Community Collapse in the West

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The triumph and homogenization of consumer society has of course relied to some extent on the adoption of methods of economic management previously thought proper only to socialist regimes — an example of dialectic materialism which is unpopular with orthodox Marxists. But far more important than the mixed parentage of the Western economic system is the global success of its image of a consumer life-style. Facilitated by the enormous growth of communications media this global public-relations programme followed rapid¬ly on the heels of affluence.

Within a quarter of a century of the defeat of the Axis powers the development of communications technology and marketing has carried the message of ‘The American Way’ to the farthest corners of the earth. Even where it scarcely exists the Good Life is avidly observed. Today Indian peasants gather round Japanese television sets to watch Yankee astronauts cavort on the moon. Vietnamese refugees, fleeing the advancing Northern army or indiscriminate aerial bom¬bardment, struggle to balance stereo systems on the cross bars of bicycles. Weaponless African rebels carve imitations of sophisticated Western firearms, lavishing more care on the provision of visually important accessories such as butt plates and sling swivels than on ballistic performance.

The dreams of the underdeveloped countries are dominated by images of an affluent, suburban life culled from advertisements, tourists, movies and television series purchased and dubbed into more familiar languages. In Latin America, where a phenomenal rate of urbanization has left every major city with an outer ring of shanty towns, efforts to mobilize housing demand for revolutionary political purposes have achieved equivocal results. The Pobladore movement in Chile, dominated by the left-wing Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR), has in recent years seen its strong political organization of the squatter movement in Santiago dissipate with the achievement of security of tenure under the government of Unidad Popular. The Pobladores themselves already evince tendencies towards embourgeoisement altogether at odds with the ideals of their political leaders. At the MIR encampment of Nueva Habana Western delegates to the Chilean International Housing Conference of 1972 were shown a model of a house designed by the people of the camp. Complete with carport, porch, garden fence and private garden, the pitched-roofed, single-storey, semi-detached house displayed a profound grasp of the imagery of suburban living on the part of people living five to a room in mud-floored huts. As in Cuba, the revolutionary government has abandoned self-build housing for this reason, adopting instead a method of labour conscription using ideologically sound microbrigadas of specially trained house-builders in an effort to head off dangerously bourgeois tendencies. In Cuba itself these microbrigadas construct small apartment blocks according to standard United States real-estate developers’ plans which offer only two or three bedrooms per apartment, an arrangement totally at variance with the normal size of a Cuban family but consonant with the ideal presented in the context of international consumer advertising.

Throughout the world the image of future prosperity fostered by governments of widely differing ideologies differs hardly at all from the existence at present enjoyed by the consumers of the West. In a book published in the USSR in 1959 the Soviet transport planner V. V. Zvonkov began a prediction of the pattern of Socialist automobile use at the turn of the century with the following:

‘You want to go to Ensk?’ asked the engineer Dolmatovski. ‘Let me take you by car. I have the latest 2007 model.’ We approached a silver machine with very small wheels parked outside in the street. The tapered back resembled the tail unit of an aircraft .. .

Another part of the book describes the interior of a Moscow apartment in the year 2000 with the same breathless enthusiasm. More recent Soviet publications chronicle the achievement of Zvonkov’s dream. The March 1969 issue of Sputnik for example describes the construction of an automobile factory:

The Volzhsky assembly plant at Togliatti on the Volga will be completed just 1000 days from the day when the first survey pegs were driven in to the steppe. According to chief designer Vladimir Solovyev, the first model produced will be the VAZ-2101, a slightly modified version of the Fiat 124. Solovyev said the plant will produce a car each 22 seconds – 660 000 per annum . . . The prospective VAZ-2101 owner is likely to be a family man who wants to take his wife and children for a weekend in the country.

The development of commercial contacts between capitalist and socialist countries as well as the adoption of extensive economic planning in the West has served only to clarify the dominance of the consumer ideal in both camps)  The universal truths of our time are not ideological but acquisitive: people do not want to live according to principles but according to desires.

The social cohesion of Western consumer societies derives from the satisfaction of individual needs rather than from the conditions of life in a possessive market society, or indeed from the power of some atavistic folk memory of the past economy of scarcity. Affluence is not an accidental characteristic of the decentralized and transient patterns of settlement which dominate today, it is the one absolute essential for their continued harmonious existence. The romantic notions of the meaning of community which are repeatedly served up as evidence of the rebirth of an ‘alliance’ amongst the economically and physically stratified citizens of the suburbs of the West are futile attempts to evade an irreversible historical process. Affluence has permitted social disintegration, or more accurately rendered it of small importance by substituting for it something else altogether, a new kind of social adhesive that works by dreams instead of realities. And if that means the social balance we possess is simply a product of affluence, and not the residue of something that affluence assails, then we must accept this and reconcile ourselves to its implications. There can be no turning back, for our anti-social society of non-community is a social form whose nature derives from the mechanisms and structures it employs to maintain the isolation of its citizens. The idea which is gaining ground in intellectual circles that under ecological and political pressure the process of growth and exploitation inherent in the nature of consumer society can somehow be reversed, betrays an appalling ignorance of the power of the simple idea of wealth.

Just as ‘Japanese capitalists can efficiently organize in six months an industrial political restoration that China’s revolutionaries and Mao’s best thoughts could not achieve in six years’,  so can a few years of VAZ-2101 production at the rate of one every 22 seconds make mincemeat out of whatever community structure might presently exist in the USSR. Consumer society fragments, and universal consumer society fragments universally. The machines and the images do the trick unaided, not by inventing needs and persuading gullible citizens to work towards their fulfilment, but by providing the technology for those citizens to move out of the compound organism of ‘society’ altogether. Which in the end, moralist and prophet of doom notwithstanding, is what they really want to do.

1.  Statistics indicate that a significant increase in the murder rate occurs at Christ¬mas — a notable time for family reunions.
2. Lawrence Durrell, International Herald Tribune, 19 July 1972. The often remarked reluctance of small-town traders to support traffic by-pass routes proceeds from their understanding that the economic basis of their community lies outside not inside it. Many small American townships derive up to half their revenue from skilfully sited speed traps designed to catch the unwary drivers.
3. Thames Television production The immigration question in `This Week’, 31 August 1972.
4. C. B. Macpherson, The political theory of possessive individualism (Clarendon Press, 1962). Macpherson argues that the key factor in what he calls a `possessive market society’ is the existence of labour as a commodity apart from personality, a possession which the worker is free to hand over for a price.
5. E. Pataud and E. Pouget, Comment nous ferons la révolution (Paris, 1902).
6. George Katona, in The Powerful Consumer (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1960), argued that the restrained economic behaviour of this new class of consumers prevented a slump in the United States after 1945, and that the largely untutored market intuitions of consumers as a whole exercises a powerful and beneficial damping effect on the American economy.
7. Life in the twenty-first century, edited by M. Vassiliev and S. Gouschev. Published in translation by Penguin Books, 1961.
8. Sputnik closely resembles Reader’s Digest in format, just as Soviet Weekly resembles the old Life magazine. The resemblance is not accidental.
9. Since 1965 American Express International has negotiated agreements over the use of its credit cards in Romania, Bulgaria, the USSR, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. Pepsi-Cola now produces in the USSR.
10. James P. Sterba. Japan tightens grip on Asiasn economy. International Herald Tribute, 15 August 1972.

Page 6 of 6 pages « First < 4 5 6 - Full Article

This is a test

Posted by Bruce  on  12/30  at  06:19 PM

This is another test. It looks like comments work fine, after I fixed an error in the system.

Posted by Bruce  on  12/30  at  06:26 PM

interesting article!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/02  at  10:13 PM

Well, NY isn’t a much better alternative…just a bunch of people who don’t care about one another living on top of each other. That’s the beauty of an online community. You can get to know people that you would otherwise never talk to.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  06:06 AM
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