Magazine article New Internationalist

Eat, Sleep, Buy, Die: In Economics There Is No Concept of Enough, Just a Chronic Yearning for More

Magazine article New Internationalist

Eat, Sleep, Buy, Die: In Economics There Is No Concept of Enough, Just a Chronic Yearning for More

Article excerpt

[Graph Not Transcribed]

[Graph Not Transcribed]

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to talk today about the economy. Not 'the economy' we hear about in the news each day and in other politicians' speeches. I want to talk about the real economy, the one we live in every day.

There's a big difference. The official economy is in a record expansion. How many times have we heard that? How many times have we heard about the great abundance? And yes, a lot of money is sloshing around. Some of it might even slosh towards us.

But when you look a little closer you start to see a different picture. People feel drained and stressed. They say they have no time and that the kids are always nagging them for things. The traffic keeps getting worse, the beaches close because the water is so bad and the visual space is full of ads.

There's something out of whack here. Prosperity is supposed to mean well-being. It is supposed to mean more time for life and thought, not less. If times are truly good then you'd think we'd all feel good about the future. Yet a majority are deeply worried. More than 90 per cent of us think we are too concerned about ourselves and not concerned enough about future generations.

The problem here goes deeper than the growing income gap and the way millions are being left behind. The question is: what does it mean to be ahead in the first place? Somehow this thing we call 'the economy' has become detached from the people who comprise it. It's a little as though someone said: 'I'm doing fine but my life is going to hell.' That's the gap between 'the economy' and the economy. And we've got to try to understand it.

Grasping the problem

The term 'economic expansion' suggests a horn of plenty that grows fuller by the minute. Yet strip away the gauzy abstraction and 'expansion' means simply spending more money. It makes no difference where that money goes or why. The experts never ask what gets destroyed in the process. When they see more money sloshing around, they say: 'Wow! That's good.'

It doesn't take a PhD in economics to grasp the problem. (In fact it can help not to have one.) More spending doesn't always mean that life is getting better. We all know that. We all know it often means the opposite - medical bills, addiction, family difficulties, crime. It can mean a toxic spill in the neighborhood, or kids with asthma because the air is so bad.

But the experts never seem to think about that and the media doesn't either. So long as the money is flowing out of our bank accounts at a faster rate they shout, 'hooray'. Are you beginning to suspect that this way of looking at the world was not devised with your well-being in mind?

Let's take this a step further. You know that 'New Economy'? Well, it's really just the old economy on electronic steroids. It's based upon the same old thing: not information, not intelligence, but on an ever-expanding sense of need.

That's the truth. As John McKnight of Northwestern University has put it, America is a society 'in need of need'. We don't need the things the economy produces as much as it needs our sense of need for those things. To the economist need is the Everlasting Light, the miracle that keeps the engines of expansion churning. To the rest of us it can seem like the beast in Dante's Inferno, the one that 'when she has fed, she's hungrier than ever'.

In economics there is no concept of enough: just a chronic yearning for more, a hunger that cannot be filled.

This requires that all life must be converted into a commodity for sale. The result is a relentless process of enclosure. It started centuries ago with land. Today it is encroaching upon every aspect of our individual and collective beings.

Think about the growth industries today. We buy looks from plastic surgeons, mental outlooks from pharmaceutical companies, the activity of our bodies from 'health' clubs, interaction with friends from telecommunications firms, and on and on. …

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