In my summer course on “Consumerism, Politics and Values,” we started with a pretty intense week of looking at the development of western thought from Francis Bacon to Sigmund Freud, built around the book Dialectic of Enlightenment by Adorno and Horkheimer. Essentially, they argue that the enlightenment, the embrace of reason and rationality in order to liberate humans from myth and superstition, has a dark side. By abstracting the essence of the human away from nature (nature is to be controlled) and from each other, we set up conditions where the enlightenment allows us to be manipulated, alienates us from our true selves, creates the capacity for great atrocities, and leads to ‘lives of quiet desperation.’ I discuss some of these ideas in the blog entry “Alienation and the Arts.”
I cannot do justice to the argument or what we’ve covered in class in this blog. Suffice it to say that reason and rationality are tools with no center. They themselves contain no inherent meaning or answer about life’s values and ethics. These tools can be used to rationalize any behavior, build an ideology around any premise or assumption, and can be used by the powerful to manipulate the masses. One sees it with fascism, which uses enlightenment tools to create an anti-enlightenment mythology. One sees it with communism, which rationalizes atrocities and totalitarianism by positing an argument supposedly grounded in the objective laws of history. We also see it in capitalism, where we are manipulated to find meaning solely as consumers, our worth depends on the money we have, our value as humans is judged on the basis of our possession or status within the economic system. Or, as Benjamin Barber argues, consumerism “corrupts children, infantalizes adults and swallows citizens whole.”
In a society without any clear center of meaning, especially for those of us who are no longer able to hold to religious mythology or some kind of secular ideology for grounding, the challenge is immense. Either one finds a way to construct meaning for oneself in life, taking complete responsibility for ones’ happiness, defining success on ones’ own terms, and living an introspective and self-critical life, or one gets lost in a world of consumption and glitz. That world is one where humans are insatiable. One shops for the thrill of something new, and then finds out that once the rush wears off, the object no longer satisfies. Indeed, one may despair that the new car doesn’t have features that a friends’ has, or one can’t afford a higher end product. One works not to produce for the joy of production, but instead either to pay the bills or perhaps to get ahead. For the former its joyless drudgery, for the latter it’s finding meaning in a competition one cannot win. Small wonder that anxiety, stress and depression haunt our prosperous society.
Since nature is seen as an object to exploit, consumerism drives ever increasing use of resources that may become scarce, oil being the obvious one. Since we are disconnected from nature, the sense of wholeness one gets in communing with nature gets replaced by “isn’t that a beautiful scene, let’s take a picture of it.” But what if nature isn’t a bottomless pit of resources? What if cheap energy indeed does not last forever, and what if environmental damage such as global warming create future economic crises? Where will our society go?
Today as we shifted from background to moving towards post-war consumerism, we watched the film Triumph of Will, a Leni Riefenstahl masterpiece of propaganda. In it she chronicles the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi party convention. The film connects Hitler with all that is good about Germany, it’s traditions, the youth, and German music. Students watching admitted they had to remind themselves of what the film is about, so enticing were the emotional manipulations. Put in context, most have to admit that if they had lived in Germany at the time, it would have been hard not to support Hitler.
Hitler’s propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, boasted that he learned everything he knew about propaganda from Madison avenue — the New York hub of the advertising business. If soap can be marketed, so can political parties and even leaders. The Nazis organized precincts (the first modern ‘get out the vote’ efforts), experimented with focus groups, and realized that the powerful can easily manipulate the masses. You appeal to emotion, fear, and hope. People need to believe they are part of something bigger than themselves. It’s the same dynamic that leads to team loyalty in sports, brand loyalty in consumption, and of course loyalty to political parties and leaders. Fans of talk radio or blogs on the left or right look not to critique their views and engage in debate, but to make arguments to support their side or take down the other side. They use reason and rationalizations to do so, but manipulate the starting assumptions in order to simply find a way to justify their conclusion.
One question that haunts me as I think about future crises, our world in transition, and the way we consumer citizens are manipulated is whether or not the stage is set for the rise of fascism here in America. Remember the knee jerk reactions after 9-11 to grab for the symbols of nationalism, to justify war, to justify not giving rights to enemy combatants, to see dissenters as unpatriotic or treasonous. In a longer, more profound crisis, I fear we could be manipulated to give up the very freedoms we hold dear. Indeed, there seems to have been a steady erosion of freedom in favor of power to the government in the years since WWII. After leaving class today, having watched those scenes from the 1934 Nazi Parteitag, I then read that Barack Obama will give his acceptance speech at a stadium in Denver which holds 75,000 people.
No, I don’t think Obama is a fascist. In fact, of all the politicians out there, he gives me more hope that we can chart a path to solve immense problems facing our country. Yet the ability of politicians to now create the larger than life aura that Hitler donned convinces me that our country is not immune from that path, and the militarism in the US since the end of the Cold War is disturbing. Americans think nothing of bombing other countries and killing other people, so long as we can keep shopping.
That, I believe, is because we are manipulated far more than we realize. And there might be answer. We are now in an information revolution that allows people to communicate, find information and organize in manners never before possible. The ability of leaders to get people to embrace one voice is giving away to fragmentation and multiple voices. Perhaps this will allow us to fight against external manipulation, overcome the meaningless era of consumption, and discover a set of post-enlightenment values that can re-establish our responsibility to create and cultivate not just material prosperity, but also spirit: creativity and meaning.