It’s not a new thought that hit me while I was working on the Consequences of Capitalism Quiz, but the nature of it probably hit me harder and more profoundly than similar realizations in the past. We live in a society whose fundamental problem appears to be the belief in growth – not just as a possibility or an aspiration, but as an absolute fundamental baseline taken-for-granted necessity. The assumptive reality pervading everything about the United States of America and especially its economic reality is that everything will continue to grow, ever upwards, become ever more efficient and profitable, forever. In short, it gets better.
And while a decent amount of empirical evidence from the twentieth century seemed to affirm this belief structure, the very logic of the notion is completely fallacious. The nature of reality is not to grow infinitely. The only thing that grows endlessly with such abandon in the natural world is cancer. Adapting, perhaps, living in harmony with ones environs, adjusting to the nature of life, possibly. But simply growing and growing for the mere sake of growth, of taking up more space and resources and demand? This is probably the opposite of what we ought be advocating as a collection of people.
The ability of America to get away with this unchecked growth for the latter part of the twentieth century and brief slices of time prior is the result, almost entirely, of hidden exploitation. In the early colonial and expansionist days of the United States, of course, it was exploitation of racial minorities, primarily enslaved Africans and genocided Native Americans. When we ran out of local peoples we felt comfortable oppressing to death, we started exporting, using the Cold War as an excuse to strip-mine the rest of the world, both literally and figuratively, lining the pockets of ever more powerful American corporations while the resources and labor of foreign people were drained. We called it American ingenuity and patted ourselves on the back for how much richer and more powerful we were becoming by the alleged sweat of our brow. By the early part of this century, we’d started ramping up exploitation of our own labor force as well, ever spiraling wealth disparities while creating engines of debt and advertising to ensure that most people would feel wealthier while functionally inching closer to enslavement.
Despite my ability to rant on about the political situation we find ourselves mired in, I’m actually more interested in the personal and emotional impacts of this phenomenon in today’s meditation. Remarkably, they strike me as both directly correspondent and possibly even more pernicious in their overall toll on individuals raised in America. And it is this outgrowth of the belief in eternal growth that I find to be most cancerous, most malignant, most in need of swift and holistic surgical removal. We need a chemotherapy of the soul, something to bring us to the brink of our own mortality if only to see how brokenly we’ve lived.
The issue here is that people are raised in the United States to believe their lives will always get better. That time itself is a magical healing property, that merely by existing over the course of days, one’s lot will improve, one’s fortune will be benefited, one’s ship will come in. It goes well beyond mere hope, for hope is humble and patient, biding its time while American expectation zooms past in a red sports car, laughing maniacally as the wind whips its hair in a million directions. The expectation becomes a birthright, an entitlement, not even a demand, for demand implies the possibility of rejection or resistance. It is simply known that things will get better.
Of course, life pays little heed to the American self-image and its egotistical entitlements. Life, inevitably, doesn’t always get better. People may learn or change over time, but often for the worse, the more cynical, the more deprived. They lose jobs, they lose houses, they lose marriages. They make mistakes. People they love die. The myriad mundane experiences that philosophers and novelists have put in perspective for millennia worth of human beings take their toll on the human souls, yet only in America do we seem to bear it with such profoundly little grace, such massive resort to drugs and despair. This is not to pick on America, entirely, as I am wont to do, for increasingly little of the world bears such losses with dignity or perspective. But this nation, as with most phenomena of the last half-century, appears something of an epicenter, a ground zero from which the ripples of expectation and greed and self-delusion ripple out as we infect the rest of the world with our brand of capitalism and neo-neo-imperialism.
The question becomes why? Why is America this bastion of disappointment, of flight to distraction in the form of quick-hitting media or fast-acting painkillers? What makes us so different that we cannot handle the bends in the road?
I believe it’s because we don’t see them coming. We’re told they won’t come, because the passage of time is supposed to, somehow, inevitably, make things better. And worse than just making our reactions to our unhappiness more extreme, I think it’s actually the cause of most of that unhappiness.
Take a marriage, for example (shocking that I’d start here, I know). If one has the expectation of eternal growth and improvement, it becomes all too easy to become dissatisfied with the course of that marriage. There is not the mere push to smooth out problems and challenge one’s partner to betterment, there is the God-given mandated right to eternal improvement, because that’s the nature of time. Every year should not be a mere marker of stable positive time logged, it must demonstrate tangible growth over time. And subjecting any person, any situation, any element of existence, to that kind of expectation is going to take a toll. Any shortcoming can be compared against the ever-upward stock-market curve of fabled expectation, leading to foot-tapping impatience at how one could tolerate a year when things were the same, even if that sameness was still very good. It doesn’t take long before one imagines that everyone else is growing and one is somehow stuck in unnecessary stagnation, and it’s time to take drastic action to correct one’s disappointing circumstances.
Even more importantly, that same situation is taxed by a lack of appreciation for the present. The very nature of a constantly-improving future is to belittle or undermine whatever values are banked for the time being. The evidentiary documentation of advertising and corporations’ role in dissatisfying people with their present circumstances is too legion and vast to even reference – it is as trivial as observing that people need oxygen to breathe. And yet other, deeper elements of our societal structure serve the same function. Profits must not only exist, they must be ever increasing. Success must not merely be maintained, it must be heightened. This kind of pressure on ever better futures mean that whatever happens in the future doesn’t end up even mattering as much, because we never reach it. When the future is always better, the present it always worse, whether that future actually is better or not. And thus we do not appreciate whatever we have or have been given. Doubly so because everything we gain, if it actually is better than the past, was expected and promised from the get-go. The only surprises are bad ones, never good. And in that, we undermine any tokens of joy we could hope to get during life as we actually live it.
An alternative structure to both society and our lives might be better focused on the nature of life as cyclical, as changing but perhaps not improving. It is a fine line between this and hopelessness, a line that must be guarded carefully and walked closely. Saying that things will not necessarily improve, however, is not to say that they cannot. It is merely to observe the blindingly obvious reality that things do not always get better for all people at all times. Have you ever seen an old homeless person? Have you ever seen someone suffer a loss they could not endure? Have you ever seen someone undergo an injury or a disease and never fully recover? These are daily mundane proofs of the fact that one’s life is not destined to always spiral upward in some magic escalator of rapture. And yet most people persist in the constant belief that they are mandated to ride such an escalator, forever.
Adjusting to the reality, internalizing it, sharing it with others, teaching one’s children: all of this would seem to lead to a more harmonious understanding with our fellow people and the actual circumstances we seem to face on this planet. It would make losses easier to stomach, not adding the trauma of being wrenched from expectations to the already devastating loss endured. It would make happiness more pervasive, more appreciated, less belittled in the face of greater happiness to come. It would allow people to be satisfied with less while still striving to seek improvement and truly valuing whatever they were actually able to improve. It would reduce exploitation, of ourselves, each other, foreign nations, the environment.
It’s time to be anti-growth. It’s time to understand that life is not a linear straight-line pointed upwards, but another game we all played as children: Chutes and Ladders. But no one ever wins. And you know what? That’s okay. Life shouldn’t be about winning and losing. Life should be about being happy to be on square 55 because of whatever’s valuable about that square.
It’s probably too late for my generation in this country, though we can make strides to try to undo a century’s worth of work before us. But some of you have a role in raising the next generation and I urge you to take heed.