Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black Friday

Yesterday's death-by-trampling of a Wal-Mart employee invites, even demands, moral condemnation, and further points symbolically to a profoundly sick culture in which the prospect of cheap pleasures trumps the value of human life. Like a morality play, we have the satisfaction of seeing SIN and GREED personified, and the pleasure of condemning their bloodthirsty lusts from the comfort and even self-satisfaction of our place amid the audience. We experience the odd and what should be discomfiting satisfaction of moral disapprobation, the tut-tutting over morning coffee, the shaking of one's head and then the outraged denunciation of the murderous and ravaging hordes before turning the page to see what football games ESPN is carrying today.

Writ large, it seems to embody the moral rot that summarizes the causes of our economic woes: our mad, nearly insane fervor to get something for virtually nothing; the symbolic role of Wal-Mart and its kin in stoking our willingness to trade any semblance of an economy embedded in the lives and folkways of a community for the promise of everyday low prices achieved by "globalization," particularly sweatshop conditions for workers overseas, the evisceration of local businesses, and the outsourcing of jobs in "the developed world"; our simultaneous rush to compromise the responsible care for our children and our communities into the future in the name of instant gratification; a culture glutted by superfluous goods that aim mainly to distract us from gutted communities and eviscerated cultures (cultures whose core role was to provide and pass along many of the stories, poems, plays and music that was worthy of our leisure), and our near-insane fixation on acquiring the newest and flashiest gimmick; and, perhaps above all, our mindless and self-indulgent insistence on living beyond our means, of borrowing against the future on terms set by a universally greedy culture in the present - terms that would never be agreed to by those future generations considering the debts and enormous sums that will be borne by those not yet born. And, for most of us, over this societal disaster we tut-tut, shake our heads and call down moral disapprobation on the wrong-doers.

The deeper tragedy of this story, and its broader meaning, I suspect, is our collective incapacity to respond adequately to what we read everyday in the papers or see on the news - born in the first instance of our inability to understand what we are reading and seeing. We tend to understand our current crisis as the result of economic malfeasance, bad behavior that got out of hand, and which - if moderated suitably - can again be undertaken toward the reinvigoration of a robust growth economy. Depending one one's partisan allegiance, the fault lies with the greedy Wall Street bankers and corporations, or the skewed incentives created by legislation that forced Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make loans to people who reasonably should not have mortgages. Such partisan explanations - another version of tut-tutting over our morning coffee - masks the deepest roots of our disorder, and permits us the comfort of identifying a bad guy who bears responsibility for ruining a perfectly good economy. In this sense, the "partisans" are in deep agreement that everything is basically fine - we feign disagreement in our argument over who will be allotted blame (just as the officials are now scouring the store video to discern who killed the Wal-Mart employee) without pausing to reflect on the deeper root causes of our riotous behavior, writ small and large.

We are now in an in-between time, an interregnum between rulers both of whom share a fundamental commitment to "repairing" our broken economy by means of massive public expenditure - sums on a scale never before seen, and difficult to fathom. Before the fix is finished we will collectively be on the hook for TRILLIONS of dollars, sums borrowed from nations such as China and the oil exporting nations of the Middle East, those nations to whom we have been shipping vast sums of our assets and then debts in pursuit of oil and plastic derivatives made from oil and sold by Wal-Mart. Having undergone a barrage of promises for "change," we passively observe the kind of change that took place on the deck of the Titanic as musical chairs were being played before the encounter with the iceberg (the difference now: we have hit the iceberg, and still we play musical chairs - and not "Nearer My God to Thee").

With oil prices a third of their highest recorded price, our attention has been averted from the great and daunting challenge of planetary depletion and focused instead on the great and daunting challenge of financial and economic disaster. Yet, in both instances, the root cause of each challenge, and our flailing and feeble reaction, are the same. Both have been caused by the refusal to live within our means, and our borrowing against the future in the name of present satisfaction. Both are born of a misguided and unearned belief in entitlement. Both are sustained by a profound self-induced blindness to costs and consequences. Both are rooted in our learned ability to divorce ourselves from past and future alike, to disconnect ourselves from an understanding of our place in generations, the obligations we bear from the past and the duties we owe to the future. Both crises were fomented by the destruction of cultures - undermined by their replacement with instant gratification and the profligate employment of energy utilized to decouple our lived lives from everything necessary for the sustenance of life and the maintenance of culture, above all by disconnecting folkways of human life to particular places and particular people. Our oscillating crises of resources and finance - assuredly a pairing that will continue to make alternating appearances in shorter and more desperate cycles - have their deepest roots in a modern project that actively educated us to see the world as existing solely for our extraction and utility, a dead resource subject to our dominion for the sake of our comfort and satiation. Having reveled all too recently at the peak of extraction and the creation of mountainous debt that could no longer be sustained, we look down toward a steep abyss, suddenly conscious of our precariousness but wholly unprepared, even unaware that there was any alternative to continued ascent toward permanent growth (a condition also known as cancer...).

And to both crises our reactions are the same: we can fix it and go on in exactly the same manner. As evidence mounts of planetary depletion, we cut down rainforests to plant sugar cane, process food into fuel, accelerate our removal of mountaintops to burn more "clean coal" and await a miraculous transportation solution from a bankrupted Detroit. To solve our financial crisis, we take on massive new quantities of debt to bail out countless financial institutions and soon a huge expenditure in new "infrastructure," including massive outlays on building... new roads! In both instances we seek to assign blame on one culprit or another (High oil prices? Must be the Oil companies, the Saudis, the guvment. A financial crisis? Must be Wall Street bankers, AIG executives on junkets, Barney Frank, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac - someone, anyone, other than each of us). We all labor under a pervasive and deeply formative collective delusion that our way of life - based upon a conception that arose in the early modern period of a dead and subjected nature - is somehow natural, necessary, and unavoidable. We need only to punish the evil-doers, fix our current crisis and continue our global profligacy.

And, today, if we can identify the rampaging "consumers" who trampled to death that poor man who sought to open the doors of Wal-Mart for minimum wage on Black Friday, we will exonerate ourselves from any stain that we may all bear in assenting to a culture in which hordes stampede for cheap flat screen televisions and microwaves, convinced that what matters most is what we have, not who we are.

God forgive us all.


Anonymous said...


Well written. Everyone in America should have to take a daily dose of your medicine.

Keep up the good work.

Here is a little write up that I did on this post:

Anonymous said...

you said

"the symbolic role of Wal-Mart and its kin in stoking our willingness to trade any semblance of an economy embedded in the lives and folkways of a community for the promise of everyday low prices achieved by globalization,"

which to me is begging the question. Why is an economy embedded in our lives where we get less things a better value proposition than one that is not? The vote of majority is that it isn't worth more. Are the majority wrong?

Anonymous said...

"Why is an economy embedded in our lives where we get less things a better value proposition than one that is not? The vote of majority is that it isn't worth more. Are the majority wrong?"

Because humans are not consumption machines but social and spiritual beings (who are fallen and greedy).

Anonymous said...

yeah. Greedy. I like being alive.

I guess most people don't see this as linked, but it is. It's easy to mock globalisation because it cheapens commodities, but the upside is that *enables* things that wouldn't otherwise happen - economies of scale. Any imposition of a system that restores an economy embedded in the community is necessarily an attack on the nature of deep and specialised lines of supply.

There's one area where this would really hurt us, one with a moral aspect: healthcare. Even the luddites who reject modern society and live in the forests come ou of the hills for proper healthcare.

You might call me fallen, but most of us would rather have high quality heatlhcare - with it's deep machine dependence.

Joan of Argghh! said...

A different perspective that I agree with.

I don't believe that this tragedy should be a political jumping-off point. Crowd dynamics, for those of us who have been unfortunate enough to be caught in them, are a beast all unto themselves, regardless of motivation.

See also: mosh pits, soccer games.