The Humiliated Masses
January 7, 2016 § 9 Comments
The blue sky almost gleamed in the morning light. An electric sapphire firmament hanging low over the green grass. Cold water moving fast through the creeks whose banks were widened by the unseasonable flow. A spring day by the look and feel of it. In reality, it was Christmas Eve in the year of a super El Nino. We were winding along country roads on our way north to visit my mother who lives on the outskirts of Chicago. Every time I return to that cast iron city so bathed in smoke and fog I can only feel satisfied with my choice to never again reside there.
In honor of a friend who died this past summer, I met up with a man I have known since high school and we, along with his girlfriend, went to see the new Star Wars film. Our deceased mutual friend was a great fan of the original trilogy, and it seemed a fitting way to center getting together while we were both back home. Of course, the flip side of such an outing is having to enmesh oneself with the throngs of other movie goers, and to submit oneself to the barrage of cultural pap, heavy with subtext and clues to the greater cultural malaise that is a Hollywood movie viewing experience.
Before the film, there are of course several coming attractions for other movies which by and large all seemed to express the same handful of palpitating urges that must be metastisizing just beneath the skin of the general public’s artfully crafted facade of contentedness. With the exception of a children’s cartoon, every film we were shown a trailer for was about the grand destruction of society in one form or another. Most of these couched their plot lines in the superhero milieu. Batman and Superman will be fighting Doomsday while the X-Men will be fighting the Apocalypse. Captain America was in there somewhere too, punching, kicking, and I can’t remember what. Some other films, the names of which escape me, also focused on massive catastrophe of some kind, but the protagonists were unexpected heroes who were trained to be better, faster, stronger by military mentors. It was hard to not come away with the feeling that a large contingent of this society is seething beneath their complacent smiles, waiting for the day when the skylines of the cities are aglow with flame, when the rules are no longer enforceable, when the millions of other human beings who are constantly interfering with their lives are wiped out in a clean flash of light, and the scattered remnants – themselves included – get to run around with guns shooting anyone else who happens to be in the way.
A better psychoanalyst than myself could likely un-stitch the many tangled threads of collective conscious that seem to be on display in such a venue, but the negative space was clear. Not present were any films about people cooperating to solve problems. Not present were even simple stories about people living normal lives, albeit beset by uncommon struggles, but at least content with modern western existence. A movie without a firefight or some kind of glorious combat was glaringly absent. Interestingly, the superhero plot points often seemed to revolve around internal conflict within the ranks. Is this a representation of the collective unconscious? Are we all gearing up for a fight against all enemies, foreign and domestic?
Apparently it rained at the North Pole in recent days. Tornadoes ripped through Texas during the holiday break while floods ravaged England. The El Nino event that has been supercharged by climate change is indeed wreaking its share of havoc. Larger, continuing ecological calamities like tree die offs around the globe and oceanic extinctions which are glaring and happening almost in slow motion prompt some people to ask, “Why are humans so inept when it comes to responding to environmental crises?” It is a reasonable enough question on it’s surface, but I am skeptical whenever all humans are lumped into a group and then laid on the couch to be analyzed. Are humans inept? Or are other forces preventing otherwise well intentioned and intelligent humans from addressing such crises? It isn’t as if no humans care about the living planet. Many are willing to lay down their lives to protect a stretch of forest, a river, or a species. Around the world, being an environmental activist is quite dangerous, and not because of some ineptitude, but because other humans who stand to gain from the conversion of the living world into dead materials for capitalism’s factories hire out the execution of humans who would get in their way.
Capitalism, and indeed, industrial civilization must be insulated from those who have not been so disconnected, so alienated from nature or so humiliated and shamed by their powerlessness that they might strike back at their abusers rather than identifying with them.
No, it is not that humans are inept at solving ecological crisis. It is that we are prevented from doing so by people with power. Unpacking this further, we must acknowledge what classes we as individuals reside within, and what power we do and do not possess. I cannot with the stroke of a pen prevent a dam from being constructed, or order the deconstruction of one that already exists. I cannot stand before a board of directors and tell them to cease particular business practices, let alone to close up shop permanently. Not without being summarily accosted and dragged out of the room, anyway.
There are people with such power though. Certainly, there are. It is just a rare thing indeed for them to exercise it as such, but they absolutely exist. They are keenly aware of the system that they serve and how much wealth their service to this system has provided for them personally. Any inklings as to the dangers generated by their use of power that may have penetrated their thinking are likely exterminated by denial. Denial is really, really easy when everyone around you is washed in it as well. In towers of glass they laugh at our concerns, they berate us, and they devour the latest scraps of million dollar lies about how everything is just fine, how the Earth is here to be plundered, about the supremacy of man, about our right, our divine destiny really, to dominate the living world. Their great wealth proves it.
And forests fall. The oceans are trawled. A pipeline is laid.
Often we are fed a narrative that we as the general public can “vote with our dollars,” and send economic signals to the benevolent corporations of the world by purchasing only the most ethical of goods. This notion is folly for many reasons which have been largely addressed by myself and others. But I would like to take some space to dismantle the idea even further.
First, if we accept that this premise is true, we must also accept inversions of the premise. For instance, if buying ethical product A makes one innocent of ethical harms, then we are implicitly accepting that purchasing unethical product B renders one guilty of an ethical violation themselves. Why?
This thinking generates a line of reasoning in which the consumer of a product generated by unethical means is the reason the unethical means were used. Their purchase demanded such a production process. Can you see what is glaringly absent here? For one, there is no timeline. The product existed before it was purchased. The specific harm has already been executed. But even more startlingly absent from such an analysis is any agency on the part of the producer whatsoever. We are told, by those with power and money, that if people buy a thing, that the producers can only respond in one way, and that is, to continue to produce their product in like fashion. Hence, riding in a car is the reason for Arctic drilling.
But where is the agency of the board of directors of the oil company? Could they not receive the money from their previous gasoline production, and decide that their production process is dangerous to the health of the global ecology, and not continue to seek new petroleum sources? Are they robots? Do they have no minds, no consciences? Why is the underclass the sole bearer of responsibility in this equation? Very obviously, if an oil company decided to sell their assets, pay their employees dividends and to close down operations, there would be less oil and gas available for consumption. As the producer, they have far greater agency than mere purchasers.
Basically, the whole notion of supply and demand as described by capitalism’s apologists is one sided. The general public bears the responsibility to act ethically, to make sacrifices, to go through their day and to abstain from sending any price signals to the powerful, whether wittingly or not, that might stimulate another round of ecologically destructive behavior on the part of a multinational corporation. Price signals of course, cannot be resisted by businessmen. They are victims, really, of our rapacious purchasing of their wares. We are forcing their hands.
A lack of agency over our lives culminates in humiliation. We by and large feel like beings of free will, and then we make a commute we hate to a job we despise to take commands from a boss we loathe. A face on television tells us we are one of the lucky ones to get to do so. This is humiliation. It is submission to a system that degrades our dignity by converting us into automatons of misery. Our potential as autonomous actors is diminished at nearly every conceivable opportunity to reduce risk and to generate consistency. Subject to mass society and capitalism we are only slightly above necessary as the fleshy avatar of a more important notation in a ledger. We exist as nodes in a network of capital flow, and if somehow we could be eliminated, we would be. Indeed, many are.
We are dancing bears, faces painted and dolled up in lace. The master holds a whip and a gun, so we dare not strike for fear of being killed. Eventually, the master doesn’t even carry the pistol any more because we have it internalized. He knows we would not dare attack him, and the insult is doubled. We look to the other caged animals around us and think, “If only we rose up as one, surely the master could not kill us all. If only we could combine our strength and in numbers find courage. Even if we were to die in such a struggle, we at last would be free. In our final glorious moments we would be complete, we would not exist in submission, humiliation, domestication.”
But the other animals are scared. They have been whipped. Some have come to defend the master. We don’t even know who we can trust. And it has been such a long time since we have lived beyond the cage. The wild intimidates us now. Can we even survive out there anymore? Can we even exist without the scraps the master feeds us? Then one day we see a tiger attack a crowd of onlookers. She has snapped. She rages beautifully for one perfectly flawed moment before a bullet quiets her. If only she had said something. If only we had acted together. If only we had turned our claws and fangs in the right direction. If only it was the master now lying in a pool of blood.
We have a lot of masters. We are made pitiful by clerks as well as clocks. We are degraded not just politicians and police but by abstractions and imaginary lines. We so badly need to forge time and space to be quiet, to meditate, to speak softly about just who we think we are. Technology interrupts. The buzzing of other people’s demands seeps in through the cracks to find us, to distract us, to constantly hurry us up, to tire us out, to intoxicate us, to leave us slumped over and worn.
So we go to the movies and watch civilization collapse. We envy those who get to rebuild, if only on the screen. If we keep buying such stories, they will keep selling them. And we will surely never live them.