Colonialism, indigenous peoples and the split in Europeansocialism

Maureen Silos msilos at
Sat Nov 27 23:19:24 MST 1999


>On Fri, 26 Nov 1999, Maureen Silos wrote:



>"The picture is much more complicated and requires that we begin to

>our biology, especially the mammalian brain seriously.  I do not want

>make this mail too long, but capitalism democratized luxury

>and brought new status objects to the masses.  I am not denying the

>stories about advertising, not at all (see a powerful and novel

>by James Twitchell "Lead us into temptation: the triumph of American

>materialism), what I am pointing to is the dialectics between the

>and the demand of consumer goods.  Human beings have a need for

>that is programmed in our mammalian brain.  There is research that
shows a

>strong correlation between levels of serotonin and relative rank."



Sean wrote:

>I think Twitchell has the same truth value of a USA Today article or

>John Stossels reporting on the ABC show 20/20. *Adcult* and *Lead Us

>Temptation* are propaganda pure and simple, they don't even rise to

>level of distorted partial and inadequte bourgeois ideology.

>Twitchell's argument that consumerism is democratic is simply

Maureen's comment:

Dear Sean,

First let me correct one thing quickly before Twitchell's argument gets
around the Internet.  He never said anything about consumerism being
democratic.  That is my interpretation of the role of industrialization
and mass production.  I mentioned Twitchell's book as one example of a
critical analysis of consumerism and advertising, simply to point out
that I am aware of that argument.  So please, leave Twitchell out of
this debate.

Sean wrote:

>How is it that a 200 billion dollar industry dedicated to serving the

>interests of the owning class with only incidental attention paid to

>working class is somehow democratic?  Consumers are free in the same

>workers are.  Looked at from the merely apparent confines of

>choice consumers are free to choose between brands of consumer goods

>the same manner as they are free to choose between republicans and

>democrats as the ruling party.  In both cases the structural and

>institutional forces which shape the range of "choice" in the first

>instance is entirely absent from the analysis.  In fact advertising

>themselves are far more honest about their social and economic role

>Twitchell is willing to admit.  David Lubars, Chief Executive of the

>Angeles Office of BBDO Advertising admitted the the Wall Street



>"Consumers are like roaches - you spray them and spray them

>and they get immune after awhile"


>And William Oberlander, executive creative director at Kirshenbaum,

>and Partners said in a *Business Week* interview:


>"No one's really worrying about what it's (sic) teaching

>youth. Hey, I'm in the business of convincing people to buy things

>don't need"

Maureen's comment:

I am aware of these comments, thanks to Twitchell and others.  In fact,
I am constantly amazed at how open and crass the ideologues of this
system are.  Unlike the elite back home who like to keep everything
secret and do not hesitate to kill anyone who dares to demystify their
machinations, the manipulation of voters, consumers, youth, you name it
is not a secret here.  I read about it in the LA Times and the New York
Times, very corporate-friendly newspapers.  One doesn't have to go to
obscure left-wing publications to read about manipulation.  But you
know what?  The average American, including my students and many
colleagues at UCLA, do not read the newspapers.  Why should they?  They
are on top of the food chain, it is us natives who have to be on top of
everything, since our very survival is dependent on knowing our enemy.
My students don't have an enemy, they have cell phones and drive SUV's
and are looking forward to a life of comfort, Tommy Hilfiger clothes
and what not.  My analyses of globalization, consumerism, capitalism
are at best interesting to the majority.  There is only a small
minority who have developed a level of morality that make them actually
want to do something about the suffering of their fellow human beings.
And there is not much difference between black and white students with
regards to these issues.  Both groups are quite indifferent to the
plight of people in the rest of the world.  But maybe I am not smart
enough to see how the structural and institutional forces have twisted
the brains of otherwise very intelligent young men and women to not
care about others.  Explain this to me then.

By the way, did you look at your newspaper this morning?  If you did, I
am sure you saw the pictures of the hordes lining up at 6 or 7 am to
shop.  There was a story two days ago in the LA Times about a husband
who camped out for a week in a trailer so that his wife would get a
prized admittance ticket for some sale at some upscale boutique here in
Los Angeles.  And it was presented as a heroic act.  Apparently all
these people did not have a choice between staying at home and standing
in line.  Can you explain to me what the "structural and institutional
forces which shape the range of "choice" in the first instance," as you
so eloquently state, are?  Consumers as brainless puppets who have no
awareness of the function of advertising and who, made brain dead by
the smart guys in slick suits, walk to malls in a daze to shop, rack up
their credit card bills because some sleek pychologist found a way to
program their brains to do it?  Give me a break!

My mail was deliberately one-sided because I do believe that an
exclusive focus on, once again, "the structural and institutional
forces which shape the range of "choice" in the first instance" is
blinding us from some very unpleasant and difficult to change aspects
about human nature.  I do agree with your assessment of capitalism
Sean, I am just trying to understand human behavior as the result of a
very complex and messy interaction of "structural and institutional
forces" and "human nature."  That was the essence of my mail.

Sean wrote:

> It is insufficient to claim that

>since mammals are status oriented creatures it necessarily follows

>the organization of such status granting and displaying activities

>in the acquisition and display of specific types of commodified goods

>services as opposed to other non-commodified activities.  All

>have hierarchies of prestige, but they don't all have capitalist

>and high mass consumption.

Maureen's comment:

Correct!!!  But the ones where the hierarchies of prestige are based on
non-commodified activities are rapidly becoming integrated into the
capitalist world economy.   My urgent need at this moment is to
understand the psychology that makes consumerism possible, since this
disease is rapidly spreading to the rest of the world and I don't have
to tell you that it's not good for human beings (who are not only
workers by the way) and the environment.

So, from my position as a native, who sees this globalized juggernaut
coming, I have to understand it so to react to it in such a way that I
understand its contradictions (both the good and the bad news), why it
is so seductive, and how to effectively transform it.  That is why I
like to stay close to empirical reality, the messy, dynamic,
paradoxical and contradictory reality of human behavior.  Out of
politcal necessity I became an anthropologist of this quite intriguing
American culture and I am often baffled by its high level of
conformism, myopia and backwardness, alongside pockets of higly
developed critical self-awareness and sometimes heroic attempts to
break out of the grip of the mediocre collective consciousness.  I know
almost everything about the structural and institutional forces, after
all, I've been studying this stuff for almost 20 years now.  But I also
want to know about the "internal" stuff, the subjective side of
domination and exploitation because I want to develop an effective
transformative politics.  For that Sean, you have to know people.  And
as a native, I not only have to know about my people, I also have to
know about your people (assuming you are American) since, in one way or
the other, from the capitalist to the worker, they participate in this
myth that infinite economic growth (and thus consumerism) is going to
take us to heaven.  I am cured of any romanticism about oppressed
people Sean, and that is out of respect and out of love.  They will
have to consciously choose for their liberation, otherwise it is not
going to happen, no matter how many sophisticated analyses we make
about capitalism.  And my people are scared to death of real freedom,
it brings too many responsibilities with it.

Back to consumerism and the bizarre shopping behavior of Americans.

So, one day I bought a book "Constructing the self, constructing
America: a cultural history of psychotherapy" by Philip Cushman and I
began to understand a couple of pieces of the puzzle of the collective
consciousness of this culture.  It was the beginning of a new
understanding of consumerism in America.  This passage, for example,
gave me the concept that organized a lot of my own observations over
the years: "the empty self."  In a chapter in which he describes the
transition to a consumerist culture, credit, and advertising he says:

<paraindent><param>right,right,left,left</param><smaller>In the
post-World War II era in the United States the shape of the cultural
landscape has configured the self of the middle and upper classes into
a particular kind of masterful, bounded self: the empty self.  By this
I mean a self that experiences a significant absence of community,
tradition, and shared meaning--a self that experiences these social
absences and their consequences "interiorly" as a lack of personal
conviction of worth; a self that embodies the absences, loneliness, and
disappointments of life as a chronic, undifferentiated emotional
hunger.  It is this undifferentiated hunger that has provided the
motivation for the mindless, wasteful consumerism of the late twentieth
century.  The post-World War II self thus yearns to acquire and consume
as an unconscious way of compensating for what has been lost and
unknowingly it fuels the new consumer-oriented economy: the self is
empty, and it strives, desperately, to be filled up. (1995: 79)


</smaller>If this is true, and I believe it is, what we have to do than
is think about other things that can fill up this empty self that will
give a sense of well-being.  That is the challenge.  I don't need more
analyses of capitalism, if anything, its operating mechanisms are
becoming more and more transparent with globalization.  No secrets
here.  Another quote, by the damned Twitchell:

<paraindent><param>right,right,left,left</param><smaller>I think there
are no false needs.  Once we are fed, clothed, and sexually
functioning, needs are cultural.  Furthermore, I will contend that we
are not too materialistic; if anything, we are not materialistic
enough.  If we craved objects <italic>and</italic> knew what they
meant, there would be no signifying systems like advertising,
packaging, fashion, and branding to get in the way.  We would gather,
use, toss out, ot hoard based on some <italic>inner</italic> sense of
value.  It is that inner sense of value that we don't have. ...
Consumption of things and their meanings is how most Western young
people cope in a world that science has pretty much bled of traditional
religious meanings (1999: 13)

</smaller></paraindent>I agree, he doesn't make a Marxist analysis of
capitalism but I didn't expect him to.  I am writing my own version of
capitalism and I borrow insights from people who write about stuff that
is important for my analysis.  He is not hallucinating Sean, his story
is as one-sided as anyone else's. I like to think that I know how to
look for the gems in the garbage.  Here is another non-Marxist gem:

<paraindent><param>right,right,left,left</param><smaller>As long as
people believe that society relies on the cultivation of self at the
expense of others, none of the instruments of warning stands much of a
chance of success.  Nothing seems to cultivate the self as does
consumption: all one needs to do, in a moment of insecure
self-inspection, is take an inventory of one's possessions to assure
oneself that a worthwhile, substantial being had been constructed. ...
If to be ever bigger and richer, and to own more and more, is the sole
ambition of a civilization--or even if it is not, but none other is
openly expressed--anyone who has doubts about the virtues of
consumerism is deemed downright unpatriotic (Rosenblatt, Roger, ed.,
"Consuming desires: consumption, culture and the pursuit of happiness,"
1999: 18).

</smaller></paraindent>People are starving for meaning Sean, how can
you contribute to doing something about this hunger?  Understanding of
the institutional and structural forces is not enough, there is an
emotional and psycholgical aspect to this hunger that has to be
addressed with its domain-appropriate instruments.  That is what we
have to develop, otherwise you will see a growth of New Age
consumerism, quick fix intensive group therapies such as the Landmark
Forum, and others.  We need a psychology of transformation that will
offer experiences of well-being that are not in commodities.  Well
Sean, I can tell you, your culture has no clue how to begin to do

I have gotten to know a lot about America and western culture by
reading what the critical insiders say about themselves.  And the
critique covers a range from far left to centrist, and even right wing
people have their own kind of critique.  I read it all, remember, I
have to know the forces I am up against.

So Sean, again, to go back to the essence of my mail: I simply
suggested that maybe we should look at both the good and the bad news
of capitalism simultaneously, and look at the internal and external
dimensions of human behavior.  My mail was a plea to begin to think
dialectically, to hold contradictions in your head and to see the truth
value of claims across domains.  Capitalism, western culture,
industrialization have both good news and bad news.  The inability to
think from this dialectic by exclusively focusing on the bad news is
not going to help the dominated.  They see the good news, and they want
it.  They also see the bad news and need all the help to imagine
alternatives.  That Sean is the challenge for the 21st century.  To
build a world that preserves the good news and goes beyond the bad.
This new way of being in the world can only be brought about by people,
so they have to begin to embody the change.  Let us begin with



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