Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Star Trek and Satiability

Binge Drinking: Evil Kirk and anti-Occupy Wall Street

Critics of consumerism, on both the Right and Left, usually count it as one of capitalism's sins. But according to Richard Wilkinson, modern consumerist societies require some level of relative income equality for good health. The laissez faire capitalism of the 19th Century (the brand championed by Rupert Murdoch's media outlets and the Koch brother's lobbying industry), made no concessions to address income disparity (I will leave it to Slavoj Žižek to explain the inadequacy of charity.) The socialism that rose up to challenge that era's unrestrained capitalism's misery was a demand for complete economic equality. Star Trek is often described as a socialist utopia, but that hides its greater aspect. David Simon, who grew up in consumer culture and is now as the creator of The Wire, is one of its most successful creator-class, argues beautifully in a recent talk, "If you believe in group insurance you are a socialist." But that leaves the question of what you believe in if you are a consumerist. There is a simple ethical test that delivers a very peculiar answer: What would Kirk do?

There are a couple episodes of Star Trek, in which we get a glimpse at what an Evil Captain Kirk, In one, Mirror, Mirror, Kirk switches place with his counterpart from an alternate universe where The Federation is an Imperialist power. In another, The Enemy Within, Kirk's 'good side' and 'bad side' are split into two different Kirks. I am not a big Star Trek guy, but I grew up at a time before VCRs and when you might have three or four choices of what to watch on TV. So on some level I have internalized the show - I remember how jarring the behavior of the Evil Kirks were. They were drunks, gropers, and violent: unconstrained. The Kirk-test (WWKD) is a tongue in cheek approach, but the answer it points to is not. It is a uniquely modern form of equality and much more illusive modern ideal of satiability. 
Evil Kirk grabbing all he can, Occupy Wall Street protestor grabbed.

In his new book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama writes that, "Inequality has never been a big problem in American political culture, which emphasizes equality of opportunity rather than outcomes. But"--and this is a very big "but", because, following the Industrial Revolution inequality was a very big problem in America, one that nearly derailed our democracy and came to a head repeatedly before it burst under the pressure of the Great Depression. 

"But", Fukuyama continues, "the system remains legitimate only as long as people believe that by working hard and doing their best, they and their children have a fair shot at getting ahead, and that the wealthy got there by the rules." It is intellectually dishonest of Fukuyama to pretend that this is still the deal. The American system lost all legitimacy in the century following the Industrial Revolution for the exact reasons he lists.
What Ailes.

In the 1930s Americans began negotiating a New Deal, but it would take them 30 more years to articulate a new Dream. It is as dishonest to pretend that what emerged from the ashes of the Depression and the fires of WWII were just a change in American governance. The most profound change Americans made was one in the manner in which they thought about economic disparity. Poverty and wealth were no longer binary.

For Victorians it was morally acceptable to wear a fine pair of expensive boots to walk streets awash in sewage and shoeless children. For those Victorian capitalists wealth was a simple matter of "the haves", and the "have-nots". That's not consumerism. Consumerism may be shallow and vulgar, but it is not uncompassionate. Consumer culture has negotiated inequity by giving everyone everything, but doing so unequally: the haves and the have-more-better-sooners.
Evil Kirk; Anthony Bologna

Unlike Bolsheviks, consumers have no qualms with decadence.  You might have more cloths than me. Your refrigerator may be top of line while mine is a down market off-brand cheapy. You and I can happily stand next to one another even though your shoes cost $2500.00 and mine $25.00; no one would raise an eyebrow. You can even own three luxury cars to my occasional economy rental, and get the latest gadgets years ahead of me; but the understanding implicit deal - the social contract - is that we both get to drive, and that eventually I'll be able to afford cheaper versions of new technologies down the line. 

Consumer culture's unique mechanism for dealing with disparity totally breaks down when you get healthcare and I don't. When you have a home and I am homeless. When you can afford a wedding and I can't. When you have children and I have none. When your crimes go unpunished and mine are enforced. When you own things that I cannot afford at all. The danger of a Victorian ethic of binary wealth is reasserting itself is far to easily imagined.
The Enemy Within: gluttony

In his latest book, Rule 34, the science fiction author Charles Stross imagines a near future with an all too familiar back-story: 
...with a global recession followed by a stuttering shock wave of corporate scandals as rock-ribbed enterprises were exposed as hollow husks run by conscience-free predators who were even less community-minded and altruistic than gangsters. The ravenous supermarket chains had gutted the entire logistics and retail sector, replacing high-street banks and post offices as well as food stores and gas stations, recklessly destroying community infrastructure; manufacturers had outsourced production to the cheapest oversea bidders, hollowing out middle class incomes on which consumer capitalism depended: The prison-industrial complex, higher education, and private medical sectors were intent on milking public purses that no longer had a solid tax base. with which to pay. 
I lumped Stross in with the wildly creative mythomaniacs of the Second Scottish Enlightenment, but it turns out he is from Leads (I couldn't tell Welsh rarebit From a Scotch Egg to save my life). Even if not technically correct Stross is still a great fit, because like the Scots, his scifi deals with more than just the future of science and technology. Like his Northern peers, Stross' politics are at least a wee bit Red (wee bit is Irish I think, wht a mess), and his fiction is most concerned with political and economic developments. And he is no light weight. Stross has the distinction of being the favorite scifi author of Nobel Prize-winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman. So his ideas about the future of capitalism are worth special consideration. "Maximizing short term profit worked brilliantly for sociopathic executives looking to climb the corporate ladder" Stross observes, "but as a long-term strategy for stability, a spiraling Gini coefficient left a lot to be desired." (What he said.)
Mirror, Mirror: ant-Star Trek; Sociopathic Executives

If the back-story of Rule 34 is our present, the future it describes could easily be Captain Kirk's past. Stross imagines a economy of fabrication devises capable of manufacturing objects with multiple parts and materials (like realistic sex dolls and weapons), and even growing edible flesh. It is a near enough future that there is a complex international regime of intellectual property rights enforcement for these primitive replicators, but a regime already bedeviled by black marketeers, pirating, malware, and spammers; and requiring a criminal code so complex that police need "decision-support software to figure out what to charge people with."

The bureaucracy Stross imagines will be required for "catching corporate corruption before it metastasizes and infects society at large" is even more unwieldy (but not at all improbable):
If corporations wanted to be legal citizens, the politicians riding the backlash declared, they could damned well shoulder the responsibilities of good citizenship as well as the benefits. Social as well as financial audits were the order of the day. Directives outlining standards for corporate citizenship were drafted and a lucrative niche for a new generation of management consultants emerged--those who could look at an organization and sound a warning if its structure rewarded pathological behavior. 
Don't be Evil

The pathologies of consumerism are all pathologies of gluttony. There is no need to ban corporate 'personhood', but there is a very real need figure out ways of encouraging them to be good people, and perhaps of reserving the right to execute them when they be evil. But in order to get there we have to be able to see the problem. In his book, Fukuyama explains that our modern moral code that guards against theft overwrites an older code that was concerned first and foremost with sharing. Our traditions of food sharing; our expectations of generosity from hosts and courtesies of guests, are tribal traditions that go back to economies of scarcity. But these are traditions that glorified overindulgence - binge drinking and over eating remain a core element of most high holidays - at least in my family.

In a 1841 speech to his hometown temperance society, Abraham Lincoln counseled against the "thundering tones of anathema and denunciation," and urged the teetotalers to adopt a rhetoric of "erring man to an erring brother." That was 80 years before those thundering tones became the 18th Amendment, and the of anathema and denunciation of Prohibition was the law of the land for a decade. It would be over a century after Lincoln's speech that Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith would speak "erring man to an erring brother" and create the first 12-step program. It was 40 more years before, as a society, we began to address binge drinking and drunk driving publicly. And finally it is only in the last fifteen or twenty years that alcoholism has lost some of its stigma.
The World of Tomorrow: One Day at a Time

And while Roddenberry clearly believed that no one would smoke in the future, it has been only the last ten years that we have begun to figure out ways to get people to stop smoking in public. Mark Bittman writes that "The public war against tobacco has worked, if imperfectly: Americans smoke at half the rate they once did, half of all smokers have quit, and the tobacco companies finance strong anti-smoking campaigns." Bittman is the New York Times food critic, he is writing about anti-smoking campaigns because he believes the time has come to make obesity an issue of public health. In his desire to tax sugary drinks and fatty foods Bittman is out in front of the issue but he is not alone. First Lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity the center post of her time in the White House. But we are a long way before a waiter will refuse to serve the morbidly obese the way bartenders have learned to turn away pregnant women. 

Alcoholism and obesity may seem distant cousins, if related at all, to global warning and pathological concentrations of wealth, but these are all forms of gluttony. Some may argue that there is a difference in kind; matters of private choice on one side, matters public policy on the other. "A good deal of theorizing about the importance of private property rights concern what is called the tragedy of the commons." writes Fukuyama. one way of theorizing both environmental degradation and market collapses have been to imagine them as tragedies of the commons, and to "It is not clear to what extent the tragedy of the commons" he continues, "was a real problem in English history." By which he means not a material problem; it was however a very real societal one: "the wealthy landowners who drove peasants off communal property in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had strong motives for doing so. But in the open-field system" Fukuyama admits, "land was not as a rule overexploited or wasted." The real problem was gluttony. Unfortunately we do not have a century to experiment with wrongheaded methods of environmental and financial self-regulation. It is more important than ever before to resist the enclosure attempts of wealthy elites. That requires overwriting our modern moral code with a new set of values - one more like Kirk's. (Continue reading.)
Heal Thy Self.


  1. Taxing unhealthy foods will no more eradicate overeating than the 18th Amendment eradicated drinking or the War on Certain Drugs has eliminated drug use and drug-related crime. And just as people have been driven to bathtub gin and street drugs cut with Drano, trying to change people's eating habits through negative incentives will simply drive them to lower-quality convenience and comfort foods.

    Healthy food tends to be neither convenient nor comforting, particularly with currently fashionable superstitions against basic food science techniques needlessly introducing further difficulties. It's a rare alcoholic, smoker, drug user or overeater who doesn't know in morbid detail exactly what their psychological crutch of choice is doing to them, what price they pay for at least the occasional flicker of comfort in an increasingly hostile, lonely world full of increasingly hostile, closed-minded people. The more complex, onerous and depressing we make day-to-day life, the more the world runs on Jack Daniels and Taco Bell.

  2. You paint a pretty dark picture of the world Anon i no one is suggesting Prohibition on tacos, the whole point is we have very old habits of mind that encourage gorging, and we - as a group - have to develop habits of mind that encourage satiability. I speak as "erring man to an erring brother" - I LOVE cigarettes, I always will, but with the help of my friends who disapprove of self destructive behavior, a city that makes that behavior very expensive, and a city that has made it very hard to find a place to indulge that dirty habit, I have spent more time not smoke than smoking.

    I like to believe that combination of social pressure, legislation and financial incentives could help us - "erring man to an erring brother" - deal with other dirty habits that harm our body politic - like carbon emissions and income disparity, to name just two.

  3. Man must eat. He doesn't have to smoke. Moderation has always been more difficult than abstinence, and even more impossible to legislate or impose from the outside. When dealing with a truly vital human imperative like nourishment, I think the issue changes somewhat. After all, most people in the world who are eating those super-healthy calorie-restricted, plant-based diets aren't doing so by choice. It's because they're poor. Almost unanimously, when asked, they say that they would eat more meat and fat if they could afford it. I don't know how we can legislate that impulse away. It would have to be focused on the producers, not the consumers, and perhaps be in the form of incentives, not restrictions.

    captcha: "crock"

    I think the captcha read my comment.

  4. Moderation is sometimes more difficult than abstinence. In 1841, Abraham Lincoln could not have imagined a leaderless, self-help, twelve-step model that has helped millions of people stay sober in the face of enormous social pressure to toast, make merry, and finally to binge. The great majority of us have no problem drinking in moderation, just as the great majority of us are able to pursue wealth without doing so in pathological and even sociopathic ways. The trick, it seems, it to rejigger ideas about property, about sharing and about abundance, in a world where scarcity is no longer the norm.

    In a recent post, Felix Salmon pointed out, "back in 1804, only 5% of the world was living on more than $2 a day... Today, that number is 4.7 billion, or 67% "

    It may be that our Post-Malthusian economies of innovation will not keep up with resource depletion and this will all be moot, but it may be that we are looking at a future where billions more people enjoy abundance - and that they will join the struggle to live in ways are healthy, not only personally (in terms of smoking and drinking) but socially as well (in terms of resource use and wealth distribution).