Credit Card Communism . . .

September 6, 2010 at 11:31 pm (By Amba)

. . . is when we go out and spend money we don’t have because, hey . . . “to each according to his need!”

Having done this myself tonight, I’m feeling a little bit friendly, or at least lenient, toward that disgraced principle.

Yes, of course we should all be responsible and productive, live within our means, and strive to make, do, give, achieve, and succeed so that our abilities surpass or at least suffice for our needs.

But isn’t one of the very definitions of a human being that creature whose needs are always threatening to overwhelm its abilities?   “To get ahead” doesn’t mean to get ahead of the Joneses, it means to gain some distance on the ravening wolf that is our own body and soul.

Just look at our caloric requirements, for starters, and the great difficulty most humans have always had securing or producing enough calories to keep themselves and their growing families going.  The activity required to get calories burns more calories, so it’s a kind of vicious cycle.  (Of course, that vicious cycle is called “life,” for all living things.  We are all on a treadmill outracing entropy.)  And as many calories as hard physical labor consumes, the brain, especially the growing brain, is the biggest glucose glutton of all.

The brain is also the only body part that can lift us above a hand-to-mouth existence, given wit, perseverance, luck, drive, and sometimes ruthlessness.  Its needs are proportionate to its potential abilities.  But what a struggle!  Especially if we don’t have anyone to stand by with water bottles and energy bars along the marathon route.  And we don’t only need food and water, we need rest and pleasure.

So now and then we break down and tell ourselves that we’ll run the race better if we can have just some of the rewards in advance of crossing the finish line.  It’s a tough call where the line is between needs and wants (not to mention addictions), and the line tends to move.  It’s also a tough call how many of us, given access to the rewards, will slack off on the efforts.  There is a belief out there that humans need a mortal threat to be properly motivated.  (Note the approving use of the word “hungry.”)  But there’s another fine line — in different places for different people — between what spurs and what paralyzes.

This is part of what credit card debt was all about.

But on the other side of the argument, it is cruel — in a social-Darwinian way — to make survival itself contingent on success.  Success is something different from the willingness to work hard; it’s an amalgam of many ingredients, fused by an ineffable alchemy.  If you’re lazy you’ll most likely miss the gold ring, but missing the gold ring doesn’t mean you’re lazy.  Even if everyone tried their best to be a successful entrepreneur or inventor, entertainment star, or bestselling author, relatively few would succeed.  Yet we are moving toward this sort of jackpot economy where not even years of education or experience — only some kind of freak fame or empire-building — can lift us above a hand-to-mouth existence.  For a while, in the industrial era, there was this thing called a “job” that was a pretty decent fit for a man’s needs, whether or not it fully tapped his abilities (gendered language intended).  Now, we’re left with our orphaned abilities flapping uselessly in the breeze as we struggle desperately to stay ahead of our needs.

So, credit-card communism — our unsafe plastic safety net, stretched across the gap between abilities and needs.

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9 Comments

  1. Ron said,

    Someone should turn this post into a book. Know anybody?

    What if we wake up someday and think the whole thing is a contrived morality play having nothing to do with the production of things? Things need to produced, surely; but no one cares if you worked hard or did it in 5 minutes. They just want the thing. Even worse; what if no person worked on it all, but it was made by automated system which may have some people behind, but a tiny fraction of the notion of a ‘workforce’. Would anyone really care? I doubt it.

    I’m not a big scifi reader, but I love the theme of “Childhood’s End”: the aliens show up, and ban war, and make sure we dont starve. The whole idea is: What do people do when they don’t have to do anything? What do they choose to do?

    A world where choosing to do, not being forced to do….we haven’t yet seen such a world, have we?

  2. amba12 said,

    Someone should turn this post into a book. Know anybody?

    Heh.

  3. Icepick said,

    What do people do when they don’t have to do anything? What do they choose to do?

    We have examples which we can use for extrapoloations. One need only look to those who made or inheritted money at a young age to observe wha they’ve done. Think of athletes whose careers are done while they’re still young, entrepeneurs who made it big early, young entertainment stars, and those who have inherited vast wealth or important station.

    Some will work intensely hard on doing that which they love, be it art, or gardening, or even science.

    Many will spend their time getting shit-faced drunk, do lots of drugs, and fuck around with little consequence. (Think Paris Hilton.)

    And some will use their tiime to try and lord it up over the rest of us by seeking office and authority. (Think of all the politicians with the last name of Rockefeller.)

    The results don’t exactly encourage….

  4. Icepick said,

    Alternately, one can look at the permanent under-class in a welfare state to see how they reacted. Again, the results don’t encourage. Rich or poor, from “good” backgrounds or “bad”, most people don’t handle an abundance of free time all that well. Idle hands and all that.

  5. realpc said,

    “It’s also a tough call how many of us, given access to the rewards, will slack off on the efforts.”

    Approximately 100%.

  6. realpc said,

    I don’t think it was always hand to mouth for primitive tribes. I realize it wasn’t utopia, but from what I read they only had to work about 2 days a week, if they lived in a good environment. The plenty of time to sing and dance and worry about evil spirits.

    I think it’s a myth that we have more leisure now.

    The swans on the lake seem pretty relaxed and I often see them just floating and resting. But they do obey the laws of Darwinism.

  7. Maxwell James said,

    We are all Norm Peterson now.

  8. Icepick said,

    Damn it, where’s my beer tab?

  9. dustbury.com » Quote of the week said,

    […] From each according to his needs, to each according to his, um, MasterCard limit. The evaporation of the middle class, by Amba: [I]t is cruel — in a social-Darwinian way — to make survival itself contingent on success. Success is something different from the willingness to work hard; it’s an amalgam of many ingredients, fused by an ineffable alchemy. If you’re lazy you’ll most likely miss the gold ring, but missing the gold ring doesn’t mean you’re lazy. Even if everyone tried their best to be a successful entrepreneur or inventor, entertainment star, or bestselling author, relatively few would succeed. Yet we are moving toward this sort of jackpot economy where not even years of education or experience — only some kind of freak fame or empire-building — can lift us above a hand-to-mouth existence. For a while, in the industrial era, there was this thing called a “job” that was a pretty decent fit for a man’s needs, whether or not it fully tapped his abilities (gendered language intended). Now, we’re left with our orphaned abilities flapping uselessly in the breeze as we struggle desperately to stay ahead of our needs. […]

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