Friday, October 09, 2009

Labor, Consumption, Alienation

In the knowledge economy, most people earn more than the subsistence level.

Most white collar workers seek an increased standard of living.

The standard is defined largely by the degree and manner of consumption.

Hence the prevailing definition of success is to constantly be in the top percentile of consumers.

Both labor and consumption are expenditures of energy, and both creates margins for the capitalists.

Labor is to help create, and consumption is to help destroy. Both feed each other.

The trick in encouraging consumption is to make it a part of one's identity, as a form of potency in an impotent world.

In the modern world, what one consumes defines oneself. One is perceived according to the costly labels one carries.

To feel powerful after having consumed is the big delusion that markets strive to sustain. To feel as if one is more alive after consumption.

One is willing to live in inhuman conditions in order to have a chance at the consumption carrot which the market dangles before one's eyes.

Consumption leaves one unfulfilled. But since larger carrots are always there, one doesn't suspect the path, only the milestones.

The prime need in a human being to be gratified (in terms of neurotransmitters) is manipulated ceaselessly by the market in both driving him to labor hard, and then to consume hard.

A man riding a powerful SUV and feeling good about it is the result of pervasive brainwashing, but it derives from a primal need in the man.

Without gratification in various ways, one feels alienated. And as more and more gratification is dependent on money and status, one is less and less capable of being self-sufficient for one's happiness.

The owners are not fulfilled as well, of course. But their thresholds of gratification are now so high that thousands of people have to work, and consume, to enable their neurotransmitter levels.

To turn the other way, from gratification and satiation towards joy and contentment, is the key, but it is extremely difficult, owing to the very early programming of a child gearing him towards "worldly" success.

Sex being the core drive, and the competition for mates becoming more fierce with the breakdown of the traditional structures, and with the competing ability determined by one's worldly success, it is biologically counter-intuitive for a person to turn the other way and seek contentment instead of success as defined by one's potential mates.

Since the cycle of alienation, work, consumption, gratification, alienation, work, consumption and gratification is unending, there is burning out, exhaustion and depression.

As the community breaks down, and institutions and markets take over, there is choice only in the degree of one's participation in the economic arena, not in the matter of it. (As in, one can only choose to disengage to a degree, not completely)

To live comfortably by one's own labor is easier than ever before, but to fulfill oneself in the circumstances one finds oneself is not necessarily easier, it may even have become harder than ever before. Fulfilment in normal human beings is a socially measured outcome.

As one disallows society to dictate one's fulfilment, one risks becoming anti-social and even more alienated, as compared to being only asocial. The drop-outs, the various kinds of addicts, and so on. Man is inherently social, and to get cut off from this society (which today encourages alienation) is in itself alienating.

What is the way out? I'm not entirely sure, but what I am practicing is: To question one's biological and social goals, and to risk meaninglessness, and then to come upon contentment in which there is an inherent significance to living and experiencing, and not an imposed one on the content of one's experiencing.


S. Hall said...

Your post reminded me of a short story (the title eludes me right now) by Canadian author, Alice Munro. In it, a son radically disengages from his family and their consumerist lifestyle, choosing instead to live without money. The father darkly assumes the reasoning for his son's choice must lie in the fact that his son rejected the desire for gauranteed sex through obtaining a mate, as if all of our status-based consumerist society revolved around this primal urge. I remember how much the father's reasoning made sense to me at the time, much like your post does now.

. said...

Could not agree more with this. What is so fascinating is that the answer (as you describe - finding joy in the act of living and experiencing, as opposed to seeking to achieve, consume, and meet externally-imposed goals) seems so obvious once you get it, but is nearly impossible to explain to people who have not made this leap.

As Pico Iyer put it in a recent NY Times column: "Looking to our circumstances for strength, solace or support is like dancing at the edge of a very deep grave."

DM said...

their ought to a thumps up icon somewhere...for I will like to give many to Rick! : 'seems so obvious once you get it, but is nearly impossible to explain to people who have not made this leap.'....hear hear..


Pankaj said...

Deeply thought provoking. Maybe it is possible to find contentment without completely disengaging from the economic machine. A kind of balance.

Complete and perpetual contentment seems to me to be an impossible pursuit.

Unknown said...

I'm reminded of a quote:

“The way to trascend the world is right in the midst of invovlement with the world; it is not necessary to cut off human relations to escape society. The work of understanding the mind is right in the midst of full use of the mind; it is not necessary to exterminate desire to make the mind like ashes.”

— Huanchu Daoren, Back to Beginnings

[Harman: meant to post this here, not in "Autumn"; you can delete the duplicate comment on that post if you want]

Ketan said...

Hello, again!

While just an hour back I had promised myself to be busier with my 'own' life and attend to its more urgent issues, and to stop reading your blog-posts, I was unsuccessful in that attempt. So here I ended up reading yet another post from your now decidedly addictive blog. :)

Needless to say, your analysis is very impressive, and I have hardly anything to disagree with, rather it made me learn many more things that I had not thought of before.

While, your post is more from an individual point of view and takes a microscopic view of the 'market', in one of my comments, dealing with similar issues I had reached a conclusion that a lot of our currents problems are because of disguised unemployment. Here: (click).

The original blog post is very different from what I have discussed in the comment. My comment is primarily in response to Stupidosaur's response to phatichar.

I won't say my comment there is pertinent to your post. But there is one binding theme - the pattern and drives for consumption in a 'free' market.

The reason I am refering you to that post is because I am very sure, you understand economy and human nature much better than me, and might be able to improve my understanding of both (provided you are inclined to do that).

Take care.