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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mejias

A Reluctant Capitalist

If form is now meant to follow function then we live in a world without meaningful ends to be pursued since our ends have simply become the means themselves. The higher ideals of beauty, purpose, authenticity, and meaningfulness have all been cast off as relics of a bygone era by our current industrial-capitalist system. In their place, the "ideals" of convenience, progress, technology, speed, function, and utility now stand; the means and methods of things rather than their ends. It is a world purely designed and dictated by function, as if it is a machine to be controlled by particular inputs for certain outputs. And if the buildings of our office spaces and retail parks are dictated by this philosophy then we can also imagine that the work done within them is too.

Out Of Touch, Out Of Mind

One of the philosophical pillars of Marxism is the fetishization of consumption. According to Marx, commodity fetishism is a socio-psychological phenomenon in which individuals begin to believe that the value of a product arises inherently from the product itself rather than the complex system of labor relationships that produced the product. As an example, when someone buys an apple all they see is that said apples cost a particular price at that particular store. What is not considered is the farmer that tended the orchard, the trucker that transported the apples to market, the mechanics that tend to the fleet of trucks, and all of the hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals that input their labor to make such an industry possible. For Marx, this sort of economic reification lays at the foundation of how capitalism alienates labor and contributes to the destruction of interpersonal relationships and codependency within communities.

The issue with the critique that commodity fetishism lays at the feet of the capitalist system is that it is correct. Modern capitalism and rapid advancements in technology have led to an atomization of our society such that individuals have very much become displaced and isolated. Loss of a sense of place and community, and anxiety over lacking in meaningful work are all acute symptoms of our present global technocracy. This is definitely not a new topic and has been reviewed quite extensively in a number of essays and studies following Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, that details the marked decline of social capital and organizational participation in the United States. However, what is new are the recent neo-conservative defenses of capitalism that either ignore or dismiss this social anxiety and alienation that forms the basis of said capitalist critiques.

Typically, these arguments center around the obvious material achievements of capitalism and how its adoption has caused an incredible reduction in poverty and a rise in the standard of living on a global scale; that an attack on capitalism inherently comes from a place of privilege and places itself squarely against these gains. Yet such defenses come across as both dishonest and out of touch, completely ignoring the degradation of various institutions and communities and are therefore unable to contend with the critique of commodity fetishism leveled by Marx. Any desire to present this struggle as a dualistic choice between socialism and capitalism should be seen for what it is: intellectually shallow. There is no easy solution to these competing concerns of progress and preservation, freedom and inequality, but the attempt must be made time and again.

Concerning Apartments

The idea of place both conceptually and practically is a vital prerequisite for community to even exist, let alone flourish. Although modern telecommunications allows us to communicate and even participate in some third spaces with each other over great distances, there is a fundamental importance in living and doing life together with those around you. Being invested in a physical place and the people that make up the fabric of that place is what forms the basis of not only strong communities but also a healthy republic, in which people are able to love, support, cherish, and debate with each other freely and dynamically. Perhaps what is most concerning (and the primary source of our social woes), is the slow erosion of this sense of place; the small lights of communal living being snuffed out across America.

The largest contributing factor is, I think, the rapid urbanization that has occurred in the United States over the past century, causing a greater degree of transient communities. Cities are expensive places to live with a high population density which in turn creates greater demand for rental housing, specifically apartment style living for massive amounts of people. Rental communities inherently pose a barrier to the creation of vibrant communal living, simply because people do not own the space. Individuals and families are not tied to the investment that home-ownership entails but instead to a temporary lease making the basis of your living there a temporary transaction that could cease the moment a better deal presents itself. More importantly, apartments lack the character, space, and individuality of single family housing. They are designed with cost efficiency in mind, presenting cramped spaces in which people live in not homes, but units which all bear the same aesthetic with the exception of perhaps layout or the number of bedrooms.

Not even suburbia has maintained its identity in the face of urban sprawl, as apartment complexes of little variation move outwards from the city. Even the individual housing communities built by large land developers are built in identical models, squeezed together row by row. Now none of this necessitates that community cannot exist in such places, in fact, there are a number of cities such as New York City proper, where neighborhoods are able to maintain their distinctive characteristics and sense of belonging. Yet it should be pointed out that such places are historic and are preserved as such, built in a different time with far different intentions, and many of its inhabitants owning their homes rather than renting. Yet for the most part, however, rental communities present isolation for the sake of economic convenience. Apartments do not cultivate a sense of identity or ownership, and the responsibility that comes along with it no matter how hard they might try otherwise. There is too stark a difference between a neighborhood in which generations of families live and workinvested in both the present and the future of that placeand that of the ever-changing apartment boxes.

Drive-Thru Starbucks

Just as homes help to form the backbone of a community, private businesses and the third spaces they provide can play an equally important role. And just as housing is increasingly lacking in its role, businesses have followed suit. A clear example of this can be seen in the city of Jacksonville, Florida which is currently the largest city in the United States by land size (excluding some small towns in Alaska). Due to its ever increasing size, Jacksonville is peculiar in its urban sprawl in that when you drive along the highways that connect the city you will see the same amenities placed in succession of each other. At each intersection off of the highway, a shopping plaza containing a number of chain businesses all contained within the same modern-looking buildings placed next to equally similar apartment boxes of modern trappings. Driving no more than ten minutes from this intersection you will inevitably happen upon the same sight: shopping plazas of nearly identical businesses ready for consumption next to the same indistinguishable apartments.

The scene presented can be found in neighborhoods all across America wherever gentrification has taken hold. Despite the tired arguments of politicians that claim all sorts of economic benefits from these business parks, they hold the same issues as the modern apartment complexes, namely that they are not really “places” per se. These businesses purely exist to beget consumption, all of it purely transactional and impersonal. Seldom, if ever, found in these cookie-cutter plazas are generational family-owned business, or single craftsman who run their own shops, or even aspiring, upstart business that are the passionate culmination of years of labors by its on-site owner. Instead, they have all been replaced by businesses with no particular character, staffed by employees who have been reduced to being merely a number with no sense of investment outside of their bi-weekly paychecks, which are then, in turn, spent at some other business park. These business parks, it would seem, are just as transient as the apartments attached to them: and they are therefore, places to consume rather than cherish, as they provide little service towards the creation of community, by abstaining from fostering a sense of place or belonging for staff and patron alike.

Although these pre-fabricated plazas may strike us as clean, bright, and inviting, it is precisely in their architectural composition that the loss of place and purpose is most clearly demonstrated. The Bauhaus architectural movement of the 1920’s and 30’s which sought to combine the aesthetic art of architecture with that of technology, mass production, and function has now found its full expression in modernist architecture. Office spaces, retail parks, apartment buildings, and even homes are now all designed with only utility and efficiency in mind, resulting in modern buildings made of steel frame, concrete, pre-fabricated wood and glass in the shape of tight boxes with random fixings tacked on. There is an utter lack of substance and beauty within our modern setting, which in turn creates a lack of presence, culture, and meaning beyond economic utility. The phrase from the architect Louis Sullivan, “Form follows function” is typically taken to mean that the design of a building should be dictated by its intended purpose and is the central thesis to modern architecture. But the phrase has farther reaching philosophical ramifications than one may suspect at first, giving credence to a worldview that is dictated and defined by utility.

If form is now meant to follow function then we live in a world without meaningful ends to be pursued since our ends have simply become the means themselves. The higher ideals of beauty, purpose, authenticity, and meaningfulness have all been cast off as relics of a bygone era by our current industrial-capitalist system. In their place, the "ideals" of convenience, progress, technology, speed, function, and utility now stand; the means and methods of things rather than their ends. It is a world purely designed and dictated by function, as if it is a machine to be controlled by particular inputs for certain outputs. And if the buildings of our office spaces and retail parks are dictated by this philosophy then we can also imagine that the work done within them is too.

Loss of the Agrarian Republic

The Romans had a strong grasp on the importance of agriculture as well as the debt that was owed to the independent farmer who both provided the food for the Roman people and was the primary source of soldiers for their army. The poems of Virgil and Horace enter into deep explorations of the honorability and virtue of rustic living in the countryside and working on an agricultural estate. Roman agricultural manuals emphasized a practice of “Sustainable Agriculture” that advocated for moderation in all practices, a respect for the cyclical nature of agriculture, and ingenuity and steadfast care on the part of the overseer of the farmland. This in turn created a philosophical and religious nature to Roman agriculture; the Roman agricultural gods were to be respected and revered as daily practice, the heavens mixed with earth as it was, and the philosophy of Stoicism which taught simplicity, moderation, and right order was easily demonstrable through the life of the farmer.

Most of these works, however, were written with a very intentional purpose in mind. From the period of the late Roman Republic into the ascendancy of the Empire, the concentration of wealth among the patrician class became acute and the small, while the independent farmer was becoming a dying species as their land holdings became bought out by larger estates. Many of the poems, manuals, and treatises we see are meant to coincide with political reforms aimed at protecting farmers and encouraging people to become farmers themselves. Much like Rome, the American Republic is itself experiencing the loss of the independent farmer in the face of industrialization and government-backed agricultural corporations. The rural communities of America are suffering from both poverty and a lack of purpose as independent farming communities continue to come apart alongside the growing wealth of American cities that hardly stop to consider where their food comes from.

Much like Rome, The foundation of the United States from its colonial beginnings was rooted in this principle of the plain, yeoman farmer that etched out his own existence and prosperity in the new American landscape. This ideal of America would eventually and rather quickly become embodied in the vision of the Jeffersonian republic. This vision was one of hopeful pioneers seeking out new lands to homestead and the creation of independent, self-sufficient communities. Beyond this, Jeffersonian democracy held a number of core values that centered around the ideals of Republicanism: anti-corruption, anti-aristocracy, civic virtue and duty, individual freedom, and the limiting of government. But the ideal and its application are inseparable things, and therefore, to uphold the values of republicanism would require a life that looks similar to that of the more “simple folk” that a city seemingly cannot supply in our modern context. So it is this spirit and this vision that is currently at risk as the institution of farming degrades from a way of life into just another factory business alongside the fabricated shopping plazas.

Alongside this spirit of rugged individualism is a unique realization of community brought about through an economic codependency that has withered away amidst a globally-connected economy. A limit on the supply of labor, the general intensiveness of agricultural and blue collar work, and the geographical isolation of a small townalong with a variety of other factorsall culminate in an interdependency that necessitates vibrant communal living which gives each individual a place among their peers. This phenomenon has many expressions: a family helping another to bring in their harvest, a local produce market in which you know the sellers, the local mechanic whom you share drinks with on the weekends, or an electrician who does a repair out of a bartered favor from a month prior. This list of examples may go on endlessly, with the same point that there is a social cohesion and trust brought about through the circumstances of living outside of a city. Of course these may be ideal circumstances, but it is the likelihood of such instances arising that is the present concern.

This point cannot be overstated, because there are a number of important effects that this kind of rural living possesses, but one in particular needs to be singled out: the loss of an individual is not so easily replaced. The loss of a family farm, a local shop owner, or a pastor would be acutely felt in the corners of smaller communities where they live and work. Whereas in corporate America, individuals as well as businesses feel easily replaceable, creating a sense of competition and fear where a feeling of importance and gratitude should be. The alienation of our labor and the atomization of our communal being is perhaps most acutely felt here. We have become disconnected from the feeling of authenticity and importance in our work because it has become another product to be purchased and consumed, easily replaceable whenever the need arises. Our labor and the fruit that it bears should instead bring us the virtue of joy, not necessarily because we enjoy the work but rather because it is the most practical way in which we may be connected in sharing creation.

The Importance of Sewing Machines

A more nuanced topic was briefly mentioned in the previous paragraphs; the authenticity and purpose of our work. This is a difficult topic to explore since the experience of work seems so vast and subjective. Yet it is important, because many of the past and present critiques of capitalism are rooted, in many ways, in the inability of the average worker to truly own their labor and engage in work that is meaningful to them. There are two broad categories that can be roughly identified in regards to our work today: one being a cultural and philosophical issue of how we view our everyday labors, and the second being the very practical reality of what employment looks like in America today and how that may result in economic reification.

There is a fundamental importance to being connected to the end purpose of our labors, to see the product of our work. The problem is that many individuals no longer work for and towards dignified ends but instead for wages and benefits. We have begun to pursue work for the sole purpose of the reciprocated compensation, rather than the fulfillment of the work itself. So much so that we work only to be able to afford leisure, forever pursuing more time off or being able to afford the next vacation, as if the purpose of our laboring is to be able to get away from laboring to begin with. One can hardly be blamed for such a result, as the specialization of labor combined with the rapid advancement of technology has moved many people away from the tangible work of the farmers and blue collar folk, into sterile office environments where we are firmly disconnected from the fruits of our labor. It certainly is difficult to feel a strong sense of purpose making burgers in a fast food restaurant or answering calls in a call center.

The ramifications of this disconnect between work and purpose are as numerous as they are subtle. The most severe impact is a cultural one; our attitude in regards to how we approach our work has become mercenary. The barista at the local cafe no longer sees their profession as one of creating community and aiding the flourishing of authentic human connection, instead it is just a job: a means of financial compensation in order to be able to afford their leisure. Or consider the individual who serves as a janitor in a company office: the drudgery of the work prevents them from seeing the vital importance their role has in the success of so many people. As a summation: work is no longer viewed as an integral part of who we are, but instead as a nuisance that we must be compensated for, potentially creating a dangerous relationship between financial gain and fulfillment.

It is here Marxism finds fertile ground in its attacks against wage slavery and the promises of just material compensation for each individual. The problem, however, is both the compensation of our labor and our own attitudes regarding work itself, which both capitalism and marxism fail to address in a substantive way. Capitalism imagines that at some point in the future enough jobs and wealth will have been created that everyone will be able to compete for, and partake in, well-paying and meaningful careers. Whereas Marxism supposes that it is class conflict that has created this derision, forcing the masses to work in menial labor for which we are ill-compensatedand that the remedy is merely material equality that brings about a classless society. Granted, these are very broad definitions, but even with all their variants both of these supposed systems really only deal with the issue of compensation for labor and not our perspective of it. It’s not so much that we are always after the next position or greater pay (although they play their part), but instead we are looking for something more immaterial: community, appreciation, a sense of purpose, pride, and joy regardless of whatever that work may be and how much we are paid for it.

For the most part, in order to feel a sense of place, purpose, and order, our work must be tied to tangible things and tangible places. Our work must then become an act of (and sharing in) creation: aka something that is intrinsically desired but this is not so easily understood in actuality. It is like someone who engages in sewing as a hobby, when they get home they find enjoyment and love in working on particular pieces of clothing and honing their craft. The work is tangible has a distinct purpose in clothing others; it is an art which can be improved and perfected, which allows the sewer to become a creator and appreciate the act of creation. The ancient Greeks had a word for such a concept: Arete, which meant excellence in all that we are or the fulfillment of our potential. The word was applied to humans, animals and inanimate objectsaka whatever is fulfilling its purpose with excellence can be regarded as possessing Arete. More importantly, Arete was regarded as a moral virtue so as to say to excel in your craft means to also excel in character and vice versa. It is this heart for work, and the pursuit of excellence within it, that seems to have been diminished by our modern circumstances.

Railroads and Telegrams and Bombs

It is impossible to discuss sociological issues on a broad scale without talking about the subject of technology, and so some words will be spent here for the purpose. We immediately run into difficulties upon doing so, however, because both the definition and issue of technology is so vast. It would be easy and not inaccurate to lambast technology with the all too familiar critiques against modern telecommunications for its hand in driving a wedge into our public spaces and in ruining civil discourse. Yet it is unproductive, because this is a generally privileged way of perceiving the word technology, dependent upon widely accessible internet services that are usually only available in the first world. Technology can also take the form of rudimentary electricity that allows a young girl in India to finish her schoolwork at night in order to receive an education or desalination plants in North Africa that give life to agricultural communities.

So the broadness of the subject presents a unique problem where if one desires to say anything definitive regarding technology it must be incredibly specific and fully contextualized to the point that we really aren’t saying anything substantive at all on the topic. And the metaphor of the “double-edged sword” doesn’t hold up well either, since we have continued to accept axiomatically that the adoption of new technological means far outweigh the risks and downsides. In spite of all the dire warnings, the encroachment of technology into daily life carries on day by day and most appear to be unwilling to stop it. If the conversation about technology as a social phenomenon is to be had, then it is evident that it cannot begin with technology in its physical manifestation as its starting point, lest we continue to be reactive rather than proactive. It is the attitudes, approaches, and virtues regarding technology that should be the primary focus, since it is our disposition that determines the form and purpose. One such attitude regarding technology demands particular attention: that of hope.

It would be difficult to look at the great gains in the standard of living and the comforts that technological advancements have provided and not be amazed. The rapid progress of technology and industry in the past half-century alone makes it easy to imagine that most, if not all, of man’s material woes will be resolved in the not-so-distant future. It is this kind of hope that we place in scientific progress that drives the ceaseless automation and mechanization of all things. The technologist's vision is promising but its hope isunfortunatelyfundamentally misplaced because the struggle of technological progress is not against externalities of an otherwise mostly good human nature, but rather against pervasive cynicism that creates a cycle of solutions begetting problems that require solutions.

Technology, despite all of its trappings, is a vast collection of tools to be utilized for the intended purpose of its invention, not a philosophical or social force that presents a means of reform for a world so desperately in need of it. The history of technology demonstrates this truth over and over again, exposing the cynicism and viciousness of our species in equal measure to every instance of hope and progress we may produce. For example, every advance in medical technology has been equaled with a further means of acutely killing an enemyand for each advance in our ability to communicate over great distances, the more fragile our communities become. It is certainly true that the craftsman should use sturdy, well-made tools to ply his trade but his reliance is always upon the virtue and honesty of his skill.

It is prideful to imagine that given the right tools the world can be crafted anew in a more perfect image; it is precisely through our technological inventions that both the flaws and the heroism of humanity are put on display. Yet we cling to the hope that it is the tools, rather than its users who are to blame in these present circumstances. There is no doubt that we are to blame in this matter and our lack of humility has been our undoing, allowing the tools to best its masters. Therefore, technology must be put in its rightful place: its efficacy ceaselessly questioned at every opportunity and shunned when it begins to endanger the things we love and hold most dear. Holding the advances of technology at a respectable distance, while carving out spaces through which one can engage with the world in a tangible sense is perhaps one of the most important acts we may participate in.

The Silence of Our Forefathers

What we are after is nothing less than lives worth leading, where individuals may be authentic and pursue their own aspirations, while remaining part of communities that are bonded together through charity; what I wsih to see is the common good actualized in such a way that all may participate, meaning that individuals, their respective communities, and our common institutions, can be fulfilled in their appropriate ends. The conservative lies by stating that such a thing can be achieved by rewinding the clock and going back to a specific point in history. Although there may be certain times and places where people have come closer to the ideal, it has never truly been achieved in common, nor would we want to forsake the important progress we have made in other areas either. Whereas the progressive lies by claiming that with enough time, power, and innovation, this dream can be realized in the future. Such fanciful hopes are routinely dashed against the rocks, as every ideal falls suspect to corruption, greed, envy, and the lust for power.

Subsequently the world has been left unchained and spinning on a path towards destructionor so it seems. But this is also nothing new. As nihilism and postmodernism continue to reign dominant as the primary lens for our thinking, it shouldn’t be any wonder that our modern world seems bent on being a culture that is quite good at the proposal of solutions that will never be implemented. With no truth or purpose to center ourselves around, we have become a society of professional complainers, wallowing in the shadows of the temples our forefathers built that we could never hope to rival. And it is that bitterness that manifests itself into the hate, calumny, and factionalism that is sold by mass media as being so omnipresent in our public sphere today. Whole ways of being are threatened: communities, institutions, histories, and cultures swallowed whole by the ever-turning struggle for power, therefore it is inevitable that people now fight so bitterly in desperate struggles for those same levers as a means of self-preservation.

In this moment, Marx seems to finally make his thunderous point heard, leaning into the factionalism and the progressive promise he states triumphantly, “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” Maybe so, because there certainly seems to have been a point where we have accepted these chains and have been regretting it ever since. Unfortunately, Marx stands as another of many thought leaders who have entered the power vacuum left by modernity in the hopes of coming out on top. It is the same spurning of history and hopeful pride for the future that has paved the path of ruin for centuries before his writingsand most likely for centuries after. Maybe it is time to say that the gig is up, for we truly have no more fight left in us, and that the answer was always there all along, possessed in those same temples that we have inherited. The task of our time is the same as it was yesterday and the centuries preceding it, we just simply forgot what that task was.


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