A serene sense of dread floods my mind when I peruse the garbage dumps of late capitalism: antique stores.
While many folks peruse the aisle and “booths” of a bygone era and admire the musty, dusty, smell, all I see is a bunch of old stuff that no one else wants…not even the owners of the stuff who rented the booths. Erstwhile, the joke is on us “shoppers” looking for ways to elevate the National PCE % (Personal Consumption Expenditure) amidst the rubble and refuse of old stuff, stuff not even the owners want to own any longer.
People, consumers, we wade through the refuse of people long gone, passed on to folks trying to peddle their garbage off on others, and we think how “cool” or how “rare” it would be to own this piece of no longer useful material. Perhaps we can purchase it, set it on the shelf, and admire that we are its new owners: new owners of garbage that will one day be someone else’s after we are gone.
This is the reality that has no given way to the myth, the latter no longer having a firm grip on my understanding of the former.
As a kid, I used to think that antique stores were places that contained deposits of value. Goods that were precious and items that were not to be touched by little fingers who could not consider their real price or worth. After all, the sign on the glass cabinet did say “DO NOT TOUCH.” Whatever was behind it must be obsolescently valuable. Furniture, books, pictures, photos, knives, coins, broaches, etc., are now defined as purposeful and worth the value on their tag because they are old and old means it transcends our present and also its own past. What used to be considered miniaturized monuments of bygone era are now the relics of my recent past: hello 1985.
Certainly not all “antiques” have just arrived at the antique label. Some really are “antiques,” memorials to a unique human story that all humans will leave.
My own antique fetish is books. I love old books, for their stories, their design, and their content that needs to be resurrected. But even as I love and appreciate old bindings and paper innards, permeated with evanescent ideas only the most stubborn will discover, I acknowledge this is a fetish and the left-over of the productive processes of our economic engine. For at the end of the day, when the world is replete with books, or things, or “nick nacks,” to what shall we turn them into that might be of value and redeem the castration of resources that had to occur for their very own production? As we are all on our journey toward a global Easter Island I wonder what it is we will do with all the things our hands have made when our hands desire to no longer make things and we have read all the books that are can read.
Such existential angst hits me even as I enter a strip mall just looking for “useful” “antique” décor to reside in my home. Perhaps I remain in denial that such thoughts will eventually only lead to nihilism or perhaps I have simply let nihilism take up permanent residence.
Walking through the antique store, moving vendor to vender, I came around the corner and discovered that those ugly plastic super hero thermoses that I used to use when I was 7 are now “antique” chemical composites of value. I’m thinking “seriously…people think someone else wants to buy this?”
The old NASCAR collectibles I purchased back in 1992, over 20 years ago, are now appearing on shelves beside Martha Washington sewing cabinets…time being the great equalizer. We know who we are by the company we keep and I suppose we know the value of our things by the things we store beside them. Sorry Martha.
I even saw the Tin Care Bear lunch box my kindergarten sweetheart used to carry to school is now one shelf below 160 year old blue Mason Jars that could have been used to can food for Robert E. Lee’s army.
Something just felt off.
Herein lays the refuse of capitalism…of production that was productive for a period and made things with purpose, yet now there is no repurposing of these things. All we can do is hope to sell them to someone who might place value upon them because society no longer values these things. These were produced for them; we will produce things for us. And what is not appropriated into the present is just refuse, garbage, resources that are now not so resourceful.
The World is our Garbage Dump because we have turned the world into our garbage.
Of course this is a coarse way to view the world and view productivity. We do not want to think of ourselves as wasteful or manipulative of resources. We do not want to think of our actions over the long arc of history, our communal human actions, as having a negative impact on the world. We don’t want to think that humans before us have simply amassed mountains of plastic, iron and glass that is now buried in the ground or left to live immortally in “antique” stores or warehouses where their “value” can be preserved by transient humans.
If we call it antique, it makes us feel better. Even what we produce today will one day be called antique; our consumptive needs justifying the productive ends of our irrational economic activity.
The leftovers become refuse and the refuse ends up being the old stuff we find in antique stores…the refuse explosion has only just begun I’m afraid.
Now, I am not a big Adam Smith fan. Regardless of how we appraise his work, my estimation is that Smith was not a modern day venture/vulture capitalist. He sincerely believed that markets, services, production, consumption, labor, etc., would occur as human sustenance demanded particular economic trajectories. I do not think he foresaw the wastefulness of mass production for the teleological purpose of profit at all costs, even at the cost of human community. The sheer scale of our global economy absolves Smith to a degree, even if logically his economics would lead to the unabated “invisible hand” that is now visibly manipulated by government and regulatory body’s.
Simply put: in our economy we make far more than we need and we think the world is the everlasting depository of that production. We isolate markets for niche products, produce them to the furthest exponent and then sell them to all those looking to fill the emotional needs no longer being filled by a community of other humans. We create desire by exacerbating the lack in others via our marketing. We know the lack is there, world religions have know the lack is there for millennia, so now the secular capitalist mantra is to take advantage of that lack and fill it with fetishes of various stripes that will satiate the desire of our hearts while also leaving us feeling emptier than before. This tension is felt by folks who “feel” like the lack they have will be satisfied in the act of consumption, so we produce and consume, produce and consume, produce and consume. It’s why capitalism is so brilliant; It preys on our inherent need.
But the stoking of human emotion is not the only seed of this futile and wasteful production.
The other is our inherent desire to be creative and productive creatures. We want to be able to survive but survive in meaningful ways. Many times this meaning is derived from what we are able to generate or produce. It provides us with a sense of worth and fulfillment, even if the consequences of our self-esteem could have national or globally negative consequences. We isolate needs, find resources that can fill those (or we even create the need and then give people the resources we say they need for that need), produce them and feel accomplished from the valueless paper (money) we receive in exchange for them. It’s a vicious cycle.
The problem with continuing to find our worth and value around our economic models, capitalism in particular, is that this cannot be sustained forever. It is a finite impossibility. We cannot continue to make refuse and chalk it up to human activity, leftovers, garbage.
First, the garbage has to have somewhere to go. The world can only sustain so many antique stores.
But secondly, and more importantly, for capitalism to work on its continued skewed trajectory, we face major obstacles of capital flow (and capital here can be the things that are refuse, garbage aka products or even current money looking for an investment home, etc.) Economic theory aside here’s the problem: capital only exists as it is able to flow and find new depositories and the places into which capital can flow are finite because the world is not infinite. In other words, capital has to keep flowing: newer markets, people, places, countries, ideas, needs, demands, etc., but as developing nations become developed and as the resources to meet those developments continually become tapped, we face a major obstacle: capital hits a dead end. It has nowhere else to go.
What happens when capital flow hits the Hoover Dam of economic expansion?
For example, David Harvey powerfully argues that measuring economic success and growth against annual GDP % is a huge mistaken. First, it is commonly held that 3% growth via GDP supports a healthy economy. 3% is an arbitrary % established whereby economists “know” that the world, and specific countries, are producing a particular level of goods being consumed or being brought to market. At 3%, it is deemed the economy is healthy and jobs are being produced. But the problem is that 3% never stays 3%. As the economy grows or expands that number becomes a compounded number, so that the real measure of growth is a compounded 3% year over year on the entire US economy! Which means that for our economy to “move” or be “healthy” we have to grow our economy year over year to roughly the size of the ENTIRE US economy in 1970 each year and even further! And that number just keeps getting bigger. For us to remain “healthy” politicians incite these numbers as if they are manageable, but the reality is this can only continue to compound so long as capital has a place to go, which is why invisible money was created. Invisible money, or money that doesn’t exist, allows capital to continually flow and consumption not immediately halt at the very unfortunate event of not having any actual money.
Thus, compounded production and consumption is actually encouraged via the capitalism at work in our present. For those apologists of capitalism that want to argue its virtues I concur there are several, but these virtues do not change the coming dawn of late capitalism wherein we find ourselves up against the creation of antique malls, ever growing landfills, entire islands in the ocean known as garbage island, and capital overextending itself into non-existence, it’s very life being its very eventual contradiction.
Slavoj Zizek, cultural theorist and critic of the both Left and Right political movements, summarized the inherent contradiction of capitalism and production in his essay “The Prospects of Radical Politics Today.” Writing on capitalism, its productive nature and critiquing Karl Marx he says the following:
“What Marx overlooked is that, to put it in the standard Derridean terms, this inherent obstacle/antagonism as the “condition of impossibility” of the full deployment of the productive forces [of capitalism] is simultaneously its “condition of possibility”: if we abolish the obstacle, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, we do not get the fully unleashed drive to productivity finally delivered of its impediment, but we lose precisely this productivity that seemed to be generated and simultaneously thwarted by capitalism – if we take away the obstacle, the very potential thwarted by this obstacle dissipates … Therein would reside a possible Lacanian critique of Marx, focusing on the ambiguous overlapping between surplus-value and surplus-enjoyment. (It is often said that the ultimate products of capitalism are piles of trash – useless computers, cars, TVs, and VCRs : places like the famous “graveyard” of hundreds of abandoned planes in the Mojave desert confront us with the obverse truth of capitalist dynamics, its inert objectal remainder. And it is against this background that one should read the ecological dream-notion of total recycling – in which every remainder is used again – as the ultimate capitalist dream, even if it is couched in the terms of retaining the natural balance on Planet Earth: the dream of the self-propelling circulation of capital which would succeed in leaving behind no material residue – the proof of how capitalism can appropriate ideologies which seem to oppose it.)
What Zizek touches on here is that there is no way around the remainder of capitalism. If we challenge capitalism at its core as a productive force (the very thing about it that is good) then we cease to have capitalism in its raw form and productivity ad infinitum. Precisely because it is impossible for capitalism to produce enough is why it continues to produce what is possible: it’s own limits being its own drive and failure. This is where Zizek says Marx missed it: take away the productive drive and the demon you are attempting to exorcise ceases to exist and so too does any economic will. The notions of surplus value in things and surplus enjoyment have to go hand in hand via production and consumption because desire always creates abject remainder…and if there is a Lacanian dictum it is thus: Desire is Real.
But the negative consequences of the impossible possibility is refuse and production unabated and continual. Heaps of garbage that we absolve as antiques or recast into a narrative of continual repurpose wherein all things are recycled and nothing is lost or damaged: The capitalist dream.
The only question is: as you drive by rising man made mountains along interstates and you see your own closets…as you incarnate the 4.6lbs of trash you produce as a human each day and you realize that there are 8 Billion people on the planet doing the same…you have to ask yourself…can we afford to continue to have this dream or should we start dreaming something else for the sake of posterity?
Because one day we will all be forced to wake up.