Monday, October 7, 2013

Scarecrow, Kaufman, Capitalism and Inspiration

So a friend of mine, a bright star of a friend, as in, she has been the speaker at a TED talk amazing, posted a viral marketing video for Chipotle, made in conjunction with a decision to locally source 2% of its vegetables. The video was a triumph of imagination, I was mesmerized by the animation and of course in tears with the tender message. It was about no less than the goodness of the earth, and the way humans had lost their way and parted from that goodness, but it was possible to reconnect with it through this burrito vendor, and say no to the gray existence our overwrought consumerism had forced upon us.

I gave her a hard time on her post, and posted in her timeline the spoof video about it made by Funny or Die. She took it to heart, and wrote a blog post about the experience and it really makes for good reading. I think it's so good because she is writing from the heart. This is a brave woman, willing to question anything and it inspired to respond. I mean, she calls me a cynic and that's a little wounding (she also called me one of the smartest people she knows, which was immediately retweeted by me with joyful abandon).

Her response is a defense of corporate responsibility as a real thing, and a good thing, and even, if you step back, a defense of capitalism. She comes from a place of knowledge, she has been at the forefront of change and innovation, she finds and sees the good in what comes of corporations.

In some ways she is preaching to the choir. The day I joined Facebook I said for political beliefs:

 Transparent Democracy, Civil Liberties and Capitalism is the way to go

And I still believe that. Let me just tell anyone reading this blog in the United States you have NO IDEA what it is like to believe in capitalism and be an activist who thinks the government should serve people and not banks. Holy god, the shit I take. But as my friend says in her post, the innovation and improvement in the lives of many people that capitalism creates is undeniable and powerful. People have to eat and they love eating. They have to sleep somewhere, wear something, get electricity - I don't think any other system has ever done more to meet these needs than capitalism - or at least a market economy.

And yet. And yet. Citizens United, my friends. The choking of democracy we see in Washington every day. These things are caused by corporations not being held to the rule of law as they should be. It costs a million dollars to run for Congress. I know. I got a little ways down that road. The only way to get that money is to start being beholden to private interests, which are largely corporate. Corporations decide what Universities investigate, how Sovereigns regulate the money supply, and how people forge their identity.

The harm of a capitalist system is that we have found ourselves puffed up with consumerism. As another wise friend of mine says with regard to the obesity problem, we have become human storage receptacles for surplus corn. But we also in America hinge our worth as humans by how wealthy we are, which is lethal to the soul. And we define ourselves by how we spend, not by who we are without reference to money.

That was a big point of my friend's defense, though, that she could define herself by her spending and make the world she wanted to from her consumer choices. My problem with that is that is ends with Kim Kardashian, who is only famous for her consumer choices. Other virtues are obscured. Other realities are unattended. The definition of self through spending choices has an odd tyranny, as if no other definitions of selves had substance. Your identity is what you have bought for yourself. I feel like the consumer part of our identity should be shrunk, should be shrunk like the number of legal derivative trades, down to a very low level. So that the genius and innovation and goodness of supply can shine through, but the people who are being supplied have spiritual and physical identities that are not shaped by marketing campaigns.

My friend said that I was a cynic, which means I believe people only act out of self-interest. I know that to be false. But corporations act for profit, and I know that to be true. So call me a corporate cynic. I align with every corporate law professor in the Western world.

But do I want corporations to go? No,  I think capitalism -a market economy populated by limited liability companies - is the most successful means to distribute goods and services humans have yet devised. I guess I want people to be bigger than corporations. I want people to be supremely cynical and skeptical of the profit motive.  It is a pretty base desire. The desire to better the world, to meet needs, to create a delicious food - those desires co-exist with the profit motive. But they need not be completely co-dependent on the profit motive. My friend defended capitalism with the argument that many business networks help people in need. That is true. But it is the people helping, not the corporations.

And as for Apple, I just think of that net they had to put up to slow down the rate of suicides at Foxconn.

Here is what Charlie Kaufman had to say on this point in the context of screenwriting:

It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that – at the very least – this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colourful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking, ‘What can we do to get people to buy more of these?’

And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.

What can be done? Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be that. But more importantly, if you’re honest about who you are, you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world because that person will recognise him or herself in you and that will give them hope. It’s done so for me and I have to keep rediscovering it. It has profound importance in my life. Give that to the world, rather than selling something to the world. Don’t allow yourself to be tricked into thinking that the way things are is the way the world must work and that in the end selling is what everyone must do. Try not to.
End of quote.

Behind every corporation is some group of people, and people are the real magic. And people defined without reference to consumerism are the most magical people of them all.

During my work with Occupy I kept envisioning the hyperconsumerism of our time as some kind of swelling, something that needed to be cooled and stilled. If it could be, I think that people would be more interested in the non-consumer aspects of their identity. Their relationship to the State, to humankind, to their God, to their family. If they weren't so busy amassing the payments on their chronic debt, they could do amazing things.If the rule of law could reign in the systemic damage corporations have done to democracy and sovereignty, then that would be amazing too.

Just to say thank you my friend for taking my crank post seriously and therefore inspiring me to think on this more.

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