Elders of middle and lower middle classes in a state of wistfulness reminisce about the past, not distant, whenever they are confronted with a situation which is perplexingly complex or difficult to cope with in their present-day life. Each passing day adds to their alienation triggered by impersonal processes of modern life that promote and nurture individualism.
Good old days, they sigh, were good because things were simple, people were caring and happier. The lamented absence of simplicity, community instinct and happiness in their lives seems to point to a correct diagnostic assessment. An underlying cause for this change is the emergence of consumerism born of capitalist market that has been with us for quite some time. A change worth the name is rarely seamless or frictionless. It may solve some of the issues faced previously but in no way guarantees that it will not be accompanied by fresh ones.
No human situation born of status quo or change can be free of problem. With a change the nature and scope of problems may change. The change in the present context successfully addressed the perennial problem of scarcity that haunted the folks for ages and is not taken into account by the older generation in the habit of relishing memories of the past.
Some decades back, life of a middle and lower middle class family wasn’t much different from that of working class in terms of material possession and lacked even basic amenities. Food was simple but hard to get as the family had meagre resources. Meat was a rarity. Whenever family had it, it was soup rather than a solid meat dish. The family of six, for example, wouldn’t afford to buy more than half a kilo mutton in a fortnight. Bakery products were unheard of. Dining out was declared akin to sin. A person would have no more than two three dresses. A woman with three pairs of shoes would look fashionable. A family owning a bicycle would be envy of many a men. A middle class family in a financial emergency would be almost indigent. Market forces unleashed by capitalism created new openings and dragged these classes out of what in current terms is conceived unmistakable poverty. Their standard of living in all aspects has visibly improved as empirical date irrefutably confirms. But it would be misleading to equate poverty with unhappiness. Cribbing and grumbling of older generation bears testimony to the veracity of the assertion that there is no direct equation between poverty and unhappiness or between affluence and happiness. Poverty and ensuing sense of deprivation was made bearable by what the previous set-up amply offered; an overarching presence of extended family/ clan and community instinct which put premium on sharing especially in difficult times.
Such a structure was created by concrete conditions of production and distribution that existed in those times.
Pre-machine or partly machine based mode of production generally produced less than what was needed and thus encouraged under-consumption which lead to poverty and misery. Community instinct with sharing as its core component was rightly raised to the level of a social and moral value which helped regulate underproduction.
In other words, base was the concrete conditions related with production on which the superstructure of community values and happiness was erected. If production was scarce the sharing was the way to assuage its biting and grinding effects. Human beings can be happy even with less if it’s shared. Realm of necessity is not that incomprehensible.
In our evolution we have moved from less to more and our sharing has not only ensured our survival as species but also has sustained us in our upward journey against all the odds.
Our life as a result of fast changes during the last few decades has become quite different from what it was. It’s no longer sedate, staid and inclined to inwardness. It’s fast-paced and turbulent in the face of an unprecedented show of ephemerality; things tangible and intangible appear and disappear in an indescribably fast succession. Transformed situation promotes its new agenda which comprises surplus production, conspicuous consumption and atomized individual. Surplus production needs not just consumption but conspicuous one. Such consumption needs individual, not the old one of sharing type but new one of consuming variety. Now the emphasis is primarily on what you consume but not on what you need. Social success of an individual now depends on what he consumes, not on what helps him to attain self-fulfillment. In order to achieve the social ideal of conspicuous consumption an individual has to be convinced of two things; he is for himself and a consumptive lifestyle is the highmark of social achievement. Now convinced of this he has to gear up to create resources as, to repeat the cliché, there is no free lunch in a capitalist society. It means to work relentlessly and tirelessly.
Cycle of work alienates the individual and negates his self-objectification. Act of consumption disconnects him from others and creates an aura of vacuous estrangement which causes anxiety and nervous tension. Activities of such an individual, alienated as they are, boosts the process of overall alienation affecting all he is forced to interact with. Happiness, the declared objective of consumption, proves illusionary as it’s confused with pleasure. Capitalism can surely boast of its achievement as a system that has raised the standard of living of certain sizable segments of the population. But it has so far failed to produce individual who in his effort to realise his potential enriches himself by enriching others in mutually fulfilling reciprocity.
Oldies, it looks, will go down lamenting a lost way of life that is irretrievable. Contemporary society will find the solutions of the problems it’s confronted within due course and discover its own way to happiness. The irony is that humans need work as much as happiness. Work at the moment is the opposite of happiness. The ideal, if ever realised, would be that we as a species make our work a source of happiness for ourselves and others. And this will only happen when concrete measures are taken to rid our work of its exploitative dimension. — email@example.com
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2020