The Situationists of France during the 50s and 60s recognized it first. Then the British post-punk Gang of Four made some of the most amazing music of the late 70s and 80s by adding a layer of music to the literary philosophy so espoused. And in between the two came Monty Hall who made a career out of proving that Americans are unbelievably eager to trade useful stuff they’ve got in their hands for 500 cans of tunafish if only you can fool them into thinking there is even the slightest chance that can get something better if only they’ll make a blind trade. What is really amazing is how virtually obscure the Situationists remain today despite the fact that of all the philosophical movements that marked the period of unparalleled social change from the 1950s to 1970s, they were the most prescient.
In a very real sense, the primary message that the Situationists were shouting warnings about the loudest have proven true. There was no communist takeover of American entertainment and education. No devastating war between the races as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. The institution of marriage didn’t disappear as a result of free love by hippies. Christianity did not cease to exist simply. And neither rock and roll nor comic books turned the youth of America into anarchists that advertising couldn’t convince to buy stuff they didn’t even need. In fact, just the opposite happened relative to that last fear there. Instead of a nation of anarchists refusing to have their identity shaped and defined and transformed at will by the mad men on Madison Avenue, America has become a nation where every standard of existence is defined precisely by what you have been convinced by advertising to consume.
Even often surreal Situationists who at the time seemed to most people even loonier than Yippies or Goldwater Republicans underestimated just how terrifying consumerism penetrated into the fabric of every aspect of American life. Corporations are now legally granted the exact same rights as human beings. Heck, even actual human who happen to be gay can’t make the same claim.
Evil Republican lawmakers in collusion with spineless Democratic lawmakers under the genuinely frightening mandate of Supreme Court justices most of us actually thought would know better concluded that a completely virtual creation known as a corporation should receive all the same freedoms as an individual human being. Buoyed by what must have come as an utterly unthinkable victory based on what surely began as a practical joke, conservatives have also tried to extend the rights of the individual to unborn fetuses. Meanwhile, immigrants contributing to the backbone of American society–the pursuit of something interesting to do during their leisure hours–are denounced in terms used to be relegated to non-human species and creatures: leeches, vampires and aliens.
The American economy began life as one that was overwhelmingly based on agriculture. The Industrial Revolution made our economic system one based on the manufacturing and selling of products, much of them to people in other countries. Today, the American economy is utterly dependent on two things: workers having more leisure time and their desire to fill that leisure time with entertainment. For now, that’s not a hard system to sustain. Leisure time is the name given to those hours that people used to work when manufacturers need their skill to make things. Since it doesn’t take as much skill to sell a big screen TV as it does to make one, the business that sells big screen televisions don’t need to employ full time workers. After all, when your employee pool is overrunning with people who can be taught how to use a scanning register, why bother with all the last few vestiges of the benefits expected by full time workers like overtime and vacation and pensions and health care?
The sad fact is that Americans don’t make much anymore. When it comes to willingly spending hundreds of dollars on a product that we know will be considered out of date in a year and utterly obsolete in five years at most, however, we are the masters of the universe. And it is that freedom to make the decision to spend hundreds on products with built-in obsolescence that is just about the only real freedom we have left. The Situationists predicted that the consumer culture would come to rule the world and they were right beyond even their own expectations. Hundred of millions of Americans would unquestionably prefer having the choice between buying a PS4 or an Xbox One with the full knowledge going into the store that either one is going to be outdated less than ten years later than they would the choice of which college to send their children to absolutely free of charge. Don’t believe it? Then you aren’t paying attention. Which is another thing the Situationists predicted. Which is why you have no idea who they were yet you know the intimate details of the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo and Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.
America no longer has a class of the poor. Oh sure, there are plenty of poor people out there. And the number of people making so little that they technically qualify as living in poverty is reaching highs never considered when the Situationists were making their case. Just look around you and you will see that the rich may have an iPhone, but the poor guy also has a cell phone that does pretty much everything that the rich’s guy’s iPhone can do. The rich kid on the other side of town has a supply of the latest version of the Xbox, PS-whatever, Nintendo as he ignores their fast-approaching obsolescence, but the poor kid on the other side of town has either Xbox or Playstation or Nintendo. Being poor in America used to actually mean being poor. You wondered if you would eat every night and even if you had a house, you knew it could be taken away at a moment’s notice and even if it was taken away it might not really be all the big a loss anyway.
The class of people whose income would have had them delegated as the poor class a few decades ago don’t live in shacks without air conditioning in the summer or heat in the winter. Rather than gathering at a neighbor’s house to watch TV or listen to the radio, the poor class in America have flat-screen televisions and computers and cell phones and tablets. Not the top of the line models, of course, but at least they one. And because the poor family downtown has a cheaper version of the same instruments of entertainment as the rich family uptown, the most amazing and unexpected social change in American history took place. We would expect that the rich guys uptown would take this as evidence that economic equality has been achieved so there’s no reason to fear tens of millions taking to the streets to demand more equality. What is amazing is that the poor guys living downtown have bought into this fiction as well. Because everybody in America can consume the same products even if at enormously different levels of cost and sophistication, everybody believes that equality has been achieved. Since every worker now has more leisure time than ever before and more entertainment choices available to fill up that time, who can complain? Nobody. Except for some obnoxious anti-intellectuals who complain about taxes being too high when even the most well-off local government has to search for ways to pay for improvements.
What do high taxes have to do with realization of the consumer culture and the rise of the leisure industry as the most influential entity in America? If taxes in America were as burdensome as the Tea Party likes to say, two significant changes would take effect. One, people would not have the money to exercise their freedom to buy the obsolete product of their choice. And two, not only would no state budget suffer from a deficit, but college would be free for every citizen as soon as he was born and a 30-day supply of generic prescription drugs that your private insurance won’t cover wouldn’t cost $150. How do I know this? Because the taxes in countries like Norway and Sweden are as burdensome as the Tea Party suggests they are in America, but every baby’s college education is covered the minute he comes from the womb and prescription drugs is never anything that has to become part of your freedom of choice on what to buy . Ah, but do Norwegians and Swedes have as much leisure stuff as even that household on what used to be called the poor side of town?
Probably not, but it hardly seems to have succeeded in making their lives as utterly miserable as many Americans get when a storm takes out electrical service and that freedom to choose between Nokia and Samsung, Xbox and Sony, Windows and Apple, Google and privacy suddenly doesn’t seem so great after all.
Freedom of choice is yours to make. You can decide if you want freedom to mean deciding between the latest console from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Or you can decide if freedom means choosing between five prescription drugs that cost under 10 bucks as well as picking the college of your choice based not on how much it will cost you, but on the level of education you seek.
But if the Situationists have taught us anything at all, it’s that you will more than likely have such an overwhelming preference for that first type of freedom that reaping the benefits of that freedom will be the very thing that keeps you distracted from realizing that you actually could have the other choice if you were only willing to put down your smartphone or game controls or tablet.