… unless by “radical” you mean “really awesome.”

When Walter Benjamin wrote in 1938 that one may understand the problems associated with a society through a reading of its consumer goods, even his best friend and fellow Frankfurt School thinker, Teddy Adorno, thought that he was taking the whole Marxism thing a little too far.

When Herbert Marcuse wrote in 1964 that advanced industrial societies thrive by creating false needs within the public in order to keep the capitalist machine chugging along, he received death threats and had to go into hiding.

When CNN anchor, Don Lemon, suggested last week that Mike Huckabee’s plan to impose a 26% flat sales tax might help to slow “Americans’ rampant over-consumption,” and Ali Velshi, a business correspondent, responded, “‘Americans’ rampant over-consumption’ keeps people like us employed,” no one around me – all running on elliptical trainers – missed a step, though most of us were watching CNN on our personal TVs.

This is because even the most milquetoast of us have come to take some once-radical concepts for granted – what were borderline-fanatical understandings of things like why we go to war (to pursue or protect business interests), why certain people are necessarily oppressed (because we have become dependent on ludicrously inexpensive consumer goods), and the nature of our news organizations (they are business entities that have a responsibility to their bottom lines), have all become commonplace. Radical is the new banal.

The CNN exchange still surprised me (and not just because a business correspondent suggested that an irrational behavior, which is harming many Americans, is advantageous to his lifestyle, and should therefore be perpetuated by him and his colleague).

You see, I’ve been watching CNN and MSNBC really closely and have been planning for a few weeks to write a post on the subversive nature of communications between anchors and correspondents. Okay, I’ve become a little obsessive, and to this point, I hadn’t been privy to such an open exchange about the nature of the news industry, and I was taken aback.

Most of what I had noticed was banter between reporters about the best places to shop, what expensive pair of boots was more practical for what kind of weather, and how dumpster diving is so “totally gross.” The important point is that none of this information was a part of any of the stories that were reported; it was all just innocent repartee. I was noticing the kind of messages you pick up on when you read a lot of crap for political theory graduate seminars – authors that make you worry about becoming the next Ted Kaczynski.

I acknowledge that most of this sounds like crazy-man-ranting, but I was recently exposed to one of the latest children’s fads, which sent me into an uber-anti-consumerist tizzy. I’m sure that those of you with kids have heard of the toy/game thing I’m talking about: Webkinz.

For those not in the know, Webkinz are sweet little stuffed animals that come with a password, which works in conjunction with a website-based virtual world. The long and short is that children’s play is rewarded with virtual currency, KinzCash, with which the little tyke supports his or her Webkin by buying it food, workout equipment, and furniture, among other things. I recommend taking the brief site tour.

Okay, I understand that in the real world people work to support themselves and their families, but isn’t it a little weird to so overtly train our children to become consumerist sheep? And the thing that really killz me is that parentz consider these thingz educational.

It’z me right? I’ve gone totally effing craZy…

200px-unabomber1.jpg

I mean, people do seem to love their Webkinz.

Given my recent exposure to this evil-toy-ploy and my witnessing of the CNN admission, nothing seems too radical in predicting the future of our culture’s unflinching adherence to consumerist ideals. So here’s my nut-job prediction:

The American economy and political system will completely meld. Residents will have no federal income tax, but will be forced to spend a percentage of their incomes on goods and services. In exchange for the government’s support, corporations will directly fund the military. Other services will mostly be provided through private firms or local taxes.

Sound crazy? Paranoid? Radical?

With a completely consumerist economy, it makes perfect sense. In fact, it makes almost too much sense. How would people complain about taxes when they’ll actually get trinkets for their hard-earned money instead of stupid things like healthcare, education, or welfare for the poor? Just think of all the Webkinz they’ll be able to buy their kidz for Chriztmaz.

Yes sir, the future is looking more awesome than ever!

    19 responses to “… unless by “radical” you mean “really awesome.””

    1. scotty — turns out molly has a webkinz link already built into the toolbar of this very computer.

      i’m more paranoid, though, about new GPS technology. Today’s Times has a piece about parents who track their kids’ movements by tracing their GPS cellphones. Sick.

    2. Tim Wager says:

      Warning – painting with broad strokes ahead.

      Before the 19th c. (and even well into it), wealthy aristocrats despised false displays of wealth among the lower classes. In many European societies, sumptuary laws made it a crime to consume luxuries that were above your social and economic station. Post-industrial revolution, the system adapted at the realization that giving everyone access to the trappings of wealth (through the extension of credit) stacked the chips even more in the favor of the truly wealthy, while also pandering to an ersatz sense of democracy and social mobility. (“Hey, if I can lease a Porsche, I’m really rising up in the world, right? Is America great or what?”)

      The rich have gotten much richer by granting the less-rich (and even the poor) the ability to consume beyond their means. Americans, especially, are susceptible to the notion that what they “own” (no matter how far into debt it puts them) is emblematic of their worth and, by extension, validates the system that “rewards” them with consumer goods and services. The more you spend, the better you look and feel, right? Meanwhile, as our debt to multinationals mounts, our political votes (arguably never really that “democratic”) mean less and less.

      Why not meld the political and economic systems, officially, when they have already done so, in a de facto manner? I would almost welcome this melding, as “radical” Christians welcome the signs of the Apocalypse because they “know” that the Second Coming can’t be far behind. Once the two are melded and actually inseparable, they’d be too unwieldy, too easily challenged in a direct manner, too likely to drown as they cling to one another irrationally. Debt-driven capitalism needs to be able to detach itself discreetly from the political system, so that it doesn’t go down the tubes with a particular government (e.g., the US) that becomes too beholden to another government that has bought up all of its debt (say, the PRC).

      Bacon is probably reading this and thinking to himself, “Can the simpletons be any more simple?” Whatever, I’m willing to risk embarrassing myself to stimulate some conversation on the matter.

      P.S. Aren’t those webkinz cute?

    3. Ruben Mancillas says:

      so scott, never mind about that wish list of gifts for the kids, ok?

      seeing your photo insert makes me ask; have you seen bug and, if so, what did you think?

    4. brooke says:

      Bryan, I can understand your disdain for overzealous parents monitoring their children’s movements, but I’m not sure what you describe is really all that unusual. Before location aware devices were (relatively) ubiquitous, didn’t parents still employ the technologies available to them to make sure their kids were safe and where they were supposed to be?

      Besides, ‘kids’ both young and old have been purposefully using location based services, such as Twitter, to indicate where they are and what they are up to for a while now. The fact that parents are getting into the game just represents that these technologies and services are becoming more mainstream, not so much that parents are becoming more draconian.

      Parents have always been protective of their children. Technology has changed everyone — it changes how kids behave and it changes how parents behave. It obviously makes monitoring much easier and much finer grained than it was several years ago. Whether or not it is appropriate for parents to employ such technologies to track their children is a more difficult question; but it’s not so clear as you suggest.

    5. Demosthenes says:

      These are very interesting thoughts. The future scenario you describe reminds me of the problem America faced after the boom in industrialisation during the gilded age. It really took a lot of force to separate corporations and government, so it is kind of ironic to see movements back in that direction. It is not really the same thing, but there are some parallels there.

    6. Tim Wager says:

      I’ve got a long comment currently hung up waiting for moderation, so I won’t say more now, but wrap your mind around the fact that “The Ultimate Webkinz Blog” has linked to your post. I’d like to think that this is a sign that the phenomenon has willingly ingested the poison of your words, Scott, but it’s probably just a link created by a spider or bot programmed to pick up on any mention of “Webkinz”. Perhaps a human “master” will come along afterwards and decide that it’s not an appropriate link. Don’t let the kiddies think twice (it’s all right). Until then enjoy. Oops, now this comment will also be hung up. Oh well.

    7. Jeremy says:

      Testing.

    8. Jeremy Zitter says:

      I wrote a comment earlier today that, apparently, didn’t take (hence the test)…

      Regarding the melding of politics and consumerism, I imagine, in the future, powerful corporate lobbyists sponsoring politicians and particular legislation… Oh wait… Actually, perhaps the whole process should be made much more overt, with politicians wearing corporate signage, like Nascar drivers and non-American footballers.

      Also, doesn’t it seem totally unnecessary to create products teaching kids to be consumers?

      Stephanie’s here with me in our office, poring over the Webkinz site, enthralled. She has this glazed look on her face. I’m pretty sure she’s been brainwashed.

    9. Scotty says:

      Though one may not detect my ambivalence regarding the dominant players in the power structure, it is there. Obviously, we’ve trained our children to be productive members of society (whichever society it is), and their toys reflect that – for example, G.I. Joe’s introduction during the Cold War. But there’s something about Webkinz that I find particularly disturbing – maybe it’s that they’re sold as educational when they’re so clearly consumerist propaganda (but what product ultimately isn’t?).

      The real problem to me regarding the level of American (and global) consumerism is not only the political impact, but more importantly, the environmental one.

      I recently read an article about the detrimental impact of inexpensive cotton clothes on the global environment, and the shit was scary: there’s the chemicals and petroleum used in the production of cotton, the shipping of raw cotton to refining centers (and the energy used to refine it), the shipping of refined cotton to manufacturing centers (and the chemicals for dyes and energy used to manufacture the garments), the shipping of manufactured garments to the states, the shipping of garments from the docks to your local Target, and to cap it off, the hot water used to wash cotton clothing. So when you take all of this into account, the cute little rainbow-print hoodie takes on a whole new weight.

      But the real difference between someone like Bacon and me is that he sees the world in macroeconomic terms and I see it in micro. Whereas an economic globalist holds up real numbers to show that certain economies have expanded, I get more wrapped-up in the plight of displaced villagers. However, the main argument of macros, and one, which is convincing is that every nation that survives a generation of Thomas Friedman’s ‘global straightjacket’ has a higher standard of living than the previous generation. It’s just the growing pains are so darn ugly.

    10. Tim Wager says:

      I had another comment that got eaten today, too. Who’s feeding TGW while Dave’s out of town?

      Did anyone else notice that The Ultimate Webkinz Blog linked to this post? Probably just a reciprocal link to anything that links to Webkinz’s website, but nicely ironic all the same.

    11. Dave says:

      Doesn’t the environmental concern trump the “macro,” Friedmanesque justification that (nearly) everyone’s standard of living will improve through globalization? If the earth can’t even sustain current levels of consumption, what will happen when all the villagers have cars, etc.? If we can’t even afford, ecologically, to have Americans living like Americans, etc.

    12. Tim Wager says:

      Testing, testing. The blog ate two of my comments today. Who’s feeding TGW while Dave’s away? Time to open up a fresh can.

    13. Dave says:

      Comments fished out of the spam-compactor. Don’t know why it caught them — a corporate plot, I assume.

      Goodnight from Florida.

    14. stephanie wells says:

      pink pony . . . love puppy . . . must . . add . . to . . cart . . . god . . bless . . . america . . .

    15. Tim Wager says:

      Jeez, now I look all repetitive and stuff. Um, fight the power!

    16. J-Man says:

      #9 Even the Environmental movement is still squarely in consumerist mode. I subscribe to several eco e-newsletters (e.g. Ideal Bite), and the majority of their eco-tips emphasize puchasing things that are sustainable and organic, rather than not purchasing things at all.

    17. Scotty says:

      #11 With the US having 5% of the world’s people who produce 25% of the world’s greenhouse gasses, the responsibility is squarely on our shoulders to reel it in.

    18. LP says:

      “The American economy and political system will completely meld.” Ha! Ha! Ha! And, like, what – rich people will be able to finance their own political campaigns and buy their way into office? That’s nutty, Scott.

    19. Scotty says:

      I know!!! I was totally on acid when I dreamed that one up!