Thursday, March 13, 2008

Quote of the day, 3/13/08

First of all, there is nothing inherently wrong with consumption. Shopping and consuming are enjoyable human activities and the marketplace has been a center of social life for thousands of years.

The locus of oppression resides in the production function: people have no control over which commodities are produced (or services performed), in what amounts, under what conditions, or how these commodities are distributed. Corporations make these decisions and base them solely on their profit potential.

As it is, the profusion of commodities is a genuine and powerful compensation for oppression. It is a bribe, but like all bribes it offers concrete benefits—in the average American’s case, a degree of physical comfort unparalleled in history. Under present conditions, people are preoccupied with consumer goods not because they are brainwashed but because buying is the one pleasurable activity not only permitted but actively encouraged by our rulers. The pleasure of eating an ice cream cone may be minor compared to the pleasure of meaningful, autonomous work, but the former is easily available and the latter is not. A poor family would undoubtedly rather have a decent apartment than a new TV, but since they are unlikely to get the apartment, what is to be gained by not getting the TV?

...If we are to build a mass movement we must recognize that no individual decision, like rejecting consumption, can liberate us. We must stop arguing about whose life style is better (and secretly believing ours is) and tend to the task of collectively fighting our own oppression and the ways in which we oppress others. When we create a political alternative to sexism, racism, and capitalism, the consumer problem, if it is a problem, will take care of itself.


--Ellen Willis, nineteen-sixty-fucking-nine

7 comments:

betmo said...

the fact that what we see could have been so avoided- makes me want to cry. but then- all that would be gained is me crying and puffing up like a balloon- so i will just sigh instead.

Daisy said...

She was so wonderful! May her brilliant feminist soul rest in peace.

Alon Levy said...

Profits are determined by consumer choices, as well as how production costs scale. TVs, computers, and other technologies get cheaper over time. Anything based on craft labor or land, like housing, becomes more expensive as the economy grows. This is especially true if you want a short commute. You can find very cheap, livable homes, if you don't mind living in a far-off exurb.

ballgame said...

You can find very cheap, livable homes, if you don't mind living in a far-off exurb.

Hmmm ... cheap? Of course, there may be a few "externalities" to consider. But nothing too important, I'm sure.

As for the OP, my familiarity with the Ellen Willis canon is far from exhaustive, but I can't remember anything I've read by her that wasn't eminently sensible. Great quote.

Alon Levy said...

The gas prices are still less than what you'll pay for a short commute. A house that rents for $1,500 in Poughkeepsie is probably as large and well-maintained as an apartment that rents for $8,000 in Manhattan. Living in Poughkeepsie means paying $360 more a month for commuter rail, and needing a car to run errands, but roads are so subsidized in the US that the gas won't cost that much.

As for why there's scarcity of housing in inner cities, don't blame capitalism. Raw capitalism produced overcrowded tenements and railroad monopolies. This wasn't acceptable to the Progressive Movement, so it passed zoning and public health laws, and built government-funded roads to compete with the railroads. The closest thing to capitalism or class warfare that's involved here is that the suburbs have large minimum lot sizes and low floor area ratio requirements, meant to make it impossible to profitably build anything but upscale housing.

ballgame said...

The gas prices are still less than what you'll pay for a short commute.

Well, exactly. You're making my point. The system is currently designed in such a way that millions of people are making decisions that make sense individually, but which are collectively suicidal. The possibility that the planet might be rendered uninhabitable by global warming in the next century or two is no longer strictly in the realm of science fiction. At a minimum, it is almost certain that melting icecaps will raise ocean levels and as a result displace millions during that time, and it is not at all clear where, exactly, those people will go.

You are correct to point out that the gas-based suburban mode of living is heavily subsidized. The notion that these subsidies stem largely from misbegotten progressive ideals, and not from corporate capitalist greed, is absurd. As Robert Kennedy recently pointed out, it was not progressive ideals that prompted the tearing up of the streetcars, or killing the electric car, or promoted policies that concealed and exacerbated our dependence on an energy source which is now often in the hands of oil-company-friendly autocratic governments instead of more democratic regimes.

The choice you posit between 'overcrowded tenements and railroad monopolies' and a dead-end cheap-oil-based suburbanization is a false one. It is easy to envisage a thriving, liveable urban lifestyle which incorporates healthy mass transit and a reliance on renewable energy sources ... easy, that is, if one lived in a country which was not in thrall to defacto segregationism, the wealthy scions of a disappearing energy source, and a mindless acquiescence to simplistic and inaccurate assumptions about the workings of a market economy.

Alon Levy said...

None of that has anything to do with the fact that "People don't choose; corporations do" betrays ignorance of how economics works. Corporate conspiracies exist only in the minds of lunatics; in reality, corporations have to satisfy consumer demand, and often do so in mutually contradictory ways.

Global warming has exactly nothing to do with this. Affordable housing crises exist regardless of the mode of transportation people use. In Japan they have the exact same problems as in the US, even though the people living in exurbs of Tokyo commute to work by rail.