Recently, our air waves have featured a number of analysts and “experts” stating that American troops are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to preserve the American lifestyle.
In another report a young woman spoke about the importance of finding a job that would allow her to have the lifestyle that would fully express her being. Lifestyle? Is living a life being replaced by attaining a lifestyle? What would that mean? How would we define our lives?
We consider our existence in conjunction with our families, our community, our work, our creative and avocational activities. But where does the style part fit in? Our personal characteristics contribute to our style, but what really defines it are the things with which we surround ourselves. Our internal musings and interpersonal relationships take a back seat to the things that we accumulate in order to express our “selves”; when we speak of our lifestyle, we are identifying ourselves as consumers first, and individual sentient beings second.
Now the advertising industry is more than happy to take control of your personal “branding”. They provide such an array of products that we can choose to identify with a dizzying assortment of marketing stereotypes: macho men, sexy women, upscale stylish, Joe six pack regular, even the geeky but lovable types (often seen in Super Bowl commercials getting physically assaulted by objects ranging from flying rocks to Betty White). Are we really willing to give them the power to determine the parameters that define what is means to be a living human? When you consider that the only operative principle for this industry is to induce you to spend money, it is a bit difficult to entrust them with defining an entire culture.
But as we become inured to being defined as consumers or taxpayers, that is just what is happening. A consumer spends money, and a taxpayer pays money – period. It is the product purchased, or the policies pursued by the political establishment that define the values of the financial transaction. If we accept this paradigm, then we are no longer actors having an impact on our own lives; we are merely gatekeepers of our personal financial spigot that will define who we are for us.
At some point it dawns on us that the products we have purchased may have created the desired image, but we don't find ourselves any happier. Too often we discover that we can't really pay for the lifestyle that we have been convinced to create for ourselves, and we have to work even harder just to stay solvent (or not). If you have reached this advanced stage of being a consumer, you have long since lost the necessary time to stay involved in your community and nation as an active citizen. You have successfully found your spot as a cog in the economic wheel of corporate America, and if your accumulated goods are not sufficient to make you happy, you're out of luck.
You needn't worry however, because the “corporate citizen” - a term that we are also hearing more frequently on the airwaves – can do your citizen work for you. Thanks to the corrupt political system in Washington D.C., with an added push from the Supreme Court's Citizens' United decision, corporations are doing the heavy lifting of shaping government laws and policy for us. As we morph into consumers, we are forgetting how to exercise our sovereignty as defined in the Constitution. We forget that we are even supposed to take our sovereignty seriously.
As we increasingly define ourselves through the things that we accumulate, we become further removed from exercising control over our own destinies. This is no accident. In the early years of the 20th century, unemployed Americans were disgruntled, furious at being abandoned by their nation's economic system and radicalized as a result. If the government hadn't taken actions like throwing Eugene Debbs into jail or sending Attorney General Palmer out to brutalize, deport and arrest on trumped up charges every radical he could find, America might have emerged with an economic system more resembling the social democratic systems in Europe than the fiercely “free enterprise” economy we claim to have today.
This is precisely the scenario that turning us into consumers is meant to avoid. Citizens consider what is best for their nation, their community and their neighbors. Consumers consider what to buy in order to make themselves feel better. If you are content to let corporate America do your citizenship duties for you, consume away. Otherwise, it might be time to shake off your old copy of citizenship 101.