Even philosophers need to eat
The market place has always presented humanity with a profound philosophical problem. To the moralisers, preachers, and soothsayers, a place where everything is for sale has often appeared as a challenge to their metaphysical authority. The irony is that all soothsayers also need to engage in commercial activity for their everyday needs -- to buy bread, butter, milk and meat. And, if they try to escape this wheeling and dealing and grow their own, they still have to deal with the thorny issue of the surplus produce. If they have grown their own food crops, the anti-market kibbutz --dwellers still have to exchange or sell the surplus. That is why, buying and selling -- in the form of barter or exchange of values -- has always been there and somehow have never been dealt with properly by metaphysical, moral and aesthetic systems of judgement.
In 1988, a film, titled The Last Temptation of Christ, showed Jesus, while on the crucifix, as being tempted by the idea of getting married and going for shopping in the local market as an ordinary man. The film became so controversial that it was banned by Chile, South Africa, and Singapore. A French cinema hall, showing the film, was attacked by Catholic fundamentalists who used Molotov cocktails and injured thirteen people. It shows that everyday life and the market place are considered the profane opposite of the sacred pulpit. The story of Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the Temple of Herod is an expression of the same idea that commerce should not be mixed with worship.
Not only religion but all kinds of political systems are bothered by the subversive, uncontrolled flow of trade and money. In The Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts, published in 1844, Karl Marx lamented the power of money in the following sarcastic words:
"The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money's properties are my -- the possessor's -- properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness -- its deterrent power -- is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore, I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good."
If one examines closely the idea underpinning Karl Marx's argument against money, it is a very shallow argument. By invoking something that cannot be measured or objectively determined, such as the 'real self' of the lame or the ugly, Marx wants people to give up the idea of money because it is a manifestation of something called 'alienation' of human desires. So far, the non-alienated self has not been able to surface anywhere the Marxist ideas were pursued. At best, the state replaces the capitalist as the exploiter of the proletariat. In other words, the communist state got the surplus (profit of selling products made by human labour) and the proletariat had to live only on the so-called 'the authentic, unadulterated and non-alienated self'. Soon there were long queues to buy loaves of bread to keep the authentic human self alive for witnessing the Soviet bureaucratic nightmares.
Buying, selling, and the accompanying practice of calculation are such fundamental activities in human groups that Nietzsche argued commerce to be the basis of religion, morality, and all systems of punishment and reward. In his book, The Genealogy of Morals, he shows how the words 'creed' and 'credo' (two words for faith) are etymologically related to the word 'credit'. 'Credentials', 'credible', 'incredible', were all originally commercial terms, based on the root of 'credit', which have been transformed into metaphors for whatever is 'believable' or 'unbelievable'. Calculation is also an essential part of the judicial system. For every crime committed, a so-called 'equal' punishment is calculated according to the loss of opportunities of paid employment.
The above arguments establish the point that trade, sellers and buyers are not only essential part of human societies but also inform the moral and legal systems. Therefore, any arguments against the rise of present-day consumerism have the responsibility to fully elaborate whether they are advocating an abolition of consumption or a reformation of the exploitative techniques of the sellers, marketers, profiteers.
One of the main arguments against contemporary consumer culture is that it creates artificial wants and desires in the population for things that they do not really need for living. If this argument is extended to its logical limits, all things that are external to bare survival should never have been promoted. All paintings, music, adventures, and recreational activities should not be encouraged at all. The real problem with consumerism is greed but it can take care of itself. For example, it is possible to convince the greedy profiteers that it may be a good idea to sell products which ensure the safety and health of consumers and their environment. On the other hand, if an adult rational being has an uncontrollable desire to consume harmful products, it is their right. If this species finds bliss and happiness only in those gadgets and products which ultimately may prove fatal for the entire species, it is possible to argue that perhaps this species deserves it. If all that evolution, knowledge, language, critical faculties, reason, cynicism and distrust of strangers does not stop it from producing and consuming harmful products, it tells us something profoundly morbid about the entire human population.
It is also possible that the wrath of anti-consumerism groups is misplaced when all the governments, after charging taxes on all products consumed and sold, on virtually every transaction, allow businesses to offer harmful products to citizens and thereby affect the entire commercial sphere. The taxes that consumers and businesses pay to the government should entitle the entire population to protection, healthcare, and safety. If the government fails to fulfil its part of the promise on which the social contract is based, it has no right to levy taxes and should let the market handle and regulate itself. If the government wants to tax every transaction, it has to accept its responsibility and regulate the economy in such a way that it provides greatest happiness to the greatest number of citizens.
At present, those societies where taxation is used to provide free education, unemployment benefits, and free healthcare (such as Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland) are also the societies where it is almost impossible to find a product that harms the consumer and the living standards and life expectancies of the populations are highest in the world. All this is possible because the government oversees production and consumption and, as a result, almost all sectors of the population are able to consume lifestyle products. On the other hand, those societies where taxation is not used in a socially responsible way, a large number of people are not able to consume anything beyond mere necessities.
Consumption of lifestyle products is a sign of affluence. It should be engaged in such a way that it benefits the greatest number of people for the longest duration.
Published in The News on Sunday
dated June 22, 2008