Healthy and unhealthy consumerism

I am routinely thankful for my good blog friends, many of whom help me find interesting stuff in the blogosphere that I might otherwise miss. Since this was a busy, busy weekend, and since I have the kids for another few days before school starts, I can assure you that, had Earl not given me the heads up, I would have missed entirely Andrew Anthony’s “The Day Reality Hit Home,” an op-ed in Britain’s ultra Left Guardian (of all places). Here is how the Guardian itself describes Anthony as the introduction to excerpts from his just-published book:

The writer Andrew Anthony was a committed member of the liberal left – until the attacks of 11 September, 2001. A veteran of CND and Nicaraguan solidarity campaigns, he was astonished at the liberal left’s anti-American reaction. And so he began to question other basic assumptions about race, crime and terror – a political journey he charts here, in these exclusive extracts from his compelling new book.

As you can imagine from that introduction, it’s a fascinating article and I urge you to read it. It also, right off the bat, highlighted something I touched upon in my early “Why Fight?” post — which is a question about what we’re defending when we fight. I pointed out in that earlier post Bruce Bawer’s observation that Europeans, for all their high minded socialism, seem obsessively focused on consumerism at the engine driving everything. So many seem incapable of recognizing, let alone fighting for, abstract freedoms. To them, every war is about opening or positioning oneself in a marketplace. And since they’ve come to the conclusion that the marketplace is a shallow and uninteresting thing, they are disdainful of anything associated with it — including causes that Americans describe in high minded terms as fights for liberty.

Interestingly enough, that’s the very premise Anthony uses to describe the political and ideological world in which he was operating when 9/11 occurred. After describing his own mid-life malaise, he extended that as a metaphor to look at the pre-9/11 world:

A midlife crisis did indeed ensue after 9/11. In truth it had been brewing for some time. It wasn’t my midlife crisis, however, but that of Western culture at large. No matter what other aims may have motivated this singular act of terrorism, it was beyond question that it was planned as a symbolic, as well as a lethal, attack on ‘the West’, whether the target was militarism (the Pentagon), capitalism (the WTC), or cosmopolitanism (the heterogeneity of the victims). The problem was many in the West were not sure that it was worthy of defence. For some time in the post-Soviet era, as America established its position as the sole superpower, a West-based movement had been growing that rejected the spread of free-market capitalism and the Western values that underpinned the global market. Known as anti-globalisation, it drew attention to the poverty and deprivation that was such a common feature of life in the Third World. But it also posed some stark existential questions about the Western way of life. ‘What was the point?’ the anti-globalisers seemed to be asking, all we do is buy stuff, turn everywhere into a market, and force McDonald’s and Starbucks down other people’s throats. Our culture is nothing but consumption. As the anti-globalist writer Naomi Klein argued a few weeks after 11 September: ‘Part of the disorientation many Americans now face has to do with the inflated and oversimplified place consumerism plays in the American narrative. To buy is to be. To buy is to love. To buy is to vote.’

To Europeans and those on the American Left who look to Europe for intellectual guidance, there is no connection at all between freedom from government interference and the amazing comforts Western living provides. That is, they don’t see that the former is the beneficial soil, and the latter merely the lovely crop that springs from this rich soil. Put another way, although I’m not a person who craves “things” just to have them, I like my comfortable home, my nice car and my clean streets as much as the next person, possibly even more. I never make the mistake, however, of believing that these material trappings are the alpha and omega of America. They are merely symptoms, if you will, of a healthy society; they are not the society itself.

Europeans, however, are different. Keep in mind that, all during the 1960s and 1970s, when they seemed to have such a money rich society, so that they could produce those luxury European items American snobs know and love, and so that they could provide cradle to crave care, these trappings came about, not because they had a free society with a free market, but because America did away with their defense costs by providing a free military for them. England, which was the only European country that did not have American troops all over the place so that, forcing it to fund its own military, could not sustain a health socialist economy and a military all at the same time. Fortunately for the Brits, they had the wisdom to elect Maggie Thatcher, who put the brakes on the socialist experiment and revitalized the economy.

What this means is that, in Europe, there is no connection between a healthy marketplace, both economically and in the world of ideas, and a healthy consumer culture. For decades, because of American help, Europeans had, on the one hand, a government run marketplace and stifling ideological conformity, and, on the other hand, the ability to produce and buy massive amounts of consumer goods. I doubt many recognized that it was American help that made the latter possible despite the former. Given their obliviousness to the missing link, it’s no wonder that Europeans see consumer goods as a meaningless offshoot of nothing. If that were the case here, I too might start to look with both disdain and guilt upon my consumer culture.  Small wonder that the Europeans, confronted with a whole in their society, do their best to pass of the blame to America, which glories in its consumer culture. If only they could understand that America, unlike Europe, glories in consumerism it earned it through honest capitalism.

When you stop and really think about it, Europe is exactly like the Arab/Muslim world. Because of its submission to Islam, the Arab and Muslim world is a completely stagnant world. Half the population (the XX chromosome side) is prevented from being useful, except as breeding machines. No ideas or inventions come out of the Arab/Muslim world because that involves questioning and questing, ideas incompatible with obedience to Islam. There is no marketplace, especially since usury is understood, not as the charging of exorbitant interesting, but the charging of any interest.* The absence of investment money alone (never mind the fact that intellectual inquiry is actively discouraged) means that there are no reasonable opportunities for small businesses, inventors, innovators, prospective homeowners, etc.

Despite this completely dead economic and intellectual environment, however, much of the Arab/Muslim is awash in money. Massive of amounts of money. More money than many of us can imagine — and its all courtesy of the West, desperate for the black gold buried in Islam’s sands.  It’s a stagnant society with Mercedes cruising the sands.  It’s an extreme version of Europe, which boasts a semi-stagnant society with Mercedes, Volvos and Bentleys cruising narrow medieval streets and modern freeways.

The Muslim’s and European’s fundamental inability to understand American capitalism is a big problem for Americans.  If those arrayed against us, whether Muslims or Europeans, make no connection between freedom and material prosperity, they are always going to think we’re hypocrites offering false coin when we assure them that we truly believe in freedom, both in and of itself and as a pathway to the pleasures of an active, exciting, responsible and beneficial marketplace.


*Some writers contend that in Islam there is a difference between charging ordinary interest and charging usurious interest.   While that may be true in theory, the fact is that ordinary Muslims understand the matter as I have described it.