Monday, October 27, 2008

Flirting with disaster

In the Old West I would have been a scout. Early life experiences taught me the value of looking ahead for the big picture. You could waste an enormous amount of time doing homework if the next day was a snow day, for example. On a more serious level, I learned that you couldn't rely on authority figures to give you the big picture. When my little brother was sick in the hospital with leukemia my parents forgot to mention he was there because he was dying. An older child might have guessed this but I was only 8. At that age I still thought hospitals made you better. So when he died I was totally unprepared.

From that devastating experience I concluded at a very young age that other people don't always tell you what you need to know. The experience of being surprised by disaster is one to avoid. Navigating the road of life is difficult enough. Being misled just makes it worse. I was still just a child when I learned to treasure the reliable reporter, the truth teller, the authentic personality.

That's why I recommend that friends read Charles Hugh Smith today. He is different from most of the bloggers who writes about the current financial firestorm that is engulfing us. He knows the numbers and the charts but he also knows how to tell the forest from the trees. He gives you the numbers to prove his point but he is able to write in general terms that anyone can understand and appreciate.

Charles Hugh Smith sometimes reminds me of an earlier social commentator, Paul Fussell. Fussell wrote a book in 1983 called Class - A guide through the American status systems. Fussell defined nine levels of American society according to their experience of money. He called out all the usual suspects: the very, very top, like the banking families who own the Federal Reserve, then the millionaires, including trust fund babies, who play the stock market and don't have to work, then rich people who do have to work, like surgeons and lawyers, and on through various degrees of middle and lower class, down to the very bottom of society, the "out of sight", those who live out of a shopping cart.

Fussell thought there was another group composed of artists, writers, musicians, and some professors, creative thinkers who didn't fit into the American caste system. Members of Fussell's Category X live off the financial grid by choice or necessity as much as possible because they aspire to something different than the mainstream. Category X people tend to preserve an independent point of view as observers of society. I suspect Charles Hugh Smith himself fits solidly into Category X.

When I first started reading Smith my reaction was, "Who is this guy living somewhere in Hawaii and how is it that he speaks to the heart of the social matter with such relentless accuracy?" In today's blog post Smith is writing about how our society exploits our need to be seen as individuals by manufacturing aspirations that will ensure our uniqueness, even as we all herd into our club of choice. He suggests that we are all victims of these manufactured aspirations, even many of the Category X types who have become members of the Empty Dreams Tribe:

You might aspire to be an "artist" in which case you are drawn to wearing black clothing and getting tattoos... You discover you have accepted penury within a teeming mass of aspirants, the vast majority of whom work for cruelly low wages in what is essentially a vast, diffused sweatshop for dreamy over-educated types who rejected Corporate America, the Nannie State and even the Black-Clothed Artist tribes.

Manufactured aspirations create a demand for manufactured personas. I first started thinking about the roles we choose to play in a "capitalist" society when I read the psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm some years ago. Fromm's books critiqued modern society and its ills, a society in which he said the individual had to create a people-pleasing persona in order to "sell" him or herself in the marketplace.

Starting back in the Sixties when I was beginning a long career as "art student" I'd noticed that many successful Category X types created personas of rebellion , ennui, tragic addiction, and so on, while maintaining a sufficient degree of charisma and physical attractiveness to still be "people-pleasing".

Flirting with disaster was the road to great monetary reward for these successful artists and performers. Yet as someone who had actually grown up poor during the years my parents were struggling to pay my brother's doctor bills, I was sceptical. There was nothing glamorous about disaster at all. Disaster easily led to poverty and real, genuine poverty is grim. Flirting with disaster was a dangerous game.

As a kid who scrounged for dry macaroni from the kitchen cupboards because there was nothing else to eat in the house, I never thought playing at poverty held much entertainment. I have met wannabe writers who thought drinking beer from the bottle made them authentic and gritty. Their idea of poverty was rooted in ideas of class, rather than generated from any actual experience.

Somewhere along recent decades, despite the deep-seated American terror of poverty, "poor" equated with "genuine". I think this was a reassuring bed-time story for Americans who were beginning to suspect they were slipping downward off the prosperity ladder. Too many people were accumulating too much debt at too rapid a rate in recent years not to be already experiencing nightmares of system failure.

Smith says there are four main rules that govern our choice of economic roles:

  • One key tenet of Manufactured Aspirations is that being poor is a fate worse than death, a shameful failure which you should cloak at all costs with the simulacrum of wealth.
  • The second key tenet is that to escape this shame you need only enter the golden gates of the Empire of Debt.
  • The third key tenet is that your identity is constructed entirely out of your physical possessions, your appearance and your status within one of the Manufactured Aspirations/Empty Dreams tribes
  • ...the fourth and most pernicious tenet: that even as you surrender your identity to a Manufactured Aspiration, you will stoutly believe you are an Individual (capital "I") making a decision in your own self-interest via Free Will
Now examine these tenets in light of Fromm's five basic human psychological needs:
  • Relatedness - relationships with others, care, respect, knowledge;
  • Transcendence - creativity, develop a loving and interesting life;
  • Rootedness - feeling of belonging;
  • Sense of Identity - see ourselves as a unique person and part of a social group.
  • A frame of orientation - the need to understand the world and our place in it.
Our sense of ourselves is reflected in our culture's fun-house mirror. How easy that makes it to exploit our insecurities! Especially since a lot of our calculations in life are unconscious. Every day we make trade-offs based on what we feel we can afford. What I find fascinating is that at a time in history when we had the best set of tools of any generation in history we made such disastrously bad calculations! My intuitive sense of how this could have happened lies in the vast gulf that exists between the tenets of Manufactured Aspirations as described by Charles Hugh Smith and Fromm's five basic human needs.

Imagine this. Our society was so wealthy we actually thought we could afford to define ourselves by our tastes. I remember both my mother and my mother-in-law treated the New Yorker magazine as the Bible of taste. The ads were the best part of the New Yorker, suggesting a genteel world where delicate tastes were catered to by sublimely discreet servants.

In their later years my parents grew wealthy and spent much money defining themselves by taste. I think it was an idea that we Babyboomers bought into, too, as if wearing bell bottoms and mini skirts meant we were really unique. And Charles Hugh Smith observes that today's "rebels" signify their superior tastes and ecological awareness by driving a Volvo or Prius.

What happened to the country in which driving a classic 1960s VW Bug would signify even more taste and ecological awareness? That would be true,wouldn't it? But the great common status denominator that matters today is how much did you spend. The classic 1960s VW Bug costs $5,000, the Volvo and Prius more like 6 times that amount to purchase. Assuming one buys the Volvo outright and doesn't get an auto loan, in which case, add many thousands of dollars in interest costs. And add maintenance and get the picture.

What is rotten is that much of what has gone wrong will now feel very painful and real, yet much of what caused this situation was arbitrary and unreal. We're stuck with the baggage of indulging taste for several decades. Our economic future will feel as if you walked into a Sun City thrift store and seeing all the "treasures" on display, the chrome yellow dinette, the upholstered divan covered in plastic, and the gold cupid lamp with its velvet shade,you were handed a bill and told you will be paying through the nose for these gems for the rest of your life. And your children will, and your grandchildren will. The retro, hip nature of yesterday's taste quickly loses its charms if you are forced to pay for it forever at a cost you can never afford.

I have real doubts as to how this will play out once people figure this out. How will this new servitude remotely make us feel special and unique? Will we become a new version of Amish, embracing frugality and raise our own chickens and vegetables? And since the frugal life takes time where will the time come from? The good news? It's up to us to figure it out. Read Charles Hugh Smith ( and get some interesting perspective on how we might reinvent ourselves with a little creativity and authenticity.

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