Monday, October 27, 2008

Empty Dreams, Manufactured Aspirations, Marketing Poverty: the Positives of Poor

By standard American middle-class measures I am poor. This is due to several reasons, including stupidity, contrariness and choices like wanting to write stuff which has no market/can't be sold. I stipulate this because I'm going to peer into some very uncomfortable niches of American culture, and I don't want you to think I have escaped the Matrix of Manufactured Aspirations. I chose "writer," which includes, as a matter of both pride and necessity, a vow of poverty.

That way, we get to look down on those writers who somehow manage to make millions of dollars--ha, they sold out. Meanwhile, of course, beneath our coarse envy, we wish with all our little creative heart that we too could bag that fat film deal and buy a house cash like those few undeserving scribblers who have "made it."

One key tenet of Manufactured Aspirations is that being poor is a fate worse than death, a shameful failure which you should cloak at all costs with the simulacrum of wealth.

The second key tenet is that to escape this shame you need only enter the golden gates of the Empire of Debt.

The third key tenet is that your identity is constructed entirely out of your physical possessions, your appearance and your status within one of the Manufactured Aspirations/Empty Dreams tribes. You might aspire to be an "artist" in which case you are drawn to wearing black clothing and getting tattoos; or you might aspire to "superior knowledge" and have multiple degrees; or you might aspire to plain-vanilla "Corporate America elitism" with fripperies like expense accounts and a title which includes the magic words "vice-president." (Second vice-president is OK; it just has to include those magic words somewhere.)

If you were foolish enough to be mesmerized by the romance and allure of "writer," then you need to amass bylines and eventually, a book contract with a legitimate publisher. Then you are a "real writer." (Heh.) But through some magic which was hidden when you signed on to the Manufactured Aspiration, you reach the Dream only to find it is empty.

You discover you have accepted penury within a teeming mass of aspirants, the vast majority of whom work for cruelly low wages in what is essentially a vast, diffused sweatshop for dreamy over-educated types who rejected Corporate America, the Nannie State and even the Black-Clothed Artist tribes.

Lest you think this exaggeration, please read my semi-tragic, semi-humorous account Dear Aspiring Writer: The Worst Advice You'll Ever Read.

We now come to the fourth and most pernicious tenet: that even as you surrender your identity to a Manufactured Aspiration, you will stoutly believe you are an Individual (capital "I") making a decision in your own self-interest via Free Will (trademark held by the estate of I. Kant).

This illusion finds all sorts of refuges within our own self-conceptions. I once asked a self-described "ecologically minded" baby-boomer foot soldier in Corporate America why she drove a Bronco instead of a compact and she blurted, "But I was one of the first."

In other words, if you are an "Early Adopter" (tm) then all ecological "sins" are excused. The patent ludicrousness of such self-delusion is epitomized by the academic household's two Volvos which are left unwashed (and neatly labeled with liberal bumper stickers) to express their disdain for "corporate" artifice and superficiality. Meanwhile, we wonder: why not own an American sedan, then? No way, Baby. The Manufactured Aspiration of "Academic" requires ownership of carefully selected trophies. A Mercedes is too crass and corporate, an American car too declasse, a Lexus too social-climbing; no, it's a Prius/Volvo in the driveway because "we care about our dear child's safety and ecology."

(Meanwhile, the vast majority of "Japanese" cars are manufactured by Americans in the U.S., using parts made by U.S. suppliers. So what constitutes an "American car?" Corporate ownership, or how many Americans are drawing a wage from its manufacture?)

Never mind a used Crown Victoria is about as safe as a Volvo and much more ecological because it's already here and doesn't require thousands of gallons of petroleum to be burned in its manufacture; they bought the script when they bought into the Manufactured Aspiration of Academia and they're following it to perfection.

The blue-collar equivalent is the American-made SUV and pickup with a gunrack. Regardless of which tribe of Manufactured Aspiration you bought into, somebody is selling what you need to "arrive."

In the real world, arrival is always enigmatic; but in the world of Manufactured Aspiration, arrival is always clearly marked with objects, signs and services which must be purchased.

We all hate realizing we blindly bought into carefully cultivated/marketed tribes of Manufactured Aspiration. As I describe in my new little book (cue the shameless self-promotion) Weblogs & New Media: Marketing in Crisis , the central illusion of mass marketing (what I call the Standard Model of Marketing) is that buying mass-produced goods somehow defines an individual's identity. In other words, we're special--just like the other million people who bought the exact same shoes, auto, black T-shirt, etc.

Every tribe of Manufactured Aspiration shares one key characteristic: an entire ecology of marketers and businesses are making money off your membership. How many tattoo parlors would exist if teens weren't sold on the necessity of looking "edgy" and "urban" and "grunge" via tats? A tattoo is costly and has the simulacrum of being "unique," and thus it feeds directly into the primary Aspiration: that we're Special and Unique--just like everybody else.

Manufactured Aspirations lead to all sorts of paradoxes. "You've arrived" in certain tribes when you pay for "exotic" cruises and travel "adventures" to places and peoples which would be better left unvisited. But that doesn't make anyone money, so the bar for "exotic" is raised ever higher; the pinnacle used to be Mount Everest, where death stalks hardy aspirants as a key tenet of "real adventure", but space is now the ultimate Final Frontier in "adventure travel;" you need a cool $20 million or so to be a space tourist, though various entrepreneurs are rushing to lower the cost down an "affordable" $1 million or so per visit.

If you find yourself short of cash needed to acquire the essential "membership" belongings/experiences/services for your chosen Manufactured Aspiration, then the Empire of Debt beckons. Just charge it, baby, buy it on time, re-fi that sucker, one way or another we'll get you the cash you need now. Why be "poor" when we can get you the money you need for the externals you gotta have?

So pernicious is this marketing that we as a nation have succumbed on a national scale. Rather than save or sacrifice, we now run staggering Federal deficits as standard operating procedure, lest we be denied anything we "need": MRI tests for every headache (as long as Medicare is paying), a world-class Armed Forces, entitlements galore for everyone, etc.

The surest way to lose an election is to issue a call for sacrifice. Only a self-destructive politico would be insane enough to suggest that guaranteeing poverty for our children is a poor choice compared to "borrow and spend lavishly now."

Politicos, like everyday citizens, deploy a host of self-deceptions: this isn't debt, it's an "investment in our future." Just how devilishly Doublespeak is this, when we're actually burdening future generations with massive debt because we're too spoiled, lazy and morally shiftless to make any sacrifices in the present?

But the Empire of Debt is integral to standard marketing and Manufactured Aspirations; saving up means you will appear "poor" and that is a fate no one would tolerate if there was any possible way to acquire the "look and feel" of "wealth" and "membership."

You see the terrible irony, don't you? That we have impoverished ourselves to purchase the simulacrum of wealth. There is one way to cleanse ourselves of Manufactured Aspirations: choose poverty, choose self-reliance, choose real wealth (i.e. sustainable incomes, control of capital) over the bogus simulacrums of wealth (luxury vehicles, maid service, golden retriever or other "name brand" dog, season tickets to the local "sport dynasty," title of second vice-president of global penury, etc.)

To reject the ideology that poverty is fundamentally a judgment of your self-worth-- i.e. if you are poor you are worthless--is to free yourself of both Manufactured Aspirations and the Empire of Debt.

It is a sad thing, really, to see an entire people, if not an entire species, fall for the scam that personal transformation can be had as cheaply as a fake Rolex, or that succumbing to a lifetime of poverty via crushing debts to acquire "the real thing," whatever that may be for membership in your selected Manufactured Aspirations tribe, is actual "wealth" or "self-worth."

In my own tribe, here's what it takes to be a "real writer:" write every day. That's it. There is nothing else.

As for self-worth: aspire to the inner wealth of charity, forgiveness, empathy, self-acceptance, self-reliance, humor and a healthy humility about wisdom and how much remains to be learned in life. Regrettably for the Standard Model of Marketing, all of these are hopelessly and irrevocably free.

Some have no choice in being poor but the lifestyle is the same whether it's chosen or not. I know it runs counter to everything we are supposed to cherish about the "American Lifestyle," but it seems to me that being poor/living poor has all sorts of advantages. To list but a few:

1. Smaller cars are easier to park and cheaper to own/drive. A Toyota or Honda will last for 15 or 20 years with routine maintenance, while the luxury brands are rusting in the junkyard or requring thousands of dollars in repairs.

2. Cooking real food is cheaper, tastes better and is healthier for you by far.

3. Teaching kids self-reliance and thriftiness (basically the same thing) cures dysfunctional dependence; cancel the maid service, stop buying sports drinks as everyday treats, etc.

4. Having a cellphone glued to your ear does not make you a bigshot. 80% of all "communication" is distraction. Creativity and innovation are not nourished by being overwired and distracted.

5. Being a renter is much easier than owning a house. When something breaks, you call the landlord or porperty management company. Once you buy a house with a mortgage, it's costly to align the mortgage to market forces; it's fixed unless rates fall and even then you have to pay thousands in refinancing fees. Rents are open to market forces so you can negotiate lower rents or move to a cheaper place without losing 10% of your capital (selling a house costs 6% realtor fees plus closing costs).

6. Second-hand stuff is treated as tainted by a "buy new" middle-class, but used is smarter. The first owner took a 90% loss, or a 50% loss for a recent auto. The second owner gets all the benefits with very little loss of intrinsic value.

7. Not buying anything new is best for the planet. Even a "green" Prius uses hundreds of gallons of oil to manufacture, extract the iron, make the steel and plastic, etc. It takes more oil to manufacture a Prius than the vehicle will ever consume. If you want a Prius, buy a used one.

8. The Web is mostly free (this site included). That makes it the greatest bargain of all time. Yes, a monthly access fee is required but these are less than cellphone plans. Or you can log onto free public wi-fi networks.

9. The real world trumps electronic simulacrums, which inevitably leave users with a strange inner hollowness and ennui. It's free to go outside, free to learn new things off the Web, free to do situps on your own floor, etc. etc.

10. "New" is oversold. We seek novelty but novelty does not have to be purchased.

11. Drawing identity from Consumerism (in any guise) is true inner poverty. Focusing on being a better parent, smarter investor, mentoring younger colleagues, etc. are all free; they build an authentic identity that has no need for superficial externals for verification.

12. What you consciously give up as not in your own best self-interest you no longer miss: sodas, chips, ridiculously overpriced football games, ice cream, fast food, cable TV, etc. etc.

Thank you, Steven H. ($113.13), for your staggeringly outrageous (and numerologically significant) donation to this site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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