Welcome to the factory floor. The product? Things that are not essential, but hard to live without. What’s being supplied here is demand. Want. Craving. All you could desire. All you can imagine. Maybe more than you can handle.
“Why is this child smiling?” asks a recent print ad of a cute tot blissfully snoozing. “Because he has lived his whole life in the biggest bull market in history.” Cue the smug nods, the flush of pride. For here, swaddled in Baby Gap and lying in a Morigeau crib, is the immaculate American kid, born in the best damn place and time there has ever been. A child wanting for nothing.
He will soon learn, of course, to want everything.
Americans are beyond apologizing for their lifestyle of scorched-earth consumerism. To the strange little cabal of moralists — Robert Frank, Jedediah Purdy et al. — who have recently questioned the official program, the response has mostly been to crank up the volume and drown the doubt out. Global consumer culture? Supersize it, baby. Pile on the wattage, horsepower, silicone, cholesterol and RAM until the lights flicker, the smoke-alarms shriek and the cardiac paddles lurch to life. Give us marbled steaks and sport-utes, please, and put it all on our tab — we’re good for it. Because we are working dogs. And we have worked out the formula for millennial prosperity: keep your head down and your wallet open, and watch the economy roll. Enjoy the rollicking good times while building “the America we deserve.”
Time was, decadence on this scale was something to fear. If one group of people was gobbling up resources out of all proportion to its needs, consuming at thirty times the rate of other groups of people, at everyone’s expense, well . . . that was bad karma, to say the least. Their society was surely soft, cancerous and doomed.
But somehow, the First World has managed to give it all a happy spin. We have decided not to avoid decadence but to embrace it. Crave it. Buy it. Sell it. What’s decadent? Ice cream with the density of plutonium, a bubblebath with a barley-flour chaser, that great new Gucci scent called “Envy.” Decadence is just the celebration of universal human appetites, fully expressed — and any premium wiener who’d object to that idea must already be half-dead.
There’s no mistaking contemporary America for Versailles-era France or Rome in the time of the Caesars. Decadence has grown up, grown cool, grown systematic in its excess. It’s an indoor trout stream in the tasteful lakeside mansion of a software magnate. It’s leasing, rather than owning, a fine German automobile so you can exchange it for a new one in ten months. You don’t see the new deci-billionnaires of Silicon Valley splashing their wealth around wantonly, like the ’80s Wall Street crowd. What you see is specific, laser-guided generosity — like cutting friends and relatives into the IPO, or buying a tax-deductible painting by your boss’ kid. Keeping the money in the family. The woman most recently canonized by the American media was a personal shopper, by trade. (It was said Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, whose job was to purchase things for other people too wealthy or time-pressed to purchase things for themselves, personified elegance, refinement and understatement.) The new design aesthetic, as seen in Wallpaper magazine, is sexily minimalist, with high design and hyperattention to every detail. Labor-intensive and expensive as hell, but worth it.
See how much we’ve grown up? Can you understand now why the rest of the world has its nose to the glass, wanting a piece of this?Perhaps decadence isn’t a thing but a behavior — some gesture just arrogant and shameless enough to be Bad (read, good). An American golf fan, swept up by jingoism, spits on a rival golfer’s wife at a prestigious international tournament. A real-estate mogul erects a great middle-finger of an apartment building shadowing the United Nations. The most powerful man in the world proves he is pathologically unable to apologize.
Or maybe decadence goes deeper than a behavior, as deep as the emotion that hatched it. The Motion Picture Association of America fixes an R rating on films that include profanity, nudity, sex, violence or “decadent situations.” So understanding decadence may simply involve renting a few saucy blockbuster action pictures and monitoring the responses they provoke. As the beloved stars appear on the screen, predictable thoughts materialize in the primitive hindbrain of the viewer: I want your hair. I want your money. I want to see you naked on the Internet.
Not every American lives a decadent life, of course. But decadence, as the marketers say, has great penetration. Those who aren’t themselves trashing hotel rooms or being photographed in their swimming pools for InStyle magazine, end up thinking a lot about those who are — because the culture of celebrity (or the culture of “ornament,” as Susan Faludi calls it) is the water we’re all swimming in. Refracted through the glass of the tank, the contours of the world outside tend to distort.
A Canadian newspaper recently quoted a Toronto woman who had taken a leave from her law practice to stay home with the baby. She was grumbling that the family was now forced to get by on her husband’s $37,000 salary. “I love to live in poverty,” she said, sardonically. “It’s my favorite thing in life.” The story was supposed to be about the social trend of professional women making domestic choices. But it was really about a different social trend altogether: the hyper-inflation of the concept of “enough.”
To borrow journalist Robert Kaplan’s metaphor, the First World is driving a Cadillac through Harlem. The passengers are hermetically protected. The air-conditioner is on, Wynton Marsalis is issuing from the stereo, beers chill in the minibar. It’s hard to make much out through the tinted windows, but no matter. Nothing that’s happening outside has any bearing on what’s happening inside. At least, that’s our willful illusion. It’s an illusion that seems indefinitely sustainable, though it isn’t.
Decadence is self-delusion on a massive scale. Like the motto of the new gadget-packed magalog Sony Style — “things that are not essential, yet hard to live without” — it’s about convincing ourselves of the value of this lifestyle, because to question it would force choices we’re not prepared to make.
‘How much do I deserve?’ we all ask ourselves, if only implicitly. ‘Not just money, but adventure, sex, fizzy water, educational opportunities, time on the beach, peace of mind — the package. How much do I deserve?’
A thoughtful answer might be, ‘I don’t deserve anything. The notion that some people are just naturally more entitled than others is for Calvinists, Monarchists and Donald Trump. It simply doesn’t feel right to claim more than a modest reasonable allotment. If I’ve happened to stake a claim on a rich crook of the river, that’s my good luck. The guy upstream has worked just as hard as I have. So I share.’
But that view now seems downright un-American. ‘How much do I deserve? All I can cram in my mouth, brain, glove-box and daytimer,’ says the hard-charging capitalist. ‘I’ve earned it. And you haven’t earned the right to tell me differently.’ That’s why, when the Australian ethicist Peter Singer wonders, “What is our charitable burden?” it strikes so many Americans as unusual, controversial, bizarre. For a lot of folks, the calculation of an acceptable level of personal sacrifice is easy: It’s zero. No other answer computes. I think that partly explains the extreme responses Singer evokes. He touches people in a place they don’t like to be touched.
Are Americans today intrinsically more base and self-centered than other folks, past and present? Hard to make that argument fly. It’s just that never before in history have so few barriers been placed in front of the expression of a National id. No opponents challenge us. No authority figures monitor us. No threat of consequence or reprisal encourages civility, modesty, fairness or grace. The “life of struggle” that Schopenhauer identified as essential to man isn’t obvious in the contemporary US. The struggle against want has been won; all foes have been conquered but one. That one is boredom, the opposite of suffering.
Not long ago, the actor Charlie Sheen, an Angels baseball fan, bought up all the tickets in a left-field section of Anaheim stadium and sat out there by himself, pounding his mitt, hoping to catch a fly ball. (None came his way.) Why did he do that? Because he could. America is decadent because nothing prevents it from being so. “Because I can” is the ironic successor to the more earnest, Kantian, “Because I should.” When there’s no other rationale for a behavior, and none seems to be required, that’s decadence — no less so for the smirky tagline.
Decadence is what happens when the energy of a whole society gets channeled into the trivial or the mercenary. In the age of the supercharged Dow, everything reduces to an “opportunity,” at an incalculable (though unacknowledged) cost.
As hurricane Floyd blew through Florida, day-traders jumped into the commodities markets looking to cash in on tragedy. Orange juice and cotton futures shot up. Lumber futures rose because homes smashed to flinders would presumably need to be rebuilt. Then the hurricane moved northward, and traders eased off, waiting to see if there would be, as one trader put it, “any real damage.” “I don’t think morality has anything to do with the way markets work, that’s what this is telling you,” a labor economist reached for comment summarized. What does it tell you when the most powerful engine of the country, a chief driver of its culture, functions independent of human morality?
I pondered that question recently while sitting on the throne in the bathroom of the office where I work. Often there are magazines to read in there, but on the last few occasions there haven’t been — only catalogues. Another sign of the times. In the most private of the day’s moments, where we used to relax and be told a story, now we gaze at pictures of a car or a computer or a coffeemaker. Consumer lust loosens the sphincter and in an almost orgasmic spasm, we let go. (Of maybe the last thing we’re willing to let go.)
It’s tempting to think of decadence as a personal act with personal consequences (namely, to the soul.). If that were true, it would all come down to a matter of taste, and we could agree to live and let live with our own strange preoccupations. But decadence is really a political act. Americans aren’t living large in a vacuum; they’re living large at the expense of things and people: the growing underclass, the stability of the economy, the texture of mental environment, the planet itself. Every mile we log alone in the car, every sweat-shop-made sneaker we buy, every porn site we visit, every tobacco stock we day-trade in, is a brick in wall of the new world we’re creating. Not everyone got a vote in this process; yet everyone pays the price. Eventually, everyone pays an incredible price.
“In a new way, America’s decadence has made it vulnerable,” a friend offers. Today, all is well, so keep your eye on today. Ten years ago the average personal savings rate in North America was about ten percent. Now it’s zero. “If the Dow tumbles, people literally will not be able to tolerate a diminishment in their lifestyle. You’ll see consumer rage, deeper and deeper debt problems as consumption patterns hold constant but income falls.” Because, the thing is, the desire doesn’t go away. The manufacture of desire won’t slow down, even if the manufacture of everything else does.
Author: Harry Flood
News Service: Adbusters