The dinner party began against a backdrop of blue skies and blooming jasmine. It was a typical June day in Berkeley. The studio apartment was light and airy, but small, so they seated themselves in a circle – some on cushions scattered around the immaculate floor, others on mismatched chairs, all reasonably comfortable. The well-nourished students passed a plate of Gouda with sun-dried tomato bread and they made pleasantries: inquiring after the progress of each others’ graduate work, summer language courses in Greek and French and mentor relationships with their celebrated professors. Here assembled a sample of this nation’s intellectual elite, products of the best schools, pupils of the greatest thinkers, torchbearers of refined leftist, deconstructionist critique.
Following the mores of good society, each spoke to their immediate neighbor. Seeking common ground for idle chat, topics drifted from popular culture to academia and from Craigslist to vegan food – pairs sought opportunities to laugh and smile, to share wit and be happy, to revel in their cultural ascent and to act, for a moment, as if the future were bright and life were good. But it was a charade.
If only this dinner had taken place in a previous generation, before the failure of consumerist ideology and the imminent threat of ecological collapse cast their shadow across atavistic bourgeois enjoyment … then, perhaps, the conversation would have stayed plain and the imagined comfort of the room unbroken. But the repression depleted their psychic energy, and the gestures of merriment felt strained. As the group proceeded into the kitchen for the second course, a few empathic ones saw in their mind’s eye that the once clean floor was sticky with black tar and faintly heard th struggling, moaning cries of a pelican drowning in crude oil. The cordial game started to unravel.
BP’s gushing oil may have been a mile under the sea and thousands of miles away from their sunny bay, but the image of an abyss spewing fuel pounded at their minds. They carried it with them, and although their subconscious sprayed dispersant, existential questions laid siege to the shores of their mindscape. That their children might never know seafood … that the next act of corporate, industrial ecocide may be even worse … these thoughts devalued their ivory tower pursuits and forced a confrontation between nihilism and revolution. As anxieties bubbled to the surface, a debate broke out.
The first to speak offered a critique of consumerism. He spoke strongly of consumerism’s failure to offer life-affirming values and cautioned that the complacency of the left – progressivism’s endorsement of a weak libertinism in line with consumerist ideology on the one hand and an anarchism lowered to hedonism that refused to limit individual false desires on the other – was making eco-fascists like Pentti Linkola seem appealing. At least, he argued, the eco-fascists are taking the situation seriously enough to propose a complete destruction of the prevailing corporatist social order. And while their endorsement of authoritarian leadership may be distasteful, without a compelling response from the environmentalist left, there didn’t seem to be an alternative. While some nodded in agreement, others were aghast.
Two leftists went on the attack.
The first waged war on the idea of an environment that needs protection. She deconstructed the concept of nature and, relying on a school of literary theory known as ecocriticism, she intimated that a colonial ideology of white male supremacy underpins notions of protecting the Earth. Then, adopting the perspective of Third World environmentalists who decry the ban on DDT imposed by European environmentalists because the spray could prevent the spread of malaria, she called her nonwhite interlocutor to account for his imperialist ideology that would insist on limiting the development of the less developed nations. She ended with a declaration that everyone deserves to reach the level of the middle-class American so that they can choose for themselves whether to decrease their consumption.
The second approached from the flank. Acting as if he had never heard a critique of consumerism before in his life, which is sadly a distinct possibility, he demanded a concise definition of consumerism – which he insisted did not exist.
“Consumerism is the belief that money can buy everything worthwhile. Whereas I believe that money can purchase nothing of value,” responded the revolutionary. This neutralized the flabbergasted leftist who was unable to formulate a coherent rebuttal. And as people started to quietly leave the room, the three debaters realized their discussion had soured the air. They were there to consume, after all, and critiques of consumerism did not digest well on a full belly.
And so the discussion came to a close, the final words provided by the leftist deconstructionist who insisted that she was anticapitalist but believed that resistance can be accomplished only through consumption. “There are many people denied access to the marketplace: disabled people, fat people and queer people, for instance. What is truly revolutionary is for these people to subvert consumerism by buying the ‘wrong’ things. Blurring the boundaries, fighting back by finding their identities in consumerism, but not where the marketers would like … that is radical.”
And with that, nihilism had won by majority vote and the bankruptcy of leftism was plain for all to see.
Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley and is writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org