Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Confessions of a Snob: Still dazed by the spell of money?

Happy May Day and International Workers Day

I have been thinking these past few days a great deal about consumerism, and capitalism and its discontents. Much of my rage and sorrow develops around the realization of the insanity of the world we live in and how easily I check-out and ignore the wrong-doings of my government, of certain people, of corporations and so on because of my sense of powerlessness. Since the onset of Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, I have felt a sliver of hope; yet in the face of such overwhelming corporate greed and power, it's hard to keep the faith. Today, Mosey and I were going to attend his first rally in Montpelier--the May 1st Worker's Rights Rally that happens every year--but since it's raining and I've got a runny nose we stayed home. I'm writing from the couch in my living room, listening to him snoring in his magic swing. This morning I finally got around to reading

Scott Russell Sander's essay in Orion, "Breaking the Spell of Money"

Here is a poignant excerpt:

"In 1955, a retailing analyst named Victor Lebow bluntly described what an ever-expanding capitalism would require of us: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. The economy needs things consumed, burned, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.” And so it has come to pass. Americans, by and large, have made consumption a way of life, and a prime source, if not of spiritual satisfaction, then of compensation for whatever else might be missing from our lives, such as meaningful work, intact families, high-quality schools, honest government, safe streets, a healthy environment, a nation at peace, leisure time, neighborliness, community engagement, and other fast-disappearing or entirely vanished boons."

Since the birth of my son, I have been working on something that has plagued me for many years. It goes a little like this:

What if I took a low paying job, but one I enjoyed, say working at an independent book store, and kept that job for the rest of my life? What if I wasn't a writer so I couldn't excuse my so-called crappy job with the understanding that I needed low-key job employment in order to write and maintain my creative mind (which is true)? What if I always lived in this apartment and never bought a house (not necessarily the best financial decision)? What if I never bought new clothes or a new car or a new iPhone?

Since my teenage years I have been acutely aware of the power of wealth. Neither me nor anyone I know has any wealth. Wealth equals billions of dollars...not millions, okay, billions of untouchable, powerful, dollars. However, many of my friends from childhood and high school (not all, just a certain group) have gone out into the world and gotten careers and mortgages on homes and cars and vacation homes they often struggle to afford. They work hard to amass wealth in the form mostly of debt as they have been taught, like me, that the illusion of wealth equates to social status. Now I get away with poverty--at least in my own mind--by claiming to be an artist. This isn't just a claim, I am an artist; I'm a writer. But my point here is that in order to justify my lack of seeking the illusion of financial success--middle classdom-- I need some sort of excuse: bohemian artist. Of course I look down my nose at all those slaves to the system dogging it for the false illusion that a blond bob, a thin body, and a house in the burbs with a couple of SUVs in the driveway purportedly brings on bliss. However, there is still that part of me that seeks--albeit slyly--the power of money.

It wasn't until recently while reading a friend's blog (Woodbird's The Year of Anti-Consumerist Thinking) that I realized how much money, or more accurately, buying power, still ruled my life. It worked a slow, subtle magic on me. Though mostly I wanted money for things such as a home, the ability to travel to visit friends and family, the ability to pay for at least some of my son's college education....I also longed for it as a shield, much like the mask of beauty, that might protect me from judgement of others, that might make me stand apart from the pack with a sense of superiority. I still fantasize about the capacity to sweep in and buy up a beautiful Vermont farm or to drive a shiny new car or to buy whatever clothes I want regardless of the price-tag. I still feel a little bit small driving my rusty Hyundai Elantra.

When I think about the above Sanders quote, I remember that advertisers are not selling us products (soap, a car, alcohol) they are selling us the illusion of a certain life. I am reminded of the current "Miller 64" commercial (you know the song, "to Miller 64"). I haven't drank alcohol in four years and have no intention of drinking it ever again, however when I see the Miller 64 commercial, shot with a yellowish hue signifying hipster-esque film or perhaps certain hip smart phone camera apps that create old looking pictures, and packed with youthful, stylish looking people enjoying a carefree, sexy life, I start to salivate. Okay, there is no way I'd choose that beer (it's way uncool and totally not local) if I was going to have a drink, but something about the life the commercial is selling, appeals to me. There you go, it's that simple, and everyone is aware of this on some level, it's just that if you're consuming a lot of TV commercials (which I most def am not) it gets in the brain and sort of sticks.

Certified Organic...
I also love buying beauty products or even expensive vitamins. When I purchase a pricey bottle of goo packed with all organic whatever, at my local co-op, I feel genuinely good about myself. I feel more attractive and healthier just at having bought it, before ever using it. It's the same with buying new shoes. I may have a different set of standards about what purchases make me feel good (for example, buying clothes at Old Navy makes me feel shame, but I feel great about spending half the car payment on a fleece from Patagonia...oh it will last and last!).

Yeah, so, what's so wrong with that? You might be asking. What's wrong is what Sanders points out. We may be outraged about those who criminally amass wealth at the cost of the environment, human health and well-being, the future of the world and so on, but if we maintain a capitalist fetish with money, we won't be able to break this spell.

We have to stop asking people "What do you do?" to start because this basic question (which, trust me, I love to ask) gets at the fact that we define people by their economic status, and since, in the middle class, wealth is equated to employment (not the case in the upper class), we ask this question in order to make a basic assumption about who this person is. Or, if you're asking this of a person in the service industry it usually means what kind of interesting, cool, hip, artistic thing do you do that justifies your working this crappy job. 

Sanders points out the larger (and more obvious) issue: 

"As a nation, we need to quit using the flow of money as the chief measure of our well-being...

We need to devise measures of well-being that take into account the actual quality of life in our society, from the rate of incarceration (currently the highest in the world) to the rate of infant mortality (currently thirty-third in the world), from the condition of our soils and rivers and air to the safety of our streets" 

Yet part of how this might be accomplished arises from "breaking the spell of money" in our own lives; by challenging ourselves to see the psychic, spiritual, and emotional hold money has on our lives. What do we need to buy new and what is simply feeding our capitalist disease? How do we measure success in our own lives? For me, I need to be able to strip away everything that bolsters my sense of identity, and see that even without these labels or perhaps free from them, I live a life of value. I need to see the coda of consumerism in my bohemian, politically left, crunchy, artist's life.

I most want to give my son a sense of freedom from the constraints of believing in the salvation of money. I want him to inherit a spirit of well-being, resourcefulness, and love for his fellow(ette)s. I want him to have the capacity or the chance to look with a critical eye on greed, war, incarceration, shiny new cars, glamorous but all-consuming jobs, and the systemic destruction of the environment so a small few can keep amassing the power of wealth. I also want him to feel less anger, sadness, horror than I do at the state of affairs in the world. And, finally, I want his sense of contentedness to dwell in the chambers of his heart, his soul, his spirit and his mind.

What is Ethical Capitalism? 


Laurie Easter said...

Great post, Em! I love so much of what you have to say. I've been struggling with this whole "job" issue for months. Ever since graduation, I feel like there is this huge expectation that now I am supposed to enter the workforce and make something of myself. Of course there is the reality of bills and impending student loans that need to be paid. But I have to say, working at a bookstore sounds like a dream to me. Unfortunately that type of wage is not going to pay my daughter's imminent college bills. Oh, what to do?

Miss you and can't wait to meet little Mosey! <3

Emily Arnason Casey said...

In an ideal world we would be paid a fair wage for our work. But, alas... I already worry about how we'll pay for Moses' education let alone pay off our own student loans, it really dictates life.

AC said...

If you had loads of cash, you would buy a farm?

Emily Arnason Casey said...

How is this relevant? Haha. Yeah, I would, but not a working farm with animals and crops. A funny farm. xo

Jodi Paloni said...

Em, You're so thoughtful and productive. When I was nursing my first child, I read Willa Cather novels and sipped tea, or, at most, took long walks to the reservoir. Let's teach ourselves a new language. Shall we ask people, What do you love? Tell me about yourself. So, you got out of bed this morning, why? I need help re-framing the conversation. Any takers?

Emily Arnason Casey said...

Yes, what do you love. What do you like to do? Who are you? J, I mostly take long walks and drink lattes, tea, and seltzer water.. I wish I could do more work. It's overwhelming!

woodbird said...

"I want his contentedness to dwell in the chambers of his heart"...yes yes! I love this conversation flowing through space and time. And it's important. But having spent most of a year not buying new things, I have a new perspective to share, especially for mothers of brand-new or about-to-be-born babies: be easy on yourself. Enjoy those walks and those lattes. Don't worry about your work. Buy yourself something beautiful once in a while, that is for you, and you alone, that stirs the (materialistic!) bells of your heart. That you're thinking this is what really matters. Lots of love to you and Mosey. xo

janjoplin said...

Love this and I agree whole-heatedly!

Emily Arnason Casey said...

Love you Woodbird!!