I preordered Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book from our local bookstore because that’s just something I do, buy Barbara Kingsolver books. I had no idea what this one was about, had only a vague notion on the title, didn’t much care. I’ve never been disappointed by her writing. And I felt rather in need of a good story, something that delivers on many levels — from the mechanics of the writing itself to the moral behind the words and narrative. Something I could read again and again and never stop being moved. She’s usually good for that. I suppose a little soothing confirmation bias wrapped up in an engaging yarn is what I was after. And Demon Copperhead delivered.
If you’ve read David Copperfield, the rough inspiration for Kingsolver’s latest, you will know that the theme here is the abuses that our socio-economic systems heap on the most vulnerable — vulnerable people, vulnerable communities, vulnerable places, and most particularly vulnerable children. If you’ve not read David Copperfield or much else from Dickens (and why not?!?), then know that Dickens used fiction to rail against the hell that capitalism made of the average English child’s life. Invoking Dickens is to place your writing squarely into the realm of social protest. It is then up to you to avoid all the pitfalls of smug preachiness and make of your protest a compelling story. Barbara Kingsolver is a master of this trick. If you’ve never read her books, then start with Demon Copperhead and work backwards. If you have read her books, then be prepared for amazement. She’s pulled off her trick again in a wholly new way.
In my time I’ve learned surprising things about the powers stacked against us before we’re born. But the way of my people is to go on using the words they’ve always given us: Ignorant bastard. Shit happens.
Meanwhile, I’ve been feeling somewhat mired in the maw of consumer culture. My job is ostensibly to sell textbooks to college kids, something I understand is necessary to higher education (for now anyway…). However, that’s not what I spend 39 of my 40 plus weekly work hours doing. Most of what I do is sell branded crap to mostly parents and alumni. Because the students largely can’t afford the branded crap. Because textbooks do not have 4-5 hundred percent markups like the branded crap. Because my employers will maximize profits even if it means doing things that have nothing to do with their reason for being in business. So…
I shuffle hundreds of pounds of “merchandise” around our tiny store each day. I am now extremely acquainted with the quality of workmanship and materials in everything from sweatshirts to dog leashes to engraved swords. (Don’t ask…) Every day I face being awash in the stench of petrochemicals: dyes, fabrics, water bottles, snack foods, and tons of plastic packaging. I find damaged items in every box, yes, but I also find stuff that was never made well to begin with: unraveling seams, peeling screen printing, sweatshirts that need to be peeled open because their insides were partially fused in the printing and then never allowed to cool before being shoved into a box. (I have black “fleece” embedded under my fingernails from that task…) My job is to make this crap look sufficiently appealing that shoppers don’t see the shoddiness — if they’re not already blinded by the Nike swooshes and Champion logos and school emblems.
I’ve come to see my job as a water tight argument against consumer culture, one that even the most ardent shopper will understand and accept. Whatever it is you think you are buying these days and however much you are spending on it, you are getting cheap crap.
Capitalism was still sort of new and shiny in Dickens’ time and it hadn’t yet chewed up the entire planet, but even then the goal was to make money, not to meet needs. So milk and flour were stretched by adding chalk dust, among other foul things. A rental home did not include such things as plumbing or ovens or walls without holes and rodents and a goodly amount of mold. Never mind maintenance. Sugar was added to tea because that served as easily consumed, cheap calories for busy laboring bodies. (Cheap because it was derived from slave laboring bodies working on stolen land, of course.) And any jobs that were dangerous or toxic or just plain nasty were handed off to the weakest socio-economic groups — meaning the poor, women and any other inhabitants of non-white-male bodies, and most particularly abandoned children. You’d think with all those cost-saving efficiencies in a world that had only just begun to blow through its finite resources, poverty wouldn’t be a thing. At least capitalism wants you to think that… But those who were sufficiently fed and housed were always a small minority.
Still… it was possible in Dickens’ day to be sufficiently fed and housed, to acquire quality goods, if you were lucky enough to be in that minority.
Let me assure you from the back-end of the exorbitant price tags in my shop that this is no longer true. The majority still suck from the sewers, trying to exist, of course. That much has not changed. Maybe laws have curtailed some adulterations and abuses, but horrifying efficiency is still the name of the game, and everything for sale is the result of those cost-saving calculations. The quality of materials? The quality of craft? The quality of service? No matter the price tag, it is all as cheaply done as possible. Meaning soaked in petrochemicals and produced far away by the those who have no power to push back on slave wages (or actual slavery). In many ways, our provisioning is much worse than in Dickens’ day. We don’t see the horror because we’ve pushed it out of our gated communities and banished the Dickens out of mediated discourse. But in the past two centuries we’ve used up all the good stuff and invented whole new genres of poison, making toxicity ubiquitous (because we moderns are so very smart, you know…) And you can be sure that the more lethal a product is in material composition or in manufacturing process or in disposal when it reaches its increasingly short useful lifespan, the more likely children are doing that work.
The first thing we had to do, she said, was quit thinking that this mess was our fault. “They did this to you,” she kept repeating, like that was our key to salvation. Like there was even a door.
Kingsolver’s Demon, the title character, is one such child. The meaning of his life is to be used — by the foster “parents” looking for money and free labor, by adults who see status or income potential in his strong body, to some extent even by the few people who love him. I will not give details because with preparation the message is muted, the story loses its urgency and impact. I want you to turn the page and be absolutely shocked into nausea at this culture, at what it does to our own children. (How’s that for a book-jacket blurb…) I want you to feel the horror of capitalism and all its dregs. I want you to understand that what you do with a credit card is killing Demons.
But what do those credit cards buy us these days, aside from the guilt of mass extinction, climate chaos, biophysical collapse, and the inevitability of violent abuse at all levels? Well?… what are you buying in these days of late capitalism?
Apart from my woeful merchandising job in a college bookstore, I’ve had several other recent experiences that underscore our economy’s bankruptcy, that add exclamation marks to all the harm embodied in anything for sale these days, that emphasize the futility in all the sacrifices that capitalism demands. Demons all are we…
Here’s one example: I decided to buy a fake holiday tree. This was for reasons… I have a lifetime of memories wrapped up in holiday ornaments that I just don’t want to forget in a box in the attic. I am going to see my parents and won’t be around to make sure a natural tree doesn’t dry out and, at best, drop needles into the duct work and floor boards, at worst, go up in flames. I no longer have a pick-up truck to haul a tree home; I have a very small car that doesn’t seem to be ideal for tree transport even with ropes and bungee cords; and I have not yet found a tree delivery service. (There’s a marketing opportunity…) Furthermore, I’m not sure which is worse on ecological balance. A fake tree is a toxic mess, but at least it lasts a long time. A real tree must be purchased every year, meaning a tree has to be cut down and shipped to where I can get to it each and every year. And, quite apart from the badness of killing trees for a very short-term pleasure, that shipping just keeps getting more and more ridiculous. Even in Vermont where we are surrounded by thousands and thousands of acres of evergreens, it is common for a Christmas tree lot to sell nothing but a pile of Canadian firs. When I was buying trees to sell at the greenhouse last year, I discovered that almost none of the pre-cut trees for sale in Vermont were native New England species, and a good number of them travel thousands of miles to get here. And then there was the cost analysis… one fake tree that will last years and years or the same amount spent repeatedly each year… So anyway… reasons… arguably not good reasons, but reasons…
I decided to get a fake tree and then put every effort into finding the least vile version of fake in existence. I bought something that was supposedly American made, thinking that would maybe reduce the embodied transportation resource use. I bought something that was advertised as made from recycled materials. And I bought something that was theoretically built to last a long time, maybe for the rest of my life, so disposal won’t be an issue for a long while. (Though, of course, it will be eventually, even with a top-quality fake tree… and it will be deadly poisonous to wherever it lands in the waste depositing world… so…)
This is what I got. I won’t explicitly say all that marketing was lies, but I’m thinking the extra money I spent on those promises was probably wasted. And this is completely average. Nothing is what we pay for anymore. Because what we pay for no longer exists in this capitalism-depleted world.
So here’s me looking at a gross misrepresentation of goods (it’s not even the 7.5 feet I paid for, how’s that for a poke in the eye?)… and working this wretched job… and reading this Kingsolver book… And it’s all such an extravagant waste of lives, I just plopped down and cried for a while.
I think I may have the solution to all this. Clearly, the credit card set is not going to be moved by Demons or planetary destruction. But maybe we can get them with their avarice. For a long time, we’ve known that, more than anything else, this planet needs the privileged to just stop buying stuff. Full stop. But how does that happen in a society that bases status on conspicuous consumption? Your position in this culture rests solely on what you can and do buy. (Like that’s not depressing enough to end it…)
But what if we told more tales of all the cosmetic fixes that go into merchandizing pure trash at higher and higher prices so that capitalists can make higher and higher profits (which is what “a growing economy” means after all)? What if we showed those who prize wealth just how little value they were getting for their “hard-earned” money? What if we tore off the pretty displays and ripped away the packaging promises and revealed the gross poverty in everything they buy? What if we called out capitalism? It’s not about making the consumer happy, not about meeting needs or fulfilling wishes, not about providing beauty or utility or even a relatively non-toxic life. It’s about making cheap crap so that capital will accrue… somewhere… And in a world where less and less is cheap — because we’ve used up all the stuff, cheap and expensive — the cheap crap comes with higher and higher price tags. $45 for an ugly acrylic dog leash with your alma mater badly printed upon it…
Maybe we get their attention with how much money they are just throwing away on trash. And then maybe we sucker punch them Demon tales.
It couldn’t happen in Dickens’ day because the privileged did actually get some value from their privilege. They could be self-satisfied and turn away from all the horror that fed that satisfaction. They had full bellies and warm homes. Even Dickens couldn’t punch through that wall. But maybe Kingsolver can… with a little help from traitors down in the underbelly of consumer-land.
Once the paucity of this cheap world is made plain, once the naked emperor is publicly called a cheated imbecile, once the grubbiness of what shows up in those priority mail deliveries is clearly revealed, maybe, just maybe, the privileged will then notice the rest of the misery embodied in their spending… and maybe they’ll — we’ll — stop shopping us all into a shit-hole Demon world.