Contrarian's Notebook

Disquieting Thoughts on Matters Cultural and Personal

Category: Place

The Future Will be Even Lonelier

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The modern way of living extracts payment for all its wonders in the form of loneliness. According to John Cacioppo, a researcher who studies such things, about half of us report enduring chronic and agonizing loneliness.

We know this not only from social science research, but because we feel it. We hear sometimes that technology keeps us more connected than ever, and we know in our guts that’s a lie. We know that technology does as much or more to isolate us as it has ever done to bring us together.

The roots of our loneliness lie in the basic ideas of liberalism. Liberalism, with its emphasis on freeing the individual from every unchosen obligation, has corroded our traditional connections to family, church and place. Liberalism has freed us, it turns out, from the very things that fulfill us.

But, the sources of our loneliness are material as well as philosophical. From the beginning of the industrial revolution, technology and mass culture have motivated people to leave behind traditional village life and the strong social bonds that characterized it. Industrialization has been synonymous with urbanization, fragmentation, disenchantment and, of course, loneliness.

Our loneliness problem has become so severe that at least one nation’s liberal government is attempting to solve it in the way liberals try to solve every problem: through government.

Earlier this month, UK Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the first Minister for Loneliness.  Tracey Crouch will take over the post and try, through the application of modern ideas, to solve a problem largely caused by modern ideas. The shortsightedness of this approach guarantees its failure.

The problem is no better in America, and will likely only worsen.

Consider this story about Amazon Go, Amazon’s new cashierless convenience store in Seattle.  Shoppers walk in with an Amazon app installed on their phones, pick what they want from the shelves, and leave. To pay, customers scan their phones and Amazon charges a credit card.

Amazon’s new store is just the next step in the modern depersonalization of the world. Depersonalization of social spaces has been going on a long time but has reached new heights as computers take over what used to be human tasks. Sure, there are employees in the store but one wonders why exactly. Soon, they too will be replaced. They must be. Their elimination is demanded by the pursuit of the perfect modern experience: unnecessary shopping completely unhindered by social interaction.

The depersonalization of the world has turned personal interaction into a commodity all its own. This is obvious when you think about higher education. Most students considering college must choose between large state universities where they will be anonymous and, when they do interact with staff and faculty, largely treated like a number and smaller schools where the interactions will be more personal. But, they pay more for the personal connection. Soon, this will be the case everywhere. In the future, you will be able to shop at a place similar to Amazon Go but totally devoid of human contact, or you can shop at the niche market down the street where you will pay higher prices for someone to smile at you. In other words, get ready to be even lonelier.

Hidden in the story about Amazon Go is another sign of our culture of loneliness. The store has no shopping carts.

From the story:

Since the checkout process is automated, what would be the point of them anyway? Instead, customers put items directly into the shopping bag they’ll walk out with.

Amazon Go, in all its technical glitz, is designed to serve the atomistic individual. Only people shopping for themselves one meal at a time walk out of a store with a single bag. People with families use shopping carts. The elimination of carts in the new kind of store is a sign of the new kind of people we are becoming: isolated, consumeristic, impulsive.

In its way, Amazon has recognized our loneliness and responded in a modern but perhaps especially American way: by creating the lonely person’s perfect consumer experience. Just as the UK’s ministry for loneliness is destined to fail so is, in the long run, this market oriented response.

The human heart is not infinitely flexible. Its basic desires for connection, for meaning, for transcendence are fixed. Eventually, those desires will once again assert themselves, probably in ways we cannot now imagine. When that happens, things will change for the better. Until then, and for the foreseeable future, we must all struggle on purchasing our new baubles and trinkets in the coolest way possible and taking them home to enjoy alone.

You Are Not Crazy for Wanting a Different Life

I’m sure you’ve got your problems. Maybe you’re insecure. Maybe you’re selfish. Maybe you’re irresponsible. Maybe you have poor hygiene. There are a thousand things that could be wrong with you. There are, without a doubt, lots of ways your unhappiness is a result of choices you make, habits you’ve cultivated.

But.

It’s not all you. That never-ending tension you feel. The lack of rest. The lack of peace. Much of it comes from living within the current cultural and economic system.

Think about it for a minute. If you’ve followed the accepted life script for a middle class American, things have gone something like this: you did moderately well in high school and went off to college. Whether you went to a big state school, or to a small liberal arts-oriented private school, you probably assumed those four years were an escape from responsibility, a special time in which actions were magically devoid of consequences. Looking back, you can see that wasn’t true. Maybe you had your heart broken. Maybe you broke hearts. Whatever happened, you have a few regrets. More than likely came out with a serious debt burden.

Now, you’re stuck dog paddling in turbulent economic waters. Your family lives paycheck to paycheck. You can’t save much. You lie awake at night knowing your boss could devastate your family with a single decision. It’s scary. You think about your kids sleeping in the other room. They’ll be getting up in a little while for school. You wonder if you’re setting them up for the same hamster-wheel life you’ve got.

If this is your situation, let me say one thing to you: you aren’t crazy. You aren’t crazy. You aren’t crazy. Of course you want a different life. I don’t know how to give that to you, but realizing a few things about the culture you live in might be a step in that direction.

Your culture encourages the worst human traits. An economy dependent on the continued purchasing of unnecessary goods encourages envy, selfishness and avarice. The reason you always feel your life is not good enough is that you are told a thousand times a day that your floors are not sufficiently clean, your television not sufficiently large, your hips not sufficiently slim. Your anxiety becomes a machine that prints money for others.

It’s not in the interest of the system for you to stop and think about this. So we’re told it’s normal never to have a silent moment. A good person in this culture never sits still. Never turns off the television. Never stops checking his phone. Sitting still is a counter-cultural act, something just for lazy no-good party poopers. Because, you see, the promise of a silence-free culture is that the party never stops if you’re willing to pay the price. All it costs is a life of debt-slavery and your sanity.

Just like at every other party, in our party-society there is little occasion for real connection. Small talk is fine for an hour, but not for a lifetime. People long for intimacy, for community, for family. Consumer culture precludes all these. You know the kids shouldn’t watch so much TV, but you’re exhausted and there’s still so much work to do. You wish you lived closer to family, but your job is a long way off and besides, only losers spend their lives clinging to the place where they grew up. The cost of pursuing the American dream now is isolation, alienation, a gnawing sense of deep loneliness.

If you find yourself dreaming of a little place in the country, don’t be surprised. Someplace peaceful where the kids can run around. Maybe you’d get a couple of chickens, grow some tomatoes. Maybe you’d just stand outside and listen to nothing but the wind. There, in that little country place, you could be more self-sufficient, less dependent on the whims of bosses and bureaucrats. There, in that little country place, you could just drop out of the whole infernal mess.

Maybe. I don’t know if you will ever have that place. But I know the first step is to drop out now. Drop out in your heart and see what happens. Go ahead. You have my permission. Stop buying whatever they tell you to. Take joy in walking right past that Starbucks and in not going in. Turn off your phone. Take the revolutionary step of sitting in a chair, undistracted for a quarter hour. Declare your revolution daily by shutting up. Call your mom. Call your grandma. Call somebody else’s grandma. Go home.

The point of this post is to tell you that you are not crazy. The world is crazy. Just like you, I am working daily to find a way out of the patterns of living we’ve been handed. It’s a tough calling, and you’re never going to make it if, in your heart, you doubt that you are right. To have any hope at all of changing things for yourself, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions. Other people are going to judge you when you depart from the script. They will scoff and tut-tut with concern. But remember, you aren’t crazy. But to find a way out, at least in the eyes of some, you’re going to have to act like it.

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How Free Market Fanaticism Destroyed My Hometown and Yours

There are a lot of unmowed lawns where I come from. Many of them sit before homes, once occupied by more or less happy families, now abandoned to neglect and decay. Not far from the empty houses, there’s plenty of formerly occupied commercial space. Anybody wanting to open a business in town wouldn’t have a tough time finding a place to do it. But, nobody there wants to open a business.

I grew up in one of those little Midwestern towns whose economy was supported by manufacturing. We had a bunch of small factories in town, but the big one was the Chrysler plant where my dad worked. That people worked in factories and that they made liveable wages for doing so was a given of my childhood. I had Christmas every year courtesy of the UAW. I passed strike lines on the bus on my way to school.

After a long period of withdrawal, those factories are now gone. They’ve been replaced by fast food outlets and a big meth problem. And Wal-Mart. The changes occasioned by an increasingly open global marketplace have been utterly destructive to the town and the community that once thrived there.

Given this background, Joe Carter’s defense of these deleterious practices strikes me as short-sighted to say the least. Carter’s argument is that unrestricted free trade benefits the individual consumer and that governments ought always side with consumers against producers.

He illustrates his argument with a couple of hypothetical pie-makers named Mary and Martha. Martha, in this illustration, is selling slices of pie for a dollar each. Then, Mary, who lives a long way away, starts importing and selling whole pies in Martha’s town for 10 cents. How is Mary able to sell pies so cheaply? Because the government of her town subsidizes her costs.

In Carter’s mind, this arrangement is great for the citizens of Martha’s town because they all get pie more cheaply. If the government of Martha’s town were to ban the import of Mary’s pie, Carter says, it would be protecting Martha’s business at the expense of all her cheap-pie-eating pals.

Carter acknowledges that Martha will be put out of business and says her loss is “unfortunate.”

The illustration Carter offers is as concise a summary of the ideology of the free market as one can imagine and, on it the surface, exhibits a logical coherence that makes it plausible. But, enthusiasm for this model is only sustainable so long as we don’t look outside the confines of the tight box it draws. When we do, we see a messiness the intense focus of the argument conceals.

The first problem with this argument is that it assumes the chief function of an individual is to be a consumer. Carter assumes that whatever benefits people IN THEIR PRIMARY ROLE AS CONSUMERS also benefits them in every other role. When, in reality, what benefits us as consumers might very well harm us in other aspects of our being. What is good for us as consumers, for example, may not be good for us as citizens, as neighbors, as parents or as souls.

Second, this model abstracts the individual from his social context and ignores the massive costs associated with unrestricted markets. When we look at the changes occasioned by the policy Carter advocates, the picture becomes less appealing.

Both these problems become plain if we return to Carter’s example. So, Mary begins importing her cheap pies into Martha’s town. Consumers buy up loads of Mary’s pies and abandon Martha, who goes out of business.

For a while, she’s out of work. Being out of work is especially tough for her because she’s widow with children. The loss of her income means she has to stop giving to her church. Instead, now she has to draw on the resources of her friends there to make ends meet.

Martha doesn’t want to move her kids away from their grandparents. But, her options for work in town are limited. She goes to work in the Wal-Mart bakery. She makes less than what she did selling her own pies. She racks up late charges on some bills she can’t pay, money that would otherwise gone back into her local economy.

One benefit of making and selling slices of pie was that it let her stay home with her kids. Now, that’s gone. They’re often in bed when she gets home from work. She’s not exactly sure what they do during the day.

She’s also had to curtail her involvement with the local historical society. She used to give tours of the local museum, but now her boss insists she work on Saturdays.

Eventually, it all gets to be too much and Martha moves to a bigger city and takes a corporate job sitting in a cubicle all day. Her kids are now raised mostly by teachers at their troubled public school. They rarely see their grandparents.

Against all these losses: the drain on community resources, the weakened relationships between mother and child, diminished capacity for the preservation of the community’s history, and disrupted extended relationships, Carter offers us the consolation of cheap pie.

In short, the model Carter advocates expects all the losses it implies to be salved by the availability of cheap consumer goods, by a redundant stream of useless crap. Sure, Martha’s kids don’t see grandma any more, but they now have a different spatula for every day of the week!!

The idea that possessing multiple spatulas can make up for losing grandma strikes us as absurd because we know Martha and her children do not exist in the world primarily as economic beings. Instead, economic activity serves as a means to allow them to participate in complex webs of relationships and intangible values. Reductionistic approaches like Carter’s suggest the loss of all these other, harder to name goods can be offset by the chance to buy a DVD of Showgirls at Wal-Mart for just five bucks. Such a claim ought to be visibly false to anyone looking around. If you can’t see the damage these ideas have done from where you are, let me know. I’ll give you directions to my hometown.

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Thank you for reading this post. If you found it valuable, please share it on social media using one of the buttons below. You may also want to support my work by leaving a tip in the tip jar on the main page or by supporting me on Patreon.

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