Where have all the people gone? Not to mention the citizenry, human beings, neighbors, inhabitants, individuals, men, women, adults, children, workers, employees, employers? Suddenly, everywhere, gone, all of them. Their places taken by consumers.
It was not a matter of right or left. National Public Radio (NPR), the staunchest of middle-of-the-roaders, used the term. In testimony before Congress, the liberal Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported that consumer incomes were down. And Fox News reported that not “people” or “humanitarians,” but rather, consumers – had been deceived by criminals in the act of giving charity to those suffering from natural disasters.
One might have thought that the reporters of these events would have noticed that their subjects were not engaged in acts of consuming, devouring or eating. Rather, in each of these situations, the so-called consumers were “toast,” were the ones that were “what’s for dinner,” were the “specials of the day.” Were, if anything, victims. Were being swallowed whole.
It will take expert sleuthing to unearth the mystery of when exactly people were no more, when their wholeness and complexity were discarded to be replaced by mere consumption. Who can answer how it happened? Who can explain what it means, will mean for the former people’s futures?
There is a truth in the term consumer, but, to be honest, consumers we are as well as consumed. Fox, NPR, EPI and all the rest have called us out. We are what we consume. That is increasingly clear. Today, our only relationship with other beings and other things is to consume them. From one end of the country to the other, we have all been harnessed together into a great devouring machine, consuming plants, animals, vistas, beauty and resources of every sort with no worries for the future, for our children and grandchildren or for our descendants for millennia to come. We consumers focused on buying trophy houses and building bulging 401(k)’s so we could consume “going forward.” Whether we were “going forward” or not, we were certainly not thinking of the paths we were taking into the future – until the day came when we saw that all we had was trash and we were dead in the water.
As consumers, we live today in a perpetual now, ingesting and eliminating. But our ancestors understood the importance of being conservative, of conserving. They saw the value of building infrastructure of lasting value – not thinking only of themselves – but building also for their children and progeny yet to be. They understood, as did Oliver Wendell Holmes, that the taxes they paid were the price of admission to life in a civilized society. They understood that to live in a civil society required providing real nourishment, including the best education possible, for everyone. That society at least gave lip service to the principle that, “What you have done to the least of these you have done to me.” The things they produced and created still contribute to our security and progress. Among other things, they created a high-quality, heavily subsidized system of education that eliminated cost as a bar and made our country a leader in so many areas. We would be better off today had we properly valued their investment in us, rather than having consumed and destroyed so much of that inheritance.
Much of the future they dreamed of still exists. The infrastructure they created still undergirds our success and well-being. Their commitments and handiwork remain of vital importance to our futures.
Ironically, there are big stomachs out there and real consumers that are invisible despite the rate of their consumption. It was at their urging that we shucked off our humanity and our place in a long chain of human and humane existence.
Who are the real consumers? Those who keep up the drumbeat that economics is all. They said we must make “hard decisions,” and those so-called “hard decisions” always turn out to make the richest even richer and to make those most afflicted, those most victimized, worse.
This was no plot. We did this to ourselves. And we continue to consume our future, our humanity.
It may already be too late, but we must not give up our efforts to take back our personhood and restore our humanity. We need to understand how we lost our way. That task falls to all of us, to each of us, to put down our toys and consider what makes us truly secure and happy.
Ellen Dannin is Fannie Weiss distinguished faculty scholar and professor of law at Penn State Dickinson School of Law and author of “Taking Back the Workers’ Law – How to Fight the Assault on Labor Rights.”
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