alienation, bread, gasoline, air conditioning

Marx wrote about alienation, as a way to explain how workers were alienated from the work they do, as the factory system devalued craft and skill and turned workers into tools — easily replaceable and limited in function. Workers should, within reason, be able to buy the things they make or at the very least value their work as if they were responsible for the effects of it. How many people work making things whose purpose and function they disagree with? Social media, advertising delivery systems, and high-frequency trading systems often recruit some of the brightest graduates, who could be working in medical research or education or other more valuable work but the pay differentials make it hard to resist the less meaningful jobs they accept. How many people go to work in those fields to earn enough to do what they really want with their lives and how much of their lives do they spend getting to that point?

On a recent trip, I saw a bumper sticker message that stayed with me…”We miss Trump at the gas pump.” How do you unpack that? Do people really think the POTUS has that much control over the price of gas at the pump? Sure, they can pursue policies that could lower the price of gas but there is no direct link. Under Obama, the USA became the number one oil producer in the world but I don’t recall any Venezuela or Saudi Arabia gas prices.

But why gas? Why not bread as in other times? Bread riots are not a historical footnote. We hear about food shortages, food deserts, food pantries, all kinds of inequalities related to food but by and large, food is abundant in the USA and much of the developed world: the distribution of it through markets is the issue. The fact that people are more concerned about the price of gasoline and the perceived loss of security that high gas prices could cause than about food, the shortage of which might create a situation they might need to flee, seems to be a kind of alienation. They are estranged from the common reality and choose to live in their own self-reinforcing reality.

So what does gas represent to those people who miss the world their leader created for them? One could argue it represents freedom or independence…but from what? What power does it grant? It offers the power of movement, to avoid having to adapt or work or live with people they don’t want to. Coupled with ruinous land use policy that allows speculators to pocket the unearned value of land and transportation policy that favors cars over people, you end up with white flight, with voluntary segregation…but not where people are forced to move. They move willingly, leaving little of value behind but location…which cities fail to value properly. Built-out, heterogenous/diverse urban streetscapes are devalued and abandoned, replaced by new car-dependent suburbs or new towns. And the cycle of gentrification repeats.

This is another form of alienation, from society and their fellow citizens, where they don’t recognize their commonality, and as a result they turn inward, absorbing self-curated news and information from social media or the narrowly-defined media providers that reinforce their beliefs. They have become alienated from the consequences of the choices they make, as a result of not seeing themselves as part of a society. Recent events reject that idea.

A lot of this comes from Adam Curtis’s video documentary series, the Century of the Self, Hypernormalization, and Can’t get You Out of My Head. He explores and explains the changes in society over the 20th century as people in the developed world have been turned away from the feeling part of a society and into more individualistic thinking, disconnected from shared purpose, even as they share work spaces, schools, and the responsibilities of civic life. But as we see all too often, people value their rights more than they accept their responsibilities. Rights without responsibilities are entitlements or privileges, unearned carveouts of the commons.

So what does this have to do with land, which seems to the dominant theme here? Land is the physical manifestation of the commons, and much of the foregoing touches on the break between private and public goods, including two different UK prime ministers — from the same party — denying the existence of society and then, 40 years later, affirming it.

I see this split between individualism and society everywhere it seems, right down to our recent heat wave, where so many people feel compelled to buy air conditioning, ignoring that air conditioning is part of what the reason for the heat wave — the increased demand for energy that will be met by fossil fuels, which drives a greater need for A/C and so on and so forth. And now, two days after the heat wave, the temperatures are normal, but once people install A/C, they will turn it on in June and leave it on until September, closing off the world. We seem to have lost the ability to share any kind of sacrifice, if there is any way to buy our way out of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *