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Sunday, March 15, 2009

The consumerist chaos

What consumerism really means for us in this ever-changing world

WHAT matters if enough money is there? After all, everything we do in life is for earning something and then spending it for sake of the comfort though it can be interpreted variably. The life long struggles have got their precise destination: to have enough money.

This has been, at least, the hidden philosophy of majority of us if not the expressed one. Struggle to achieve the optimally convenient life style has been the quest of the mankind from the time unknown.
All the inventions and innovations have this same intention even if they turn up doing the opposite once they become operational. With every other aspect of our social life, the way in which we prioritize the things to be achieved in life has also evolved through the time. At certain point of history when the people of particular territory are struggling for liberation of their nation state, or any other major upheaval, then the sacred destination of the majority of the people ceases to be earning enough money. Many such exceptions exist, some of which have given different junctures of history the peculiar momentum. But in the ordinary times, the ordinary people have a destination far simpler than this. This one, not identical in every instance, is greatly impacted by the cultural practices of society. Without negating the variations and specificities of different societies, few cautious generalizations about the evolving culture, thus the evolving destination of people can be drawn. Here we will examine the evolution of this attribute in the last two decades in the aftermath of collapse of the USSR, because, the overwhelming influence of the major political breakthroughs in social and cultural life is worth examining with some crucial implications.

Coming to the last few decades, the traditional inter state warfare whose extreme synchronization gave rise to the world wars, though not obsolete; has given way to other more subtle and deep rooted conflicts. Thus in this world with unprecedented intermingling of the interest of people across the globe and governed by a power hierarchy founded on the politico-military strength, the conflicts have taken altogether different shapes influencing the way in which people live in every other corner of the world. After collapse of the communist regimes, the global wave of the victorious culture of ‘liberal democracy with market economy’ that evolved was supposed to have significant impact in people’s lives in the last two decades. Has it been that significant so as to justify the euphoric claims and predictions of the victors after the fall of Berlin wall? It will be prudent to explore how this wave of ‘democratization’ of the politics, the ‘liberalization’ of the economy with ‘globalization’ of these values (LDG) has impacted this world, both in term of its success and failure, particularly focusing the cultural aspect.


First talking about the failures, the ethno-cultural insinuations, many of which contradicted with the spirit of a secular and democratic governance, particularly the Oriental and the Semitic ones, faced little resistance from this supposedly western-led movement. The appeal of the religious creed was practically unscathed by this supposedly global wave. Paradoxically, religious and ethnic extremism thrived well in the vacuum created by the vanishing ideological extremism. Initially ignored or even promoted by the ‘liberals’ as the antidote to the communist authoritarianism, ethno-religious communalization of the populace has now turned out to be the most counter-productive to the goal of creating a liberal and secular world. Neo-fascist regimes thriving on this communalization are now emerging faster than ever and ironically, gaining admiration and support of the corporate giants supposed to represent the ‘creamy layer’ of the world governed by market capitalism.

Now comes the critical assessment of the role of those who have been leading this wave of LDG, with its inherent cultural legacies, in the tumultuous post-1990 world in giving it the particular shape and momentum. Enough skeptics doubt the intention itself of the US-led axis, the only surviving pole after demise of USSR, when it reiterated its sole objective to be to promote a peaceful world with utmost respect to the human rights, one of the fundamentals of liberal democracy. Indeed this goal was supposed to have come closer with elimination of an enemy who often compelled them to transgress the traditional limits of ‘rational’ violation of human rights. This skepticism is founded on the gruesome acts of the axis in the decades preceding the end of the cold war including the invasion of the Vietnam and endless massacres of Latin America through the proxy dictators, all of which forced millions of people to be maimed, displaced, and killed. It was arguably not possible for US to transform overnight, from a state sustaining the barbaric despots to forward its interest, to one meaningfully promoting the democracy and human rights in every corner of the world. Two decades later, skeptics say, that process does not seem to have even started, let alone completed; thus doubting the existence itself of the supposed wave of LDG in true sense. In these twenty long years, the axis seems little troubled by the accusations and has been intent in forwarding its agenda at whatever cost.


To intend is one thing. To perform is, of course, the other thing. It is indeed impractical to expect any state in this world to act to really promote human rights or advance the cause of the democracy whenever doing so conflicts with its interest. And not all the states in the world are lucky enough to have their interests concordant with the axis. This ground reality has a lot to do with the mythification of the global wave of democratization in the last two decades.

Now supposing the axis truly intended to promote the liberal values globally by promoting the democratic institutions worldwide, examining the performance will be the other issue we will deal here with. The post-1990 world dynamics could in no way avoid the consequences of the developments that began in an effort to defeat the USSR but had lasting implications. A follow up of these processes to contain the potentially disastrous consequences was the sole responsibility of the victors. A responsible course of action would have included addressing the new realities in the post-USSR world disposing the decades long feud of the cold war era. To point few, the dejected state of Russia deserved a treatment far better than she actually got, that characterized by the loot of the state property and the coordinated attack on her strategic interests. A sympathetic treatment by the victor powers was what was logically expected once their real enemy, the communism was defeated. That would have been the strongest stimulus to the Russians to transform themselves to the democratic future, laying the foundation for the potentially largest democracy in the world. The energized and motivated jihadists trained to fight the Soviets were never going to elope on their own as would have been most favorable to their former allies A multilateral approach to address the conflicts in different parts of the world with meaningful engagement of the regional powers and the neighbors of the subject country was essential to establish a truly pluralistic democratic world.

What was really done was, however, remote from this. The devastating ‘war on terror’ has done a lot to blur the history of the religious extremism by creating a mass hysteria. Still the stories of the abandoned mujahiddins after defeating the Soviets in the Afghanistan now come to haunt the conscience of the ‘liberals’ as the war against them in the Pak-Afghan front is being increasingly lost. Coming to the treatment given to the defeated Russia, this was a remote reminder of the treaty of Versailles that ended the WWI but laid the foundation of the more devastating WWII. The impossible amount of money snatched from Germany as ‘war reparations’ and a host of other clauses humiliating the defeated side eventually gave way to the Nazism in Germany led by Hitler. Though not to the same extent, the attack on the strategic interests of the Russia by relentless expansion of NATO and a range of other activities was similarly detrimental to the peaceful and stable world. The growth of the Russian might by the formidable convergence of the soaring petroleum prices of the pre-slump years and the authoritarian determination of Putin has finally brought Russia out of the ditch excavated by the victors of the cold war. Precisely this fact has created ripples in the ‘by and large stable’ world order, exemplified by the brief Russia-Georgia war. The days to come are sure not to be as smooth unless a radical change in US policy follows the changed administration in US.

The blatant disregard of the role and engagement of the agencies other than the cliques of the US executive has characterized all the major international events in the last decade. The role of this unilateral approach to the conflicts and other problems has now been widely held responsible for making this world an unprecedentably dangerous place to live.


Coming to the successes of the wave of LDG, creation of tremendous amount of wealth, though not all real, brought prosperity to millions of people worldwide regarded as the ‘emerging middle class’. The wealth creation was particularly impressive in the former communist states like China, Vietnam and the states with formerly socialist economies like India. The consistent growth of the already prosperous economies of the west and those in the east integrated with the west like Japan, Singapore, South Korea also characterized these pre-Slump years. The exponential rise in the number of the billionaires was taken as the indicator of irreversibly prospering populace.

After this brief digression, we will again come to the matter of evolving culture during the period, particularly with respect to the successes of the LDG wave. The most significant aspect of this evolution was obviously the spurt of consumerism. The vanishing appeal of the utopian world of communism was matched by that of the glowing advertisements of everything from those of shampoo to crude sex. Thousands of women in the former USSR literally locked by the communist regime were now free to venture in the brothels of Western Europe and America. More lucky ones would now get the opportunity in the fashion world or the beauty pageants. These were the only feasible and viable options for the bulk of women who lacked the expertise to compete for more decent jobs. Neither was it possible to sustain life as earlier since the whole world with all its pomp and luxury had opened itself up through the television sets.

It was hypothesized that by allowing everyone in this world to compete with each other to gain wealth, we would be traveling to infallibly prosperous world. Even if few people were always privileged to earn disproportionately more than the others a proportion of this wealth thus created would ultimately trickle down to those less fortunate ones thus enabling them to consume more and thus sustaining the cycle. To a doubtful extent this theory did well prompting the guarded economies like that of India to open up. Thus the entry of millions of people into the potential consumers of a range of commodities once barely imaginable was matched by the fierce competition among the corporate giants to produce them. The off-shoring of the American and Japanese industries to the China and Taiwan gave this process a crucial momentum combining the cheap labor with the large-scale investment. Things once beyond reach for the people with low income now ceased to be so. The shining world glowing in the TV screen provoked people to do nothing but to consume. This development had thus enormous impact on the people’s outlook, again virtual if not real. The evolving culture was thus centered on sustaining a certain level of consumption irrespective of the other factors like matching it with the income of the individual or the family. The life without certain amenities that was usual few decades back now literally symbolized the destitution.


The exploding consumerism had, however, utterly variable impacts in different places of the world, and even among different groups of people in the same society. In the developed countries with advanced and stable economies the spurt was matched by the salient work ethics and the dependable economic opportunities. Complemented by modestly efficient political leadership (of course not to mention the slump years!) to guard adverse developments, the spurt of consumerism did practically no harm to that part of the world. It was just opposite in the developing world, where the poor work ethics inherited from the colonial past combined with the ineptitude of the leadership to gauze the developments around the world to safeguard their interest. The surge on consumerism only helped to make them further corrupt and detached from the masses. Embezzling money to fulfill the costly wishes of the family members including the children became common among the elites. The harmless way to escape being traced for this was to further shake the already bleak mechanism for accountability.

The cumulative effect of all this has been an obscene version of consumerism where the young minds learn how to consume before learning how to earn the livelihood. By terming everything that breaks the relatively rational traditional taboos like gambling or drinking liquor as the symbol of tentative ‘modernization’, the new generation has made a mess of our cultural heritage. Smoking hashish on a certain festival mentioned in the epochal religious texts is promptly followed and even exploited to garner the otherwise illegal item for another month. The instruction to abstain from drinking liquor is, however, repudiated as out-of-date concept. The young minds are convinced through the overt or covert advertisements that drinking happens to be the harmless act of making oneself sociable; were it otherwise, the westerners should never prosper the way they did. The stark dissimilarities between the two worlds are however deliberately avoided from being realized by the ‘consumers’. The dynamics of the inter-personal relations inside a family has also similarly evolved with declining respect to the elders as the earner, the principle figure contributing the resources for consumption, happens to be the younger member of the family.

The last two decades have thus deliberately sustained the time tested parasitism of one part of the world to the other. In its latest version, it has manifested as the boom in foreign employment in the developing countries. The surge in consumption of commodities ( of course in the pre-slump years ) led to the boom in the manufacturing activities in the industrialized countries increasing the demand for the workers, preferably expecting a low salary. The influx of the migrant workers from the darker part of the world has been the boon for the investors. But, what for the workers or their countries in the darker part of the world? It has been just the opportunity to consume more items that are produced by themselves for the employers; and categorically not to invest in any productive field to sustain their own economy in the darker part of the world. This way the one event kept perpetuating the other and sustaining the profitability of the investors from the brighter part of the world. And the inevitable consequence of this cycle is the catastrophe in the darker world, the moment the system of bloated manufacturing activities can no longer sustain itself. A famine is thus always in the door of these ‘foreign employees’ who help to sustain the bubble of consumption to the greater extent possible.


How do we face this situation then? One adage in Nepali goes like this: you should not ride your roof top to avenge your neighbor riding a horse. The other one goes like: consider your throat before swallowing the bone. The west could be scores ahead of us in many respects and we should never hesitate to learn from their innovations ranging from an advance in a scientific field to a political system genuinely benefiting the masses. However, what we can not absolutely afford is the thoughtless imitation of the way in which they consume, with dismal attention to the resources they have got. Absurdities may be their in our culture but their culture also need not be the perfect one to be followed blindly. Their model of governance could be worth following with our own specificities, but the parasitism is the least desirable form with which we interact with them.

The culture evolving in the developing countries in the last two decades was thus poorly attached with the emerging realities. A meaningful introspection by the leadership in the changed context was indispensable and that had to include cultural evolution as one aspect. The delay has already cost enough and we are awestruck by a cataclysm that is said to have originated in the (previously) brighter part of the world. Now this shows no sign of sparing any part of the world irrespective of the role it played in its inception.

It is thus the time to learn from the mistake we committed in the last two decades in an attempt to drag ourselves to prosperity without the vehicle of sustainable economic foundation. Sooner or later we’ll realize the role of the cultural developments in giving our march to the future a definite direction. A regressive cultural heritage can ruin a good economic system, as it has its imprint in the every actor of the system. The scourge of ill-founded consumerism has thus played a huge role in sustaining the darkness in our dark part of the world. This is thus the moment for meaningful introspection: can we afford to keep moving in this reactionary path? If not so, it is about to be too late to start a serious discourse on how we can avert the crisis. This article is an attempt to begin the discourse. Let’s join it.

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