Friday, June 20, 2008

Free the Monkey

If you enjoy starting the morning with a hot cup of coffee and a warm plate of despair over the human condition--and God knows, I do--then toddle on over here and sample such deep thoughts as these:

In thinking about modernity and modern capitalism, Max Weber spoke a century ago about an iron cage. Consumerism brings to mind a different cage. There is a fiendishly simple method of trapping monkeys in Africa that suggests the paradoxes which confront liberty in this era of consumerism. A small box containing a large nut is affixed to a well-anchored post. The nut can be accessed only through a single, small hole in the box designed to accommodate an outstretched monkey’s grasping paw. Easy to reach in, but when the monkey clasps the nut, impossible to get out. Of course, it is immediately evident to everyone (except the monkey) that all the monkey must do to free itself is let go of its prize. Clever hunters have discovered, however, that they can secure their prey hours or even days later because the monkey—driven by desire—will not release the nut, even until death. Is the monkey free or not?

Is the monkey free or not? There's a question to keep you up at night. One of my older Passover haggadahs has a section in it detailing the ways in which we are still not free, even millenia after the exodus from Egypt--how we can be enslaved by hatred, or by fear, or by envy. And I think the monkey anecdote fits nicely here. Is the monkey free? No. The monkey is a slave to his desire, a slave to appetite. In refusing to let go of the nut, I don't think he can be said to be a rational actor--to whatever extent a monkey is a rational actor in the first place. Even if we give him no credit for thinking, his survival instinct should tell him to let go of the damned thing when a hunter is approaching with a net. But he doesn't. And that's horrifying.

I've seen stories about research studies on young children and delayed gratification: you can have one cookie now or three cookies if you wait fifteen minutes, or something like that. Invariably, the children take the immediate cookie. Because they're children. But we're no better, are we? We buy things we probably don't need and can't afford, using credit cards that we know damned well will make things more expensive in the long run. We could wait till we had the cash for the things we're craving--but we just can't. Because we crave. And what's the pain of more cash down the road compared to the joy of whatever piece of crap you think you need RIGHT NOW?

And worse--what's the pain of you not getting what you need compared to the joy of me getting what I want? What's the pain of toxic sludge poisoning a river compared to the joy of me getting what I want?

As our happy author puts it:

Consumer capitalism does not operate by fielding self-conscious advocates of duplicity. Rather, it generates thinking on the model of the narcissistic child, infantilizing consumers to the point where puerility is not simply an option; it is a mandate.If the attitudes and behaviors that result turn out to undermine cultural values extraneous to capitalism’s concerns—however deeply relevant they may be to moral and spiritual frameworks and to the shape of an ideal public culture—that is too bad. This ethos does not disdain civilization; it is merely indifferent to it.

Merely indifferent. That's important. Not immoral, simply amoral. So we have a cultural heritage--a number of cultural heritages, actually, from Protestant work ethic to immigrant striver--all of which are undermined by the larger economic structure in which we live, which pushes us to act in ways that the rest of our culture finds abhorrent.

And this shouldn't be news. I don't think this is one of those "capitalism is evil" arguments. This goes way back. We don't establish cultural norms and rules and ethics to describe what we would already do if left to our own devices. Who would need them? We establish those things to make clear to ourselves and to our neighbors what we think is right and necessary, in spite of what we might prefer to do if left to our own devices. We delay gratification not only to get something better, later, for ourselves, but also (or instead), in many cases, for our children. Our immigrant grandparents worked like dogs in menial jobs so that our parents could go to college and never have to work like dogs in menial jobs. That is what culture gives us. It helps us think about others instead of only ourselves. That is why, in our modern religiouns, serving God always manages to be about serving our fellow people. But we don't serve God, anymore. We ask God to serve us. We are entitled. We are owed.

So this isn't about abolishing captilism, or any other kind of ism. It's about remembering that we create culture for ourselves to fight against our appetites and instincts, so that we can build something greater than our own selves, and our own little horde of goods.

When push comes to shove, what are we going to hold onto? The culture or the stuff? The monkey cannot let go of the nut to save his life. Can we?

And if we can't, and we know we should...what do we do?

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