Lost in the 21st Century

Posted: 03 Feb 2015 10:26 AM PST

Consumerism has broken its promise. Perhaps now we can begin to reconnect.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 4th February 2015

A woman walks into a department store. She takes in the racks and stacks of stuff, the sugared music, the sale signs, the listless customers shuffling through the aisles, and is moved – suddenly and to her own astonishment – to shout. “Is this all there is?!”. An assistant comes round from behind his till. “No madam. There’s more in our catalogue.”

This is the answer we have been given to everything, the only answer. We might have lost our attachments, our communities, our sense of meaning and purpose, but there will be more money and more stuff with which to replace them. Now that the promise has evaporated, the size of the void becomes intelligible.

It’s not that the old dispensation was necessarily better: it was bad in different ways. Hierarchies of class and gender crush the human spirit as effectively as atomisation. The point is that the void that was filled with junk is a void that could have been occupied by a better society, built on mutual support and connectedness, without the stifling stratification of the old order. But the movements that helped to smash the old world were facilitated and co-opted by consumerism.

Individuation, a necessary response to oppressive conformity, is exploitable. New social hierarchies, built around positional goods and conspicuous consumption, took the place of the old. The conflict between individualism and egalitarianism, too readily ignored by those who helped to break the oppressive norms and strictures, does not resolve itself.

So we are lost in the 21st Century, living in a state of social disaggregation that hardly anyone desired, but that is an emergent property of a world reliant on rising consumption to avert economic collapse, saturated with advertising and framed by market fundamentalism. We inhabit a planet our ancestors would have found impossible to imagine: 7 billion people, suffering an epidemic of loneliness. It is a world of our making but not of our choice.


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