A fundamental difference between the present and the past is that the ecological impact of the rich societies is so great, and their ability to manipulate the functioning of other societies so pervasive, that their destruction will take all of the other complex human societies with them. With the destruction and despoilment of the ecological basis for human societal existence so wide ranging, even many of the simpler societies may also perish. Thus, the richer societies can be seen as not only committing suicide, but murdering the less rich societies in the process. In previous times, individual civilizations would rise and fall, but humanity would continue its rise. No more.
With the extreme disparities of wealth, income, power, and consumption within individual societies the majority of ecological degradation and resource depletion is carried out and driven by a relative few. This small percentage can also be said to be committing suicide, while taking the rest of society with them. In addition, they wield their wealth and power to forestall the possibility of alternatives which may threaten or discomfort them. There is a limited carbon budget, a limited amount of usable fossil fuels and minerals, and a limit on the detritus that humanity can dump into its surroundings. The rich are needlessly using up those limits with no thought for their fellow human beings, nor for the unborn generations to come. As Herve Kempf puts it, “The Rich Are Destroying The Earth”, even if he does fall into the anthropocentric trap of thinking that the end of humanity will be the end of the earth. It has seen countless species rise and fall over the eons of its existence, and rapacious humanity will just be one more problem that it will survive.
This mass murder suicide is celebrated in our culture as magazines gush over the latest technological toys and fashions, latest military toys of destruction, and endlessly reinforce the message that more is better and more will make people happier. “People can never have enough, and what they currently have is seriously uncool and needs to be replaced with new stuff!” We are bombarded with this message wherever we turn, from the announcements of governments striving to drive continued economic growth which will somehow make us all happier, to commercials showing the new cool stuff that makes our current stuff feel so old and unwanted, to the fashion models who display the current year’s fashions which automatically invalidate the previous year’s, to the celebrity C.E.O.’s. competing to see who can be paid the most, to the billionaire’s competing over the size and splendor of their yachts.
The One Who Amasses And Consume The Most Wins
Celebrity culture is a culture that celebrates fame, wealth and consumption among all else. Our heroes are not the old-fashioned ones that served their community as learned and dedicated individuals. Instead, our heroes are those that manage to amass the most wealth, the most power, and the most fame. Would a man like Jonas Salk, the man who gave us the polio vaccine and when asked why he did not patent it exclaimed “could you patent the sun?”, be seen as a hero or naïve imbecile who threw away a fortune? Reflecting the present culture Forbes magazine even calculated how much personal wealth Mr. Salk gave up; their estimate was $7 billion. The same with Frederick Banting, a man who received the Nobel Prize for isolating insulin for the treatment of diabetes and gave the patent away to the University of Toronto. Nowadays it is accepted that such a discovery should quite rightly be held private and a large fortune made from it. Nowadays it is quite normal for researchers to start their research with a bunch of lawyers to make sure that the area of research is patentable. Personal financial concerns carry a much higher value than any service to society. In many cases these are researchers that are employed by publicly funded universities and grants, and seem to feel little guilt about their personal privatization of profits which to a large degree are the product of publicly funded research. The private drug companies have not missed these opportunities as they “collaborate” with public universities while cherry picking the most financially promising discoveries and rewarding their shareholders with the resulting profits.
This culture celebrating wealth and consumption has invaded every nook and cranny of society, with the political elites and government bureaucracies being thoroughly subsumed. To serve as a senior politician is to facilitate a grand “retirement” funded by highly lucrative speaking engagements and appointments to corporate boards and advisory bodies. In addition of course there are the large donations required to fund the hagiographic library. The British people may have rejected Tony Blair, but his rich and powerful friends have made sure that his retirement has been extremely fruitful. Surely President Obama’s future will be at least as fruitful as Bill Clinton’s. Of course, for such a future to be available one must not bite the hand in office that will be feeding you large amounts of cash and status when one is out of office. The government bureaucrats can also benefit from a revolving door culture between business and government, with no blushes about obvious conflicts of interest as was the case with the ex-head of Goldman Sachs overseeing government actions in the 2008-9 financial crisis which directly benefitted that very company.
Major corporations are run in a semi-feudalistic style as the senior corporate bureaucrats treat themselves to extravagant riches, as if they were entrepreneurs rather than the politically adept bureaucratic climbers that they really are. The levitation of share prices that fill the stock option christmas stockings of these corporate elites are as much to do with financial engineering and cost cutting than with the organic growth of their businesses. For the banking sector of course there is always the socialization of losses while the profits derived from risk taking and dodgy practices can be privately pocketed. Not even openly laundering money for drug cartels can get more than even mild-discomfort for bankers focused on self-aggrandizement . Desperate to get into the money bags game, the senior leaders of public corporations push for privatization so that they can be unshackled from the tedious public sector pay constraints. Upon entry to the private sector, relatively lowly-paid career public bureaucrats are transformed into heroic capitalists who deserve oodles of cash .
The media are full of celebrations of those who live to excess, for the younger generations there are shows such as MTV Cribs and for the older ones there are shows like Real Housewives of Beverley Hills. Then there are the myriads of online and print magazines, together with stories in the “respectable” media, which celebrate the grand excesses of the rich, with story titles such as”Photo’s of Celine Dion’s ‘waterpark house,’ now listed for $10 million less <my italiacs>” or “Russian multibillionaire Andrey Melnichenko sues Dulux owner for $100M, alleging botched paint job on mega yacht”. There is of course no mention of the amount of the remaining part of humanity’s carbon budget, nor the fossil fuels and mineral wealth extracted from the earth, which was happily wasted creating these behemoths of extravagance. Many sports personalities also seem to be judged more by the size of their multi-year financial contracts than by their actual performance on the field. To aid in the joint celebration of such waste the entertainment elite can be paid for personal performances at extravagant parties by the financial and power elite.
In Greek Mythology the character Narcissus is renowned for his beauty and falls in love with the reflection of himself within a pool of water. Unable to drag himself away from his own reflection, and unable to possess it, he commits suicide. From this story came the concept of narcissism, the unhealthy love of oneself. With the overwhelming celebration of fame, and the famous, within society the values and priorities of both society itself and individuals within it have changed. The prevalence and acceptance of narcissistic behaviour has increased. A headline from the Guardian newspaper captures this well, “I want to be famous: once upon a time, children aspired to be teachers, bankers, doctors. Now they just want to be celebrities. As a new series of Britain’s Got Talent kicks off, Emma Brockes asks why”. The celebration of celebrity and consumption within society has fundamentally changed the values and priorities of the younger generation. Narcissism, mindless consumption, and selfishness have become normalized.
The Neo-Liberal Revolution In Culture And Values
These changes are not just random trends, but stem from both ideology and technology. In the 1970’s the elites of the industrialized countries were faced with both crises of governance and repeated economic and financial crises. The post World War 2 economic boom had created a population within the industrialized economies which enjoyed full and relatively stable employment, together with high levels of education (at least for the majority of the white population), and was thus open to questioning the way in which society operated and the stories that they had been told about their history. To the elites who were used to manufacturing consent within the citizenry for whatever they deemed to be beneficial to themselves this was truly a “Crisis of Democracy” as detailed by the report of the same name to the elite Trilateral Commission. The report stated the core problem well, “If only their GNP could grow for long enough, most of their troubles … would gradually disappear. But the consequences of this were the opposite of what had been expected. Instead of appeasing tensions, material progress seems to have exacerbated them”. It should not have been a surprise that the removal of the average person from the daily fear of not having enough money, and the improvement in their general education, would facilitate their deeper questioning of how society is configured and operates. Especially those that had never experienced the privations of depression or fighting a war. The population was becoming less manageable, and from an elite point of view something had to be done about it. When one looks back at the late 1960’s, and the 1970’s, the level of open questioning and challenge to government is astounding. A U.S. president was removed for covering up dirty tricks and spying on his political opponents, while a current president seems unscathed by revelations of extensive spying upon the general populace and the assassination of U.S. citizens abroad. There were open hearings on the inner workings of the C.I.A. , while in the present any such oversight of government has been rendered impotent or is simply ignored.
At the same time the basis of the economic growth and increased profitability of the post-war period was coming under a number of challenges. The European nations and Japan had successfully rebuilt their economies and were becoming a challenge to U.S. industries, full employment was supporting the claims of workers to a greater share of business revenues and commodity suppliers were gaining more leverage. This was especially the case with oil, with the peak in U.S. production in the early 1970’s. The position of the U.S. was exacerbated by its policies of “guns and butter” as it increased government expenditures on new welfare programs while also spending large amounts on the Vietnam war.
These crises of too much democracy, declining profitability and challenges to the economic and financial leadership of the United States came together to drive the elite-driven neoliberal counter revolution which emphasized small government (at least for the parts that provided support to the non-rich), deregulation and free trade. Classical economics, minus the entreaties against the danger of monopoly and corporate interests coalescing with the state, with its emphasis on the benefits of the selfish individual intermediated by the free market, became the new mantra. Communal action was de-emphasized with the focus on the individual. Whether that “individual” was a single person with limited financial resources or a massive corporation with overwhelming financial, bureaucratic and political resources was something not to be considered. The free market was to be unleashed, but not the perfect market (with its simplistic assumptions of no corporate-state collusion, monopoly power, and general inequalities in power) that economists assume to come to the conclusion of societal benefit from personal selfishness. Keynes was out and Hayek was in.
Big government with some semblance of democratic control was bad, but big corporations, and private government-business dealings, where only the rich and powerful hold sway, were not. The political institutions and financial stability which facilitated the average person’s questioning of those that governed them was undermined, and the regulatory framework which kept large corporations in check was significantly dismantled. The globalization and free trade agreements which have allowed corporations to play one group of workers and even governments off against another, greatly aided by the other aspects of deregulation, have removed financial stability and economic bargaining power from much of the population.
The dismantling of the social benefits put in place to soften the effects of unemployment and to aid a comfortable retirement began, the trades unions were targeted for demonization and destruction, the state returned to the service of the elites, and an ideology celebrating wealth as the deserved reward of individual hard work and intrinsic abilities instilled.
The end result of this is that especially in the United States, but also to varying degrees in the other rich societies, the small flames of true democracy have been banished and centralized control reinforced. The post 9/11 period has been one of accelerated power concentration and the stifling of opposing voices with whistle-blowers being treated as criminals and enemies of the state . The transformation of the Soviet Union and China into state-capitalist societies focused on the continued enrichment of those in power and the celebration of wealth also removed major alternative approaches. China had its own crisis of democracy, centred on Tiananmen Square, and chose the path of growth and consumption, with repression still utilized when necessary, to keep its population quiet. As Perry notes, “the pursuit, acquisition, and display of people’s wealth have come to dominate people’s motives (The language of socialist idealism survives, but as a veneer only)”.
The Media As A Fundamental Driver Of The New Culture
A significant part of these changes was the consolidation of the media industries, fostered by the removal of regulations limiting media concentration, cross-ownership rules which restricted one organization’s ability to own multiple media channels, and restrictions on the ownership of media organizations by non-media corporations. The media were to become a business purely driven to deliver happy consumers to advertisers, and not to facilitate democracy by giving voice to opposing viewpoints and facts that would contradict or embarrass the powerful, including the news media. This process has gone furthest within the United States, with seven huge corporations controlling most of the traditional media – General Electric, 21st Century Fox and News Corporation (both controlled by Rupert Murdoch), Disney, Time Warner, Viacom and CBS (the latter two controlled by Sumner Redstone). News organizations have predominantly become part of the entertainment division, rather than standalone organizations. The removal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 has also allowed for the delivery of heavily biased content with no offsetting positions, as is the case with Fox News. The supposed offset of new media channels, such as the internet, are heavily populated by the traditional media companies and any thought that they provide a democratic alternative is challenged by research showing how a relatively few sites and portals command most of the page views. The drive to create a “two-tier” internet will only drive greater levels of concentration.
All of these changes have affected the young the most, as from a very early age they are bombarded with cultural icons which celebrate fame and consumption, the usage of those icons in marketing and programming that fetishizes that same fame and consumption, and reality television that focuses on competition and sociopathic behaviour rather than cooperation. If you are not a winner then you must be a loser, to be banished from the public stage.
A population too busy worrying about their financial future, and seeking escapism in narcissistic and escapist pursuits, is a wonderful thing for those that wish to rule over them. Better for them to be following the latest clothing tendencies of famous personalities, or wondering who will win the latest singing competition, or sharing the minutiae of their lives with others, than spending time questioning why they keep falling behind financially, what right their country has to intervene in the politics of others, or why nothing ever seems to be done about climate change. Better for the youth to be rebelling through superficial choices rather than questioning the underlying rules by which their future will be governed. At a time when more than ever a questioning of the direction that society is taking, and the assumptions that are driving it, is required society is mis-served by a media overwhelmingly selling yet more stuff and celebrating those that can consume the most. When citizens do stray from the cultural script, as with the Occupy Wall Street movement, they are treated more as entertainment by the media, and then squashed by the state when they do not disappear naturally or cannot be co-opted. Then lost down the media memory hole in the same way that the Tiananmen Square protests were, as normal programming was resumed. Better for the masses to keep celebrating their own slow-motion murder, and the elites their own suicide.
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TV dump via jamesfood/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.