Stirring the Mind into Thought

In today’s “democratic” society, we rest on the ideal of individualism and freedom. We are supposed to have the freedom to vote, freedom to buy (as consumers), and freedom to choose, all of which are own personal, individual choices with no influence by or reliance on others. However, that is where the major contradiction in our society lies. Although we claim to be individualistic and have freedom, we do not realize that we are extremely dependent on others for our livelihoods and that only have freedom from traditional and formal institutional structures, but not other freedoms, such as psychological freedom, social and cultural freedom, enfranchisement and self-determination. The ideals that we live under lets us be indifferent to the suffering that our type of society causes others and ourselves and as a result we feel less accountable to it. Both Berger and Derber discuss the contradictions of individualism and the “bi-polar” nature of freedom through publicity and “corpocracy,” respectively, and how it affects us socially, politically and economically.

In “Ways of Seeing,” Berger describes how publicity is related to ideas of freedom, which are the freedom of choice of the purchaser (buyer) and the freedom of enterprise for the manufacturer. While we do have choices to an extent, to choose between this product and that product, our choices are limited (to mostly mainstream, monopolistic products) and our choices are basically aimed for one choice – to buy or not to buy. As consumers, businesses and economists tell us that we have the power and we determine what is sold. However, that is not entirely true. Corporations present us with the products that they want us to buy through publicity, we buy these products and become poorer in the process (giving corporations more power over us, since we work for money and basically give the money back to them), and they also make us feel inadequate if we do not buy these products. Publicity always appeals to the future buyer and so, no matter how much we buy, we will never be satisfied. All of this produces low self-esteem and self-consciousness as people, putting us in a psychological box of needing stuff to fulfill our need to be appreciated by others because we feel alone in our individualistic society. It more like the products and corporations have power over us, not the other way around. By buying so much stuff, we are being envied. It only gives us the façade of power; the sense that we are in an exclusive club that only people who can afford it can be in and having the looks of envy that we depend on to feel like we are somebody.

Berger also states how publicity uses references to works of art of the past. The art reference is a sign of wealth and cultural superiority, which also creates a sense of excludability. However, as our society claims individuality, publicity depends on works of art from the past to prove credibility. Once again it prove that there is nothing new or original, which is a characteristic of being individual, but instead is a characteristic of something that is traditional or classic. In addition to that, we lack the knowledge to know the references of these ads. We are not forced to be accountable to know the entire history or context behind them. They are meaningless to us and we then take it for granted and see it as original ideas, perpetuating the individualistic ideas of our society. Another lack of accountability is the indifference we feel to events that happen in the world to strangers because publicity is “eventless.” Since the images essentially mean nothing, anything that is real that it is based on means nothing too.

Last, Berger states how publicity allows us to substitute democracy for consumption. The choice of products takes the place of political choices. It covers and makes up for all that is unfair in our society. It also disconnects us from others because we see them as a means to an end (capital, products) or products themselves. This makes it more difficult to form political activist groups that can combat huge corporations that are gaining more political control and are less accountable to the people. The subtle changes that publicity created in our culture lead to the larger worldwide problems discussed in Derber’s article.

Derber’s “One World Under Business” describes how democratic ideals are used to spread capitalism across the world, which he calls “corpocracy.” The article expands on the issues of individualism and freedom discussed in Berger’s article to a bigger picture of government and global corporations. He says how “in a robust democracy, there is a firewall between government and business. The firewall ensures that people rather than business control the government and make the rules” (Derber, 429). However, in our democracy, government’s interest lies in protecting profits, while corporations use the language of social responsibility to mask their undemocratic actions. Corporate elites are part of that exclusive club that we envy. Just as we substitute democracy for consumption to mask all that is undemocratic in society (Berger), corporations do it in reverse by using democratic language instead of profit-maximizing language to mask undemocratic behavior. Also, countries with very low GDP have no choice but to trade their political power for economic growth and as Friedman said, “your political choices…get reduced to Pepsi and Coke” (Derber, 433). We have less political power and corporations have more political power and in order for us to accept that, we hold onto having economic power or democracy (which we do not really have) and corporations claim to show social accountability. This allows corporation to define their own rules, such as making free trade interchangeable with deregulation, which does not help poorer countries grow, but makes them weaker. Also, these large corporations become huge moneymaking monopolies, just as the mainstream products we have within our country.

Furthermore, just as consumers, corporations through free market and individualistic ideas do not feel accountable to the people that they depend on – their workers and the peripheral countries they rely on for raw materials (also, additional workers and consumers). Derber described this as uncoupling, which is when the corporation removes itself from the interest of the nation or citizens of a nation. They claim equal loyalty to all nations, once again cushioning it in democratic language. Also, it forces developing nations to be entrapped further in the corporation world and transfer their political power into power as a consumer, resulting in governments who are not able to be accountable to their own people because they are restricted by corporations and global financial market institutions (IMF, WTO, etc.). Through the abuses of the poorer people in these developing countries, the powers we have in our own countries are undermined.

Although corporations would like for us to believe that we have an economic democracy or economic choices, we do not because we cannot regulate our own economic system that basically tells us what we want. As Derber says, “Real democracy is one person, one vote. One dollar, one vote, is the logic of the market, but it is opposite of the equal representation of all citizens that democracy is about. As a sovereign principle, one dollar, one vote, is inherently undemocratic, and it ensures a growing gap between rich and poor because it gives the rich far more political representation” (Derber, 439). These rich corporations have a lot more money than most of us and in result have a lot more political and social say in our “market democracy.” Also, in this “market democracy,” those who do not have any money have no a say at all. Countries look at our society as “The Free World” because the lack the economies and capital to buy all the stuff we have (the ability to choose products). For example, from Derber’s article, the boy in Africa who did not have shoes but had the Nike swoosh label scratched into his foot. In our society, with the poor and now even the middle-class, it is becoming more difficult to buy the necessities we need, even though we can see the things we would like to have through advertising. More and more, people have to choose between food, shelter, medication, health insurance and other needs. Still, corporations do not care as long as the consumers buy their products and consumers still try to buy it, even if they do not have the money for it (get loans, credit cards, etc.). In the end, corporations get their money and often more money than the products were actually worth.

Our individualistic society also reinforces racism and sexism by “blaming the victim.” Without the traditional and formal structures from the past, the victims of racism and sexism cannot clearly point that those in power are discriminating against them. So, the power elite can say that it is that the individuals’ fault why they are in the situation they are in and not a social structural problem that keeps them from getting ahead. Color-blind racism and “sexless” sexism exist because of the removal of the formal barriers and allows power elites to claim “reverse discrimination.” Globally, this has affected developing nations, which are often non-European countries that were colonized in the past. Unfair economic practices are put upon these nations, such as lowering tariffs and taking down “trade borders,” in order to create “a leveled playing field” for trade, but it only benefits wealthy European and American corporations. The core countries do not take into consideration that the developing countries’ infrastructure is very weak and “leveling” their trade makes it easier for the corporations, who already have more economic and political power. Core countries (and corporations) and developing countries were never on an equal playing field and it takes more for these countries to be on the same platform as the corporations. Still, they say it is the countries’ fault why their economies and governments are not stable. “Market democracy” allows those with more money (usually white males) to use their money to influence government to makes policies that indirectly harm non-whites and females.

Fromm’s “The Two Aspects of Freedom for Modern Man” analyzes the idea that freedom has two meanings: “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Both Derber and Berger reflect on the ideas from Fromm’s article in their own articles. “Freedom from” is the freedom from traditional bonds and structures, which gave people the new feeling of individualism and independence. But the individual did not get “freedom to,” which is psychological and informal social (personality) freedoms. Although he is “independent, self-reliant and critical,” the individual feels “alone and isolated, filled…with doubt and anxiety,” and does not feel as if he has control of his own life due to “inner restraints and compulsions” (Fromm, 105). It is a new type of submission with new dependencies that are harder to recognize and solve. It is hard to recognize because we are fixed on the “old forms of authority and restrain” (which is why color-blind racism and “sexless” sexism works). Today, we lack “freedom to,” such as freedom to have our own opinions (we are either influenced by public opinion or our opinions are considered deviant), freedom to have faith and not just scientific belief, freedom to not conform or be self-conscious, freedom to not fear being different, and freedom to be ourselves. As Fromm said we need the freedom that “enables us to realize our own individual self, to have faith in this self and in life.” Not having certain freedoms, like freedom to know that we are somebody, to know that we are not alone, that there are others who go through similar situations as us, and to know we are all dependent on each other creates the feelings of insignificance and powerlessness (i.e., my vote or my opinion does not matter; I am only one person). Also, “freedom from” created a disconnection from historical contexts as we try to not acknowledge that certain events happened and still have an impact on us (some people believe that slavery and the Holocaust do not impact our society anymore, but they still are having residual effects). “Freedom from” created a disconnection from oneself, others and history (it never happened before me) and thus created a weak individual who feels insecure, alone and isolated. As a result, within the capitalistic system, we easily feel the need to create capital and buy products, or we feel like we are nothing. We become servants who need to continuously work to make capital, and helping others or doing what you love is seen as an unproductive purpose. By removing that support system through “freedom from,” people today lack the strength to create political, social and economic change that would be available with “freedom to.”

June 4th, 2009 at 9:36 AM and tagged , ,

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