Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

It is Thanksgiving day. After preparing some of the food to be cooked this afternoon, we took our dogs for a long walk in the words to the west of here. The woods are crisscrossed by stone walls; 100 or even 50 years ago what is now dense forest must have been open farmland. It connects us to the rural past that we remember on Thanksgiving Day when we are grateful for ample harvests and granaries filled for the coming wint

 We also remember the proud self-government our farmer ancestors imposed on themselves. They were free to run their farms as they thought best and together with their neighbors they took care of roads and schools and sent their representatives off to the state capital and to Washington DC to speak for them.

This is a gentle day. The few people we meet in the words wish us a happy Thanksgiving and peace and we answer with the same wishes. The world is content and strangers smiled at each other.

But overnight everything changes. On the next day the contentment is replaced by greedy needs and desires. We need more things; we need to buy them as cheaply as possible. From being glad with what we have accomplished and what we have, we are now dissatisfied, greedy for more possessions, for new technologies. Where yesterday our hearts were calm and content, today we are dissatisfied, satisfaction is not within reach and we need to incur serious debts in order to fill the gaping holes in our hearts. We have returned from the slightly nostalgic reaching back to our farming past. Today we are city people, rushed, dissatisfied, envious, competitive as we push ahead of others in the line to be first to spend our hard-earned money.

We usually describe such orgies of buying as symptoms of American consumerism. Individuals are being blamed for being avid consumers. If they just chose to stay home on black Friday everything would be okay. But that is a shallow way of considering the change that happens from Thursday to Friday.

The fantastic change we undergo overnight reminds us of the different kinds of people we Americans are. We are anchored in the virtues of country life and self-determination for a century or more (as well as in the racist and sexist vices of that older America). But we live today in a world that is very different, that makes a virtue of being dissatisfied. Everyone and everything must grow. No business is ever big enough. No rich person is ever rich enough. No powerful person can abide contented with their power; they must get more.

Growth, improvement, winning competitions, being the best, the most powerful, the loudest, the best-known are now compelling goals. Persons content with their lot, who are not striving to improve their condition, to find a better job, to buy a bigger house – such persons are lacking in ambition. It is no longer clear that they are good Americans.

Can we regain some of that earlier calm. Can we once again be content with what we have instead of needing more, more, more all the time?

This a very large question. The answers we have are only partial. Here is just one among many:

The imperative for business growth encourages companies to make their employees more and more productive. When you do the same thing over and over, you become very good at it and can work very fast and be very productive. But your job is not challenging, instead, it becomes really boring.

Seeking growth in every way possible, our employers make work really unpleasant. There is, then, some solace in buying new things when workdays are repetitive and tedious. Working in hierarchical and authoritarian settings, choosing what new things to buy can feel like an assertion of autonomy and freedom. The orgies of consumption become more attractive to people whose work life is unhappy and repetitive.

The tremendous technical ingenuity of many of our businesses should
not be devoted to making more money for stockholders but for automating tedious work and making work creative and challenging. Their job should leave people satisfied at the end of the day instead of leaving them feeling empty.