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Nightmare on TV

A television commercial for Rocket Mortgage last night horrified me. The narrator declared these quick mortgage loans would enable more people to purchase homes. This would create more contruction work and jobs producing the materials for building houses. The new owners would have to buy furniture, appliances, art for the walls and clothes to fill their closets. The people put to work making this merchandise could then buy their own homes, which they’d have to fill with furniture… and so on. Attractive visual images filled the screen with countless consumer items. Less than a minute after it started, the narrator concluded that this scenario demonstrated “America’s power.” It was terrifyingly brilliant; a catchy summary of the ideological underpinning of our nation’s need to engage in orgasmic excesses of production and consumption.

Industrial capitalism is a fabulous engine of production; that’s its greatest strength. The Great Depression, however, taught the captains of industry to fear over-production. If they produce too much, prices drop, profits disappear, and companies shut down. Workers lose jobs and the unemployed can’t afford to buy products so the system spirals downward. World War II got us out of the Great Depression. For the first time since 1929, industry could run at capacity, and since much of what was manufactured was expended or blown to smithereens in battle they could produce to their heart’s content without creating a glut.

When the war ended, many feared another depression. But those evil twins, the military-industrial complex and domestic consumerism, saved the day. We could manufacture huge amounts of military equipment as we pursued the cold war and developed an unprecedented globe-spanning empire, while selling even more to other “free world” countries. But that wasn’t enough. Madison Avenue convinced us to buy an endlessly expanding array of items that we simply had to have, even though we’d done perfectly well without them before we realized they were necessities.

This is an oversimplification, but the military industrial complex coupled with an explosion of domestic consumption is what fueled 60 years of prosperity. That ended for most with the 2008 collapse, but the economy remains wedded to increasing military production and domestic consumption. The problem is that this continual growth is destroying the productive capacity of the planet.

This can’t be sustained. Even if all the green capitalist dreams of expansion through renewable energy, increased efficiency, and technological breakthroughs were realized, infinite growth will still increase greenhouse gases, species loss, and habitat destruction. Do the math; even if we become ten times more efficient (very unlikely), and use one tenth of the fuel to build something, we gain nothing if the system demands that we make ten times more stuff.

Unfortunately, that commercial wasn’t just a nightmare. It captured the essence of our system. And, nightmare or not, we desperately need an alarm to wake up more of us because our survival depends on junking capitalism.
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