supporting the system. The system will have to fail, and people will lose confidence in their elected leaders. The Venus Project predicts that the US will go bankrupt within the next ten years and so a military dictatorship will be installed in an attempt to prevent social breakdown. This will spread to all parts of the world tainted by the global economy. The fractional reserve banking system is reaching the theoretical limits of its expansion, leaving nowhere to go but down, rapidly. Contraction will begin on an unprecedented scale. Before then, whatever happens surely starts at a grassroots community activism level.
But for now, when there is a threat from the masses, the powers that be have responses up their sleeves such as the invention of terrorism, economic collapse, war, manmade disease epidemics, political wrangles, the illusion of democracy, advertising and false wants, to keep us in our place. People are bred to be apathetic and ignorant of alternatives and that is not their fault.
The never-ending and self-perpetuating false wants created by advertising are incredibly powerful social regulators. The title of Lee Eisenberg’s book, Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer will keep on buying no matter what’, says it all. We use our possessions to define ourselves. “Our accumulation of possessions provides a sense of past and tells us who we are, where we have come from, and perhaps where we are going”, writes Russell Belk of the University of Chicago in his essay Possessions and the extended self. Of course the very idea of owning things is itself ridiculous when you get down to brass tacks. Even more absurd is the notion that these things that we drag around with us can somehow define us, make us happy, make others like us. Yet we all fall into this trap, some more headlong than others.
In a paper entitled To do or to have: that is the question by Leaf van Boven and Thomas Gilovich of the Universities of Colorado and Cornell respectively, buys are either experiential (with the primary intention of acquiring a life experience) or material (with the intention of acquiring a tangible object). Guess what? Experience, relative to stuff, allows for greater “positive reinterpretation” – that is we think back on the experiential aspect of life more fondly. Further, experience is “more central” to one’s identity and provides greater social value.
Shopping as an activity is so legitimised in our society it is downright odd to be against it. We shop when we want a little pick-me-up, when we want to feel better about ourselves or when we’re a bit bored. We shop to celebrate, to prepare for life’s big events, to treat ourselves and because we are conditioned to believe we ‘need’ certain things.
What a worthwhile expression of our life force it would be if instead of pandering to needs that don’t exist, filling our homes with more things that it takes further resources to look after, and disconnecting us from nature and our communities, we could take step back from our rabid overconsumption and see what is really in front of us? As more and more of us live in cities, we engage in competitive loneliness rather than conscious engagement. Write Ken Norwood and Kathleen Smith in Rebuilding Community in America, “Like fish who always swim in water and therefore remain unaware of it we live in a toxic fog of frustrating living situations”. Let’s see if we can lift that fog and make our own living situations, particularly if we live in cities, less frustrating. I suggest that any kind of engagement with others in the community will contribute towards a feeling of true value. I may not make changes involving tens of millions of people or even tens of people but this is a life lived authentically.