CHAPTER NINETEEN THE BENEFITS OF THE STATUS QUO MAY NOT BE AS WE SUPPOSE

Here is Ivan Illich on the “benefits” of the average American’s car in 1973:

The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly instalments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 per cent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of life-time for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry. – from Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity, 1973

I think that we can apply such an analysis to much of our lives.  How much life do we waste in pursuit of a better life?  How many hours of work do we undertake simply to pay for labour-saving devises?  It is clear that many machines have made slaves of their purchasers, rather than easing their purchaser’s lot.  What’s more, purchases become property and immediately make inequalities apparent – even though it may be argued that the machine has replaced the servant.  Two people walking side-by-side are more or less equal until they enter their properties – their cars; their houses – or display their purchases of service – air-tickets, or hotel reservations.  So is the post-modern question not machinery or labour? – but, servants or machines?  If so, since the servant has made the machine, how do we escape the world of service to find a better one of responsible roles.

Post modernity has assumed a world of service (and servitude).  It is implicit in the rights machinery of consumerism.  We have those rights to just the extent of the purchase price.

Post modernity proposes that consumer choice triggers market signals for the social system as a whole to adjust its behaviour.  Political parties are displayed in a political shopping aisle for similar choices.  Party packages are identical in style to those of beer cans, or yoghurt pots.  They have been designed in the same advertising agencies.  We vote for (in ballot or purchase) changes in an undefined provision.  There is no forum in which to profess personal responsibility to provide, to express the scarcities or difficulties of provision, or to share ingenuities and dexterities of technique.

The role of professional has come to mean not one who professes, but one who is discrete.

As we’ve explored, to attempt to change such a system from within ends as an ephemeral suit from a dependant for a better provision.  The system will remain unchanged, but the suitor may go away partially satisfied.  For instance, more Fair Trade and Organic labels may appear on the super market shelf, but consequently more organic growers will be locked in dependency on an amoral commodity market, while those who attempt to trade in the more convivial market-places of proper shops and market squares will find those places increasingly deserted.

Thinking of purchase – not of production, to suppose that our purchase makes the world a better place may be true only if it is purchased in a better place – so swelling a better marketplace, such as our corner shop.  Purchasing a “better product” to improve a worse marketplace both endorses and swells the worse marketplace and diminishes the possibility of a better one.  Thinking of purchase, the act of where we purchase is the only act to require a personal moral consideration in a dependent culture and so it should be important to us.  What we purchase is decided by a balanced consideration of the actions of others on whom we depend.

Thinking of production, we can make the world a better or worse place by our methods of production and by our consumption of raw materials, but our method of distribution also carries a personal moral consideration.

To suppose that a machine increases the happiness of my chores may be true in some cases and not in others.

Purchasing machinery purchases service to just the degree of our monetary status.  The monetary status and its demand for service is the status quo.  It is a demand which comes with a property-right, but without a moral.  Property is an established state.  Property rights ask for the responsibilities of others but have none of their own.

So the property right which comes with my purchase re-enforces my dependency.

The purpose of this book is to search for ways in which citizens can assert the responsibility which is currently denied them.  Throughout the hierarchical structure of current behaviour and governance there is no-one in charge – simply a network of property-right-holders asserting their dependency on the status quo.  Even those who consider themselves in pursuit of an egalitarian end, have come to promote “social mobility” – That is, they approve the unequal social hierarchy through which that mobility must move.  They approve the right for inequality.

Meanwhile, the dispossessed hold onto the rights they’ve been given.  Those rights are principally the rights to consume and the rights to vote – in both cases the right to consumer-choice.

With regards to the benefits of consumerism, such as consumer right, low prices and shed-responsibility, this is (presciently) from Why Socialism by Albert Einstein, published in the first Monthly Review, May 1949 and re-published in the fiftieth anniversary edition.

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

***

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