Belmont Club

The Most That You Can Keep

An opinion piece carried by the Associated Press contrasts what Erica Werner calls the new “spare, fundamental” American Dream to the “rhetoric from Obama’s 2008 White House campaign.” The soaring promises have vanished; in its place is the new line that Obama is the best candidate to keep you from losing it all. “With the economy showing no signs of life: no jobs, mortgages they can’t pay, dwindling retirement funds and college savings,” it is hope of a different kind. The residual aspiration is you can actually have a “job, a house, a college education for the kids, health care, money for retirement,” some day anyway.


The article quotes Xavier professor Michael Ford, who explains that the downsized dream is pretty much all anyone can still believe in without laughing out loud: “It’s pretty basic stuff (Obama) talks about and I think as it turns out that’s pretty much where the dream is right now.” But Werner says it’s working, because now Change You Can Believe In is real. Hoping for food on the table is so much more convincing than promising the oceans will fall and the Earth will begin to heal.

And speaking of food, MSNBC says a new poll shows Americans really want smaller portions at food outlets:

What if the server at your favorite fast food joint asked if you wanted to downsize your order, instead of asking you to supersize it? That’s a strategy that might make some patrons happier — and a lot thinner, a new study suggests.

Consumers want higher gas prices too. Describing the steps necessary to remove the carbon threat driving global warming, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said: “Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” It was an idea the president opposed — unless it could be done gradually:

I think that I would have preferred a gradual adjustment. The fact that this is such a shock to American pocketbooks is not a good thing. But if we take some steps right now to help people make the adjustment, first of all by putting more money into their pockets, but also by encouraging the market to adapt to these new circumstances more quickly, particularly US automakers, then I think ultimately, we can come out of this stronger and have a more efficient energy policy than we do right now.


Then presumably higher prices would be alright. Some on the Democratic Party’s left wing argue that this does not go far enough: a certain amount of poverty — just how much is open to debate — should be an actual policy goal. Greedy Western capitalist consumers already consume too much of the world’s resources, so the thinking goes. Lower levels of resource consumption are actually good for the Earth. Then there is the argument from necessity — that higher levels simply can’t be delivered. Sorry if President Obama campaigned on them — he misspoke.

James Kunstler writes that President Obama had better get down to managing expectations. He will need to:

Dear Mr. President, you are presiding over an epochal contraction, not a pause in the growth epic. Your assignment is to manage that contraction in a way that does not lead to world war, civil disorder or both. Among other things, contraction means that all the activities of everyday life need to be downscaled including standards of living, ranges of commerce, and levels of governance. “Consumerism” is dead. Revolving credit is dead — at least at the scale that became normal the last thirty years. The wealth of several future generations has already been spent and there is no equity left there to re-finance.

If contraction and downscaling are indeed the case, then the better question is: why don’t we get started on it right away instead of flogging rescue plans to restart something that is DOA?


Why not get started on downscaling indeed? Why not change the optics on the American Dream? The new watchword should be “keep all that you can keep.” Rhetoric is equally useful when describing the valleys as well as the mountaintops.

When Edward Kennedy eulogized his brother Bobby, Ted paraphrased his deceased sibling’s catchphrase, itself derived from George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” But that is so Sixties, an age when more seemed better. Today the motto should be: “Some men see things as they are and say why? I say, why not less?”

The Guardian calls doing with less “an exciting idea.” In a piece that begins by expressing its disgust at American crowds stampeding through shopping malls on sale days, it paints the picture of a newer, better — and yes, ok, poorer world. Poorer yes, but cooler and trendier too:

Rachel Botsman, a “social innovator” who has presented her ideas at Downing Street and before Microsoft and Google executives, retells the event in her book, What’s Mine Is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live. “It’s a sad and chilling metaphor for our culture at large — a crowd of exhausted consumers knocking down the doors and ploughing down people simply to buy more stuff.”

Botsman rails in the book against the excesses, futility and contradictions of mass consumption, but she doesn’t rehash the usual tropes of anti-consumerism. Rather, her book is a cry for us to consume “smarter” by moving away from the outdated concept of outright ownership — and the lust to own — towards one where we share, barter, rent, and swap assets that include not just consumables, but also our “time and space” …

“Cars are 90% under-utilized by their owners,” she tells me from her home in Australia. “And 70% of journeys are solo rides. So we now see car club companies such as Streetcar proving very popular in cities. In Munich, BMW now has a scheme where it lets members pay for a car by the minute rather than by the hour. And websites such as are allowing people to make money from unused space outside their properties. A great example is a church in Islington, London, which was facing financial trouble. But it started renting parking space out front and it now makes £70,000 a year from doing so.”


Isn’t that exciting? And even if it ain’t, perhaps we’ve got no choice. Carpooling, smaller portions, vehicles left in the garage for lack of gas and barter. These had a name once: it was called poverty. Today it’s just smart consumption. It’s good for your soul too, as a figure of speech of course, since Heaven does not exist and Hell isn’t as bad as it was cracked up to be, now that it’s here.

Adbusters, which played a role in starting the Occupy Wall Street movement, featured an article by French philosopher Bernard Stiegler which argues that rather than attempt to boost production and create more products, policy should focus on “what Aristotle called philia, and which would then form the basis of a new type of economic investment.” Stiegler, who “taught himself philosophy while imprisoned for armed robbery,” teaches that we should all groove on our navels, at the exquisite way in which the lint just sits there, poised between the protruding hairs:

[Stiegler] is concerned with the way in which the industrial organization of production and then consumption has had destructive consequences for the modes of life of human beings, in particular with the way in which the loss of savoir-faire and savoir-vivre (that is, the loss of the knowledge of how to do and how to live), has resulted in what Stiegler calls “generalized proletarianization.” In this series Stiegler makes clear his view that, in the light of the present state of the global technical system, it is not a matter of overcoming capitalism but rather of transforming its industrial basis to prevent the loss of spirit from which it increasingly suffers.


Which means, if I understand Stiegler correctly, that we are moving toward a future where we’d all like to buy the world a Coke without actually having the money to afford one, even for ourselves. It’s an exciting future, one which at any rate will surprise many. Though maybe they shouldn’t be astonished. It’s worth remembering that Jonestown started out as a project to build a socialist paradise on Earth and ended up with a universal requirement to practice “revolutionary suicide.” The dream became a nightmare, but maybe it was always that under the mask.

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