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Fundamentalist Consumerism and an Insane Society

February 2009
By Bruce E. Levine

Originally published by ZMag.

At a giant Ikea store in Saudi Arabia in 2004, three people were killed by a stampede of shoppers fighting for one of a limited number of $150 credit vouchers. Similarly, in November 2008, a worker at a New York Wal-Mart was trampled to death by shoppers intent on buying one of a limited number of 50-inch plasma HDTVs.

Jdiniytai Damour, a temporary maintenance worker was killed on “Black Friday.” In the predawn darkness, approximately 2,000 shoppers waited impatiently outside Wal-Mart, chanting, “Push the doors in.” According to Damour’s fellow worker Jimmy Overby, “He was bum-rushed by 200 people. They took the doors off the hinges. He was trampled and killed in front of me.” Witnesses reported that Damour, 34 years old, gasped for air as shoppers continued to surge over him. When police instructed shoppers to leave the store after Damour’s death, many refused, some yelling, “I’ve been in line since yesterday morning.”

The mainstream press covering Damour’s death focused on the mob of crazed shoppers and, to a lesser extent, irresponsible Wal-Mart executives who failed to provide security. However, absent in the corporate press was anything about a consumer culture and an insane society in which marketers, advertisers, and media promote the worship of cheap stuff.

Along with journalists, my fellow mental health professionals have also covered up societal insanity. An exception is the democratic-socialist psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980). Fromm, in The Sane Society (1955), wrote: “Yet many psychiatrists and psychologists refuse to entertain the idea that society as a whole may be lacking in sanity. They hold that the problem of mental health in a society is only that of the number of ‘unadjusted’ individuals, and not of a possible unadjustment of the culture itself.”

While people can resist the cheap-stuff propaganda and not worship at Wal-Mart, Ikea, and other big-box cathedrals—and stay out of the path of a mob of fundamentalist consumers—it is difficult to protect oneself from the slow death caused by consumer culture. Human beings are every day and in numerous ways psychologically, socially, and spiritually assaulted by a culture which:

  • creates increasing material expectations
  • devalues human connectedness
  • socializes people to be self-absorbed
  • obliterates self-reliance
  • alienates people from normal human emotional reactions
  • sells false hope that creates more pain

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This great, short essay “Against School” targets modern, mass, mandatory schooling as an educational fraud, arguing that the real purpose of school is to divide, demoralize, and train youth for lifetimes as workers and consumers. In other words, to produce obedience and helplessness on an industrial scale. I think a second function, which the author does not address, is that mass mandatory schooling takes children away from their parents for the entire day, freeing up the adults for higher levels of work and consumption. Thus the “daycare prisons” we send our kids to every day help facilitate the “daily grind” that imprisons our parents in the rat-race of toil and buying that powers industrial production and profits.

How public education cripples our kids, and why
By John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto is a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year and the author, most recently, of The Underground History of American Education. He was a participant in the Harper’s Magazine forum “School on a Hill,” which appeared in the September 2003 issue.

I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: The said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.

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Bob Black’s indictment of work (meaning all unfree labor) is a good example of a liberatory essay, because not only does it advocate for real freedom, it also condemns the industrial systems of power which are forcing us to work, and to consume, to kill and invade, to oppress, to pollute, and to hate ourselves for being accomplices in our own slavery.

But Marx already did that with “Alienated Labour” in 1847. What makes Black’s essay 10 times better is that it isn’t a labor to read! Recognizing that social change is playful or it’s doomed to reproduce the slavery it claimed to oppose, Emma Goldman is quoted as saying “It’s not my revolution if I can’t dance to it.” Likewise, add to that “It’s not my ideology if I can’t laugh at it.”

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http://www.inspiracy.com/black/abolition/abolitionofwork.html

No one should ever work.

Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.

That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution. By “play” I mean also festivity, creativity, conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child’s play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance. Play isn’t passive. Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion nearly all of us want to act.

The ludic life is totally incompatible with existing reality. So much the worse for “reality,” the gravity hole that sucks the vitality from the little in life that still distinguishes it from mere survival. Curiously — or maybe not — all the old ideologies are conservative because they believe in work. Some of them, like Marxism and most brands of anarchism, believe in work all the more fiercely because they believe in so little else.

Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue I support the right to be lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists — except that I’m not kidding — I favor full unemployment. Trotskyists agitate for permanent revolution. I agitate for permanent revelry. But if all the ideologues (as they do) advocate work — and not only because they plan to make other people do theirs — they are strangely reluctant to say so. They will carry on endlessly about wages, hours, working conditions, exploitation, productivity, profitability. They’ll gladly talk about anything but work itself. These experts who offer to do our thinking for us rarely share their conclusions about work, for all its saliency in the lives of all of us. Among themselves they quibble over the details. Unions and management agree that we ought to sell the time of our lives in exchange for survival, although they haggle over the price. Marxists think we should be bossed by bureaucrats. Libertarians think we should be bossed by businessmen. Feminists don’t care which form bossing takes so long as the bosses are women. Clearly these ideology-mongers have serious differences over how to divvy up the spoils of power. Just as clearly, none of them have any objection to power as such and all of them want to keep us working.

You may be wondering if I’m joking or serious. I’m joking and serious. Read the rest of this entry »

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