Our Lives as Unhappy Consumers
By Mark Boyle
Our culture has fallen prey to obedience. Fallen prey to wanting things because we’re told that we should, to thinking low of ourselves because we’re not society’s ideal, to searching for quick fixes because quantity is valued more highly than quality. What happened to our world? When did we forget to resist this constant turn toward the next best thing? In his book Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi(New Society Publishers), Mark Boyle suggests that we’ve become cogs in the machines of industry and economy. He sees that we’ve been conditioned so relentlessly for so long that we’ve forgotten how to interact with the world outside of technology, outside of advertisements for newer and cheaper possessions. We’ve forgotten that efficiency should not come at the cost of our happiness, our mental health, or the health of our environment. This book is here to remind you that change isn’t only possible, it’s long overdue.
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The Tyranny of the Machine
Dante, when composing his visions of hell, might well have included the mindless, repetitive boredom of working on a factory assembly line. It destroys initiative and rots brains, yet millions of British workers are committed to it for most of their lives.
— E.F. Schumacher
Myself and a few hundred like me emerge from a London subway one morning, all busily scurrying along towards some business meeting, appointment or workplace. Most people are plugged into one sort of device or other, with electronic music and not-so-social media sedating the concrete and steel dullness of our immediate surroundings. It is rush hour, and the station is heaving. As I approach the escalator, I notice that a huge crowd is gathering at the bottom, staring upwards, in the same way that a child who does not know what to do will look up at a parent. People are steadily gathering behind them, all looking equally puzzled. At first I thought someone must have had an accident, but it soon became clear that it was nothing more serious than the fact that the escalator had just broken, and had therefore turned into what was known in my youth as a set of stairs. A fully functional set of stairs at that. Yet there they were – fully mature, adult human beings – staring at it completely baffled as to what they should do. It was not until someone (presumably still grounded in their own body) at the back of the crowd shouted “just use your legs” that those at the front started to walk up the motionless escalator, after which those behind trundled along, some looking decidedly the worse for wear for having to spend roughly 40 seconds climbing up steps. Everything I had believed about our current human culture was laid bare in an instant: The Machine has taken us over, mind, body and soul.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon plays itself out in ways much less comical than this. Through the increasing influence of not only the practical functioning of The Machine, but also the application of its underlying philosophy (such as scientific precision, maximum efficiency) to people with emotions, feelings and longings for diverse creative expression, industrial civilization is not just biting the ecological hand that feeds it, it is also biting its own hand.
We live and work within a machine economy. Not only is our economy increasingly run by machines, we ourselves have become its cogs in the process. In saying this, I am not speaking metaphorically; we have, quite literally, become the interchangeable parts of the Mumfordian megamachine. If you labor under the impression that this is not the case, think again. If Franz Reuleaux’s classic definition of a machine, described “as a combination of resistant parts, each specialized in function, operating under human control, to utilize energy and to perform work,” is accurate, then the great labor machine that is the modern workforce bears an eerily close resemblance, and as Lewis Mumford points out is “in every aspect a genuine machine; all the more because its components, though made of bone, nerve, and muscle, were reduced to their bare mechanical elements and rigidly standardized for the performance of their limited tasks.” At a time when it is commonly said that machines, through technologies such as artificial intelligence, are becoming humanlike, what is noticeable by its absence in the public discourse is its inevitable parallel: humans are becoming machinelike.
The Machine, despite the plethora of gadgets it clutters our world up with – all shinier, faster and cheaper than ever before – does not serve us well. It gives you the impression that it does; after all, we buy the stuff it produces, therefore we must desire it on some level. Desiring something, however, is no sound indication that it serves you well. Heroin addicts desire heroin not because it improves their lives, but because it has become an addiction, having initially been consumed to fill a void, a gaping wound sliced open by the blades of progress. The Machine’s technologies have the same effect. They work in the same way that the advertizing industry does, in that they willfully and skillfully mask some real need, such as the longing for deep connection, and sell us a toxic substitute to soothe the pain of the loss.
Advertizing, that dark art that I myself was indoctrinated in during my undergraduate degree, actively works to destroy the self-esteem of its victim first, before going on to offer the products and services that, once purchased, may restore some of the self-confidence destroyed by their deceitful adverts moments earlier. It’s like a chocolate laxative, which through its marketing jumps out at us and shouts “Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!,” exactly the type of food that can trigger chronic constipation in the first place.
Psychologically and emotionally healthy people, content within their own skin, are not what an advertizer desires. They need people to feel the ultimate poverty, the type where, no matter how much you earn or how much you have, it is never enough.
The women’s magazine industry is a prime example of this. First you see the image of an airbrushed woman looking unlike any real woman ever could. Below it there is an advert telling you that if you buy this or that tanning or diet product, you just might look like her. Of course looking like her is impossible, as even she does not look like her. If you think this is a cynical attitude and that advertizing executives are not so full of ill- intent, consider the fact that culture-jamming magazine Adbusters once tried and failed to place adverts with three leading women’s magazines, despite offering to pay the going rate. Instead of making women feel inadequate as standard adverts are intended to do, in their own Freudian way, the unpublished Adbusters adverts simply told the reader that they were beautiful just the way they are. There was no product for sale. Yet all three magazines refused to publish it, for the simple reason (though not the one they gave) that encouraging women to be happy with themselves as they are would be to the long-term detriment of their businesses. If this is not an injurious attack on the emotional, psychological and ultimately the physical health of a person, I do not know what is. If you believe that the advertizing industry – which depends on us consuming its products and services at an ever-increasing rate – can be reformed into a sustainable economy, you are grossly mistaken.
The Machine, and the gadgetry that comes off its conveyor belts every second, works on the same principles. It has destroyed, and continues to destroy, our deep connection to kith and kin, and offers us a toxic mimic in its place. Of course this toxic mimic seems novel and appealing to begin with, and like the flask, we initially only see the benefits it brings us. The companies flogging us their wares never sell us the consequences of their products in their adverts, as these consequences are usually violent towards everything it is to be human, to be animal. Like other addictions, these toxic mimics offer us release from the inner pain caused by the gaping wound their predecessors created. Inevitably the effects of the numbness wear off, and we go chasing a bigger hit, tying ourselves in all sort of chains, such as debt, in the process. As Ran Prieur warned, “every technology begins as a key and ends as a cage.”
Believe it or not, it has not always been like this. There was a time when we did not merely consume products and services; instead, we actively participated in life. We foraged or produced and cooked our own food. We made our own music and stories, and performed them around fires for family, friends and our immediate communities. We carved out our spoons and bowls in the shape of our own soul. We made our booze together, and drank it together. But gradually the ghostly spirit of The Machine infiltrated our minds, and possessed them. Now instead of living lives that are rich with diversity and that allow us to express a thousand aspects of ourselves in a thousand different ways, we specialize in one particular job or another, doing more or less the same thing every hour of every day in an attempt to replicate the mantra of “maximum efficiency” of The Machine, a quality that has an undeservedly good reputation. “Efficiency” is “a word that has been elevated to almost holy status in the neoliberal lexicon, but in reality has become a shameful euphemism for the sacrifice of human dignity at the altar of share prices.” As Mumford astutely observes, “power, speed, motion, standardization, mass production, quantification, regimentation, precision, uniformity, astronomical regularity, control, above all control – these [have become] the passwords of modern society in the new Western style.”
This obsession with efficiency has not only enabled us to efficiently destroy much of life on Earth, it has also led to the death of truly sustainable and meaningful livelihoods, work that was once carried out at a human-friendly scale. The skill and slower speed of the human hand of a craftsperson can never compete with the functional efficiency of The Machine, meaning human-scale livelihoods have been put on the Endangered Species list, and one suspects that before long they may go the way of the Dodo. While few of us no more consciously mourn this loss of meaningful work than we do the loss of the Passenger Pigeon, we do so in a more subtle way every Monday morning when we awake to an alarm clock already wishing it to be Friday evening. This imposition of industrialism inflicts a subtle, systemic violence on us every day of our lives, and it is an ideology that it is utterly unreformable. If you are to believe Darrell J. Fasching, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, “modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.”
The Machine has not only had a seriously damaging effect on our livelihoods, and the emotional and spiritual aspects of ourselves that are wrapped up in daily work, it also has acutely negative consequences for us physically. It is creating industrial illnesses – such as cancers, heart diseases, auto-immune disorders – that it conveniently then makes us believe only industry can cure. In doing so, it has made us totally dependent on a entire global infrastructure that is unsustainable in the extreme, and overwhelmingly damaging towards the health of the entire planet (and thereby the health of humanity also).
It has robbed us of all the healing skills we once had, skills that allowed us, in general terms, to live the “optimum lifespan” of a human, instead of the maximum lifespan we strive for today. Of course, it’s quite a natural thing to want to live for as long as you can, especially in a culture so disconnected from the natural cycles of life as ours. But if you think that living as long as is artificially possible is the ultimate goal of a human, ask yourself what the consequences would be for both ourselves and the planet if we found industrial medicines that allowed us to live until we were 300 years old? Or 500 years? The planet could not support such numbers of humans consuming even a fraction of what we do today, as it cannot even cope with our current population levels. Therefore we must accept that the optimum lifespan is not the same as the maximum lifespan. The optimum lifespan is that which gives you a healthy, natural way of life that does not prevent the rest of the community of life experiencing the same.
When we think about it, it becomes obvious that longer is not necessarily better. If we lived an extra 200 years, we would be beset by all sorts of physical ailments to an even higher degree than we are today. Replacement hips would be the least of our worries. Quantity is no sign of quality, and once quantity exceeds its optimum level, quality is the price we pay. If I said to you that because women in Ireland live, on average, four years longer than men, their lives must be better than those of men based solely on this statistic, you would rightfully point out that it is not just the quantity of life that counts, but the quality of it, and that in a patriarchal and male-dominated society, this sense of quality has been a lot more difficult for women to achieve. Yet we apply this flawed thinking to civilized society, endlessly pointing to our longer lifespan to extol its virtues, as if this was the ultimate indicator that proved we were living more meaningful, happier lives. We’re not. Ask yourself this: would you rather live 60 years in freedom and deep intimate connection to the world around you, or 80 years in a cage with invisible bars? What’s more, implicit in this fervent desire for longer life is an abnormally intense fear of death – itself a strong indicator that we aren’t living in a healthy relationship with the Great Web of Life.
One look at the real indicators of human happiness shows that, despite the fact that those of us in the global West have never been financially wealthier, we have never been unhappier. In the U.S., where the ideologies of The Machine play out like nowhere else on Earth, antidepressant use is soaring. In 1998, the number of U.S. residents using these drugs totaled a whopping 11.2 million. By 2010, it had more than doubled, weighing in at 23.3 million. What kind of societies have we created for ourselves when so many people are so unhappy they have to take industrial drugs, with all their side effects, to sedate the pain of living in a world devoid of intimate connection, meaning and a sense of authentic community and belonging? How many more trudge through life with feelings of depression, loneliness, isolation and discontent?
Despite ever-increasing levels of brute force and violence by police officers, armed soldiers and the legal system, crime levels continue to increase (rape, robbery and assault rose by more than one third from 2010-12). People who live in healthy, connected communities do not commit the kind of crimes that we commit against each other today, and certainly not at the rate in which we do. Yet the criminals who commit them are usually victims themselves, forced into carrying them out by the systemic crimes of the entire culture we have created, one that we have to destroy if we are to have any hope of creating genuinely peaceful lives.
Perhaps the greatest violence industrial civilization inflicts upon us is one much more subtle. The Machine has cut us off from the Earth, destroying our intimate connection with it and our conscious state of interbeing with it. As Rollo May, in The Cry for Myth, says, “technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” We no longer experience the richness of the world. We do not have time to enjoy a butterfly passing from wild flower to wild flower in a meadow. We no longer feel the soil under our bare feet. Unlike Tom Brown Jr., we cannot see the tracks of a human foot and from that alone understand what mood the person who made them was in. We do not have time to be slow, to fully immerse ourselves in a moment, or to be free from the guilt of the past or worry about the future. Because of ideologies such as industrialism and its inherent need for efficiency, we can no longer look at a stream, a swallow or an earthworm, and deeply understand how our lives are all inseparably interconnected. From this primary violence, uncountable secondary acts of violence inevitably occur, and will continue to occur until we rid ourselves of this ghost that has possessed us.
It must become clear to us that our way of life – the anthropocentric culture of industrial civilization – inflicts more violence upon life in a moment than we can even comprehend. Every ounce of our efforts towards a more just, ecocentric world ought to be given towards dismantling The Machine, nut by nut and bolt by bolt. As Thoreau proclaimed in Civil Disobedience, “let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine,” adding later that “if I repent of anything, it is likely to be my good behavior.”
Civil disobedience, as our rulers would have us believe, is not the threat facing us today, and never has been. For as Howard Zinn pointed out:
Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them.
If we are wise we will not overly worry ourselves with culturally indoctrinated notions of violence and nonviolence, but instead concern ourselves only with the taking of the most effective action in protecting all that is beautiful about our world from the fallout of the arrogance of human supremacy. There was a time when white supremacists (who were also human supremacists) and their views were regarded as normal and acceptable, something we have started making a little headway on, however superficially, in the last half-century. It will be interesting to see if history will view human supremacists – all of us – in the same light at some point in the future.
In the meantime, our ability to protect the victims of human supremacy, and ultimately ourselves, will be strengthened if activists of all persuasions unite in solidarity. The mystic poet Rumi once told us that “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.” It is in this field that both nonviolent and full-spectrum resisters ought to meet, listen to each other’s perspectives and learn to respect each other’s calling. It is from this field that a dignified resistance to The Machine may begin in earnest.
Reprinted with permission fromDrinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhiby Mark Boyles, published by New Society Publishers, 2015.
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