August 2003
volume 1, issue 2




We live in a culture of information saturation which constantly redefines an increasingly insane world as normal. Media advocacy group, TV Free America estimates that the average American watches an equivalent of 52 days of TV per year. As corporations have seized the right to manufacture and manipulate collective desire, advertising has grown into a nearly $200 billion a year industry and become the dominant function of mass media. Feminist media critic Jean Kilbourne estimates that each day the average North American is bombarded by 3000 print, radio and television ads. This media saturation plays heavily into the control mythology by over digesting information, thereby shrinking our attention spans to the point where we can no longer re-assemble the story of the global crisis.

The doomsday economy’s elevation of consumerism to the center of public life, is causing massive psychological damage to people around the world. Advertyising works because it subtly assaults a customer’s self esteem to get them to buy more unnecessary stuff. This process is fundamentally de-humanizing. The culture-jamming magazine Adbusters has re-hashed William S.. Burroughs to give us the concept in a slogan: “The Product is You.” The result is a pathologized global monoculture which fetishizes over-consumption, self-gratification and narcissism. Although this may insure ongoing profits for the corporations who manage the “culture industry” it also prevents people from recognizing the impacts of their over-consumption on communities and ecosystems around the world.

The control mythology masks the realities of the doomsday economy by narrowing the popular frame of reference to the point that it's impossible to see beyond the next up-grade of pre-packaged lifestyle. The omni-present commodification of all aspects of life turns freedom into “image branding” and “product placement” while the distinction between citizen and consumer becomes more blurred. The army of one. Individual purchasing power. America open for business. How else could we get to the point where the United Nations estimates that nearly 1 in 6 people on the planet do not get their basic daily calorie needs meet, but in America shopping is still presented as entertainment.

Increasingly in the corporatized world a person’s rights are defined by their purchasing power— access to health care, education, a nutritious diet, mental stimulation, or nature are all a factor of how much money you have. The right to over-consume becomes the centerpiece of the new unspoken Bill of Rights of America, Inc. A country of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations. The unification of Europe looks ready to follow a similar path- towards a United States of Europe. The cancer spreads….

Consumerism is the manifestation of our pathological re-programming to not ask questions about where all the “stuff” comes from. The American bootstrap mythology (as in, “pull yourself up by”…) relies on our ecological illiteracy to believe that everyone could live the “american” over-consumption life style if they only worked hard enough. The cancer cell operates as if it were not part of a larger organism. The fully conditioned consumer thinks only in terms of themselves, acting as if there were no ecological limits in the world.

The twisted logic of consumerism continue to function as a control mythology even as much of the affluence of working America has been siphoned off by corporate greed.
A complex range of sophisticated anesthetics (dare I say bread and circuses…?) helps bolster the control mythology by keeping people distracted. Whether its the digital opium den of 500 channel cable TV, the cornucopia of mood altering prescription drugs or now the terror-induced national obsession with unquestioning patriotism, there’s little opportunity for people to break the spell of modern consumerism.

The mythology of prosperity still holds even as the reality becomes more and more illusive. For now perhaps, but for how much longer? As author and media theorist James Bell writes, “images of power crumble before empires fall.” There are many signs that the empty materialism of modern consumer life is leaving many ordinary people discontent and ripe for new types of political and cultural transformation.

v. articulating values crisis

To articulate the pathology of the corporate system we must avoid debating on the system’s terms. As the classic organizer’s tenet says “We have to organize people where they are at.” In other words, if we tell people the truth in a way that they understand it they will believe it.

I find that most people largely believe the stories that activists tell them about bad things happening in the world. Activists excel at packaging issues, explaining the problem, the solution and the action that people can take. Activists break it all down into 60 second raps with accompanying flyers, fact sheets, and talking points. Although many of our critics are so blinded by propaganda and ideology that they will always see us as naïve, unpatriotic or dangerous, there is already a critical mass of people recognizing that our society is facing severe problems.

This analysis is supported by the work of researcher and author Paul Rey who has done extensive demographic research into the beliefs and values of the American public. Rey’s work first received prominence through his discovery of the “cultural creatives” which he describes as a new and unrecognized sub-culture which has emerged over the past 40 years. The defining characteristics of this new grouping includes acceptance of the basic tenets of environmentalism and feminism, a rejection of traditional careerism, big business and monetary definitions of “success”, a concern with psychological and spiritual development, belief in communities and a concern for the future. Perhaps most profound is the fact that since the mass media of America still reflects the modern technocratic consumerist world view, cultural creatives tend to feel isolated and not recognize their true numbers. Based on their 1995 data Rey and his co-author Sherry Ruth Anderson conclude that there are 50 million cultural creatives in America (26% of all adults) and the numbers are growing.

Rey has continued his work in a soon to be published book The New Political Compass in which he argues with statistical data that the left-right break down of politics is now largely irrelevant and proposes a new political compass. The 4 directional compass is a fascinating tool for showing the complexity of public opinion, mapping not only political beliefs but also cultural shift. Rey contrast the left of New Deal liberalism and big government as “West” with the “East” of cultural conservatism and the religious right. Rey gives north on his compass to a grouping he calls the New Progressives who are heavily composed of cultural creatives and completely unrepresented in the current political system. He defines their major concerns as ecological sustainability, corporate dominance, child welfare, health care, education, a desire for natural products and personal growth. He contrasts them with “south” on his compass the Big Business Paradigm of profits before planet and people, economic growth and globalization. Again his statistical data has profound messages for all of us working to change the world. He estimates that whereas only 14% of the population supports the Big Business paradigm, 36% of people fall into the New Progressives category.

To me the message is a simple affirmation of post-issue activism. Our movements need to stop focusing on only the details and start getting the bigger picture of a holistic analysis out there. Unless the details articulate a broader vision they are just more background noise in our information saturated culture. The 18th century political frameworks of left vs. right no longer fully capture the political fault lines of our era. Perhaps a better description of the real debate is flat earth vs. round earth. The corporate globalizers program of ever expanding corporate industrial exploitation of the earth is in such deep denial of the ecological realities of the planet that it is akin to maintaining the earth is flat. Fortunately more and more people understand that the Earth is in fact round and that we need some big changes to both the global system and the way we think of our relationship with the planet. Now we need social movements with the vision and strategy to capture their belief in a better world.

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