The Buddhist notion of ‘hungry ghosts’ (from 900AD) concerns those many sad, unfortunates returned, reincarnated as spectres, destined to hover in an earthly purgatory, haunting the living with their inaudible sad clamour. Does this notion not resemble the condition of today’s consumer; always lost and hungry in the midst of plenty? Buddhism provides the week-long ritual of the ‘Water and Land Assembly’ as the cure for the impasse of spiritual blindness it diagnoses. Today we may discern no modern equivalent.
In the realm of cultural habit, the realm of attitude, there is perhaps no aspect of today’s popular mass consumption that did not already exist in the restricted arena of previous luxury markets, or in earlier, pre-capitalist, elite forms of consumption. On the one hand we have a simple repetition, but without the cultural level that often attended elite consumption - so often without the discrimination that tames appetite to ‘taste’. On the other hand we have the repetition of all the worst excesses of the elite in the sphere of consumption (including even the sphere of the self-image, in the delusions this consumption was supposed to support). So there should be no surprise as to the weaknesses and vices that this putative El Dorado of mass consumption, in the direction in which it is currently headed in advanced capitalist economies, is currently bringing about, be they the obesity that has for the first time in generations shortened average life expectancy or the debauched violence which so disfigures city night life (the parody potlatch of the ‘good night out’).
The price of plenitude…(the vices of poverty pass into the vices of luxury).
All the world over, the conspicuous consumption of the poorest, usually the men-folk, in a destructive expenditure tied to their masculinity (which benefits only foreign capital in the form of ‘brand names’, Coca-Cola, Marlboro) exists as a tragic parody of the conspicuous consumption of the rich (or of those from richer countries). The bottom mimics the top just as teenagers squander their savings on the latest ‘must have’ brand sponsored by a well-rewarded media star.
Plenitude in the material sphere alongside poverty in the cultural sphere indicates a problem in the sphere of moral education (in a final irony even the very real -albeit relative- poverty that exists turns out to be underwritten by the very social provisions that were supposed to alleviate its worst effects).
Moral pride, self-respect, a sense of honour by any other name, once allowed the poor to hold up their heads in the knowledge that there was something more important than the possession and consumption of things. This sense of honour, of upright superiority in the face of the abuses of power perpetrated by those more favoured by an accident of birth, has today been superseded by a vicious parody which takes only the mantle of personal superiority from the past and leaves aside its moral imperatives. The sacrifice of egoism, whose reward was the inner glow of satisfaction, result of consistently rising above ones weaker self, has given way to a sacrifice of all on the altar of egoism. The simultaneous superiority of all over all has superseded the collective ideal of solidarity, of the shared equality of all. Community, once the mainstay of economic survival and focus of identity now only exists in its negative avatar as the waiting sacrifice of the other (the definition of self against other, even unto death – the death of the other of course, not the wager of ones own). A sacrifice only held at bay by the commodities that have brought about its ever-lurking presence. Like a drug that holds in check the evil it has itself created.
A sense of self-respect, of honour worthy of the name, would first have to maintain a personal attitude of transparency regarding the self; disavowing the self-delusions that demand the destruction of others (even in symbolic form). The return or rebirth of the notion of personal honour might therefore begin with a return to the notion of personal honesty as a cherished value (we are not speaking here of the feudal honour based upon rank that has more in common with today’s egotism of ignorance and possession, and which was targeted by the champions of the Enlightenment as a major source of everyday violence and personal dishonesty). People who lie to themselves will lie to others (and vice versa, despite the self-delusions of a Machiavellian rationalism that so often accompanies the cynical manufacture of untruths destined for the ears of others).
The search for value beyond price indicates that the diagnosis has already been made. As to what the cure might be…going beyond individual solutions involving a purely personal sense of honour, a new consensus on civilised values would be preferable to the rise of a new fundamentalism.
Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk