Magazine article New Internationalist

Utopia or Bust

Magazine article New Internationalist

Utopia or Bust

Article excerpt

And all men kill the thing they love,

By all let this be heard,

Some do it with a bitter look,

Some with a flattering word,

The coward does it with a kiss,

The brave man with a sword!

A century on from Oscar Wilde's immortal poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, death comes gift-wrapped and perfumed, in beguiling guiltfree varieties, delivered with a toothy smile and prophecy of material salvation. Betrayal gets absolved as the consumer age supplants conscience with craving, and duty with selfdevotion. Even with our beloved Earth and the future of humankind balanced on a knife's edge, our killing feels strangely like a bargain.

Aimed squarely at the things we love, today's big guns pound away from under the camouflage of normality. Greed, discontent, false needs and compulsive desire deal a mortal kiss. Anything still breathing can be clubbed with bloated egos, inflated expectations, grandiose entitlement and a near-zero attention span.

In his book Escape from Evil, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker describes consumer culture as a second-rate religion that has programmed a society of 'cheerful robots' to martyr all to 'a grotesque spectacle of unrestrained material production, perhaps the greatest and most pervasive evil to have emerged in all of history.'

With business-as-usual in the face of multiple global emergencies - climate change, global warming, habitat destruction, extinction of species, loss of biodiversity, pollution, deforestation, land degradation, ocean depletion - it is hard to miss the evil, or at least the madness. Spreading poverty, growing inequality, the commercialization of children, collapsing mental health, the 'death of mind', the obesity epidemic, and so on - with a culture like that, who needs enemies?

Criminal psychosis

If consumer culture were a separate individual and assessed psychiatrically, its diagnosis would be criminal psychosis of the most fiendish variety. But since its lunacy is agreed upon, we lap it up.

Like psychopathic dung beetles, we let future generations pay as we roll up the latest cultural excretions, coming away with everything except the love that faded as life became a romance with the appetites. In a system that hawks selfishness, vanity and exhibitionism, we become easily excited with the fake orgasm of trappings and tantalizations. Once sold on ourselves, we can be wooed by the most impoverished of ambitions, from 'having it all' and 'living the dream' right on down to 'making it to the top'.

Conformity usually reassures, even when a culture is morbidly sick. What makes our rampage so titillating is that it is bound up with cultural heroism. Excess, over-indulgence, overconsumption, dandyism, stylish indifference - all part of the act, all trumpets of conquest, prosperity, success and 'being somebody'.

Positivity-peddlers are working overtime, but the big picture is sobering. Consumerism and predatory capitalism are not viable longterm organizing principles for a society. Our myths about progress, superfluous wealth, limitless expansion and endless resources are formulas for global ruin. Hyper-competitive individualism is a lonely straitjacket that fuels frustration, alienation and rage. Freedom has cheapened into a demeaning free-for-all in a prison of petty wants. As a springboard to happiness, emotional health and social wellbeing, 'the good life' is an exhausting flop.

Cultural insanity

While cultural norms are by definition 'normal', they are by no means always sane and healthy. The term 'cultural insanity' refers to normative templates that have become so counterproductive and self-defeating, or so misaligned to our basic human needs, that they stand to undo society or its life supports. In fact, normality can be the deadliest of foes.

All human cultures milk illusion for purposes of control and motivation, but never before has a society indebted itself so heavily to unreality. …

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