“How long can men thrive between walls of brick, walking on asphalt pavements, breathing the fumes of coal and of oil, growing, working, dying, with hardly a thought of wind, and sky, and fields of grain, seeing only machine-made beauty, the mineral-like quality of life. This is our modern danger one of the waxen wings of flight. It may cause our civilization to fall unless we act quickly to counteract it, unless we realize that human character is more important than efficiency, that education consists of more than the mere accumulation of knowledge.” – Charles Lindbergh
I work for a department store, mainly in inventory management however sometimes I’m asked to go downstairs as a customer assistant. This usually involves offering help, being told by the customer they don’t need it and then I resume straightening up mugs.
Strolling through our toys and even clothing sections made me reflect on the waste society that capitalism has produced. All around me in toys were plastics. In homewares there were hundreds of the same mugs just with different prints on them. I knew we had hundreds more of everything on the sales floor upstairs too. Who buys all this shit? It turns out according to an ABC article published in November that we are shopping as if in the midst of economic crisis. Though it sounds strange, I think this is good news.
Unfortunately, this spending pattern is the result of economic pressures being put on families which I obviously do not endorse. I am hoping that this slump in sales sends a message to the big stores that people will not be buying random trinkets. I am also hoping that this attitude will continue after the economy improves.
It is important to acknowledge capitalist economies have functioned for a millennium without the scale of waste that we see today. It is only because of advancements in production and competition (supposedly the great selling points of capitalism) that we are in the present predicament.
Capitalism functions in a vicious cycle. A person works, often in a job they don’t enjoy and to generate money for a place they don’t really care about to receive a portion of the capital which is imbursed into another company for products to distract them from the numbing processes of modernism. As production and purchasing of goods becomes more a part of our lives this numbing effect is only amplified.
In the last century before supermarkets and shopping centres, even the poorest child had one or two toys that would last them a lifetime (usually their lack of wealth meant they made sure the toys WOULD last a long time). These were often hand-crafted by skilled workers and distributed from the very place they were made, by the maker. There was never any need to create high speed, high efficiency production of these toys because there was no market for that. Toys weren’t something you threw away. They were cherished and passed down not because you grew tired of them but because you appreciated the skill it took to create, and the memories it stored. Will a Tickle Me Elmo™ Global Conglomerate Edition Faux Fur Toy™ ever be looked on the same? How does the toy made by slave labour in the Guangzhou Toy Factory #305 make you feel compared to the meticulous craft made by the little toy shop down the road run by the same family for generations? This doesn’t just apply to toys of course, but toys are the best example of things that are nowadays often enjoyed briefly then discarded. We can talk about cars which used to be made of metal instead of plastic composites. When a dent in the side door back then was as expensive to fix as just buying a whole new car, people tended to look after those things. Leather interiors are only recently ‘extras’. A few decades ago, they were standard. How could we afford to make cars in Australia years ago out of quality materials by skilled labourers, but now Holden has to close when all they did was assemble parts from overseas? Shouldn’t the process have become cheaper and more efficient? It would seem not.
Sometimes when I go to the baby toys section of our store there are toys that make obnoxious amounts of noise and almost leap at you from the shelf without even touching them. I’m convinced that this has nothing to do with its function as a toy, but more to do with the way the company demands a consumer’s attention and thus increases the products chances of being purchased. The time when a toy manufacturer was passionate about their craft has been replaced with the need to make as much money as possible by whatever means.
The competition of capitalism can be critiqued very simply in this context. If you make objects constantly available, advertising that penetrates through constant exposure and produce them at such a scale where a person is commanded to try the competition a person will become stuck in an infinite cycle of having an inferior product and be constantly reminded of this state. This breeds jealousy, envy, want and other vices that separate a person from society.
“The modern world has invented a thousand useless luxuries and turned them into necessities; It has created a thousand vicious appetites and satisfies none of them; It has de-throned God and created a shekel in His place” – Mark Twain
Whilst competition that promotes advancements makes life easier, it doesn’t make the process ethical. And making life easier does not necessarily equate to making life more fulfilling.
Returning to the words by Mr Lindbergh that prefaced this article, the overarching quality of humanity is its character. There is no character in the modern day, and I fear the time when civilization has fallen that he warned of has already passed.
Those who have read up to this point could accuse me of being a Marxist. I wish to clarify that I am just as happy to abuse that point of view as I am capitalism, but I can’t help but give Marx some credit. He foresaw that there would come a time when unrestricted capitalism would mean that an employee cannot even afford the products of capitalism, thus the whole system can no longer be maintained. The first things to go will be those stupid mugs, I hope.
Arts, culture, music, architecture and science are all vitally important to character. Art that excites and inspires, culture that is shared yet unique, music which is the rhythm of life and science which is not raw and purely rational but asks questions that sometimes can’t even be answered.
So how do we break free? What is the point of this wall of text? The answer is, I really don’t know. It’s a personal thing to confront and I hope this article has planted the seeds of thinking about how to deal with modernity. Rejecting materialism is a good first step, especially as we see the effects of mass production and consumption being wreaked upon the planet. Next, I would suggest connecting more with the community. The same joy can be brought out of the smallest act of kindness than any object can provide. Finally, explore something higher than yourself and of course higher than the material. Art, culture, religion and reading are all great avenues. Even visiting a park with friends can have a great impact on your mental wellbeing and it’s totally free. You’ll notice in moments of joy shared with other people how quickly your worries disappear. The goal of modernism which is becoming increasingly clear is to create a world full of people whose only thought is work and negative play (e.g. recreation that seeks to mitigate the effects of work, not enhance the human experience). For the sake of our future, do not go blindly into this fate.
“Everyone dies, but not everyone lives.” – William Wallace