Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Potlatch Theory of Consumer Economics

American society has always been aspirational. Instead of a nation of “haves” and “have-nots” it is a nation of “haves” and “will haves”. The idea that anyone in America can rise above their station and achieve success is at the heart of America’s mythology. A byproduct of this optimistic spirit and class mobility is a surprisingly low level of resentment and contempt for the rich. The wealthy classes are a necessity. Their opulence is the pinnacle of achievement, it is the bar. Displacing the rich would dismantle the mechanics of possibility. As long as there are those among us who have reached those heights, it is proof that those heights can be achieved. Just as putting a man on the moon served as a collective goal to bring Americans together, so to has extravagant wealth shined like a far off destination to be reached. The wealthy and over-privileged are our astronauts.

When broader spread wealth and comfort are achieved, the expectation for further acquisition increases. Desire never satiates, it expands and the pursuit of more frenzies. With material needs largely fulfilled, the symbols of the ability to fulfillment needs – the trappings of wealth – become increasing sought after. Collective energy and resources pour into the cycle of consumption. After everything is in, debit is taken on so that more can continue to go in. The bottom is scrapped and scrapped again. Real value is converted into perceived value, into symbolic, social and exchange value. Everything is consumed in the process of creating the possibility of more and grander consumption. The material wealth of the richest soars and it is celebrated and cheered by all. The richest are exalted and pushed upward so that everyone else might follow up behind.

Wants still hungers after basic needs are fulfilled and people “want for little”. Consumer capitalism funnels massive amounts of resources into the exaltation and pursuit of ever increasing perceptions of luxury and wealth. The cost is the erosion of that which material wealth is supposed to provide in the first place: social infrastructure, health care, education. How do these basic become unaffordable in the affluent society in the worlds history? The furniture, the books, the floorboards... everything goes into the bonfire.

It is like a traditional potlatch in which different tribes came together to feast. The point of the celebration was for each tribe to give away all of their possessions. The highest honors were bestowed on the tribe that gives away the most. Most often the custom served as a way of redistributing wealth but in some instances the very point of was the destruction of wealth.


“Our Side is Winning”
–The Sherman Foundation



1 comment:

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