(Originally posted by Pat on 6/27/10)
A review of Richard Robbins' Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism
book is a weighty tome (it was clearly meant to be a college textbook),
so I have not by any means finished it. Yet I am writing this now
because right this minute I am clearly in the ideal environment to
consider the meaning and future of capitalism, both the good and the
I sit now in Briarwood Mall, with all its glitz and glamour
and the ridiculously overpriced jewelry and clothing stores on every
corner. I come for the restaurants and the video games, which give me
real utility beyond what is “fashionable”, but I cannot help but be
drawn into the culture that is conspicuous consumption. There is
something beautiful about it all, the young people in bright clothes
milling about, the kiosk vendors plying toys and gadgets, even the
mindless background music that encourages us to ignore our pains and
live in the moment. Moreover, here I am with a 1.3 GHz netbook wishing
the WiFi connection was better; I am a part of this culture, and I take
great pleasure in it.
But I am not just in Briarwood Mall—I am in a tornado shelter in
Briarwood Mall, because the global climate system has chosen this
moment to unleash its wrath upon our corner of civilization. I suspect
(but of course cannot prove) that this moment is of human doing, that
anthropogenic climate change is ultimately responsible for this wave of
blistering heat and violent storms.
I can imagine no better place, therefore, to consider the cost-benefit analysis of capitalist culture.
timing. The doors have opened, we have emerged from the shelter, and
our life as consumers has resumed. I was immediately offered a sample of
tea by a smiling and attractive woman as soon as I entered the
concourse. As soon as we left the shelter itself, no mention whatsoever
was made of the way that we had just faced destructive forces of nature
beyond our control or even comprehension. Robbins is clearly onto
something when he says that under capitalism, image is everything.
book is quite overstated—Robbins doesn't take nearly enough time, at
least in the portions I have read so far, to consider the good side
of capitalism, the ways that market economics really have made us
safer, richer, and healthier than any human society has ever been. Like
most anthropologists, Robbins harbors far too much love of the
hunter-gatherer life. He ignores the fact that in such a life we were at
the mercy of disease, predation, and weather. (That tornado shelter may
evince the power of nature—but it also offers substantial defense.)
Even worse, he ignores the fact that only through this surge of
technology and economic growth could he possibly have a job so abstract
and cerebral as anthropologist or author.
Yet as I said, Robbins is clearly onto something. Perhaps Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism is
a necessary corrective to the excesses of capitalist culture; perhaps
by being overstated it attracts our attention in an increasingly ADHD
world. Marketing and consumption are altogether too powerful in our
modern lives, and there is something casual and hedonistic about our
whole existence. We eat tasty food and wear pretty clothes and watch
films with beautiful people—but secretly we live lives of quiet
desperation, longing for meaning.
My first inclination was in fact
to scoff, “This is hippie nonsense, just another anthropologist pining
for the imagined savannah. Capitalism (and its altogether kinder child,
social democracy) has made the world demonstrably better in so many
ways.” Yet when I stopped to consider what I meant by better, I realized that most of the metrics I was using were metrics defined by capitalism. GDP is massively increased, technology is improved, poverty is reduced—but so what? Why are these the things we care about?
are, however, more objective metrics by which capitalism has improved
our lives. We live longer, we suffer less from disease, more of us have
enough food to eat and enough shelter to protect us from the weather. As
much as I regret that my shoes were most likely made in a Chinese
sweatshop, I like the way they feel on my feet, they are good for my
posture, and they are vastly better than anything I could have made on
my own. Would that they were made by robots—but that is a matter of time
and capital, for the technology already exists.
It is debatable
whether humans overall have more or less leisure than we used to, but I
certainly have enormous amounts of leisure, more indeed than I can
financially sustain. (Unemployment is wonderful until your credit cards
reach their limits.) Yet only in a society much like this one—and
nothing like what we had in hunter-gatherer societies—could I ever
consider making my lifebread by writing books and performing scientific
research. I would be a terrible hunter and not a spectacular gatherer.
been thinking in fact about the Third World, and what it will be like
if I decide to join the Peace Corps and teach elementary science in West
Africa. I've thought that maybe the experience would change the way I
think about life, morality, justice, economics, and especially
capitalism. Yet I came to realize that in fact even the Peace Corps is
ultimately an outgrowth of capitalism; there could be no Peace Corps
without a First World and a Third World, without plenitude in some
nations and poverty in others. And the question for me really comes down
to this: Is it possible for everyone to have plenitude, or must some always be in poverty?
perhaps in later chapters he will change his tune, Robbins seems to
think that the latter is true. There will always be haves and have-nots,
and if we are to be fair, we must give up what we have so that we too
can be have-nots. And perhaps this is right; unfortunately I cannot rule
it out. Clearly our credit economy is flawed, and it seems apparent
that continuous GDP growth is unsustainable. At some point we will reach
the limits of what we can achieve this way, and it is not obvious to me
that those limits are large enough to include everyone.
Yet there is so much stuff in
the universe! So vastly much energy, material, space, and time.
Incalculably, incomprehensibly much stuff. And within us, so vastly much
imagination and ingenuity. It is already possible for one human to make
more than what one human needs, and our technology makes this more true
every day; so why then do we not all have what we need?
Is it, as
Robbins supposes, simply our insatiable lust for consumption, fueled by
a culture of marketing? Should we learn to live with less? Should I
sell this netbook, sell my DVD collection, sell the clothes I do not
need to live? Should I eat only vegetables grown in my own garden?
Should I do something even more radical still, and move to live in the
wild, hunting deer and rabbits naked with wooden spears? Come now, we
all know what would happen: I would cut myself and die of septicemia, or
else be eaten by a bear. Only a rare few would survive, and they
Am I just being selfish by continuing to participate
in this vast edifice of capitalist culture—does it benefit me at the
expense of Chinese children? Or might it be possible, in fact, to share
the benefits of wealth and technology with everyone, so that the Chinese children too can have netbooks and designer shoes? Can we make a world where we all labor less and have more?
think we can. But I haven't the faintest idea how to get there from
here. In the meantime I guess I will keep eating at restaurants and
writing on my netbook, hoping that I am not pulling the world in the