Magazine article New Internationalist

Dead Zone

Magazine article New Internationalist

Dead Zone

Article excerpt

Dead zone

John F Schumaker now lives and works in Aotearoa/New Zealand. But on a recent trip back home he came face-to-face with the monster of American consumer culture. The sobering encounter left him questioning both human greed and the pursuit of materialism.

On a recent visit home to Wisconsin I found myself sitting alone in a crowded shopping mall, feeling the same intangible revulsion that eventually banished me from America. Above me towered a brutish vending machine, complete with celestial chimes, rotating lights and a steely synthesized voice beckoning the assembly of dupes. A miserable young lad approached, dragging the body of his package-laden mother. He searched her eyes repeatedly until she finally fed the machine, got a Rocket Ranger toy and stuck it out to her child.

He slapped it onto the floor and screeched for still another selection. Mom stuffed in more bills until finally the boy was out of choices. `Well, for God's sake, what do you want,' she bellowed.

In a confused rage the boy bawled, over and over again, `I want something, I want something, I want something.' As I watched the boy I thought that, after all these years, America is still shooting up the town, still digging its heels unnecessarily deep into the precious elements that sustain us, and still making me glad that I now live in New Zealand.

The boy seemed to forewarn of capitalism's psychological dead end where life masquerades as a kaleidoscope of consumer choices. His was the collective voice of mindless consumerism as it has been perfected and amplified in America. It spoke too of the existential loneliness that gnaws at me whenever I return to the `all-consuming society' as some sociologists have come to call America.

American culture has assigned its fate to institutionalized overconsumption. This radical psycho-economic device lies at the heart of the country's much celebrated economic boom. What we see unfolding in the US is a human tragedy that was foreseen by Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey. There he describes a people who are `drunk with self-gazing and in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires'. Scratch the surface of the economic boom and you see a grotesque epidemic of desire and greed. This is what America's bold experiment with radical consumerism is all about.

As I sat in the mall that day I wondered what my hero Albert Einstein would think about the patterns of cultural consciousness that are encouraged in present-day America. In an interview he once said: `The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been kindness, beauty, and truth. The trite subjects of life - possessions, outward success, luxury - have always seemed contemptible.'

Late in his life Einstein expressed grave concerns that trite commercial values were beginning to silence loftier human motivations among Americans and he feared the wider consequences of the social sanctioning of greed. Yet not even he could have foreseen the degree of authority that would eventually be commanded by all things trite.

However, as we all know, the person-as-customer cultural strategy is a sure winner from the standpoint of an economy driven by overconsumption. The percentage of total economic activity that is generated in America from personal spending has reached 70 per cent, far more than any other nation.

In a spending showdown, no-one is faster or more deadly than Americans. We spend hugely more on ourselves than our closest rival. Private spending is between 50 per cent and 90 per cent greater than in all major European countries. Over the past five years the savings rate in the US has fallen to a negative rate so that we now spend around $35 billion more than we earn. Virtually all shame has been erased from indebtedness. In 1999 US citizens racked up credit-card debt of $1.5 trillion, while total consumer debt reached a mind-boggling $6 trillion. …

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