Archived Issue - Winter 2000
The Spirit of Capitalism, 2000
By David Bosworth

Each of us brings his favorite examples to the table when the subject of contemporary adult immaturity is raised. From the multitude of news items that, by turns, offend and amaze, I offer the following two as especially illustrative of our postmodern, postindustrial, indisputably American age.

The first, which captured the attention of nightly newscasts all across the nation, related the story of a white, middle-class, Midwest couple, an engineer and a homemaker, who decided they needed a winter vacation and so flew south to warmer climes, leaving their two preteenage children behind for nine full days, including Christmas, unattended. When their daughters, ages four and nine, accidentally set off a smoke alarm in their suburban home, a neighbor notified the police who then arrested the parents when they finally deplaned from their Acapulco getaway. This so-called "Home Alone" case was especially troubling to the national conscience, I think, because it seemed to exhibit a purely hedonistic motivation for offensive behavior, absent any apparent pathological or political substrate, such as drug addiction or an attempt to manipulate welfare rules. It was even more troubling, perhaps, in that all the various ways of categorizing the offending couple refuted our easiest, self-exculpatory presumptions about antisocial behavior: that the desertion of America’s children is primarily a problem of single-parent families, or of men, or of a mostly black and urban underclass, or of a corrupt liberal cultural elite that has taken up residence on the two coasts.

The second example is even stranger but no less troubling to our easy presumptions about the origins of irresponsible behavior. Back in 1990, a terminally ill Californian was involved in an unusual legal suit. Credentialed in precisely those ways we now soberly respect, this Silicon Valley computer consultant, with a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago, wanted the court to permit doctors to fulfill his final wish, which was, grotesque as it seems, to have his head cut off before his disease actually killed him. His intention was not some bizarre form of euthanasia (Dr. Kevorkian meets "Chain Saw Massacre") but its opposite: He didn’t want to die in peace so much as live forever. The plan was to have himself instantly frozen "alive," in hopes of being revived when the advances of science might cure his disease. And because he believed his true self to reside in his brain (recall his profession), and because the private companies that offer cryonic deep-freeze charge far less for preserving a head than a whole human body ($35,000 versus $100,000 at that time), he was requesting decapitation so that he could afford a procedure which he had come to believe might eventually save him.

The great naturalist Louis Agassiz is said to have commanded a graduate student to study a single dead fish for weeks to make him intimate with the form (and deformation) of animal anatomy. What I would suggest is that the computer consultant’s judicial request might serve as an equally instructive specimen. I would suggest that if we think, and think hard, about a justice system that would entertain such a suit, about an economy that would spawn such a company, about the philosophy that predicated the man’s reasoning, and about the ethical implications of investing one’s resources in such a way, we might achieve an intimate comprehension of our culture’s anatomy, its current form and deformation.

Let it be noted first that this man’s decision making was rooted in the basic premises of the prevailing practical philosophy of our day - which is, I would assert, a form of rational materialism largely stripped of Judeo-Christian values. Although his request seems extreme to the point of absurdity, he was not being rash; his reasoning, to the contrary, was highly methodical, rational, and (some might even say) brave. After studying the medical evidence, he had accepted the terrible truth of a terminal diagnosis, researched his options, and made a kind of cost-benefit analysis. Unlike so many today, he wasn’t asking for a government handout, only for the right to exercise a unique opportunity offered to him by the combined creativity of science and the marketplace. One could argue, in short, that the man was a good capitalist consumer, acting out of precisely the kind of enlightened self-interest thought to produce both economic prosperity and social progress, and that he was a model democratic citizen, using the peaceful means of the law to pursue his constitutional right to direct his own destiny.

Is it fair to call such a request immature? If maturity can be defined as those character traits necessary for the sustenance of a harmonious society, and if the sustaining of such a society depends on adults who have adapted to the realities of the human condition, including the reality of death, and who are willing, therefore, to bequeath both their wisdom and their wealth to the next generation - then, yes, I believe it is fair. Although opposite in apparent temper, this "rational" request for decapitation is no less self-centered in its own way than the rash desertion of the vacationing couple, and, as a model for adult decision making, no less destructive to society.

The new majority

But is it fair to use two such extreme examples as somehow representative of the nation’s immaturity? Society, after all, officially condemned the couple (they were pilloried in the press, convicted of neglect, and lost custody of their children), and the court finally refused the dying consultant’s request. Yet, although these individuals did transgress the borders of permissible behavior, their ways of thinking are, alas, not that far removed from the newly emerging cultural norms. Middle-class children are left on their own every day in postindustrial America, often by parents who are off satisfying their "own needs" as defined ever more expansively (and expensively) by our consumer economy; and the denial of death is an urgent and still burgeoning industry here. Millions of medical dollars are spent mechanically prolonging the lives of the mortally comatose and thousands of puffy words expended avoiding the pronouncement of the one-word sentence we all must share: i.e., death. Although our movies are notorious for their abundant body counts, our own real-life relation to the inescapable fact of our mortality is best captured by the perhaps apocryphal octogenarian lady who, when informed that she was dying, responded plaintively: "Why me?"

It is crucial to note, too, that such delusions are by no means limited to the uneducated or to a willfully superstitious laity. Supposedly serious scientists, associated with prestigious institutions like M.I.T.’s Media Lab, continue to make claims that we shall eventually invent our way into an actual immortality. (True to the ruling philosophy of the day, these claims are of two schools: the rationalists, like Hans Moravec from Carnegie Mellon, who believe that we will eventually "download" our individual minds into computers and, enacting a Cartesian escape from our merely mortal flesh, live forever as continuously evolving "software"; and the more traditional materialists who still focus on perfecting the flesh itself through drug protocols and genetic engineering.) Nor do political affiliation or philosophy seem to exempt one from these now pandemic temptations to immature behavior. Republican, Democrat, and Independent alike invest in cosmetic surgery, throw adolescent road-rage fits, flatter their "inner child," variously defined, to the detriment of their actual children.

I open with this complementary pair of incidents, then, because I believe they illustrate my larger point: The behavior that disturbs us now is very broadbased and is performed by men and women of the middle class, by "us," exercising our freedom of choice as directed implicitly and explicitly by the values of our postindustrial economy - an economy that increasingly encloses and invades the everyday lives of both liberals and conservatives. Although most of us still cling to the traditional rhetoric of religious and civic responsibility, which has long counterbalanced America’s radical experiment in individual liberty, these incidents illustrate the ways in which we have been drawn, often unconsciously, toward entirely different schedules of ideal behavior, schedules hostile to both the temper and the habits of a democratic community. That is to say, what we actually believe and what we think we believe no longer mesh. While some of that discrepancy may be attributable to an intentional deception - i.e., to the self-conscious hypocrisy that the opposing critics in our culture wars love to dissect - much of it occurs below the level of articulate self-awareness. Such a claim, that these destructive changes are both ubiquitous and largely unconscious, strongly suggests that, even as we admit the urgency of the problem, we ought to tone down the partisan scorn that has come to characterize these analyses. It also poses the grand question that haunts all our current cultural conflicts: Exactly how has our behavior shifted so dramatically without our self-conscious knowledge or consent?

Capitalism’s two selves

Thirty-five years ago, Marshall McLuhan supplied a partial answer when he observed that "everyone experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, and not understanding, that influences behavior." McLuhan was primarily concerned, of course, with the shift in communications from print to the electronic media, and the statement can be seen as a brief elaboration of his catchy aphorism, "the medium is the message." But the principle applies more broadly as well. To the extent that our daily experience is at all humanly mediated - "brought to us by" human ideas, technologies, architectures - it is necessarily suffused with implicit moral values. Churches and synagogues can tell us what we should believe, continuing to teach traditional virtues, but if the grounds and rounds of daily life are calibrated differently, our behavior will begin to shift accordingly. We can continue to "talk the talk" but won’t "walk the walk" as, in Hamlet’s words, "that monster, custom, who doth all sense eat," silently reconfigures our daily actions.

That since World War II our capitalist economy - its ventures, ambitions, procedures, and "messages" - has become the new primary calibrator of our daily experience is not a controversial claim. My subsequent assertion that its new predominance has led to the very patterns of rash and rational immaturity cited above, however, requires a more elaborate analysis. To begin, we can cite and extend the central thesis of Daniel Bell’s recently reissued The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism - which is, in essence, a postindustrial updating of Max Weber’s 1904 classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Among the contradictions astutely analyzed by Bell is that between the ethos of capitalist production - which still requires obedience, hard work, and self-sacrifice through delayed gratification - and the ethos of capitalist consumption, with its idealizing of hedonism, rebellion against authority, and impulsive behavior (such as deserting your children for a sudden vacation).

Simply stated, the two main divisions of capitalist commerce, production and sales, have come to require two opposing regimens of ideal behavior - one rational, the other rash - and these regimens suggest two discordant identities, a coolly mechanical and narrowly accountable Producing Self (Dr. Jekyll) and a hotly appetitive Consuming Self (Mr. Hyde). In the gotcha game of the culture wars each side cleverly identifies and "outs" the antisocial excesses of its opponent’s Consuming Self even as it ignores its own. The conservative spotlights, in alternating tones of contempt and alarm, the dangers of the liberal’s sexual and aesthetic excesses while the liberal satirizes and sermonizes against the excessive greed and conspicuous consumption of the corporate elite. Not only does each side see the moral ugliness of the other’s Hyde while missing its own, both tend to miss the ongoing conflict all of us face in attempting to follow two essentially incompatible models of behavior. Neither side acknowledges the emotional stress and cognitive dissonance of being asked to play, often in the very same day, both an abstemious Jekyll and an avid Hyde.

It is not simply commerce, then, but commerce’s two separate moral regimens for production and consumption that are the new primary calibrators of our daily experience; they are "the monster[s] ... who doth all sense eat" - who, that is, have become so customary that, like the air we breathe, we cease to actively sense their influence. What I wish to emphasize here, however, is that both prospective identities are potentially destructive, the Producing Self no less than the Consuming Self, whose depravations are more commonly noted. Not only can a good employee be an awful parent, neighbor, or citizen; that employee is, I would contend, more likely to be an ineffective parent or neighbor if he or she continues to follow the customary values of the postmodern workplace beyond the bounds of the office, factory, or store. If, for example, delayed gratification were sufficient in itself to good citizenship, then who could be a more exemplary citizen than our computer consultant, a man willing to "sacrifice" his body now and put his head on ice for untold years before experiencing the "gratification" of his revival?

The end of adulthood

If I am right, then a recovery of moral maturity would require a new sort of abstinence, more expansively defined. In our struggle to relearn what it means to be good parents and neighbors, we would need to withdraw from those spheres where the narrow schedules of both the Avid Consumer and the Efficient Producer overly determine our daily experience.

Yet everywhere we turn these tacitly moral customizers now intrude. They have converted the public square, which has been subsumed by the commercial mall. They have infiltrated the private home, which has been saturated with commercial solicitation through radio, television, and now the Web. They have co-opted the processes of democratic government, which has become increasingly beholden to commercial interests, whether "left-wing" Hollywood or "right-wing" Wall Street, through the necessities of campaign financing, and increasingly rationalized into an "information product" by for-hire election technicians like Dick Morris. They have invaded our public schools, where advertising has been allowed to intrude into the hallways and even the curriculum in return for badly needed funding. They have been taking command of our universities, whose laboratories and classrooms are rapidly being transformed into duchies of the postindustrial economy - the new sites for product invention and employee training - and whose humanities curricula increasingly ape the fashion-line model of planned obsolescence. They taint the studio, movie house, and literary bookstore, which continue to contain paintings, movies, and novels espousing a robotic "anti-bourgeois" sentiment that is, in fact, obedient to the hedonistic ethos of consumerism. And, finally, they have even co-opted our religious organizations, which have become increasingly obsessed with publicity and the marketing of product lines. (This is truest of the most energetic and fastest-growing movements in postmodern America, including "right-wing" fundamentalism and "left-wing" New Age sects.)

If we survey the list above, the corruption of academia, art, and religion are especially telling - insofar as these were the most likely critics of the commercial order. They demonstrate vividly how one can still talk the talk of critical independence while walking the walk of tacit compliance. The infiltration of the private home by commerce also holds a special significance in that it helps measure the stunning rapidity of the changes that have taken place. As recently as the mid sixties, most of America’s women and young children still spent a high percentage of their waking hours outside the official producer economy. (The consumer economy, of course, had already entered with a vengeance via the Trojan horse of commercial TV). Today’s mass entry of women into the work force (and, consequently, of children into professional child care) has meant that the entire middle-class family is now being modeled not only by the seductions of the Avid Consumer but also by the over-specializations of the Efficient Producer - by Weber’s "iron cage" of highly rationalized, narrowly motivated social structures. As a result of these omnipresent, if contradictory, forms of modeling, our clothing is now stamped with the logos of commerce, our minds are now stocked with the jingles of commerce, our hours are now structured by either the rational regimens of commerce or those of bureaucratic government, and our humane responsibilities - whether as momentary as expressing a "sentiment" to our newly married friend or as monumental as caring for our aging parents - are increasingly purchased rather than performed.

What happened to adulthood with its full panoply of emotions, duties, competencies - its capacity for grace under multiple pressures? Adulthood has been disappearing because we now live in a place (both physical and social) radically different from the one we occupied even 40 years ago. This new habitat is a place fundamentally hostile to the virtues traditionally associated with maturity. This "new and improved" American place "grows" profit but eviscerates character; it renders our experience rationally efficient yet spiritually impoverished. Where has adulthood gone? It has been ramified, outsourced, divided into specialties for expert study and for product creation in the service economy. It has been rationalized and merchandised into non-existence.

What are the deeper sources of such a dramatic conversion? This is obviously a very complex historical question, one I can only address here in summary form as a means of framing the examples to come. To begin with, it is the logical result of the increasing triumph in American life of rational materialism, which is adept at manipulating the physical world but is also, and by design, humanly indifferent, metaphysically dumb, and morally blind. The cultural dangers of such a cluster of traits were largely avoided in America because our own version of rational materialism, "scientific capitalism," was preceded by, and (at first) politically allied with, strong traditions of both local governance and religious freedom - i.e., the original, still spiritually grounded Protestant ethic. Given those origins, our society managed to maintain a humane balance of power.

But this balance was severely challenged in the mid nineteenth century by the Industrial Revolution, with its widespread mechanization of work, specialization of thought, and urbanization of living space - here begins in earnest the still ongoing institution of Weber’s iron cage. This balance was further challenged in the early twentieth century by the rise of consumerism, with its widespread boosting of new "needs" through instant credit and the constant proselytizing of advertising - here begins the seductive phase of scientific capitalism (and its cultural contradictions), its paradoxical use of the techniques of the iron cage to create the mirage of what we might call "the gilded carrot," the ever-changing and marketable object of constant desire. The full effects of this second challenge (when added to the first) were delayed by an extended depression and an all-consuming war and thus couldn’t be seen until an entire generation, the Boomers, had been raised in relative peace and unprecedented prosperity under its influence.

The failure of that generation (my own) to mature into responsible adulthood, especially into responsible parenthood, is dramatic proof of both the ideological power and social destructiveness of the current economic order. Such a failure is also a sign that the precarious, but necessary, balance between scientific capitalism and Judeo-Christianity has been lost, that the former has subsumed, co-opted, and superseded the latter to our current detriment and future moral peril.

Great expectations (1960)

The discrepancy between the hope invested in the post-War generation and our actual performance has been so severe that the anticipation itself invites further examination. By the mid fifties, giddy on the optimism of consumerism and global political domination, America really seemed to believe that its children, like its products, would necessarily be "new and improved" - that every day, in every way, we were indeed getting better and better. Year after year, in classrooms, assemblies, and convocation halls, we were told in confident tones how special we were: the richest, best educated, most technologically advanced, and implicitly - because, it was naively supposed, our character must "rise" with the surging tide of our GNP - the most righteous generation in the history of the planet. Both the oratory of officialdom and the messages of advertising were glad to agree that we were the ones destined to redeem the golden promise of the American dream: heirs not simply to the pursuit of happiness but to its purchase and possession.

The extremity of that hope (and its secret folly) is one of the stronger memories of my own, mostly benign suburban upbringing. I recall especially a posh reception following a classmate’s bar mitzvah during which we, his seventh-grade friends, were made to enter an enormous dining hall as though a wedding party or a royal procession. Two by two, a boy beside a girl, to the beat of a band’s ceremonial music, we were marched up an aisle, parting a sea of damp-eyed adults, and then onto a raised platform where we ate, conversed, and later even danced, elevated above, yet surrounded by, the parents of suburbia hundreds in number.

Occasionally, one of the men would slip up the steps, but then only briefly, to pass to my friend an envelope thick with congratulatory cash, as if only this, his propitiatory offering, gave him license to approach. Otherwise we remained there in exalted isolation, on perpetual display. And what I remember most now, beyond my own discomfort, was how the stares of the adults kept drifting up, from their plates of prime rib, to locate us; how they would touch and then hold the hem of the moment - this carefully composed, happy tableaux of "youth on the cusp." My unrelenting desire to disappear was, of course, mostly the result of a social awkwardness befitting my age. But even then I sensed that there was something wrong in this reversal of status; something fundamentally (and frighteningly) false about the veneration we received in expressions that seesawed between proprietary joy and solemn awe.

Now, a parent myself, I better understand the temptations of such love, the ways in which our vanities survive, subversive to the end, through projecting their fantasies onto the lives of our reluctant kids. Now, glancing backward, I see that scene as especially representative of the post-War era: how religious rites of passage were being co-opted then into celebrations of materialist status; how Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike - all of whom sat at the elevated table - were being converted to Mammon’s melting-pot version of the mortgaged Good Life. What I see, when I glance back now, is the idolatry of childhood: the little god and goddess of Self-Esteem being raised on the altar of the secular dream.

About five years later, in the year of my own graduation, Time actually put the yearbook photos of a high-school senior class (from California, of course) on its glossy cover, confirming, as only a Time cover could then, the ascension of America’s "youth culture." Not long thereafter Time also ran a cover daring to wonder if God were dead, thus completing the dual prophecy already implicit in that bar mitzvah scene. For the boosting of youth and the debunking of God were (and are) associate phenomena, each arising from the true cover story of the post-War age: the triumph of the consumer economy over traditional spirituality as the arbiter of social values.

The way that we, as a generation, were so oversold only shows how much the temper of commercial salesmanship had already tainted the raising of families by the 1950s. And our failures as a group in middle age speak painfully now to this economy’s own failure as the dominant model for daily behavior. Its vaunting of self-interest, its reduction of people to contacts or products, its disingenuous blurring of moral improvement with material progress: these were the values that, in the midst of our "rebellions," we were stooping to obey, blind to the results until it was too late. That our becoming "better off" might actually make a worse human place was the sort of savvy calculation that an economy programmed to Great Expectations could not, and still cannot, make.

Great expectations (1860)

To understand the nature of the economic assault on the contemporary family, we might profitably turn back to the era and nation where industrial capitalism first took hold (nineteenth-century England), and to the artistic form that evolved, in part, to study the manners and morals of middle-class life: the social novel. Charles Dickens was one of the first and most astute critics of the ways in which the then new regimens of scientific capitalism could imperil the rhythms of domestic life; and nowhere are both the dangers and adaptive responses more entertainingly drawn than in Great Expectations when the orphan Pip, suddenly and mysteriously made rich, is brought to London.

For there, Pip is placed under the care of the new priesthood of the Industrial Age - "the Law" - in the form of the austere and intimidating criminal lawyer Jaggers and his clerk, Mr. Wemmick. At first, Wemmick appears to be punctilious and dry, a man so bereft of civil human gestures that he has actually forgotten that people shake hands. When Wemmick brings Pip to his home, however, we learn that he hasn’t lost his capacities for amiability and affection so much as been forced to specialize the locale of their expression. His particular job (and, by implication, the larger economy that defines that job) has required a rigid partition of his behavior - between workplace and homestead, between a strict obedience to the protocols of the law and a strong conformity to the rituals of the heart.

Dickens makes clear which of these two locales (and the separate schedules of behavior they allow) is "under siege" by providing a delightfully comic depiction of a man’s house is his castle. For Wemmick’s house, although the smallest Pip has ever seen, is a miniature redoubt. With painted Gothic windows, a ditch as a moat, a plank for a bridge, a lattice fence for stone walls, and a small gun as armament, Wemmick has self-consciously constructed his own symbolic castle to keep the modern world out.

While the castle’s physical protection is merely symbolic, the psychological border it demarks is very real. Inside his castle walls, Wemmick practices the old economies of farming and craftsmanship - he is a self-reliant, independent "jack of all trades"; outside, he works a middle stratum within one of the new economy’s white-collar professions - he is a highly specialized, wage employee. Inside, Wemmick maintains the old allegiances to country and clan - he raises a flag every Sunday and, much more importantly, he lovingly cares for his deaf father, whom he affectionately dubs "the aged parent"; outside, his sole allegiance is to his employer, Jaggers, and Jaggers’ often disreputable clients - his loyalty is literally for hire. The man-at-home in his castle is affectionate, generous, gregarious; the man-at-work in his office is pinched, acquisitive, dutifully discreet.

Dickens’s comic depiction of Wemmick’s divided life captures, a full century earlier, a key ambition behind the suburban adventure of the 1950s and 1960s: the attempt to build a green-belt moat around the American family to protect it not only from physical danger but from the psychological depredations of the postwar economy. And when Pip narrates how the once gracious Wemmick becomes "dryer and harder" as he heads back to work, he might be describing the psychological transformation required of any of 10 million American fathers commuting daily then to their white-collar jobs.

The information age

Wemmick’s challenge is the perennial one of the democratic citizen living under scientific capitalism: how to partake of its unprecedented material bounty without succumbing to its spiritual depravations; how to use its machines without, in effect, becoming one. Although always problematic, his ironic solution - to use the economy’s means to build, in a sense, a fortress against that economy’s beliefs - was far more feasible in 1860 than in 1960, when the penetrations of the Information Age made any large-scale segregation of private from public impossible, and when the economy’s own shift to boosting consumption made the family itself a necessary target for ideological instruction. The commuting fathers of postwar America might keep their family circumstances a secret from their bosses, as Wemmick did from Jaggers, but the economy’s propaganda was still invading their homes daily through radio and TV, and no moat, wall, or remote locale could block its reach.

Although Dickens died long before the Information Age, one of the subplots in David Copperfield does metaphorically suggest the insidious nature of its coming threat to the family’s domain. Here, too, law is the profession, but Mr. Wickfield’s focus is financial not criminal, his small office is in his home, and he practices in suburban Canterbury rather than fast-paced London. In character, too, Wickfield is nearly the opposite of Wemmick’s master, soft to Jaggers’ hard, more devoted to his wife and daughter than to his job. He is an honest man, but after his wife dies, he increasingly retreats from the details of his practice into solitude and drink - a retreat that is encouraged and, in fact, secretly stage-managed by his single employee, the clerk, Uriah Heep.

Perpetually present, always volunteering to take over for his distracted boss, Heep flatters and fawns, and behind his unctuous protestations of his own "‘umbleness," the resentful underling relentlessly plots: first taking control of Wickfield’s practice, then tricking him into complicity in illegal dealings, then bribing his way into a formal partnership. Eventually, he not only runs Wickfield’s business as if it were his own; he completes his domination by actually moving both his mother and himself into Wickfield’s home. While Wemmick’s virtual castle managed to maintain a safe space for the practice of "family values," Wickfield’s family castle has now been invaded - its spaces occupied, its practices subverted.

As the central vehicle for consumerist ideology, postwar TV was very much the Uriah Heep of technologies: always hanging about the house and bowing obsequiously, always claiming to be our servant, our ever so ‘umble and unworthy servant. Like Heep, commercial TV perpetually flattered its viewers, playing on our weaknesses while subtly subverting our traditional beliefs. Like Heep, it quietly became a household fixture, so mundane and demeaned that we ceased to see this high-tech, servile "employee" for what it actually was. We failed to note, as Wickfield failed to note, how dependent we had become on its "companionship" and "services." And we failed to suspect, as the domain of its influence rapidly spread, that its offerings weren’t free after all, that the interests it served were not ours but its own, and that, like Heep’s, its aims were insidious - de facto control of our business, our bodies, our children in our homes.

In Dickens’s story, the climax of Heep’s attempted usurpation of the head, house, and heart of the Wickfield family is his plot to marry Agnes, Wickfield’s only daughter. It is a plot rich with symbolic overtones, for as the novel’s highly idealized heroine, Agnes practices those very same traits of modesty, solicitude, and self-abnegation (true "humbleness") that Heep can only fake. Through his blackmail, then, Heep is aiming to take possession not only of the home’s sole, beloved child but of the incarnation of goodness itself. Simulated virtue is on the verge of conquering actual virtue - a triumph of fakery only foiled in the end by a comic-heroic intervention.

In our story, though, the tale of the postwar generation as stalked by the avid industries of consumerism through the "‘umble" appliance of commercial TV, there is no intervention. We, the culture’s "new and improved" kids, overfed and overfeted, are gradually co-opted, subtly possessed. Actual virtue is gradually subverted by simulated virtue as, in true Heepian fashion, private resentments and personal ambition assume the guise of public compassion. In our story, unlike Dickens’s story, "the helping hand" is subsumed by "self-help" while charity becomes an industry itself, complete with commission sales forces and perk-laden chief executives. In our story, self-interest on both the Left and the Right borrows the language of the idealistic ("liberation from oppression" or "creative destruction") as we manage to progress from civil rights to self-esteem; from "keeping the world safe for democracy" to the sanctification of selfishness and the commodification of everything.

In Dickens’s world, imagined at the height of the Industrial Age, the family in distress is usually saved; the regimens of industry and the rituals of domesticity manage finally to coexist in their separate domains. In our world, as reinvented by the Information Age, their domains are no longer separate. Whether in child-, health-, or "aged parent" care, the industrial increasingly runs the rituals of the domestic, and the family in distress increasingly fails.

Faux rebellion: the salesmanship of "liberation"

Because the business of America has been business for so long, because commerce is our establishment, we lose sight of the ways in which modern capitalism is necessarily anti-establishment: how it promotes disruption, dissatisfaction, mini-revolutions in tastes, habits, and so, inevitably, moral behavior.

In the American economy proper, the specific recognition that certain qualities of personal rebelliousness, rather than overthrowing capitalism, might actually be exploited to expand its base, dates back to the origins of consumerism. Not only did selling the "new" mean, implicitly at least, discounting the "old"; the very nature of some of the earliest consumer products, such as the radio and the car, radically undermined both parental and communal authority, changing the moral landscape in the 1920s and fueling a new hedonism in American life. The initial establishment response to these commercially driven shifts in behavior was a kind of crude denial and displacement of causes - to immigrants, to radicals, to urban and "un-American" sinners, to demon rum. (The grossest example of such scapegoating was Henry Ford’s highly public and poisonously proselytizing anti-Semitism.) Yet by the sixties, driven by the desire to cultivate the enormous potential of the youth market, rebellion was being embraced as an explicit theme in advertising itself. Initially, Madison Avenue idealized the pose of liberation through traditional images of American individualism like the Marlboro Man, but soon it would learn to exploit even specifically political expressions of revolt.

This opportunistic strategy of converting social protest into marketable product was best exemplified in the seventies by the Virginia Slims ad campaign. Launching the first cigarette targeted exclusively for women, these familiar and highly successful ads typically featured two photos, in an ironically staged before-and-after scenario, dramatizing the change from pre- to postliberation American womanhood. In the first, a young woman who is fettered in a frumpy Victorian dress has been caught attempting to sneak a cigarette by an oppressive husband or father figure - a veritable starched phallus of paternalism complete with wagging finger, stern stare, and Germanic walrus mustache. In the second, her contemporary and now "liberated" sister poses, sassy, slender, joyous and free, her cigarette transformed into a kind of elegant fashion accessory, her progress proclaimed in the now famous phrase: "You’ve come a long way, baby!"

With its arch tone, its hip address, its mockery of the past and of prudishness, its trivializing of political change into selfhood’s triumph, its blurring of active accomplishment with passive sexiness, and, of course, with its overall masking of solicitation with flattery - this one campaign exemplified three decades of advertising themes. Like most seductions, it played on the twin emotions of resentment and self-love, but its particular genius lay in locating the language of vanity best fitted to the age: independence, self-liberation.

That by "celebrating" freedom, these ads actually intended to enslave - a deadly addiction the hook concealed by flattery’s bait - is a dark but instructive irony. It describes, in extreme, a key strategy of consumerism in the postmodern age: how each apparent inducement to rebellion can be fashioned to conceal a tacit order to obey.

"Born (Again) Gangstaz"

By the nineties, faux rebellion had become a marketing shtick so banal that some marketers were driven to casting their products in ever more outrageous terms of darkness, violence, and sexual excess. (One of the most notorious mainstream examples of this was a Calvin Klein ad campaign that seemed little more than a collection of pinups for pedophiles.) Ever in search of new and profitable borders to cross, pop music provided its own extreme examples, as Brett Pulley of the Wall Street Journal discovered.

Pulley was investigating the career of Boss Laws, a new female rapper whose first album, "Born Gangstaz," featured cover photos of Laws striking "various poses clutching automatic weapons," and whose songs included the now almost standard cop-killer lyrics: "‘I loaded the clip and took the nine to the copper’s brain.’" Fond of slugging down malt liquor from 40-ounce bottles, cursing out her audience, and boldly pronouncing in public her desire to kill, Laws spoke often of life on the streets. Her menacing persona, and the gritty "art" it had produced, had arisen apparently from her experiences as gang member, drug pusher, and prison inmate.

As it happens, Laws had never been in jail, nor could her other mean-street stories be verified. She wasn’t in fact born a gangster but delivered to two protective parents who raised her in a comfortable, middle-class Detroit neighborhood. There, she had been educated in Catholic schools and had been the beneficiary of lessons in ballet, modern dance, and piano. Laws also had attended church and gone to college, where she had majored in business and had become a fraternity sweetheart.

Majoring in business is probably the most significant biographical detail in that privileged list. As Laws herself said to Pulley in defense of her new persona: "I’m both a gangster and a smart business person. I know what I’m doing." Indeed, she did. That she chose to entitle her first album "Born Gangstaz," rather than something more biographically accurate, such as "Born Bourgeois," tells us much about the selling of popular art through faux rebellion, the reinvention of self as commercial product, and the inherent amorality of marketing on the postmodern stage.

In the Christian faith within which Laws was raised, being "born again" meant having one’s soul realigned with the experience of the divine and a subsequent obedience to the laws of God. In the consumerist faith that has taken its place as the primary shaper of public behavior, being "born again" means reshaping one’s image according to the fashions of the Market, obedient to its laws of publicity and promotion.

Relativism and capitalism

"Born Gangstaz" provides a useful and sobering transition out of stereotype. The careerist maneuvers of Boss Laws remind us that although we have come to expect the proselytizing of immaturity, vulgarity, and violence from the entertainment industry, it is still, in fact, an industry. Like any industry in postmodern America, the primary beneficiaries of pop music’s offensive values are both the investing rich and a highly diversified professional class: lawyers, publicists, accountants, graphic artists, marketing and computer consultants, all rationally and efficiently assisting in the creation of a product, the core values of which are (in the case of Boss Laws) irrational and anarchic.

This professional assistance, it is important to remember, is usually provided without any self-conscious political or social intent. We cannot presume, for example, that the large cast of co-conspirators listed above consists primarily of misguided liberals, much less self-proclaimed anarchists - a group that seems to reside almost exclusively now in academic tenure dens and the tony galleries of art investors. Many a conservative’s stock portfolio has been fattened, and soccer mom’s all-terrain vehicle financed, through supporting clients like Calvin Klein. And would anyone really be surprised if the tobacco company that was flattering feminism through its Virginia Slims campaign was simultaneously contributing to the reelection coffers of Jesse Helms? The ethos of commerce - with its scientific methods pressed to monetary ends, with its strict rationalism placed in the service of a narrow materialism - has neither the language nor the appetite for such scrupulous discriminations. Rather, its democracy of profit wants to decree that all money is good money while its standard of service wants to insist that the customer is always right.

When practiced in moderation, these commercial ideals of toleration and solicitude are indeed necessary for a civil, democratic marketplace. But when the market expands to enclose the whole of society so that even the most intimate of activities becomes economically defined, when the primary shapers of allowable behavior are the imperatives of the bottom line, then toleration gives way to decadent license, civil solicitude to venal solicitation, as everything becomes "good" and anything "right." So enclosed, we can rationalize the most offensive of behaviors. Access to the morgue photos of a murdered child, JonBenet, becomes yet one more entrepreneurial opportunity, their purchase and publication justified under the banners of "freedom of expression" and the public’s "right to know."

How has such moral relativism come to define our social sphere? The answer is both so pervasive and near that it is hard for us to see: Relativism is the standard operating procedure of scientific capitalism, the working premise of commercial life. To say so is merely to restate the premises of capitalism’s cultural contradictions, and show again how the Producing Self has become complicit with, and dependent on, the depredations of the Consuming Self.

Postmodern parenting

As a last example of the insidious effects of these economically shaped identities, I want to return to parenting and balance the "rash" with a "rational" model. Let’s imagine a slightly upscale, much more admirably motivated version of the family mentioned on the first page: a white, married, Midwest couple, college educated, with two preteenage children, Adam and Amy. Although both parents now work full-time, the mother gladly stayed home a full year after each child’s birth and then relentlessly sought out the very best child care, regardless of price. In fact, committed to both gender equality and responsible parenthood, this couple had planned to alternate working half-time until Amy reached junior high. But when the father’s company was downsized, he had to take on more work rather than less, and although the mother was still willing to sacrifice the career advantage of full-time employment, they found that, without the extra income, they couldn’t afford a home in the community with the best public schools. So she extended her hours - as did the father, for his commute was lengthened an hour each day after the move.

Such sacrifices are, in fact, characteristic of this couple. They have no desire to take impulsive vacations free of their children’s company. To the contrary, their fondest fantasy, discussed over takeout dinners or whispered above the soundtrack of the children’s Friday night video, is to have a more relaxed and natural family life. But everything they read, including the President’s speeches, and their own employment experiences together warn them that their children must be highly trained to survive the changes that the new economy is likely to require. So they take out a loan to buy the very best home computers, which they upgrade, then upgrade again. When Adam has trouble learning to read, they send him to a nationally franchised Sylvan Learning Center for after-school training and then to a private tutor who specializes in dyslexia. When Amy shows ability in math, it only seems fair that they offer her tutoring as well, so they send her to the local Kumon Math Center (also nationally franchised) and pay for skating lessons as well.

All of this, of course, means more expense and less time spent together, but they try to adjust by using cell phones and e-mail to stay in touch. Furthermore, Adam and Amy are guaranteed "quality time" on the weekend (there’s a sign-up sheet over the microwave): four full hours when each gets to choose favorite activities and special foods, when each has the right to be "spoiled" by the intensity of their parents’ total attention. The couple also attends every conference, game, and performance they can. There, too, the intensity of their attention doesn’t flag; there, as their children’s passionate advocates, they work "the system" - lobby teachers, network neighbors, argue with refs - whatever it takes to wrest the best for Amy and Adam.

I could go on, but the portrait is complete enough and, perhaps, painfully familiar. What I find so insidious here is the extent to which the totality of domestic life is being shaped by economic models, motives, fears, and values: how much the grimly anxious pace of the postmodern workplace has come to command the postmodern household. And, of course, for clarity’s sake, I have removed all the potentially corrupting effects of contemporary consumerism, the hedonistic half of the mixed message the economy presents. Statistically speaking, this is a uniquely ascetic postmodern couple. Here, we have no divorce, infidelity, rampant careerism; no alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive shopping or gambling - none of the many forms of self-centered dysfunction that darken our day and rend family life. Here, we have nothing so rash, just a perversely rational schedule of pervasive separation, a desertion of one’s own children "on their behalf."

This household has been purged of sexist inequalities, but it has also been stripped of wonder, curiosity, improvisational fun. Mother and father have merged into one cooperative, unisexual provider. The good parent has been reduced to the Good Producer whose job as parent is to supply society with a new generation of good producers - i.e., employees who are already accustomed to highly rationalized social environments and whose skills are upgraded to the ever-evolving specs of the time. The new parent doesn’t teach by example; he hires tutors, coaches, experts "in the field." His role is less to cherish and chasten than to outfit and facilitate; less to shape meaning than to make money, furnishing each child with all the materialist gear and rationalist techniques the economy requires.

Even this household’s happier moments have been reinvented in the economy’s terms. The notion of prescheduled "quality time," for example, converts parenting to corporate standards of executive efficiency. As in the rest of the technological economy, enhanced technique is supposed to reduce the need for management "face time," leading to an implicitly absurd rationalization by which, nevertheless, many of us now run our lives. We believe that the better parents we are, the less time we actually will spend with our children. The parent as passionate advocate - the one lobbying hard on her child’s behalf without broader concerns for truth, justice, or even common courtesy - is likewise a rote reenactment of workplace roles, especially as defined by the ever-expanding service domain. Such behavior accurately reflects the highly specialized code of conduct - the so-called professional ethics - of the lawyer, the therapist, the consultant, or the licensed accountant whose firm does the books for both a local church and an S&M supply house. Our job at home, like our job in the field, is not to reprimand but to represent. All clients are good clients. Our children have become our customers, and the customer is always right.

Lost havens and lost virtues

When our children become our clients, then even the family has ceased to be a possible sphere for moral instruction. When our domestic rituals are set to the beat and drawn toward the goals of our workaday schedules, then home itself ceases to be a sanctuary. Even at night, we have no respite from the anxieties of the marketplace where the buyer must beware and only the fittest are supposed to survive. Even in our living rooms, we find no alternative to the economy’s reductive, yet contradictory, commands to produce and consume, produce and consume. The strict division that Wemmick drew - the symbolic border that allowed him to be productive at work and humane at home - has been dissolved. Today’s Wemmick has no place where he can be generous and genial, no time to be metaphysically curious, humanly kind. The old compromise with the wealth-producing engine of scientific capitalism has collapsed. Although small, lightly armored, and comically appointed, Wemmick’s house was still an effective castle, but that castle has now been sacked.

Our current distress arises, in part, from an inarticulate sense that we have lost that last bastion of our humanity, what Christopher Lasch called our "haven in a heartless world." And the best measure of the dread that such a loss can excite is our urgent attempt now to rebuild the moat of separateness: more private schools to teach, more guards to police, a new maze of walled-in communities. Once again we circle our wagons in suburban cul-de-sacs, where, ever anxious, we stare out at the world through tinted glass. But physical removal is an insufficient defense when the hearts and minds of the family we would protect, adult and child alike, have been aligned to the values of the very world we are trying to escape.

Those values are intrinsically hostile to the disciplined tenderness that makes a meaningful haven out of a merely physical house. In truth, the economy that now pervades American life does not "want" people who are capable of creating and sustaining the rituals of domesticity. It wants instead, and paradoxically, pure rationalists and pure materialists; it wants efficient producers and avid consumers. And even if we could harmonize its increasingly contradictory demands for perfect efficiency and unending appetite, the merged model could only supply an impoverished definition of human life. Acting out of such a model, which reduces us to the "mechanical" and the "animal," we still could not mature into a fully competent, deeply caring, communally committed adulthood. If we wish to become such adults - and most of us still profess that we do - we need to admit, then, not only scientific capitalism’s internal contradictions but its ultimate insufficiency as the primary shaper of our daily behavior. We need to confront the very specific ways in which its regimens for profitability are hostile to the cultivation of maturity’s most necessary traits.

Maturity requires both the acquisition of a broad, common-sense intelligence and a commitment to truth-telling. The economy rewards instead both the narrow expertise of producership and the utopian fantasies of salesmanship with its commodified dreams of omniscience, omnipotence, immortality. Maturity requires emotional endurance. The new economy promotes the habit of complaint; it hypes the latest "injustice" or psychic pain, which then can be medicated, adjudicated, serviced for a fee.

Maturity requires the selflessness of social commitment; the economy promotes the selfishness of "self-liberation." Maturity depends on a transfer of tradition between the generations through daily example. The economy eradicates tradition through insisting that the new is always improved, and it segregates the generations - into day-care, workplace, retirement communities - for more efficient service and marketing.

Maturity directs the submission of both physical desires and intellectual schemes to the discipline of higher meaning. The postmodern economy co-opts and consumes all traditional forms of meaningfulness. It relentlessly converts quality into quantity, spirit into commodity, the organism of symbolism into the mechanism of market value, the self-sacrificial hero into the sponsoring star.

Maturity requires, above all, a meaningful acceptance of the human condition. It depends on our acknowledging those facts which remain the same for every culture and generation, uniting the first with the last: that death is real; that our knowledge is limited; that even in an age of technological advance our rational control (both as individuals and as a community) remains provisional - that, in the words of Ecclesiastes, "time and chance happen to us all." Not only do common sense, compassion, and self-discipline emerge out of an acceptance of those first and final facts, so does humility. And humility is the necessary temperamental grounding for any system of ethics aspiring to be practical - aspiring, that is, to shape our beliefs in actual practice. As the temperament that (to use a carpenter’s term) constantly trues us to the shape of the real, humility is the source of the most profound sort of pragmatism - a fact that our earliest American ancestors well knew.

"Every man has just as much and no more truth in him, as he hath humility," wrote a New England Puritan. Where, we might ask, in this economy of rank self-promotion and rational utopias, can such a truthful man or woman be found? The relative rarity of such a person illuminates why, for all the multiplication of our material wealth and the explosion of our rational knowledge, this postindustrial society of ours seems so shallow, so phony - not only immature but fundamentally false.

Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart

At the very end of the Protestant Ethic, Max Weber briefly emerged from his sober and objective analysis to speculate on the coming character of the West’s iron cage of capitalist endeavor. "No one knows," he wrote:

who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or whether there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might truly be said: Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.


As with "convulsive self-importance," we now proclaim America’s global dominance, we might wonder at the extent to which we have achieved just such a nullity: a society of both rational and rash immaturity; a civilization of "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart." For their eloquence as well as their prophetic accuracy, these words of Weber, written at the very start of the twentieth century, are frequently cited. Few note, however, the unintended irony of the very next sentence: "But this brings us to the world of judgments of value and of faith, with which this purely historical study need not be burdened."

We now have had a full century of such intellectual purity - a hundred years of purely historical, purely financial, purely aesthetic, purely scientific study and practice. Yet that very "world of judgments" which such practices would shun, is not apart from, but encoded within, all human activity. The purging of value - this vaunted purity of rationalized study - is a fiction. Historically, it has been a very useful fiction. It has allowed us to imagine ourselves apart from the world so that we might see it more sharply and to achieve, as a consequence, a series of truly astonishing technological triumphs. But, as the narrow compass of that fiction has become all-pervasive, its temporary respite from value has stretched instead into a kind of permanent estrangement. As domain after domain has been converted to its strategic pretense of objectivity, we have become enclosed within an interlocking maze of morally opaque systems, places, methodologies. Trapped inside this ethical blind, customized to its selective unawareness, our actions and beliefs begin to divide, and we lose "all sense" of both how we are behaving and why.

To open that blind and reinfuse our overly rationalized sites and minds with the "world of judgments" can indeed, as Weber observed, become a burden; for it threatens us with a renewed awareness that most of our actions are, in fact, judgments of value, and so reminds us that neither the regimens of expertise nor the fantasies of self-esteem can exempt us from the constant accountability of the moral life. To readmit that world is also dangerous, for if done in the wrong spirit - which is to say, if our judging is not trued by humility - we will only poison the air with more of the self-righteous scorn that has characterized the "gotcha game" of the culture wars. But surveying our scene of rash and rational immaturity, I am convinced that now is the time to embrace that burden and to brave the danger. Now is the time to recover those practices and refashion those places where, as in Wemmick’s castle, "the judgments of value and of faith" have a home.

David Bosworth is a fiction writer and essayist who teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.
 
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