By Shanti Louise Grafstrom
In our enlightened times, the sentence “We don’t want to anger the gods” sounds preposterous, yet what about the sentence “We don’t want to upset the global economy”? We pride ourselves on being a modern, secular, and rational society, yet our modernity is ruled by just another god: Money. We speak of money as if it were a force unto itself or a living supreme being, with headlines like “The Economy Bleeds.” Money has become our new religion. And for people who say that religion is the opiate of the masses or the root of all evil — have you met consumerism? Consumerism is not reasonable, humane, or sustainable; yet consumerism is integral to our modern world. And like all reigning ideologies of the day, we do not think of it as an ideology, we simply think of it as reality. It is imperative that we question that reality, and consciously reevaluate our ideology.
Our reverence for the all-powerful economy helps politicians and corporations justify abhorrent human rights conditions and environmental degradation. The public tacitly accepts this as simply part of “the system.” When Haiti unanimously passed a law raising its minimum wage from 24 cents an hour to 61 cents an hour ($5 a day), American corporations like Hanes and Levi Strauss, who pay Haitians slave wages to sew clothes, were infuriated and got the US State Department involved. The US Embassy in Haiti said that the $5 per day minimum “did not take economic reality into account,” and pressured the Haitian government to increase it to only 31 cents an hour ($3 a day) instead. But let us look at the numbers of “economic reality.” At the time, Hanes had 3 200 Haitians making t-shirts. Paying each of them two dollars a day more would cost about $1.6 million a year. Hanesbrands Inc.’s profit was $211 million that year; its CEO’s salary was $10 million. A Haitian family of three needed $12.50 a day to make ends meet. Tell me again about how logical our modern reverence of “economic reality” is.
You see, one of the functions of an ideology in a society is to justify the consequences of our cultural way of living. The Christian “Doctrine of Discovery” issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 was used to justify the genocide and enslavement of native peoples in the colonized world. And if you think 1452 was too long ago to be worth a mention, this same doctrine was quietly adopted into US law by the Supreme Court in 1823, to deny Native Americans any rights to land or sovereignty. Similarly, the modern-day worship of money necessitates the exploitation of human beings in the majority world for the benefits of cheap consumer goods in the minority world. Economic growth is the new doctrine; cheap t-shirts are the new relics; the violence of poverty is the new enslavement.
Money is a cruel god. Consumerism is an abhorrent ideology. It is not sustainable or morally defensible. It is the irrational ideology of our time. In fact, hoarding more stuff than one could possibly use while others are starving to death is a form of cultural insanity. As Annie Leonard puts it, “The belief that infinite economic growth is the best strategy for making a better world has become like a secular religion in which all our politicians, economists, and media participate; it is seldom debated, since everyone is supposed to just accept it as true.” Yet, the direct contradiction between theory and reality is lunacy: “If your culture believes that economic growth is the key to ending poverty and bringing about happiness, then you protect growth at all costs, even when it makes many people poorer and less happy.”
In reality, the economy is not a god or even a force of nature. The global economy is the result of socio-economic and political decisions made by human beings. We need to hold these human beings responsible — and take responsibility ourselves for our own choices as consumers and world citizens. Instead of tacitly accepting the ideology of consumerism, we can promote a ‘human rights culture,’ which honors the very real constraints of our planetary ecosystem, and aims to enhance human life within the reality of our global interdependence. Instead of participating in the ritual of endless consumerism and worshiping the ‘Almighty Dollar,’ we can live with compassion, give our reverence to human happiness, our sacredness to the planet, and our zealousness to ending hunger. Learning from the teachings of indigenous and religious ideologies is not archaic or obsolete — quite the opposite. They contain within them the perennial ideals of humanity — ideals that we desperately need to counter the false god of Money and the destructive ideology of consumerism.
By Shanti Louise Grafstrom