Sunday, November 26, 2006
It's not influenza, though that has Spanished and SARSed its way across the deathscape. It is not AIDS, though that is proving a moral panic and an arms race against a virus. It is not cancer, whether it be of lung, skin, bowel, throat or breast. In fact it is nothing in our external dimension that has conquered our ability to conquer the planet. It is an internal realisation. It is marketing.
It is the freedom to choose between things that are not important. The problem is, even if the market itself is inherently good, the way the market pushes its wares, eventually lays the seeds for its own destruction. Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss’s book Affluenza explores the malaise that is at the heart of behaviour in Australia. The book is the product of the leftwing thinktank called the Australia Institute, and it commits a lot of time and statistics to fight issues that impact the core constituency of the Howard Regime.
The portmanteau word affluenza was formed from affluence and influenza by a KCTS/Seattle and Oregon Public Broadcasting System documentary of that name in 1997. One of the producers of that program John De Graaf wrote a book called “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic" which was published by Berrett-Koehler, 2001. His description, the all consuming epidemic described a single threat.
However, the Australian authors offer three definitions for Affluenza. This three-pronged definition, the authors make no bones, is an Australian condition. It is firstly the unfulfilled feeling gotten from the effort of chasing away the socio-economic inferiorness known as keeping up with the Jones. Secondly it is an epidemic of stress and overwork caused by the pursuit of the Australian Dream and thirdly it is an addiction, and an unsustainable one in economic growth. Economics is all about the management of scarcity. But Hamilton and Dennis explore the situation where scarcity is itself scarce. In short, Australia is a society going nowhere. The cure is downshifting.
Today, the real drama is in the distribution of power in the 90% of those in Australia who do not go hungry every day. Politics in the twentieth century was all about a reaction to the means of production. That really has changed much in the 21st century except that information is now the means of production. And as McLuhan predicted, the means is the message. It matters less who was the source or the destination of the message but more the message itself and the fact it took place at all. Our society sends out a lot of messages.
Affluenza follows on from a similar book from Hamilton “Growth fetish” which compared our economic system to a cargo cult. We are all Pacific Islands who believe in the imminence of a new age of blessing which will be heralded and fulfilled by the arrival of special cargo sent to them by supernatural powers. We work hard developing the economic condition that makes us want to work harder and get more of it. The book Affluenza mostly steers of the environmental impact rather than the personal health affects of Western lifestyle. Thus it covers cars, children, debt, drugs, happiness, money and politics. But primary it covers advertisements.
The highest-end advertising is that of the brand. It is perception about the brand that advertisers work hardest on. Hamilton and Denniss describe these people as Australia’s best-paid psychologists. They are devoted to ways of increasing insecurity, vulnerability and obsession in consumers. In pure economic terms, ads add value because they provide information about the product. The problem with brands is that all the information is leached out of them. Nike is the simple victory of a Jordanian swoosh. Coke is the real thing and ipods are bus stops.
Ads also favour competition. In Australia however, competition in business is frowned upon because it is too small a market to cut many throats. Instead, they promote loyalty through brands. Modern corporations don’t like fickle customers. Instead they promote the image that buying the brand is a form of self-love. Loyalty means we abandon critical faculties and buy regardless of real need. We define ourselves by the things we buy. As well fixing our dependence on the brand, the cure to affluenza also impacts the places we live. Continued consumption results in great waste and pollution. The authors’ solution is simple but devastating to the economy: resist consumption. Growth is the dominant framework and this message is not yet popular. As of yesterday, Green parties still hovered under 10% of the vote in Australia’s most liberal state – Victoria. Their 9.7% garnered no seats in parliament's lower house, although the Nationals with only 5.4% grabbed 8 seats. But their lack of power should not convince those in power to be immune to the threat: the fight is on between two world views.