Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Living In One Dimension

Ticky-Tacky Existence: Malvina Reynolds' wickedly subversive 1962 song Little Boxes (which later became the theme of the HBO hit series, Weeds) captures to perfection the one dimensional nature of existence in "advanced industrial society". Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man (1964) further elaborated the ideology of "ticky-tackiness". Sadly, New Zealand continues to experience the social and political effects of one dimensional living.

THERE’S A CERTAIN TYPE of New Zealander, I’m sure you’ve met him – or her. Pinched, unsmiling, always angry: the sort of person who is quick to condemn (and eager to punish) an ever-expanding list of social and political “deviants”. The “normal”, “right-thinking”, “decent” sort of Kiwi who writes letters to the editor of the local newspaper.

If you visit these New Zealanders’ homes you’d find order and cleanliness. There’ll be a flat-screen TV in the living-room, but no books; evidence of money and “success” everywhere you look, but hardly a trace of life, or love, anywhere.

There must be an enormous number of these angry and loveless New Zealanders because both of our major political parties pander to them shamelessly. Our politicians’ knee-jerk recourse to increasingly punitive (but evidence-free) “solutions” and its inevitable corollary, the steady dilution of our civil rights, is directly attributable to the electoral clout of this sad, mad segment of the population.

The radical German sociologist, Herbert Marcuse, dubbed this cruelly diminished variety of human-being “one dimensional man”.

Driven from his homeland by the Nazi takeover in 1933, Marcuse came to rest in the uttermost west of the United States; Los Angeles, California. As it would do so often in the decades to come, California in the late-1930s was pre-figuring the culture of mass affluence. In LA’s sprawling suburbs Marcuse discovered human-beings defined not by what they were, or even by what they did, but by what they owned. In the mass consumer society which California anticipated, people’s sense of self was determined by the things they possessed. Happiness had ceased to be something they discovered, and was fast becoming something they acquired.

New Zealand’s post-war social development followed closely Marcuse’s one dimensional model. In Auckland, particularly, the sprawling “ticky-tacky” suburbs, snaking motorways and ubiquitous private automobile paid imitative homàge to the USA’s consumption-driven society.

The big question, which even Marcuse struggled to answer, is: what sort of human-being is likely to emerge from a consumption-driven society whose members have known nothing else?

We hear a great deal from the Right about inter-generational “welfare dependency” and how it threatens to exclude citizens from the paid workforce and the socially integrative functions it performs. We hear much less about inter-generational “consumption dependency” and its effects on individuals, families, and the planet it is devastating.

If “one dimensional man” can overcome the personal challenges of everyday life through the acquisition of things, then surely social challenges can be met in the same way? If the answer to personal unhappiness is to surround oneself with more commodities, then social ills should similarly be curable by “more”.

Pervasive “welfare dependency” can be overcome by providing more “incentives” to return to the workforce. More crime by more police, equipped with more weapons and invested with more coercive powers. And if more policing doesn’t do the trick, then more laws, more punitive sentences and more prisons must be the answer.

In a political order dominated by one dimensional men, the state increasingly assumes the role of a glorified supermarket or shopping mall. If one dimensional individuals’ hunger for authenticity can be assuaged by simple consumption, then one dimensional society should be capable of healing itself with solutions of equal simplicity. This has to be true because complexity is the one thing that one dimensional society can neither acknowledge nor tolerate.

Why? Because if there are some hurts that things cannot heal; some wrongs that simple solutions cannot right; some qualities, like wisdom, compassion and solidarity, that stockpiling commodities will never confer; then the implicit bargain at the core of the our consumption-driven society, you work for things, and things make you happy, breaks down.

At that point books suddenly become more important that flat-screen TV sets, and the notion that simply by giving your vote to a political party you can solve all of society’s problems stands revealed for the nonsense it always was. At that point anger and the urge to punish are acknowledged as lying at the core of our problems, not applauded as the necessary precursors to fair and just solutions.

And surely this is the explanation for the peculiar distemper of contemporary society? That the continued accumulation of things is palpably insufficient to the maintenance of our own (let alone the planet’s) happiness, but that no one (with the noble exception of the Greens) is offering anything resembling an alternative. Behind the anger and the sadness of New Zealand’s one dimensional citizens, and the intellectual poverty of one dimensional political parties peddling simplistic non-solutions to ever-more-complex problems, lies the frustration of the consumer whose happiness-creating commodities have stopped working.

In the end, what’s the point of offering three-dimensional flat-screen TVs, if all they reveal is the ever-expanding quantum of happiness our one-dimensional citizens have yet to acquire?

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 March 2012.


Sanctuary said...

"...THERE’S A CERTAIN TYPE of New Zealander, I’m sure you’ve met him – or her. Pinched, unsmiling, always angry: the sort of person who is quick to condemn (and eager to punish) an ever-expanding list of social and political “deviants”..."

Come, now, this is no way to speak of Duncan Garner.

Matthew said...

"That the continued accumulation of things is palpably insufficient to the maintenance of our own (let alone the planet’s) happiness, but that no one (with the noble exception of the Greens) is offering anything resembling an alternative."

Chris, as someone who has written beautiful and moving pieces about Christmas and Easter, you must know your own statement isn't true.

Brendan McNeill said...

Chris, it seems you are engaging in the larger existential questions of meaning and purpose.

This is where the Christian faith speaks to us and our culture, as best I understand it.

We are stewards of the earth and its resources. They are there for our benefit but not our exploitation.

Human life has meaning and value, derived from the fact that we are intentionally created, and spiritually redeemed at unimaginable cost.

Work has value in that we are serving others as well as ourselves.

Family, community, nationhood all derive their meaning from our Christian context and world view.

The business of politics is simply a means of best organizing ourselves socially by mutual agreement.

Unfortunately, for many secular people, the State has become 'god walking on earth' and they look to it to solve problems that are frankly outside of its sphere of responsibility and capability.

Hence endless waisted tax dollars on well meaning social programs that often have dire unintended consequences. Some forms of welfare fit that experience exactly.

Welfare should ideally be 'family centric' in the first instance, followed by intermediating institutions, and the State as last resort.

Unfortunately we seem to have that model upside down in New Zealand, and as a result 13% of the working age population is on State funded benefits of some kind.

It's a sad situation for everyone, those on the benefits, and those working to pay them.

Nothing short of a fresh understanding of the existential issues you touch on, will resolve this problem effectively. It appears beyond political resolution.

Chris Trotter said...

"Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done on Earth
As it is in Heaven."

It's all in the scriptures, Brendan.

Did God not walk upon the Earth with Abraham and Moses? Did the fishermen not follow in his footsteps?

Yours is a curiously tongue-tied form of Christianity, Brendan. It does not speak to me.

Anonymous said...

If welfare was family centered - couples living together with their kids would get more money not less and it would pay for one partner to stay home and look after them when that is needed.

tomorrows marxist said...

The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.

Good column though.

Anonymous said...

What about kindles?
Don't need the books then...

RevAlMac said...

Thanks Chris,
A good analysis. It fits nicely alongside Keith Rankin's piece on intellectuals and the anti-intellectual side to NZ society. I pick it up in my pastoral conversations as a minister. We don't want to think deeply about life, ethics, just give us the money and let me get on with it and to hell with anyone else.

Anonymous said...

Kindles are books (without an index or preface). They are for the multi-dimensional rather than one dimensional. It is not about technology but (in part) the utility of technology. Excellent piece of writing Chris. Can you put it to song as well?

Ian Powelll

Anonymous said...

It's production that's the problem not consumption. it's 'the treadmill of production'

Pauley said...

Capitalism has reduced happiness to a purely material status, to mere survival of the biological creature. Like human beings themselves, happiness has become an object or commodity with no inherent worth, whose value is determined by the profit imperative. As Marcuse's associate Adorno put it: "Happiness is obsolete: uneconomic".

A few weeks back the Herald's employment guide was merely stating "common sense" when it barefacedly admitted that happiness is merely secondary consideration in one's job. The surrealists, of whom Marcuse was fond, coined the word 'miserablism' to describe the current system which produces misery and then rationalizes it by defining it as the only possible way of being.

It will be interesting to see whether the deepening economic crisis might spark some sort of human revolt against such miserablism and our dead, one-dimensional society.

peterquixote said...

I see you lost your Valentines day spirit very quickly Chris, of course you are so wonderful you have books in your home, but then your possessions are greater and more meaningful than ours Chris

DavidKNZ said...

Brendan brings to mind the Atheists Prayer: Lord protect me from your followers...

Anonymous said...

Talk about interviewing your keyboard.
TV bad, books good.
What an arid little husk of a column going nowhere.

TM said...

Yes consumerism is a problem for all sections of society. This applies especially to many people with little money or on welfare who feel they should have certain material possessions even if they can't really afford them, or even if it means getting in debt. Your comments that they should eschew the tv for books for the enrichment of their soul and wallet would probably fall of deaf ears.

There are many who view the entire field of marketing as being responsible for mass consumerism. People have been getting the message that 'stuff' makes them happy for decades and it has really sunk in now. Ban all ads and product packaging?

Anonymous said...

"Excellent piece of writing Chris. Can you put it to song as well?"

Don't ask him to sing !

for Gods sake, or he will record it and put it up here as the intro for two weeks - and every poor sod with their headphones on will get hit with it

Anonymous said...

13% on Benefits? How many of those are on the Unemployment Benefit? They great majority of those on the Unemployment Benefit stay less that 3 months. Would you like to send the disabled, the psychotic back into the workforce? The single mothers with young children?

Jesus wept.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Chris

My point was that the State is not God, and it cannot bring about his Kingdom on earth through progressive taxation and wealth redistribution.

That's not Christianity; at best that's socialism.

The only coercive behavior Jesus is credited with is driving money changers from the Temple, and then only because they had turned a house of prayer into a den of thieves.

In the old Testament, the (administrative) tithe was applied equally to all families. No sign of progressive taxation and forced wealth redistribution there.

In the New Testament, all giving was voluntary.

I'm happy to be challenged on my theology and my politics, but I remain unconvinced that Socialism is "Christianity enacted" as you appear to believe.

Anonymous said...

Because I see a lot of effort put into actively making the case for a very grim form of society. One entirely lacking in solidarity.

I'm quite curious to hear you marry that with Christian principles.

I've heard you say that us as individuals need to become 'new men', presumably in order to cope with the challenging new order.

That I agree with. But that's only part of the problem.

Shouldn't we have political and economic solutions infused with Faith values?

You seem to have put some effort into fashioning your own economic and political prescriptions.

It's just that yours are devoid of such uneconomic and impractical concepts such as fairness and decency.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Andrew

"It's just that yours (faith / values) are devoid of such uneconomic and impractical concepts such as fairness and decency".

Is it fair and decent to lock teenage girls and their child into solo motherhood and state funded poverty, while pretending that to be a compassionate response?

Is it fair and decent to allow successive generations of children to be raised in 'families' where work is something that 'other people' do, where there is no expectation that anyone in the household will ever work, or that their children should have educational or working aspirations?

Is it fair and decent that Government welfare policy is responsible for a quarter of New Zealand's children being raised in single parent fatherless households, where a hugely disproportionate amount of 'boy friend' based child abuse and neglect takes place?

These children are the 'child poverty' and neglect story we hear so much about, but no one is prepared to deal with at a causation level.

That is not fairness and decency, that is cruelty and stupidity.

The reality is that the State cannot fix broken families, or alleviate poverty. If it could, we would have less of both today, not more.

Now I have to agree that we Christians are not all good at showing compassion, but there are many individuals and faith communities actively making a difference in NZ amongst the poor, the broken and the disadvantaged. It's just not newsworthy because it's not violent, or the cause of conflict.

Society is best transformed from the bottom up, one individual, one family at a time. I see no examples in the Western world where Governments have solved poverty, quite the reverse.

In the UK which has even more welfare than we do, there is one household in five where no one works.

It's not sustainable and it is not fair, decent or just on those who are encouraged to live that way, or those who are forced to fund it.

Anonymous said...

I may have recommended this in the past, which is somewhat in the same space:

Anonymous said...

We solved poverty in New Zealand. With full employment. I defy you to prove otherwise.

The fact that we need a safety net is common sense. The fact that we need solo mother benefits so that children can be with their biological mothers is common sense.

What would you propose other than a benefit system? Voluntary charity is by definition unreliable.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Andrew

If a teenage mum and their family can afford to keep the baby, then good on them.

Otherwise, open adoption is the best and most humane choice for all concerned, including you and me.

You were not present at conception, and neither was I, then why pray, should either of us pay for this mother and the child of this absent father?

We can afford the immediate costs, it's the downstream costs of the dysfunction, abuse and neglect, and repeat intergenerational behavior that we cannot afford.


Anonymous said...

Ok, so you have a warped conception of morality. You want to take children away from their mothers if they can't afford them in order to punish both parents.

Such is the morality of the right wing 'Christian.

No need for me to make any clearer.