My commercialism rant
I could never be a businessman. Here’s why: almost nothing seems more obscene, ugly and depraved to me than the business of selling stuff to people and persuading them to buy. I don’t have anything against money as such. I mean, I am not an elitist. I am just humble and the practice of commercial enterprise requires more gall than I possess and much more than I think is polite. As I have written before, I think talking about money is extremely impolite. It ranks right up there with the faux pas of looking people directly in the eyes when you speak. (Contrary to the common assumption in U.S.culture that eye contact is friendly and indicates courteous attention, I think looking people directly in the eyes is aggressive and threatening. It’s a primate characteristic, and human beings are primates. Try looking a male gorilla directly in the eyes and see what happens. It’s the same for us. I get away with looking at people’s noses, or neckties when I speak to them.)
Money is fine, but it is only a tool, not an end in itself and its possession in copious amounts is certainly not a definition of “success.” Neither is the availability of shopping a definition of freedom. Try convincing contemporary college students of that - especially American students. The idea of advertising oneself or one’s business and attracting attention in order to lure customers to buy things from you just makes my skin crawl. I prefer privacy to publicity, contrary to the strong current in contemporary North American culture of vulgar self-promotion. Self-promotion on steroids. Who’s with me on this?
Obviously, I would not make a successful businessman. But if I had a business I would simply open my door and let people enter, look, and buy what they want and then leave. What passes as “salesmanship” is finagling people to buy, and then buy more - the rationale being, I suppose, that sales volume plus repeat business are the keys to economic survival, thus demanding robust promotion. In addition, the ability to shop is seen as a symptom of freedom in a capitalist democracy. But it looks, feels and smells like a scheme to me, and I do not appreciate schemes.
If I like it and I have the money then I get it. If I cannot afford something then I just do without.
Now, I admit that I shop like a man and therefore do not represent the loyal devotion that retailers look for in an ideal customer. Male pattern shopping means that if I want or need something then I go, I look, and if I see something I like and I have enough money for it then I buy it immediately and go home. No window shopping just for the fun of it. No comparison shopping. No looking for the lowest price or the best bargain. No dithering about it. If I like it and I have the money then I get it. If I cannot afford something then I just do without. (That goes for food and medicines as well.) That does not mean that I am immune to retailers efforts to reel me in. It might mean that I am more prone to their impulse shopping strategies.
If I do not see something on display in a shop then I leave. I do not inquire if the business has this or that because I figure whatever they have for sale will be on display with a price tag. Not visible means not available. I’m not suffering for lack of stuff in my life. Some stuff is interesting and even necessary, but modern business culture gets overheated about acquiring stuff as if acquisition is both a right and a virtue. The worst of it is that corporations connive to increase customers’ opportunities to shop and spend - hence the proliferation of various payment cards and the over-development of land for commercial use with parking lots, shopping malls and even worse, strip malls. The customers’ opportunities to shop beyond their means are also cultivated so that too many buy not only what is beyond their need but what is actually beyond their income’s capacity - hence the sub-prime housing loan fandangle in the U.S.A.
We are no longer citizens of a community so much as customers in a club and there is nothing in the world anymore that is not for sale.
Let me consider newspapers - an endangered medium in today’s increasingly electronic age, but still a medium that I rely on. Too often newspapers contain more advertising than they do news stories. That is probably a necessary vice in the newspapers’ economic environment. In Japan’s English-language newspapers I often see advertisements for American universities offering graduate school programs in Japan - either at branch campuses here or online. Invariably these ads feature handsome models posing as graduates offering up effusive praise of the easy availability of higher education. Such advertising features two programs only - Master of Business Administration degrees (MBAs), and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) degrees and certificates. I remain very much interested in returning to study again at graduate school, to add to the three universities degrees I possess. But I don’t give a hoot about either of these options. First, I have been steeped in ESL for twenty years and, frankly, most of the people issuing certificates in it as well as those practicing it as a job are revolting morons who don’t know how to write an essay and I don’t see how getting a certificate in TESL, or even a Masters degree in ESL will help any of us. All it will do is to vacuously add to resumes’ boasting rights. Now, an M.Ed. in the philosophy of education, yeah baby! That would be exciting. Or even more, a divinity degree. I would love to do an M.Div. (in English), but by its nature it is almost impossible to do as distance learning. The pastoral element of it requires a physical university, and the social-intellectual intercourse of instructors and students actively participating in a faith community. Frankly, there is less money in religion, so its an unsatisfied thirst. Second, I think the MBAs are just pathetic and completely worthless decorations to the lives of pathetic and worthless people. Yet their popularity is a poignant sign of the values of contemporary culture - especially American culture. Modern culture loves business but eschews humanities. Life is framed as an investment scheme rewarding the pursuit of money and the return on money above everything else, especially those intellectual pursuits more nurturing to the soul: religion; the liberal arts; philosophy; even journalism. America’s form of capitalist ideology provides for profiteers by preaching the active commercialization of more and more aspects of public life. So public services are relinquished to private enterprises to be run for profit. Hospitals, libraries, prisons and schools are deemed dysfunctional and even expendable if they do not operate for profit. That is a mistake and I do not want to live in a society that operates for profit public services.
To be a businessman requires an MBA now. Try getting ahead or even getting a toehold in the corporate world without it. Frankly, I’m not impressed because what I see is a world filling up with MBAs who are less adept at conducting business than they are at running businesses into the ground and creating economic destruction. It’s a symptom of society’s increasing turn to the cult of expertise. MBAs are deemed the business expertise so their opinion is deferred to even when they are morons. It happens more and more in other fields, as well. Professionals in one field of endeavor frame themselves as the only reliable experts, and with that approval they run amok. It takes decades to undo the damage that amok-running experts wreck.
Since junior high school I have said that if one wants to be a businessman better to become a business apprentice after high school graduation than go to university to study it. Studying business as an academic discipline is not the same thing as studying economics, which might shed light on why MBAs are so successful at driving businesses into the ground. One might even speculate that they do not properly understand economics at all. I think MBAs, like educators with higher degrees in administration and curriculum, are excellent examples of people educated beyond their intelligence. I don’t know it, but I feel certain that sub-prime loans must have been dreamed up by a room full of MBA monkeys.
In today’s world it has come to this: we are no longer citizens of a community so much as customers in a club and there is nothing in the world anymore that is not for sale as more and more things are made and re-made for mass consumption. So much so that consumerism is being framed as a measure of liberty and as such as a human “right.” America invades sovereign countries all over the world for one reason or another, but with the simultaneous goal of creating more markets for goods, thereby selling more junk to Haitians and Iraqis. You’ve got millions of impoverished Indians in Indiaequipped cell phones but no clean water, no running water, no flush toilet, no water treatment facilities, no cheap inoculations. Are people’s priorities and values amiss, or what?
First, consumerism became an obligation of citizenship (“Buy Canadian!”) during hard economic times. But now it is more and more a right of membership instead of a right of citizenship: unless you join the club you lose your shopping privileges and become marginalized: sign up for a membership card, or a mileage card, or a credit card and collect points with each purchase towards a free purchase in the future; collect points that can be redeemed for shopping elsewhere; redeem points at different businesses - car rentals, hotels; benefit from membership discounts; spend more than a certain amount and get a discount, or free home delivery; come shopping on designated sales-tax free days; fly this airline to enjoy its onboard shopping; visit this lovely resort city and enjoy its shopping experiences; take a cruise on this ship which is like a floating city and enjoy shopping plus all the comforts of home. (Frankly, if I want to enjoy “all the comforts of home” then I would just stay home. Also, every day of the week - literally - I am offered and reject point cards. When I shop I am asked if I have a point card. No. Would you like a card? No. InJapanthat is where I leave it, but in Canada I virtually have to argue with the cashier just to get out of the store. It happened at a Zellers outlet.) In enhanced consumerism there are actually demerits for not shopping, or not shopping enough - extra fees levied for not using the preferred payment scheme, user fees designed to penalize customers who use cash instead of credit cards or membership cards. (The plastic is easier and therefore cheaper for the business. Plus easy spending with plastic instead of cash disposes one to spend more than one would otherwise do with cash alone.) Penalty fees arise from insufficient shopping - if you don’t shop and use your card often enough. Then membership may expire from insufficient use. Fees to deposit
If you don’t have a registration number, an identity number, a membership number then you don’t exist.
money. Fees to withdraw money. Fees to use an ATM machine. Fees to speak to a live agent. (Air Canada does that. You want to speak to a live customer service agent? An extra charge is added to your ticket. Please don’t contradict me. I know it’s true because it happened to me.) All of this together vexes me so much that I want to vomit. Soon we’ll be living in a Logan’s Run / Rollerball / Soylent Greenkind of world. Maybe we already are.
Next will come the cashless society, the elimination of cash, which is not a good thing. Contrary to what its advocates already boast - the convenience of it, the profitability of it, the hygiene of it - it will in fact pare down our freedom even more and further dehumanize us by boosting government / corporate oversight of citizens.
I sincerely expect that in the future people who under-consume are liable to be labeled socially deviant, anti-social, maybe even insane and then sanctioned, or punished for under-consuming. You don’t have a telephone? You’re crazy! (In JapanI am unemployable if I do not have a cell phone. So I have one, reluctantly.) No television? I don’t understand. Your family doesn’t have a computer? You are jeopardizing your children’s future! School boards and the state will make gestures towards punishing families for not providing their children with what is judged the appropriate technology. Even to the extent of removing children from non-conforming parents. Procedures are already emerging that marginalize, exclude and disenfranchise dissenters. If you don’t have a registration number, an identity number, a membership number then you don’t exist. All of which covers over the vital role that dissidents play in a democracy - even the simply fact that they do play a vital role.
In the Internet age all of our activity online is recorded - our web surfing, our shopping. In extreme cases our credit card numbers and passwords are at risk of theft by spyware worms and viruses - called “identity theft.” But every day our shopping information is recorded and traded and every year more and more transactions are relegated solely to the internet: businesses that only take reservations on heir website; businesses that only accept credit card or online payment; governments that only accept online visa applications, passport applications, birth and death registrations, income declarations and tax payments/refunds. I see this as a threatening, evil intrusion, while search engine companies and software designers see it as a great convenience for our lives in the modern world. Again, they frame shopping as a feature and measure of liberty. Everything is becoming faster, easier, and more convenient. Naturally I don’t agree.
Why am I not a joiner? All my inclination to join things was worn out of me in mandatory P.E. classes when I was a school child. It’s bad enough that I have to politely join with people I despise in social situations - and there are plenty of those. I don’t need to join with them in my private life on my own time as well.
And a very horrible development: the restriction of our economic behavior in the world to “members,” like what we see at Costco. This is how the marginalization and eventual disenfranchisement of non-conformists are introduced to the social recipe. You cannot shop unless you are a member or accompanied by a member. Next, this membership fetish will expand to other businesses: food, medical care, education, housing, information access, voting. (Yes, voting will become commercialized. You cannot vote unless you register. You cannot register without paying a registration fee. It will be rationalized as a reasonable measure to cover the expense of elections.) Disguised as maximizing benefits for people, what businesses are doing is securing their customer base by mandating participation. It bodes ill for dissenters like me who are not joiners. Instead of enfranchising more people what is actually happening is that more and more people are threatened with disenfranchisement unless they behave in a certain way. Why am I not a joiner? All my inclination to join things was worn out of me in mandatory P.E. classes when I was a school child. It’s bad enough that I have to politely join with people I despise in social situations - and there are plenty of those. I don’t need to join with them in my private life on my own time as well. Requiring me to associate with them in my private life is just too much. Who’s with me on this?
I fear an apocalyptic world in which dissenters are marked for persecution because they do not carry the sign of the beast on their foreheads and on their hands. Corporations are the beast, and proof of membership in their client base is the sign of the beast.
Capitalist enterprises are interested only in capital - by which I mean profit. Business people, business students and business professors who say differently are lying to us. I don’t mind being lied to so much as I mind being lied to badly. I mean, if you are going to lie to me, at least do it well. I know that I am at risk when I say that they are “only” interested in capital, because the assertion that they have other legitimate, beneficial and wholesome interests as well is an easy case to make, that there is an overall benefit to society through the success of businessmen’s interests. I don’t deny it. But I want to emphasize that capitalist enterprises’ interests are not so altruistic, and they are not interested in customer service unless it profits them. The motivation is the profit, not the service. Similarly, they are not interested in environmentalism, or in habitat and species conservation unless there is profit in it for them. They are not interested in resource recycling unless there is profit in it. They are not interested in social justice unless it profits them. Neither are they interested in space exploration, public education, or scientific research unless there is profit to be made. They resist legal regulation because it compromises both their profits and their capacity to pursue more profit. And regulatory efforts are framed as undemocratic!
Consequently one need not be a cynic to observe that any concessions to customer service, or to environmentalism or habitat and species conservation, or resource recycling, or to social justice, or to science and education, or to industry and product standards, etc. are all framed by capitalist culture as tools for their ends and those of their customers, not for citizens. Is that a bad thing? Oh, yeah.
The movement of commerce and services to Internet websites is a good example. While facetiously boasting that it provides more and quicker service to customers the bottom line is that the Internet is to businesses’ advantage more than their customers because it is cheaper to create and maintain a website than it is to maintain a physical office staffed by a staff of paid employees who meet customers face-to-face and fill out paper forms in ink. Its ease and convenience to business outweigh what consumers think is their own ease and convenience. I mean, any authentic benefit to consumers is more by chance than by design. But they don’t realize that. Furthermore, through a continuous process of re-definition what was once an inconvenience is more and more being called a convenience. What once was clearly a difficulty is more and more labeled easy. Again, the Internet is an example. My experience is that the Internet is any but what its proponents praise it for. It is slow. It is inconvenient. It is difficult. And it is overly intrusive.
The ambition of business is to define the public’s welfare as their own welfare, to synchronize our life trajectories. But there is no negotiation involved. That synchronization means a long process of cultivating citizens as member consumers.
Finally, is profit so bad? Is wanting to profit - financially or otherwise - from one’s hard work so bad? I don’t think there is anything wrong in profiting from one’s work. But I don’t want to see profiteering. So at what point does the legitimate quest for profit transform into illegitimate profiteering? And, is profiteering illegitimate by its nature? When profiteers advertise their search for profits as legitimate and virtuous when they clearly are not I resent the lie. And what I resent most of all is being lied to badly. It’s one thing to be lied to, to be lied to directly in my face. But to be lied to badly, unskillfully? Come on! What is most important is clear conscience and authentic humanity. Commerce is only a tool - and only a good tool - so far as it contributes to that.
Naturally, I could be wrong. But who is with me on this?