Sunday, 23 February 2014

Enslaved by Capitalism: The Economy of Desire (Daniel M. Bell Jr.)

Love this book: The Economy of Desire - Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World by Daniel M. Bell Jr. 

It articulates most precisely what bothers me about the society in which we live in... and against which I too am struggling. 

"... Deleuze and Foucault (Philosophers) develop an account for how we could be enslaved to the capitalist market in a way that we actually want or desire that captivity, all the while calling it and claiming ourselves to be 'free'... (C)apitalism is an economy of desire... (that) disciplines desire for market ends."

Like it or not, we have all, to different extents, been shaped in our desires by capitalism. Just notice the women who feel the need to own a branded bag, at times, even if it means to sacrifice more than half their monthly salary. And how those without one because they cannot afford it feels somewhat incomplete. Notice the black markets, the imitations that sell so well. Notice how men would change their cars to a more prestigious one when the opportunity arises, not necessarily because their current cars have reached its 10 year mark or to minimise financial loss. Notice the increase in number of slimming centres in Singapore in the last decade. How many people do not own a smartphone these days? 

I need to colour my hair because black is dull and boring. The different colour streaks make me look fresher and younger. Whoever determined that black is dull and boring? And even if it is, why do I need to change the original colour? There must be no life on my face, no sparkle in my eyes, no smile to brighten up my face that I need to rely on my hair colour to add 'life' to my expression. I need to wear high-heels because it adds a touch of professionalism and makes me look nicer, more confident. And whoever fixed this? Isn't my toes, heels, back, knees and blood circulation more important? 

We are taught that life equates having this and that, looking slim and good, etc. We are taught, precisely by the people who are marketing these products, saying we need all these. Why are they marketing it? Because they are really essentials in life? Because we really need it? Isn't it for their own profit sake? 

We have misunderstood freedom to be the breaking free from that voice within that says, "Actually, I don't need these." We want to break free from this voice that tells us 'no need'. We don't want to be dictated to do this and that, to not do this and that. But in actual fact, instead of becoming free, we are becoming slaves and puppets, manipulated, disciplined by advertisements to become obedient monkeys to do the stunts that would gain the audience's applause, to buy the things that these advertisements tell us would make us happy, satisfied, more confident and truly living. We are being dictated without even realising it. We are being controlled so that we will hand over our money to some other people.

True freedom is the total opposite. True freedom is to be without need, that our happiness is not controlled by another party or worse still, by dead, non-living material things. True freedom is to be uncontrolled by external factors, that in any given circumstance, at any time, I am able to choose what gives me life in its true sense. 

The sad truth in Singapore is that even education has become, not entirely but increasingly, tainted by capitalism. If I were really profit-driven, I would set up a tuition centre or similar. It will fetch me a much higher income than I would get as a full-time teacher or even a private one-to-one tutor. How many who sit in the upper management levels of schools are not more concerned about keeping their rice bowls intact than truly imparting the right values to students?

But above all, I find the saddest message that all these are sending is that I don't matter, that I am not more important than your money, that I am not more precious than these goods and appearances. It just disfigures the face of a human person, lowers one's dignity. And each time we succumb to being disciplined in our desires by capitalism, we are reaffirming ourselves that we are unimportant. Instead of growing into the image of Christ, we are becoming subconsciously convinced that we are worthless. And this brings about a whole range of consequent behaviours to try to prove our worth in all the wrong ways... in a vicious cycle that never ends.  

The good and hopeful thing is that Foucault wrote too that "resistance is always possible". It is possible to live against this control, this slavery. But I agree that it is difficult to stand firm on this resistance. But it is highly possible. The book progresses on later to a different economy - an upside down economy. "... a divine economy of desire - one that redeems desire from the postmodern capitalist economy that would distort desire in ways that hinder humanity's communion with God, one another, and the rest of creation." Which I will share about later (when I get to that part of the book =P )...

Thanks to the ongoing 10 Monday prayer sessions based on this book facilitated by Fr. Chris Soh, SJ @ Kingsmead Centre

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